How bad was British colonialism for India?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here are a few bits, these are all highly imperfect metrics:

For much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, under British rule, Indian economic performance was mediocre at best. It has been estimated that the yearly agricultural wage was higher in 1810 than in 1946. It’s difficult to prove how much of that decline was because of the British, but it is hardly a ringing endorsement.


Another way to make the historical comparison is to consider which Southeast Asian economy never fell under colonial rule. That would be Thailand, which has a per capita income in the range of $16,300 by World Bank estimates, compared with India’s $6,100. Again, that single comparison is not dispositive, but it hardly favors the British record in India.


Another possible comparison is between British-ruled India and India’s “native states,” namely the numerous territories and principalities where British involvement in direct rule was minimal. To be sure, those regions still were embedded in a broader nexus of British control, and there is no comprehensive database. Nonetheless, historian Jon Wilson, in his recent book “India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire,” offered this assessment: “Economic growth and institutional dynamism occurred in the places that were furthest from the rule of British bureaucrats.” For instance, Tata Steel Ltd. put India’s first modern steel plant in Jamshedpur, a tributary area outside of British rule. Another study found that the independent areas had better performance in terms of education and health care during the post-colonial era.

Maybe you can twist all of those back to neutral, but the data make it surprisingly hard to make a case for British rule in India.


Is that "surprising" though? The simpletons gloss (i.e. my gloss :) ) on british rule in india is that they seemed to treat it as more deserving of central control by a large bureaucracy instead of relying more heavily on the typical common law institutions that places like US, Canada, NZ, Aus got. To the extent that you are a free-marketeer/private property person, it would seem fairly common sensical that a centralized bureaucracy, despite its potential infrastructural upside, would do a poor job at improving India along economic metrics. There are lots of obvious responses to this gloss, but it doesn't seem totally crazy to me.

I think Tyler is addressing the more less libertarian right that is so common in comment section like this one. The people who like to glamorize colonialism.

You mean the old-fashioned, yet ever adaptable, white supremacists?

The response by India should be "thank you". India, more than most nations, owes almost all of their wealth and health to the West. While England was sometimes harsh they were mostly a positive force in India and everywhere they went.

+1 for unintended humor.

Whether British rule was a Good Thing or not, it's bonkers to say it was based on "central control by a large bureaucracy".

But dearieme, people *are* bonkers on this question! Being bonkers in a specific way that signals a certain political affiliation and attitude to cosmopolitanism *is* the point that they are making when they want to discuss it.

Great point.

When the British ruled India, they didn't exactly import English common law or any of the free market institutions that Americans inherited from them.
So the notion that India was somehow better off under colonialism because the benevolent white man could transfer to them the proper institutions is nonsense. British ruled India was a centrally planned highly inequitable society. It was not some sort of model of Western Enlightenment values being gifted to the ungrateful Indians.

You can say the same about GM, GE, Walmart,....

India was a corporation with Indian workers owned by the British with British top managers all focused on maximizing profits and production shipped globally to serve British interests.

The US colonies were also British corporations but the workers revolted against the corporate owners in a Marxist revolt, and turn the 13 British corporations into socialist enterprises making workers owners.

The rights of British subjects in Britain were NOT inherited in the 13 British colonies - they were taken by popular uprising which turned violent.

Well, the 13 colonies were colonized by actual British subjects who had some experience of how common law and equal justice were supposed to work.
In India, the British didn't really "colonize" so much as adapt the pre-existing Mughal system into a British-style landlord-tenant aristocracy. They handed large tracts of land to British or high-caste Indian landowners to farm, converted all the peasants into tenant farmers, and then extracted rents.
The tenant farming system for some reason never got a foothold in the US, maybe because it was surpassed by slave plantations. As a result, except for the slave plantations, American colonists were independent landholders and businessmen living under roughly egalitarian enlightenment-based legal code, while Indians were essentially serfs living under a feudal aristocracy.

As Niall Ferguson has shown, the data are in fact clear that literacy, life expectancy and other fundamental metrics all accelerated under British rule.

And the second variable to GDP per capita is population. Here's wiki:

"It has been estimated that the population was about 100 million in 1600 and remained nearly static until the late 19th century. It reached 255 million according to the first census taken in 1881.[16][17]"

So the population boomed under British rule and:

... Mortality rates fell in the period 1920–45, primarily due to biological immunisation. Other factors included rising incomes, better living conditions, improved nutrition, a safer and cleaner environment, and better official health policies and medical care.[19]"

It also seems strange to compare Thailand and its long record of free market policies with India and its long record of socialism, and then cite colonization as the reason for disparity.

As Niall Ferguson has shown, the data are in fact clear that literacy, life expectancy and other fundamental metrics all accelerated under British rule.

I'm not sure exactly how Ferguson "shows" these things. I did read his Empire book, and it looked like anecdotal history pasted over a (pro-colonial) thesis that he was already partial to.

If life expectancy improved over 200 years (I'm skeptical about that), wouldn't that be purely incidental owing to the long length of the rule rather than anything the British did themselves to promote life expectancy? Modern medicine was developed during that period, and Indians would have had access to it regardless of who ruled them.

You may be right about literacy, but how much of that is "English literacy" vs literacy in general? Has anyone measured how literate Indians were in their own languages before and after the British Raj?

I'm not sure what "other fundamental metrics" refers to.

It also seems strange to compare Thailand and its long record of free market policies with India and its long record of socialism, and then cite colonization as the reason for disparity.

You must have read a different article. I though it was clear that Prof. Cowen was comparing the countries during the colonial period, not after it.

"You may be right about literacy, but how much of that is “English literacy” vs literacy in general? Has anyone measured how literate Indians were in their own languages before and after the British Raj?"

It would have been nice if the various rulers in India before the British had kept extensive historical records like the Chinese imperial government usually did, but they didn't seem to put much priority on recording objective information.

Ahahaha. Brilliant

Sadly the Indian clerical class were very good at estimating crop yields and keeping records. That's why the tax rate was so high. What created the illusion of prosperity- in non Nino years- was that there was an artisan class which could turn village surpluses into relatively high value added tradable goods. The scarcity of zero risk assets meant there was enough liquidity to support broad linkages and an impressive credit network.
The problem with the British was that they created zero risk assets and later offered pensions in return for tax-farming rights. This meant a temporary windfall based on squeezing the productive classes but a lasting collapse of linkages and an involution of credit networks.
The Brits took over the old administration and left it largely unchanged at the village level- though they did curb peculation at the head clerk level from the 1840's onward. This continuity is by no means a good thing. There are villages where the same family has been 'patwari' (i.e. maintains the land records) for hundreds of years. They alone know the Mughal or Maratha era jargon and have their own script (which lawyers at one time had to learn). On the one hand this means the Govt. can always get what look like good statistics for any purpose (as I remember when doing some research in the early Eighties) but those statistics are worthless and only fit to adorn Dr. Sen's books.
Travelling to the districts I initially felt amusement when a venerable old farmer boasted to me that nobody in his family had ever learned to read and write. Later I realised what he meant was that his family was trusted because they had kept clear of a source of fraud. At the same time, their eagerness to cut throats ensured their quiet possession of their ancestral land. All that has changed now. Farmers know there is no future in agriculture because of fragmentation of holdings and the erosion of agricultural terms of trade. So now those same farmers are agitating to be classed as low caste so as to get the benefits of affirmative action for their children.

It would have been nice if the various rulers in India before the British had kept extensive historical records like the Chinese imperial government usually did, but they didn’t seem to put much priority on recording objective information.

