How did the British occupy India?

Kevin Drum writes:

…today’s colonials fight back.  Britain occupied India with a tiny force
because the Indians mostly let them, and on the rare occasions when
they rebelled the British (like all the other European colonial powers)
felt free to crush them in the most brutal manner imaginable.

No matter how we compare American and British brutalities (we dropped many bombs on Vietnam), I place greater stock in the railroad (later the car and bus) and the radio.  In the early days of British control, most Indians couldn’t get within shouting distance of a fight if they wanted to.  The Brits had only to control some key garrisoned cities and some trade routes.  Local rulers did the rest.  Radio, which spread in the 1920s, told people what was going on and cemented national consciousness.  Those technologies heralded the later end of colonialism, with WWII hurrying along the new equilibrium.

Might some future technology might render colonialism more likely (NB: I am not saying "more desirable")?  Extreme surveillance is one possiiblity, but this appears far off for poorer locales.  More likely is simply that rich countries buy the loyalty of some (smaller) poor countries, as the French seem to have done with Martinique.

If the world’s very poor countries stay in Malthusian traps, how long will it be before wealthy philanthropists can try to "adopt a country"?  Measured Haitian gdp, for instance, is only a few billion dollars a year (TC: don’t ask about the storms!).  Yes many countries have laws against foreign investment and land ownership, but at some point a correct strategy can put the money to good use.  Can an entire corrupt government simply be bought out?  Just how much money, and what kind of plan, would a private philanthropist need each year to turn Haiti around, or at least bring it to the standards of Martinique?


very interesting question...

Radio, which spread in the 1920s, told people what was going on and cemented national consciousness.

I'm interested in the above topic (radio & the development of national consciousness). Can you recommend a particular source?

Leonard Dudley's book is a good place to start on radio...

Maybe I'm missing something, but hasn't Martinique ALWAYS been a part of France - albeit a heavily subsidized one - and never an independent country?

That is an interesting question. How exactly would a very wealthy
philanthropist go about buying out a country?

I've long had a joke American policy for taking over the world. I call it the "Purchase the World Plan". One by one we purchase different countries, starting with the smallest and working our way up. So we'd start with Nauru. Buy them out, move them all to America with eventual citizenship and homestead Nauru to present citizens. Rinse and repeat. Each country would be more expensive and have a larger population but America would be wealthier with more space. I'd like to reiterate - it's a joke - it would destroy entire cultures and not really work anyway.

One historian I read asked how the tiny numbers of British could defeat huge Indian armies at a roughly equivalent technological level. He answered that it was because the British didn't betray each other.

I wouldn't underestimate the power of ideas. Colonialism became impossible because it became unacceptable. It didn't take radios for that to happen, it did take ideology. Once (i) you weren't allowed to ruthlessly "put down natives for their own good" and (ii) middle class native thought they could run things better themselves, thank you very much, the days of the Raj were numbered.

The Republic of Kiribati has a GDP of only $63m

Yeah but GDP is income, not net worth or wealth. When you buy out a company you don't pay for it the equivalent of 1 yr's profits. You pay something like the discounted present value of the stream of profits.
So it'd be something like:
where r is the discount rate and g is growth rate of Kiribati's GDP.
If r>g this sum converges. Let's take an r of 5%, which is not implausible. According to wiki Kiribati's GDP growth has been 1.5% (though it's not clear if this per capita or total) and actually their present GDP is 79m (I think that's real)
So I'd price Kiribati at about 2.3 billion, though I guess this would represent the maximum possible value (given g) that can be extracted from this possible colony.
Complicate it as you'd like and don't trust my maths.

I clicked the on the "many bombs in Vietnam" link. In the first paragraph it said that America dropped 8 million
tons of bombs on Vietnam, which was "approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam."

So lets do the math on this one. 8 million tons/300 tons per person = 26667 Vietnamese. There are only 26 thousand
Vietnamese! Man we must have killed a bunch of them, because last I heard there were about 76 million people in

I'd disagree with James' argument earlier today: strongmen who buy their way into government have a direct and personal interest in staying in power - their own safety and monetary security.

Assuming someone had the means to 'buy' a country, they would probably have that country's economic development in mind to earn a reasonable ROI. Brutal oppression, summary imprisonment and execution of opponents doesn't seem to be the order of they day for most modern day MNCs.

If a wealthy philanthropist was willing to buy a country run by a corrupt government what happens after they have control? Would the people their really benefit, the philanthropist may have good intention but if they don't know how to effectively run a country than isn't it possible the country would be better off with the corrupt government. With all the resources they would have to devote to the country's upkeep what would be the actual benefit for them? While I do think that it is possible to invest enough money in a country to own it I don't see how a person could really benefit from that. If the local people rose up and overthrew the philanthropist then they just wasted a lot of money.

