This article is an edited transcript of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India with Shashi Tharoor on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 June 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The principal difference between British colonial rule in India and that of previous rulers was that the British ruled India for the benefit of Britain. Everything that could be extracted from India was sent off to Britain.
Were the British rulers intent on extracting wealth from India?
Previous rulers who had stayed on to rule had would have spent the ill-gotten gains they’d acquired – perhaps from extracted taxes or looting – in India. The result being that they contributed to improvements in local infrastructure and enriched India with sculpture, painting, architecture, art and music – all imported from the lands they’d originally come from. Indian culture benefited.
Sadly, Britain ensured this didn’t happen. The British systematically drained India of its tax resources, sending those resources off to England instead of spending them in India.
This process extended to the effective destruction of India’s luxury industries. The nobleman in the old Mughal courts paid for jewellers, artisans, craftsman and luxury textile makers to produce their fripperies for them.
But India now had a new ruling caste that was only interested in luxury items from London and Paris and thus sent all their money to Europe, rather than encourage the development of local crafts in India. So, even on that level, the colonial British acted in Britain’s interests and not in the interests of the rest of India.
The end of charity
There was also a very different approach to the management of distress. In the past in India there were droughts but very few major famines. There was a long-established system of both individual and state charity.
Taxes were waived or reduced during droughts so that the peasants didn’t have to pay as much as they normally would have. Grain was made available to the poor and the affluent would always give alms to the less well off. This was very much the culture.
The British came in with a different attitude – do everything by the rule book. If the taxes are X, then that’s what you’re going to have to pay. It didn’t matter what the climatic conditions were, or if you had a wedding or a death in the family, you simply had to pay and if you didn’t pay you were tortured.
The British also disapproved of idle charity. The attitude was that the basic laws of the market should always apply; if people couldn’t afford to buy grain then tough, that’s life.
Then there was the Malthusian Theory – all the rage at that time – which said that if the land can’t support the population that’s trying to live off it, then people must die. That’s the law of nature. Let them die.
By the Victorian era there was also a great emphasis on fiscal prudence –money should not be spent that was not budgeted for. Typically, the budget involved minimal expenditure in India and maximum repatriation of funds to Britain.
All of this characterised British attitudes to famines throughout the late 18th, and all of the 19th, and early 20th centuries.