Do you know for a fact that they didn't?

And do you know for a fact that the British were totally objective in their official records of rule in India? They did have a vested in interest in legitimizing their rule, and discrediting their predecessors.

Kris April 13, 2017 at 2:55 am

Do you know for a fact that they didn’t?

There is an Indian ruler who only noticed that famine was devastating the country when he rode out of Delhi and couldn't get fodder for his horses a day or two away from the capital. No one cared and so no one had told him. Muhammad bin Tughluq I think.

And do you know for a fact that the British were totally objective in their official records of rule in India? They did have a vested in interest in legitimizing their rule, and discrediting their predecessors.

If anyone has found systemic problems in the British records they are keeping it awfully quiet.

Indian history is a mess, especially compared to Chinese history, which allows us to be pretty confident that, say, the supernova causing the Crab Nebula appeared in the sky above China on July 4, 1054. The Chinese took writing history more seriously than the Indians, who were more interested in other subjects.

Indian states kept very detailed records, however these were kept on perishable materials because it is very hard to impossible in an Indian context to preserve any record not carved on stone. Keep in mind that nobody in any non Norman premodern state has ever thought that you needed to keep such records over generations unless they were incapable of resurveying.

Roman and Chinese record keeping is vastly overrated when you examine what is actually preserved and appears to be almost entirely accidental. Or to put it another way the vast majority of Roman records come from Egypt or peat bogs, while the largest source of Chinese records is the margins of the Gobi desert.

Steven Sailer April 13, 2017 at 5:37 am

The Chinese took writing history more seriously than the Indians, who were more interested in other subjects.

One theory might be that the Chinese were more interested in families which required knowing who is not entitled to share your wealth by claiming a common great-grandparent. They need history writing to exclude or include the right people.

While in India, rulers all too often clearly came from a bad caste background. A good example would be the Gupta Empire. When the Guptas rose to power they "corrected" the common misunderstanding that they were low caste. The last thing they wanted was accurate historical records. In fact we are not even sure what part of India they came from. So no official patronage.

Kris April 13, 2017 at 1:59 am

I’m not sure exactly how Ferguson “shows” these things. I did read his Empire book, and it looked like anecdotal history pasted over a (pro-colonial) thesis that he was already partial to.

There is no other historian who is likely to dispute him.

If life expectancy improved over 200 years (I’m skeptical about that), wouldn’t that be purely incidental owing to the long length of the rule rather than anything the British did themselves to promote life expectancy? Modern medicine was developed during that period, and Indians would have had access to it regardless of who ruled them.

How does the long length of the rule affect life expectancy? It is true that you did not have to be ruled by the British to benefit from advances in science made by the British. The British gave penicillin to world, basically for free. However that modern science did not just involve British scientists. It also involved India. It would be hard to imagine people like Ross working on malaria if he had not been in India. Since the end of European colonialism there has been a collapse in research into tropical diseases. In the same way Yellow Fever became an issue for the US when they started building the Panama canal.

'There is no other historian who is likely to dispute him.'

Dispute? Easily. Mercilessly mock him as not being worth disputing? Probably even more at this point. Here is just an example of Ferguson's work, where oddly enough, he pretty much blames the British for causing WWI, compared to the innocent German Reich, making Ferguson a public fool, a role he seemingly remains unable to resist - 'In 1998, Ferguson published The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, which with the help of research assistants he was able to write in just five months. This is an analytic account of what Ferguson considered to be the ten great myths of the Great War. The book generated much controversy, particularly Ferguson's suggestion that it might have proved more beneficial for Europe if Britain had stayed out of the First World War in 1914, thereby allowing Germany to win. Ferguson has argued that the British decision to intervene was what stopped a German victory in 1914–15. Furthermore, Ferguson expressed disagreement with the Sonderweg interpretation of German history championed by some German historians such as Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Hans Mommsen and Wolfgang Mommsen, who argued that the German Empire deliberately started an aggressive war in 1914. Likewise, Ferguson has often attacked the work of the German historian Michael Stürmer, who argued that it was Germany's geographical situation in Central Europe that determined the course of German history.

On the contrary, Ferguson maintained that Germany waged a preventive war in 1914, a war largely forced on the Germans by reckless and irresponsible British diplomacy. In particular, Ferguson accused the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey of maintaining an ambiguous attitude to the question of whether Britain would enter the war or not, and thus confusing Berlin over just what was the British attitude towards the question of intervention in the war. Ferguson accused London of unnecessarily allowing a regional war in Europe to escalate into a world war. Moreover, Ferguson denied that the origins of National Socialism could be traced back to Imperial Germany; instead Ferguson asserted the origins of Nazism could only be traced back to the First World War and its aftermath.' The wiki link does a concise job pointing out the different interpretations between reality and Ferguson.

Better, of course, is this link - 'Ferguson painted a benign picture of a prosperous, progressive and democratic Germany in 1914, before, as if realising that this hardly squared with the ruthless dictatorial militarist reality, moved hastily on to blind us with science about casualty statistics. (More chance of dying if you were a Serb than an American apparently: well, since Serbia was involved from day one, while American troops only entered the war in earnest in 1918 that is hardly earth-shattering news...) He then spouted psycho-babble about Freud's "death-instinct" and the innate aggression of the human male in which his chief witness was not a historian at all, but Steven Pinker, a psychologist who happens to be a campus colleague of Professor Ferguson at Harvard.

From the dubious to the downright eccentric, Ferguson opined that the real reason that Britain had entered the war was not to protect the country he sneeringly called "Plucky little Belgium", but was the result of a "low political" manoeuvre by Asquith's Liberal Government to keep the pro-war Tories out of office.

The panel of Professors were having none of such almost embarrassing nonsense. One by one, five leading historians of the war - Gary Sheffield, Sir Hew Strachan, David Reynolds, David Stevenson and Heather Jones - rose to give their colleague a masterclass in his own subject, and in doing so rended Ferguson's propositions limb from limb without hope of revival, leaving him still smirking gallantly through the pain.' So for anyone keeping score, that is 5 historians disputing Ferguson on the topic of WWi.

And to end with an American perspective, also from the wikipedia article - 'The American historian Gerhard Weinberg in a review of The Pity of War strongly criticized Ferguson for advancing the thesis that it was idiotic for Britain to have fought a Germany that posed no danger. Weinberg accused Ferguson of completely ignoring the chief foreign policy aim of Wilhelm II from 1897 onwards, namely Weltpolitik (World Politics") and argued it was absurd for Ferguson to claim that allowing Germany to defeat France and Russia would have posed no danger to Britain. Weinberg wrote that Ferguson was wrong to claim that Germany's interests were limited only to Europe, and maintained that if the Reich did defeat France in 1914, then Germany would had taken over the French colonies in Asia and Africa which would have definitely affected the balance of power all over the world, not just in Europe. Finally, Weinberg attacked Ferguson for claiming that the Tirpitz Plan was not a danger to Britain and that Britain had no reason to fear Germany's naval ambitions, sarcastically asking if that was really the case, then why did the British redeploy so much of their fleet from around the world to the North Sea and spend so much money building warships in the Anglo-German naval arms race? Weinberg accused Ferguson of distorting both German and British history and ignoring any evidence that did not fit with his thesis that Britain should never have fought Germany, stating that The Pity of War was interesting as a historical provocation, but was not persuasive as history.'

" The British gave penicillin to world, basically for free."