Well, it does seem kind of bad if a wealthy philanthropist was able to buy a third-world or small country. But it also could actually help that country pull itself together and jump start its economy by the aid that they possibly will recieve from the wealthy philanthropist. It might even spark anger towards the philanthropist from the enhabitants of the country causing them to gang up together and start a resistance that could strengthen their country. After all it was a war that brought the US out of a depression and turned us into a economic world power. I'm not saying that the death and destruction that world war II brought us out of the depression but instead it was the act of all the people in the US joining together for one cause and busting their butts to get our war machine rolling adn making equipment for the troops to use in battle.


I agree with you absolutely on the point about radio and national consciousness. Scottish nationalism only began to surface as a political movement after the advent of broadcasting - too many received pronunciation accents on the wireles.

You're also bang on the money about the purchase of countries. As he seems determined to run a country, I once suggested that Rupert Murdoch be given Sierra Leone just to see what he could do with it.

Hm. Imagine a pure kleptocrat, a Mobutu-type who extracts a significant portion of a country's annual GDP.

First, the philanthropist has to buy out the kleptocrat, offering a lump sum higher than the expected value of his revenue stream.

But the kleptocrat didn't rule alone, and had created a state apparatus in which lots of people a) had guns and b) benefitted from the extraction. Just removing him doesn't give the philanthropist control. It instead sets off a scramble in the officer corps to replace him and either receive the next buyout or become the new beneficiary of the revenue stream.

Unless the philanthropist is coming in with an army-- which changes the tone of the thought experiment pretty radically-- he's going to have to deal with a lot of actors who not only had a lucrative share of the status quo ante but whose incentives are dynamically affected by the philanthropist's presence. The returns to kleptocracy go up, not down-- and the likelihood of success is increased because of the removal of the powerful incumbent and the resultant instability.

I'm not sure I can visualize how far down the power structure the philanthropist has to keep offering buyouts-- but there are a lot of powerful people in such a structure who can't possibly have a higher expected value from good government and general prosperity than they do from the status quo. Even the philanthropist who could credibly claim to be able to triple GDP has a hard time when faced with officers who used to extract .01% of it and who will receive their fair shares of .0001% or less. Each of them has to be bought out-- and so do each of their juniors who could succeed to their positions. And the buyouts have to be enforceable-- lots of actors will be looking for a way to take the philanthropist's check and then renege. Dissolving the army and sending it home without golden parachutes turns out not to be a very good plan.

This looks to me like an incredibly tough game to try to win. In some ways it's easier when faced with less-personally-corrupt nationalist autocrats like Argentine generals-- they're not extracting such huge portions of GDP that they haveto be bought out at ridiculous sums-- but they're also more likely to find the offer offensive, and to understand that they can use the offer's offensiveness to stoke nationalism and enhance their power at home.

The British dont treat the indians in india very well at all. Its actually very cruel what they do to them. To be honest there really wasnt any reason to invade india, india has never attacked anyone, they are mostly fighting within themselves, the last thing they needed was to have england invade.

Interesting question & responses.
The closest I can think (please feel welcome to dissent) to a 'philanthropist buying a nation' recently is Roman Abramovic in Russia. He 'won over' the region of Chukotka through aid & investment. He apparently spends little time there, and wanted to relinquish his post as State Duma representative of the region, but retains the post due to the abolishion of regional elections (instigted by Putin, not Abramovic I hasten to add). He appears to have had a genuinely benign positive effect on the region, but I have never been there & know very little about the place or it's history.

The Portugese tried to take India by force before the British stepped onto the scene (a Portugese explorer was the first one to find a sea route to the country). They mainly failed miserably, but did get control of some ports on the western coast (notably Goa which the Indians annexed in 1967) and managed to convert the populace to Catholicism.

Britain mainly took control by taking over trade (the industrial revolution in textiles had a lot to do with this) and by taking advantage of infighting amongst various kings in India. This explains why promptly after gaining independence as a reactonary policy India decided to ban foreign imports (particularly of finished goods) into the country.

There were other interesting things going on in the background. One problem was that the Indians only accepted precious metals as payment. Facing an acute shortage of precious metals, some smart Bristish trader decided that the easiest way to get silver was to sell drugs to the Chinese. Conviniently Opium poppys grow like weeds in northwest India and Pakistan. Following this revalation the Britist East India Company promptly started pursuing a monopoly on Opium production in India.

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