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Effects of British Colonial Rule in India

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The colonization of India and the immense transfer of wealth that moved from the latter to Britain were vital to the success of the British Empire. In fact, the Viceroy of British India in 1894 called India "the pivot of our Empire ..." I examine the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the subcontinent. Besides highlighting the fact that without cheap labor and raw materials from India, the modernization of Britain during this era would have been highly unlikely, I will show how colonial policy led to the privation and death of millions of natives. I conclude that while India undoubtedly benefited from British colonial rule, the negatives for the subject population far outweighed the positives.


Colonialism, by definition, is exploitative and oppressive, with the rulers enriching themselves at the expense of those they rule. Generally speaking, colonizers dominate a territory's resources, labor force, and markets; oftentimes, they impose structures -- cultural, religious and/or linguistic -- to maintain control over the indigenous population. The effects of the expansion of European empires, which began in the 15th century, on the colonized can still be felt today. Some historians, for example, argue that colonialism is one of the leading causes in income inequality among countries in present times. They cite patterns of European settlement as determinative forces in the type of institutions developed in colonized countries, considering them major factors in economic backwardness. Economist Luis Angeles has argued that the higher the percentage of Europeans settling in a colony at its peak, the greater the inequality in that country so long as the settlers remained a minority, suggesting that the colonizers drained those lands of essential resources while reaping most, if not all, of the profits. In terms of per capita GDP in 1995, the 20 poorest countries were all former colonies, which would seem to bolster Angeles' contention.

There are, however, competing views on how much underdevelopment in today's poorest countries is a byproduct of colonial rule and how much of it is influenced by factors such as a country's lack of natural resources or area characteristics. For poet, activist and politician Aimé Césaire, the verdict was in: Colonizers were "the decisive actors ... the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force, and behind them, the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obliged, for internal reasons, to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies."

This is not to suggest that Western European nations were the first and only countries to pursue imperialistic policies or that nothing good came out of colonial policies for the subject population. Dinesh D'Souza, while arguing that colonialism has left many positive as well as negative legacies, has stressed that there is nothing uniquely Western about colonialism, writing: "Those who identify colonialism and empire only with the West either have no sense of history or have forgotten about the Egyptian empire, the Persian empire, the Macedonian empire, the Islamic empire, the Mongol empire, the Chinese empire, and the Aztec and Inca empires in the Americas."

For this paper's purposes, however, I will focus on the British Empire, its colonizing efforts in India (1757-1947), and the effects British policy had on that subject population. A couple of caveats before examining the British-Indian relationship: experiences differed from colony to colony during this period of European imperialism; India was unique in the colonial experience because of its size and history. It also should be noted that India was rather unique among colonized lands during this era for at least two reasons. First, South Asia was "already a major player in world commerce and possessed a well-developed trading and financial world" by the

time Europeans arrived. Indigenous administrative structures already existed for taxation purposes, while commerce within the country and throughout the continent offered prospects of giant profits. Second, British India, which included today's India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, was a region so large that there were areas in which Britain exercised direct control over the subject population and others where it exerted indirect control. It is exceedingly difficult, therefore, to extrapolate from one experience to another. Although it is impossible to determine how India would have developed had England never established a dominating presence there, I find the results of British colonialism to have been a mixed bag for India: the negatives, however, far outweighed the positives.

Liberal and democratic aspects of British colonialism in India played a significant role in leading to a democratic South Asia following Indian independence in 1947. Yet, the British -- first through the East India Company and then through direct government control -- held almost all of the political and economic power in India during the Empire's expansion and apogee, guaranteeing the Indian economy could not evolve and/or function independent of the ruling power's control; ensuring raw materials extracted from Indian soil would go towards British manufacturing industries mostly without profiting the vast majority of Indians; and leading to lives of privation for millions of indigenous subjects. Although there have been arguments made that, in political and economic terms, south Asia was backwards until the arrival of Europeans, recent research has debunked that myth, showing the region to have possessed healthy trading and financial structures prior to the Europeans' arrival.

British Colonial Strategy in the Subcontinent

Imperial powers followed two basic strategies when colonizing. They either allowed a large number of Europeans to settle overseas (known as Settler Colonies) or sent a much smaller number - usually less than 1 percent of the population -- to serve as administrators and tax collectors (known as Peasant Colonies). Britain followed the latter strategy in regards to India. The percentage of English people in India in 1913, for example, was only 0.1 percent of the country's population; by comparison, they accounted for over one-fifth (21.4 percent) of the population in South Africa and Losetho during the same period. As previously mentioned, Britain exerted both direct and indirect control over the Indian subcontinent. Areas of indirect control are called "native states." These were



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