Give the Yanks credit also!
While Fleming, Chain, Florey et al. developed the drug, Mass production was first due to work at a USDA lab in Peoria, IL. But don't worry, president Trump will try to cut their budget.

This was all happening at the same time as the industrial revolution.
The USSR initially made great progress under Stalin as well. When you're starting from a state of total lack of development it's easy to make progress regardless of what sort of system is running things.
Only after the initial phase of infrastructure construction and forced industrialization do you notice the dysfunction and sclerosis produced by having built the wrong stuff in the wrong places with an entrenched bureaucracy jealously guarding its turf and preventing anything from being fixed.

What did the British build that was inconsistent with their mission of running India as a "factory" exporting goods globally for British profit.

By your terms, Walmart is building stuff that is worthless to the employees when they revolt against the shareholders and institute a Republic of Walmart, of the people, for the people, by the people.

Soviet Russia and colonial India are not even remotely comparable. I say this as a member of a Hungarian family who lost everything to the Russians.

My point is that rapid growth isn't impossible under a brutally oppressive system. Just because India's economy grew and the population boomed doesn't mean that India's economy benefited in the long term. Or even that the system was particularly efficient.

Soviet Russia is just another example of a really shitty oppressive government that managed to produce rapid growth initially while simultaneously setting up the economy for stagnation later.

'but the data make it surprisingly hard to make a case for British rule in India'

And to think that libertarians don't actually need data to oppose imperialist or colonialist political structures, regardless of how the scales may weigh out for those subjected to such regimes.

I think a lot of people who consider themselves libertarian are actually alt-right or something akin to it, who haven't found a philosophical home and think that libertarianism with its anti-establishment ethos is a suitable vessel for their views.

Amit Varma, the Indian libertarian blogger talked (on his blog) about his meeting with Bannon in 2015 in the presence of another lady (who he doesn't name, but the Internet believes it's Rebekah Mercer, a rich backer of Breitbart News.) The lady claims to be a libertarian but then goes off on rants against gay marriage and immigrants in Western countries. It was quite funny reading that.

Libertarianism is not synonymous with Open borders or an "anything goes" attitude on social matters.

Libertarianism demands social conservatism. Eg : If you don't want Social security, kids should be willing to take care of parents. If you don't want welfare, then familial ties ought to be strong enough to help relatives out.

India for instance has no social security. But that's because we don't need it as kids do take care of their parents.

Extreme individualism and a total breakdown of family inevitably leads to a nanny state. Something that socially liberal "libertarians" like Amit Varma don't get.

I don't know anyone (libertarian or otherwise) that is not too far out there who advocates a total breakdown of family. I'd be surprised to find out if Varma did so.

Borders are a very different thing from total family-breaking individualism. In fact, the social conservatism you describe as being a necessary companion to libertarianism is perfectly compatible with Open Borders. Immigrants tend to rely a lot more on friends and family, and consequently value loyalty, more than natives; as a corollary, they depend less on government. Of course, if welfare programs already exist, immigrants try to take advantage of them as do natives, which may prove to be fiscally unsustainable in the long term. As Milton Friedman said, you can have open immigration or a welfare state, but not both. He didn't say anything about social conservatism.

"As Milton Friedman said, you can have open immigration or a welfare state, but not both. He didn’t say anything about social conservatism."

Milton was making those statements in the years of counter-culture (60s-80s), so it was obviously not fashionable to sound "socially conservative" in those years. Milton wanted a young audience, so it was important for him to sound "cool".

Open borders leads to breakdown of cultural myths and other glues that hold nations together. 10 years of Open borders, and the US may not exist as a country anymore. I'd say I'd rather have a country with closed borders than no country at all with unrestricted immigration.

British Rule was very successful in repressing Wars and Civil convulsions. However India was much more highly taxed than China to start with, so there was a massive peace dividend for the new masters and their compradors which was largely frittered away. Thus the economic horizon of the Raj was miserabilist- breeding habits of inertia, misanthropy and a preference for rents over profits.
China experienced far more serious internal disorders over the course of the nineteenth century and was appallingly led. However, the tax burden on the Chinese peasant was lower. Still, the ferocious type of internecine conflict- which spilled over to the diaspora in South East Asia- was something unknown to India. Once the Chinese started modernising they did so very rapidly because fundamental problems regarding taxation and feudal tenure did not arise. Furthermore, China had scrapped its indigenous caste system a long time ago and religious differences had little salience. Patriotism of a modern type had always been instilled by the Confucian education system and, in that respect, China was always ahead of the rest of the world.
India gained no great advantage from English education- indeed, it may have reinforced chauvinism of an anti-modern type- however it must be said that the Brits encouraged the vernacular languages, curbed Christian proselytising and reformed the elementary school system. Indigenous demand for Higher Education was satisfied by the creation of Universities which were not discreditably run in those days. Post independence, things changed for the worse. By contrast, Chinese Univerisites aimed for excellence from the first. India never aspired to anything similar. By the Thirties, there was a noticeable difference. Indians were giving up fundamental research while the Chinese were just getting started. By the Fifties, the Chinese were ahead despite all the privations of their long Wars and terrible famines.

From the Economic point of view, it is noticeable that indigenous capital migrated to European enclaves in the eighteenth century and that the Hindus and Parsis benefited by their contact with English law which enabled them the commercial castes to thrive both as compradors and as independent agents. The English Presidencies were soon far ahead of anything the hinterland had to offer. The soundness of British credit meant that merchants and potentates welcomed British rule- it enabled them to turn windfall possessions held by the sword into secure pensions. Needless to say, the pensions were frittered away.

It may be that the construction of the Raliways could have led to industrialisation had it not been for the financial crisis of the Eighteen Forties. Essentially what happened then was that native finance got disintermediated while direct investment from London got linked to Government contracts. In other words, remittances on existing investments was prioritised over new investment at the same time as the native financier was shut out of the global capital market. It took a century for this development to be reversed.
English capitalism in India never recovered its buoyancy and the 'Management Agency' system became entrenched. There was a period when it appeared that opening up of new territories could create a growing surplus. However, by the Eighties, it was apparent that there was a reason certain regions had remained tribal- viz. the people fought back.
On balance, new cash-crops like indigo and opium depressed effective demand in the east because of the semi-feudal manner in which their cultivation was enforced or policed. By contrast, cotton and tobacco boosted effective demand as did canal construction in the West. Still, agriculture stagnated because, in the event of a food availability deficit, credit facilities and other linkages could not expand fast enough to transfer surpluses. This remained true, thanks to stupid Govt. policies (Democracies create famines contra Dr. Sen) in the Sixties when famine in Bihar meant that food prices were twice those in Punjab. Indian politicians took no interest in Agricultural research. Bizarrely, an Indian revolutionary who was the head of Mexico's Crop Research- even now an Indian holds a high position there- returned to India after Independence but could find no sponsor for his scheme. The Ford Foundation and Rockfeller Foundation too were preaching to the deaf. It wasn't till Pres. Johnson pulled the PL480 rug from under Madam Indira's feet that India went for 'the Green Revolution'. Of course, Pakistan was just as bad- but then the culture was the same.

It is true that some well governed native states outperformed British India but on balance these were few and far between. Territory transferred from independent states like Nepal or Bhutan did better under British rule but the poorest saw little amelioration in their condition. Ultimately, the British Raj was largely a fiction- a ceremonious canopy erected over vast feudal expanses where the path to riches was sharp practice against the agriculturist. Few Indians were aware that their rulers were aliens. Their oppressors were familiar to them, not foreign.
British reformers saw that representative Govt. was needed to boost the tax base and to shield the bureaucrat from accusations of profligacy in spending on development projects. However Indians didn't want to pay any new taxes and considered any sort of Government a great evil. Gandhi, as an economist, was an idiot. Yet, there are plenty of Universities in India where you can get a PhD in that idiocy.

To conclude, the British Raj wasn't particularly good for India because India was particularly badly placed to rise rather than rot. If it hadn't been the Brits, it would have fallen victim to internal or external predators of a worse character. It is worth pointing out that what drives Indian politics is the desire not to be oppressed by people from a neighbouring State or District- because they are the worst taskmasters. Bangladesh did worse under Pakistani rule that it had under the Brits. In a sense, that is a sort of backhanded compliment to the Raj.

I wonder if you are over-generalizing about the lack of interest in developing agriculture in independent India. My grandfather worked as a scientist somewhere down in the Ministry of Agriculture hierarchy from the 50s to the 70s, and he was most definitely involved in research on high yield crops, especially in places where agriculture had low footprint.

An American millionaire who was a friend of Viceroy curzon gave some money to start an Agricultural Research Centre in Pusa, Bihar (later transferred to Delhi). It found that indigo was unprofitable but its experiments on tobacco were successful and private enterprise pitched in to make that a successful crop- ITC had its origins then.
However, it was noteworthy that British planters showed scepticism to its operation- they thought they could recoup their investment by squeezing the peasantry till Mahatma Gandhi's intervention persuaded them otherwise. Sadly, Gandhi didn't get that Agricultural Research could change lives and even Nehru, who studied Botany, retained a blind spot in this matter. Essentially, the notion was that peasants were stupid and so even if they grew better crops they would just get into debt and so 'reactionary' forces would win.
Politically, in India and Pakistan, PL480 food gave elites an excuse to undercut the farmers- who came from regionally dominant castes. After the Green Revolution these castes wanted power and squeezed out the elites- so there was method to this madness.
Some local politicians did work with technologists to raise yields and productivity- e.g. Amul with Kurien. But Kurien, who got a scholarship to study Dairy technology, originally wanted to hit the academic treadmill and get a worthless PhD in Econ so as to spend his time in Delhi talking nonsense. He was forced to go to Gujarat and, because he had powerful political protection, ended up doing a lot of good. The same thing could have been done with other crops but the political will was lacking till the late Sixties- Bihar famine and President Johnson's use of the food lever re. Vietnam.
Even then, the technical agronomists were bypassed. The exception was M.S Swaminathan but he was unusual for two reasons. First, he passed the Competitive exam and so was part of an elite cadre (IPS) and so the bureaucrats saw him as one of their own (they killed off a Technocratic Cadre towards the end of the Fifties because they wanted to monopolise the good postings). Secondly, he refused to stay on in America as a Professor. The other point about him was that his particular caste/regional clique were good at getting political backing and stuck together. At the time it was said to get anything done in Delhi you had to run from 'Pillai to Pillai'. This had its positive side.
Even now, you find worthless economists of the Amartya Sen variety crowding out the genuine agronomists- more especially those whose English is poor. On the other hand there are some good institutes which have kept going. Oddly, a Soviet Agricultural experiment in India turned out really well whereas an earlier American initiative fizzled out. Ultimately everything comes down to which bureaucratic clique got control.
The Indian political class has always been detached from agriculture because it was dominated by lawyers and industrialists. The progressive landlords were few and far between. Interestingly they were initially promoted by the Brits under dyarchy and helped improve administration. It was a mistake to label them 'feudal reactionaries' because the Leftists were wholly ignorant of agriculture. More recently the eco-feminists have carried on this tradition of high minded ignorance. Dr. Vandana Shiva is a good example but it is a long standing trend. In Orrissa a bunch of rocket scientists established an agricultural experiment in the early Seventies. Dismal failure. The locals laughed at them. Anyway, they repurposed as some sort of Educational/Idealogical outfit and are wholly worthless. There are plenty of such outfits littering the countryside.
What do do? India is like that only.
Actually no. The Govt. can do a bit of mechanism design such that the private sector agro-industries have incomplete contracts with the farmer with the result that Industry bears more of the risk. This corrects for market failure. Modi did introduce something like that in Gujerat but Delhi has slowed him down.
Sadly, the political rise of farming castes hasn't been an undiluted boon. They are good at skewing things in favour of the politically connected dominant castes but look to lock in rents in an environmentally unsustainable and allocatively inefficient way. The other thing is, unlike the US Dept of Agriculture in the Twenties and Thirties is that India got stuck with a top-down model. The local farmers have little skin in the game. We could have had a flourishing wine industry with French help- it was killed off by stupid bureaucrats- though a small private sector is flourishing.
Things are changing now because bio-engineering is sexy and a lot of smart kids have ancestral land so they aren't as deracinated as the old sort of technocrat. Still, India did very very badly on this front because of bien pensant Cambridge types. That's right- all is fault of the British. Mind it kindly!

Increasing ag production and driving farm consolidation forcing Indians off the land that supports them is good for the Indian people?

Which part of the US fared better? The north where industrial policy drew workers from farms forcing farms to become more efficient by specializing. Or the south where increased production drove increased poverty of share cropping, or migration to the north?

The South has seen growth only since industrial policy has created the jobs off the farms that require farms to specialize because of labor shortages. eg, the Honda factory in Kentucky is undergoing a billion in renovation, thrifty years after it was built as government policy. The government provided the rail access, highway access, education system specified by Honda, the water, sewer, electric, to a site Honda could buy on favorable financing terms. But that's not different than the industrial policies in the northern big cities to attract and keep industries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Northeast was mostly ag economy early on, but industrial policy made a transition to ag being a minor component relatively painless. A million farms supporting families ceased to be farms supporting families, with millions of acres of cropland reverting to woodland.

I also remember an Indian agronomist coming to University of Illinois to conduct soil fertility and plant nutrition research with my father in the 60s. And, yes, he did return to his Indian university.

As a Brit, I'd say this was not an unfair summary. I'd accept the weak economic performance and advocate the main benefits of the Raj, such as they were, were non-economic:

1) Peace and (relative) domestic order. Deaths per capita year from violence compare well across the period.

2) Not enslaved by another, rather worse empire. Would India have faired better under the French, Dutch, Russians, or god-help them, the Germans or Belgians?

3) Growth of a national administrative class and structures. Independent India inherits a fairly good governing structure.

4) Open and meritocratic for the standards of the time. Finally, the British Raj, for all it's violence and casual racism, was a fairly meritocratic system and very open by the standards of the time. There was no great political repression. Gandhi would have been shot in nearly any other empire. Avenues for men of education, talent, and ambition existed. It was a system which had the capacity to evolve and grow into something better.

OK, Gandhi was shot, but you know what I mean :-)

I think that is sort of baked into the argument.

No question direct British rule (post Mutiny) did as you suggested. It's primary economic end was making sure British government agents were very well remunerated. British rule until ww2 had very little state building in it. That is were the various Indian states had an advantage.

Company rule? I don't know. Picking 1810 is arbitrary, clearly at the end the Company rule was more about sucking money out. So during the 1700s is a different game.

In terms of picking comparisons, Thailand is nice, and I've used that example myself. Then again Afghanistan and Nepal are pretty much hell holes as well. As is Tibet.

Someone else said about the southern states, and yes for the most part they were backwaters during British times. No question land reform played a big role. However, literacy campaigns were also far more advanced as well even back as far as the 1920s and 1940s. The two are very connected.

If you wanted to draw up winners and losers post Independence, the south is clearly a winner. Big cities -- giant losers. The cow belt also lost. Punjab seemed to do ok. Bengal big loser.

I agree there was a meritocratic element to the Raj. Indigenous talent could rise from humble beginnings. By the Thirties, there were enough indigenous technocrats for Visvesvaraya (the most famous technocrat of the time) to devise a feasible plan for ten percent growth. First the industrialists cut this down because they valued Protection higher than Growth, then the Bureaucrats cut this down because they valued Rents and a Quiet Life over everything. So India got stuck with a 'Hindu rate of Growth'. High minded administrators backed up by Cambridge Economists, like Amartya Sen, prefer to talk about equity rather than Growth because they don't have the capacity to manage the latter.
The big boon Britain granted India was its penal system. British Jails created a high esprit de corps class of lawyer/politicians who preferred arguing with each other to cutting each other's throats. Meanwhile the dominant castes were able to capture the local administration and get the boundaries of their natal Province re-drawn- an ongoing process- in a relatively peaceful manner.
Pakistan failed to benefit from British Jails and has had a rockier trajectory politically speaking.

"So India got stuck with a ‘Hindu rate of Growth’"

There is nothing Hindu about the Hindu rate of growth. The economic policy making in India during those dark decades of the 50s-60s-70s was dictated by deracinated unbelievers like Nehru, Mahalanobis and Indira. Hardly Hindus.

If Hindus had been in charge (let's suppose a coalition of Rajaji's Swatantra, the Morarji wing of Congress + Jan Sangh), India would most likely have done a lot better than it did under Congress rule.

So let's stop using the term "Hindu" to refer to those unfortunate low growth decades.

"The cow belt also lost"

I don't like this pejorative reference to the cow. The Cow is a revered animal across India - not merely in the belt you are referring to. The Cow means a lot to the common man even in rich states like Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. As much as it does to someone in UP or Bihar.

The Indo-Aryan people (originally pastoral) have a very deep special relationship with the cow.

Cow piss will power Hindustan into the future!

My notion was always that the South Indian states were the ones that have done best since colonization, with the least influence from Islam and Hindu reactionism and the most English literacy. (Not blaming religion for everything, but you do bother a lot less with spreading Enlightenment where religion has such a hold.) I imagine that Thailand could have done even better with the influence of English literacy and British political institutions available to South India. I think you can get more of the benefits of the Enlightenment by being colonized by a European power than by trying to get from imitation and osmosis under globalization. I certainly don't think that all the British ruled parts would have done better under alternative powers filling the vacuum in the post Mughal era.

South Indian states going ahead of the northern ones is a very recent phenomenon. Until well into the mid-20th century, southern India was considered a backwater. People used to migrate from the south to industrial parts of the north (my grandparents among them.) So I would be very skeptical about attributing the south's current fortunes to lower Islamic influence, etc. The reality may be more mundane: land reform. This was done in a progressive way in the south soon after Independence, and populist parties did somewhat better by their people w.r.t. education that their counterparts in the north.

"South Indian states going ahead of the northern ones is a very recent phenomenon"

It is not. The South has seen greater political and economic stability for over 1300 years now. Something that both commentators on the Left and the Right in India readily acknowledge.

The Vijayanagar kingdom was clearly ahead of early Mughal India in terms of general prosperity. Even in earlier periods the Cholas had maritime trade and the Tamil country had a vibrant literary tradition in the vernacular - unlike any other place in India. Even the temples of the South point to far greater architectural activity (always a sign of social stability) than in the North.

Culturally the South was clearly in the ascendant. The three main schools of Hindu philosophy - Adwaita, Vishishtadwaita and Dwaita all emerged in the Deccan at around the turn of the millennium (800-1200CE). The Bhakti movement originated in the Deccan as well. Modern Hindu law is based on the Mitakshara commentary on the Dharmasastras - which was authored by a gentleman in the Chalukya court in Karnataka!

The South if anything, is more strongly Hindu than the north, both on paper and in actual practice. So I think one should stop blaming religion here.

But yes, I do get the point about Islam. The North had its cultural capital badly eroded during the 1000 years of Islamic rule and has till date struggled to recover from it. The South has been ascendant with respect to the north for about 1300 years now.

A point to note, however, is that North India was way ahead of the South for much of Indian history prior to Islamic rule (atleast uptill 700CE or so)

'I think you can get more of the benefits of the Enlightenment by being colonized by a European power than by trying to get from imitation and osmosis under globalization.'

The Japanese would beg to differ, and to be honest, Thailand has done better than Vietnam (recognizing that Vietnam is not exactly all that representative of Western colonization during the 20th Century).

The South Koreans have also done well.....and they were colonised by the most brutal power imaginable; the Japanese!

Seriously, it's not clear prima facie whether colonialism improved or retarded subsequent development. The post-independence (in)competence of local leadership, level of state power, and culture seems to explain a lot more of the variance.

Well, I left the Koreans out, as the Japanese were not exactly Enlightenment Europeans. And then there is the whatever it is of South Korea by the U.S. since the end of the Korean War - only recently have the South Koreans been able to enjoy something resembling democracy, compared to the heydays of someone like Syngman Rhee or Park Chung-hee.

"And then there is the whatever it is of South Korea by the U.S. since the end of the Korean War – only recently have the South Koreans been able to enjoy something resembling democracy,"

Yes, those South Korean's were terribly oppressed by the imperialistic US!

The Thai example doesn't persuade me. Maybe the reason they weren't colonized is they had their act together circa 1600 and that also led to superior performance. Germany wasn't colonized either.

The other arguments look good though

Exactly, Thailand survives independent because it was a well-organised national state by the time the Europeans show up in strength. Same reason as Japan, basically. So long as such states give the Europeans peace, market access and a few privileges, no one is going to justify the expense of sending in the marines.

These places do well because they have a cohesive culture and a powerful state that is not excessively rapacious. Colonialism just isn't that good an explanatory variable.

Depends - Hawaii is an interesting example on the other side (concerning American actions, not the British ones).

Of course, these days, Americans are far too polite to call Hawaii (or much of the Southwest) anything but American states.

"Of course, these days, Americans are far too polite to call Hawaii (or much of the Southwest) anything but American states."

Yet another example of American Imperialism and hypocrisy.

I think the trajectory of colonialism in Polynesia was more like colonialism in the Americas rather than in Africa or Asia and does not contradict Alistair's point. Polynesia, like the pre-contact Americas, possessed strong states and cohesive cultures but lost more than 90% of their populations due to old world diseases introduced by Westerners. Indigenous populations were largely replaced by and/or intermarried with people from the Old World (in the Americas from Europe and Africa, and in Polynesia from Asia). In Hawaii, for example, only about 25% of the population was native Hawaiian by the end of the 19th century and the overall population (including immigrants from Asia and the US) was less than half of its pre-contact level. The Aztecs, Incas, and Hawaiians may well have repelled European and American colonialists if their populations had not been decimated (literally).

Hawaii was a weak, pre-modern state when the West (represented by the US on this occasion) arrives. So it gets colonised. The Philippines is the other US example. In Japan though, it's just black ships and a shore bombardment. The money in the east comes from trade and ports; occupation and agricultural rents are a much poorer game.

The pattern holds - half way competent nation states could generally keep the Europeans out. Even the marginal failure cases: Ethiopia, New Zealand, Zululand, where there was _some_ degree of higher political organisation and culture, did a lot better than everywhere else.

Well, it all depends how far back you go. Germany was colonised - just a few centuries earlier in the period from the 770s to the mid-13th century for the most part.

Too much of the arguments about colonisation suffer from such arbitrary short-term thinking.

I am amazed that an esteemed (allegedly) Professor of Economics would write such rubbish!
The title above already states your supposition that it was bad for India - it had its negatives and its positives. Due to lack of historical data you have just hypothesized some utter rubbish.

If we're going to play this game, then the most effective colonial power by far was Imperial Japan:

"Manchukuo experienced rapid economic growth and progress in its social systems... By the 1930s, Manchukuo's industrial system was among the most advanced making it one of the industrial powerhouses in the region.[51] Manchukuo's steel production exceeded Japan's in the late 1930s. Many Manchurian cities were modernised during the Manchukuo era. "

"[T]he population and living standards of Taiwan during the 50 years of Japanese rule displayed significant growth... As part of this process, new ideas, concepts, and values were introduced to the Taiwanese; also, several public works projects, such as railways, public education, and telecommunications, were implemented. As the economy grew, society stabilized, politics was gradually liberalized, and popular support for the colonial government began to increase... As a result, primary school enrollment rates in Taiwan were among the highest in Asia, second only to Japan itself."

"By the early 1930s the sugar-related industries accounted for more than 60% of the mandate's revenues.[21] Bananas, pineapples, taro, coconuts,[6] manioc, coffee[23] and other tropical farming products were also grown, putting the islands on a par with Taiwan.[citation needed] The islands also provided bases for the Japanese fishing fleet[11] which was centred at Koror.[25] By the end of the 1920s the mandate became self-sufficient, no longer needing subsidy and financially contributing to the Japanese Empire.[21]"

Also North Korea got a lot of hydroelectric reservoirs and the like out of Japanese rule. Of course, the USAF then pretty much flattened everything above ground in North Korea in 1950-53.

Yes, that's an uncomfortable but inevitable conclusion. The rapacious and brutal Japanese really build up their colonies fast.

You missed out the (south) Korean experience too; more evidence for Japanese super-colonialism!

Perhaps the Japs were not so hesitant to uplift their subjects because they happened to look like them.

GDP does not measure everything. Whatever their faults in India, the British did get around to making illegal the practice of burning alive the widows of dead husbands. In recent years there seems to have been some evidence of a disturbing wish in parts of India's elite to go backwards where women's freedoms ("rights" if one prefers), are concerned. Perhaps it is seriously misleading to talk of what if for "India" had there been some power other than the British, because India, even in shrunken form without Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka, is a large, well, defended, and by the standards of the third world or even the second world, well run country, and nothing similar to India as this large country that we know today might well not have come into existence had it not been for the British. It might have ended up as a set of separate countries like the former Yugoslavia is today, but larger countries and with more bloodshed. Even were it the case that Indian GDP had been stellar, that would not absolve the British of the blame for one of history's worst crimes against humanity, the opium trade and opium wars, the opium behind which was produced in British India. It may be that Britain ruined Indian GDP, but I am suspicious of those who spend much time trying to prove this one way or the other to the exclusion of broader measures of human well being. In India's case, there are probably three problems with its historical GDP data. First, GDP statistics are often fraudulent, especially in communist regimes, as we know from Soviet experience, and India after independence (a dress rehearsal of Brexit) suffered political masters who were in thrall to communism. Secondly, a flourishing opium trade increases GDP, And thirdly, the burning of old wives does not show up anywhere in GDP. I want to live in a prosperous country, for sure, but I personally would be happy for the GDP of that country to take a big hit if it meant not having the government create drug users at gunpoint and not having old women burnt to death to satisfy some weird male ego thang.

prior test 2 -- you mention Japan. Was Japan not de facto a US colony after the Second World War?

Mikeja: Germany --- would you disagree completely with the proposition that what we call Germany today originated with Prussian colonization of the nearby German-speaking states?

the British did get around to making illegal the practice of burning alive the widows of dead husbands

If you read the history, the push for that came from educated Indians. (And, by the way, it was relatively rare in practice; it's not like they were having burnings every evening in the village squares.) The British administration generally preferred to have a hands-off approach to the social customs of the people; it only cared that the annual revenue rolled in on time.

Every country and every society in the world has had bad, even hateful practices (including Western societies.) Why was India uniquely corrupt and irredeemable that it had to suffer 2 centuries of colonialism to eliminate its social ills? America today has polygamy (in certain places), which many would consider a bad practice. Does America deserve to get colonized to rid it of polygamy?

You, like other apologists for colonialism, trot out seemingly good results without looking at the history in its entirety. And you all claim that none of those good results (like India being a large country better governed than its neighbors) could have occurred without colonialism without ever providing a cogent reason why.

Does your 2 centuries of colonialism include the Mughals or previous generations of conquerors?

Anyway, you answer your own question; for the vast majority of Indians, life under the British was indistinguishable from life under previous foreign conquerors. They were ruled by their own local elites and caste-superiors in a way that cared little for their welfare or development.

The experience of the Mutiny taught the British to respect Indian customs. Which they generally did. Suti is exceptional. Even today India suffers from British-era laws that hold up development in the name of protecting custom. You don't want a road built? Painting a picture of Durga on the side of a wall and claim it is a temple.

Those parts of America that practiced polygamy did actually have a form of internal colonization until they stopped.

And yes, Indian practices were and are so bad that even British rule could not get rid of them. Look at the defense of child marriage by independence figures.

It may be possible that India could have done all that the British did on their own. But their post-independence history suggests not. India is barely able to keep up with the rest of the world.

'Was Japan not de facto a US colony after the Second World War? '

Simple answer - no.

There is a difference between colonization and occupation - after all, no one considered West Germany an American colony, and East Germany a Soviet one.

>Simple answer - no.

Correct answer - yes.

It's easier to get the right answer if you know what "de facto" means.

Not only does it help to know what 'de facto' means - in which case, Japan was neither de jure or de facto a colony of the U.S. - it helps to know the distinction between 'occupied' and 'colonized' as illustrated by using a throroughly comparable example with East and West Germany. Which can be brought into the realm of reductio ad absurdum bý pointing that West Germaný was actually split into French, British, and American zones. Yet, amazingly, the difference between the French colonized Baden-Baden and the American colonized Karlsruhe would have been impossible to recognize in 1948 or 1988, both to Germans born in 1922 or 1972, or to American or French visitors.

"There is a difference between colonization and occupation – after all, no one considered West Germany an American colony, and East Germany a Soviet one."

Well clearly East Germany was not colonized by anyone and the occupation was only a temporary, short affair necessary to eradicate the evil vestiges of Nazism and Capitalism. However, the Americans clearly did extend their occupation into a cultural colonization of Western Germany. Even today Western Germany is filled with a desperate and greedy mercantilist government that is used to exploit the common working laborer for the giant corporations. Southern Europe is plundered and the profits are shared between the consumerist production titans and the capitalistic banks.

I love Tyler and in general think he is one of the best analysts out there, but comparing India to Thailand is sheer, unmitigated idiocy.

It is true that one of the millions of factors determining their GDP per capita is differential colonial history. However, he should try to make an argument that it is in the top 50 or 100. Even if it were say #5, the comparison would fall apart.


"I love Tyler and in general think he is one of the best analysts out there, but comparing India to Thailand is sheer, unmitigated idiocy."

Yes, that was a very weak point.

Indeed, it is not only foolish, but it leads to other less favorable comparisons. Of the five original ASEAN nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, two fell under British rule. Both are doing MUCH better today than Thailand.

I am puzzled by the comparison to Thailand. Afghanistan is closer, right next to colonial India. Afghanistan was never colonized, yet has a per capita GDP at PPP of less than $2000. For that matter, Ethiopia was colonized for a few years (far less than, say, the US or Norway), and is at only about $1600.

As others have pointed out, colonialism is just a weak variable for explaining post-colonial growth, and a fairly weak variable for explaining colonial growth too!

I agree its bizarre to see an economics professor falling back on uncontrolled pair comparisons.

'Afghanistan was never colonized'

It is also not exactly inaccurate to say that Afghanistan was not a state, either, unlike Thailand.

"It is also not exactly inaccurate to say that Afghanistan was not a state, either, unlike Thailand."

So it's more comparable to India.(Though, racially speaking, both are very far from India)

Kind of - apart from that whole East India Company hammering together a coherent and expanding economic framework for a couple of centuries, until the British government took over. Afghanistan wás not only not exactly a state, it was also not the prized possession of a state chartered company that resembled a state in its power, both commercial and military.

Nonetheless, there is certainly a resemblance in the range of languages and cultures which are now considered to have been subsumed into a state as defined by map boundaries, if nothing else.

I'd bet that if you did a survey of the past 1000 years, you'll find that Kabul and Delhi have been part of the same dominion/polity far longer than Delhi and Madras have been. And racially, Afghans are closer to Indians (especially north Indians) than Thais.

But when it comes to states, you are off the mark. "India" may rarely have been a state, but there have always been a large number of "states" (many highly-organized) within India, just like there have been within Europe. And in subcontinental folk memory, Afghans have always been considered to be semi-barbaric borderlanders, who sometimes trade and sometimes invade (when warlords from central Asia lead them.)

Thailand was relatively accessible by steamer.

Waugh explained Ethiopia's independence in Scoop:

"Punitive expeditions suffered more harm than they inflicted, and in the nineties humane counsels prevailed. The European powers independently decided that they did not want the profitless piece of territory; that the one thing less desirable than seeing a neighbour established there was the trouble of taking it themselves."

Another self-pitying "explanation" of chronic underdevelopment, misery and disease. The British left the Empire seventy years ago and here we have you endorsing an Indian writer blaming the colonialists for his country's failure. Does a few decades of colonial rule "explain" Africa's hopeless chaos, Arab savagery, etc.? Is African American poor academic achievement due to cotton-field work two hundred years ago? Would be too much to expect intellectual honesty from an American professor?

Tharoor by the way is a Congress party stooge, who is hardly a person known for either intellectual wherewithal or personal integrity.

The tendency of many to blame the "british" is a convenience adopted to avoid confrontation with the damning truth - which is the massively deleterious impact of Islam on India and Indian culture (particularly in the North) and the enormous erosion of cultural capital in the country between 800 and 1800CE.

You need to provide specifics, otherwise this looks like a whiny argument pushed by Hindu fundamentalist losers looking for a convenient victim to blame. I'd be interested in knowing how Emperor Akbar did his part in destroying northern India's cultural capital.

As you know, even Hindus speak very positively of Akbar. You must however have heard of Aurangazeb........

Akbar was the best of the Muslim rulers of North India, and hardly representative of the period.

For the most part, Muslim rule up north left a legacy of high taxation, plunder, pillage, and a severe discontinuity introduced in the religious life of the people. THis is especially true of the Sultanate period (1100 to 1400CE) though I agree that Mughals were a significant improvement over earlier Muslim rulers.

North hasn't produced a single Hindu philosopher of note since 700CE. The epicenter of the Hindu religion shifted decisively to the Deccan post 700CE.

In the early 1200's the Mongols occupied Punjab, ravaged it continuously and used it as a base to attack India for the next 130 years. It is little wonder it was a time of high taxation and harsh government since the Delhi sultanate (Alauddin Khilji in particular) were doing their best to keep them from wrecking the rest of the subcontinent.

Timur's invasion in 1398 was highly destructive to Punjab as was Nadir Shah's in 1739 and Ahmad Shah Durrani's raids from Afghanistan in the folowing decades. Drrani's soldier didn't make much distinction between killing and pillaging Indian Muslims and non-Muslims, such that Punjabi Muslims were more than happy for the Sikh kingdom to rise and put an end to Afghan invasions.

In Aesthetics, Kashmir became dominant with Abhinavagupta and so the Kaulas had continuing prestige till about the Twelfth Century.
Samkhya remained centred on the North East though it died out about 500 years ago. However it was revived in Bengal. There were other technical subjects for which Southerners still travelled up to Benares etc. though over all, as you say, the picture was getting bleaker.
The exception is Bengal's Navya Nyaya based on Nabadvipa which was very influential in the South- which is why Sankaracharyas had a high opinion of Gaudas- and it increased the attraction of British Law and Jurisprudence- more particular Benthamite Utilitarianism- for Hindus.
Of course, there were other influential philosopher/seers from the North but that had limited impact on Saivites.
There was great insecurity of life under Muslim rule. We tend to focus on those periods where two generations knew relative peace. We forget that no three generations knew peace. Bedil himself says that law and order had broken down in the North when Aurangazeb went South. Even the South was not immune- witness Tipu Sultan- but over all there was more stability.

So instead of blaming people who have been out of power for 72 years you want to blame people who have been out of power for 300 years.

India failed to become a manufacturing superpower during British rule because of terrible productivity. It still remains a pygmy in manufacturing because of terrible productivity, the few decades of British rule did not make that much difference to the fabric of the subcontinent.

Yes, it's quite the conceptual leap. The thousands of years of habitation of the place have nothing to do with its current state, it was those few decades of British rule, but for which India would be a thriving superpower.

Oh, you should see the stuff I've had to read blaming British and French colonialism for the current travails of the Middle East.

We were only there for about 40 years. Barely had time to order a coffee. Though strangely enough, the Ottomans never get mentioned....

Well, the British (East India Company) spent most of the 1600s and 1700s as traders in India, chiefly trying to buy textiles for sale in Europe (spices did play a part, but Indonesia was a bigger source for that.) So at least during that period, Indians were better at manufacturing clothes than Europeans were.

(Most colonial apologists simply forget or gloss over the fact that the British encountered India as traders and remained that way for about 150 years. It's not like they conquered India as part of a humanitarian mission.)

The Industrial Revolution was a big game changer. It decisively pushed British manufacturing productivity over that of India. And since, by that time, the British business had changed from trade to milking revenue from their Indian acquisitions, they didn't care to expose India to the Industrial Revolution. It'd take more than a 100 years for Indians to gradually discover it for themselves.


That's fair enough. India in 1600 probably has a small price advantage over finished European textiles, and this possibly persists up to 1750, maybe. Certainly by 1790 the incipient industrial revolution has given the UK a large price advantage in finished textiles.

But the volumes are relatively tiny, and the trade capacity just isn't there before 1700; tiny ships and large oceans. The trade wealth really takes off from 1750 onwards; and it's driven by demand for cotton for UK mills, not Indian finished textiles. From 1790's the EIC gets into rent farming in a big way; the dissolution of Marathan estates is a huge looting windfall, together with tax farming rights. With the growth in Western Hemisphere cotton, I'd say it's arguable that the EIC's focus from the 1800's is very much on farming rents rather than cotton trading, and this accounts for the majority of it's wealth over its Indian lifespan.

Why is this even debatable? Colonies were exploited for their natural resources and as a market for finished goods. The vestiges of colonialism are observable in many ways, from lack of industrial development to lack of domestic transportation. Sure, colonial powers built sophisticated transportation networks between the colonial power and the colonies, but not within the colonies. I don't know if this is a vestige of colonialism or of ethnicity, but my experience with Indian physicians (there are many of them in America) is that they have a very zero-sum approach to things. Anyone have similar experiences?

The infrastructure the imperial powers left behind in Africa was promptly abandoned, post-colonialism. There's a pretty hilarious video out there of a Chinese man lecturing a Congolese about their failure to maintain the infrastructure.

The Chinese, who do not labor under the exquisite guilt of Anglo's and European's, seem to be re-colonizing the place.

I don’t know if this is a vestige of colonialism or of ethnicity, but my experience with Indian physicians (there are many of them in America) is that they have a very zero-sum approach to things.

I'm calling the SPLC.

That it was British colonialism that purposefully de-industrialized India is a lie. Manchester textiles based on American cotton, mass produced Sheffield knives, etc. were of higher quality and cheaper than Indian home manufactures. British industry in the 19th century outcompeted traditional economies. Its comparative advantage lasted one or two generations, and the colonies very soon started to compete with British manufactures. British papers of the nineteen twenties are full of descriptions of the collapse of British industry, of abandoned Manchester textile mills, of mass unemployment and widespread misery of the working class, of increasing socialist agitation, all caused by the loss of overseas markets to the new factories in the colonies - India, China - and in Japan. Pious lies may give comfort to losers, but ultimately they harm them and us. India is strong and can face reality.

+1 for that.

Nearly all the value-added in the industrial revolution was down-stream. Even from 1790 Indian cotton exports values were a fraction of the textile value coming out of Lancashire. Even with company agents squeezing their Indian suppliers, the price for Indian cotton and semi-finished pieces is barely below world prices. By 1820, even this extractive advantage isn't enough, and the cotton for UK industry comes mostly from the US and Caribbean.

Indian textile producers, sheltered to some extents by distance and weak infrastructure, continue to dominate their domestic market until post 1860, when the European advantage becomes so great that it wipes them out on price.

Looking over it's history, the EIC probably made more from rents, tax farming, and estate pillaging than it ever did from cotton.

That it was British colonialism that purposefully de-industrialized India is a lie.

No, the argument nationalist Indians made back in the 19th century, and continue to make now, is more akin to what current American populists say about manufacturing jobs moving from the American heartland to Asia and Latin America. And initially (late 1700s and early 1800s), it was all about cost, plus the lack of any incentive for the British rules of India to invest in local industry. Later on, British (and Western) industry built on its first-mover advantage and went from strength to strength.

Purposeful de-industrialization: perhaps not. Wilful neglect and thwarting: absolutely.

Ah, but India doesn't really fit that profile too well. The East India Company made more money farming rents and pillaging probate than trading cotton. And finished goods imported to India were slight. Set against costs to the crown post mutiny, India was not a huge money-maker.

Though the country did have real strategic value. Otherwise those pesky Japanese might have interdicted our tea supplies. End of civilisation then, old bean.

This is why country-to-country comparisons are so hard and, in my opinion, not that useful. Thailand has 66 million citizens today. They're mostly all Thais, with a common language and culture. It's total area is about 200,000 square miles.

India has 1.2 billion citizens today. The total area is 1.3 million square miles. Then there are the numerous language and cultural differences. We treat India as a single country, but we should probably compare it more to Europe as a whole.

I knew an Indian couple who could only speak to each other in English. If it weren't for British colonialism, India as we know it today might not exist.

By the way, according to Encyclopedia Britannica via Wikipedia, "A quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves in the 17th through the 19th centuries."

If it weren’t for British colonialism, India as we know it today might not exist.

That is undeniably true, but it also falls on you then to show that what would exist on the Indian subcontinent today in the absence of British colonialism would have been worse.

I would guess worse for some, maybe better for others. Of course, you can look at the biggest break-up India had when British rule ended and speculate there might have been a lot more armed conflict.

How about comparing the Income of the Indians to the American Indians over the same period.

That's a strange comparison to make.

India represented a highly sophisticated 4000 year old civilization in 1800. American Indians, espcially in North America, were tribal hunter gatherers for the most part, still not having made their way past Pre-History.

Agreed with respect to North American Indians. They were a Stone age civilization. Perhaps on the cusp of Bronze age, but that's debatable.

Nawh, you called it first time. Stick with Neolithic.

You can give the "cusp of Bronze age" award to some of the Meso-American civs. They were at least dabbling in hot metal working.

Neolithic is the best description of North American Inidans, but technically Mesoamericans (roughly Mexico) had hot copper working and may have been on the verge of Bronze.

"The Aztecs did not initially adopt metal working, even though they had acquired metal objects from other peoples. However, as conquest gained them metal working regions, the technology started to spread. By the time of the Spanish conquest, a bronze-smelting technology seemed to be nascent."

I am sure there were positives and negatives .But...

"British economist, Angus Maddison argues that India's share of the world income went from 27% in 1700 (compared to Europe's share of 23%) to 3% in 1950."

"How bad was British colonialism for India?"

So Tyler, you agree with India's pro-Brexit approach?

Versus being a part of the greatest economic bloc on the planet before their independence.

THat's just meaningless. It is merely a statistical quirk caused by the great Industrial Revolution.

Economic growth in India was broadly similar before, during, and after the British occupation. But with the start of the industrial revolution, western countries experienced unprecedented growth. During the same 1700-1950 period America went from around 0% of World GDP to around 25% (In the immediate aftermath of WW2 the USA briefly accounted for almost 50% of world GDP).

India could only have retained its quarter share of world GDP via an intensive program of rapid industrialisation. This would have required a social revolution - as it had done in Britain. India’s British rulers didn’t want to risk it.

In general, states which were large and non-national (e.g. the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires) were more timid about industrialism than nation states (e.g. Germany, the USA).

I think it is fair to say that Indians (both on the Left and Right) as well as Western Liberals tend to overstate the evils of the British Empire.

While Western conservatives tend to overstate its virtues :)

The truth lies in between

Well, the reason for emphasizing the evils of the British empire are that we are currently stuck with its legacy. More than a few vestiges of imperial administration and imperial society are still with us today. In contrast, I can't think of a single facet of administration or society that we can trace to the Mughal empire. We can, of course, fight culture wars (mainly over religion and the pernicious effects of Islamic invasions), but from what I see, the British upended Indian society in ways that completely erased the legacy of older invaders. Plus, the British Empire drained wealth away from Asia and into Europe. For all the faults of the prior invaders, they tended to assimilate over time and spend their loot locally, boosting the local economy. This is why liberals (and libertarians like myself) remain firm anti-colonialists.

I don’t understand your point. The most decisive “legacy of older invaders” on India is Islam. It certainly hasn’t been erased. The second most decisive, dating back a very long way, is the caste system. Again, not erased.

These two factors still matter a lot in India. In contrast, the Lok Sabha is completely free to repeal any British-era laws, or revise any British-era administrative units, formats or protocols they don’t like.

The caste system is the most misunderstood of Indian phenomena.

It is an outcome of Indian diversity and not the result of some diabolical machination. It is Indian society's honest attempt to handle racial and cultural heterogeneity.

Also caste system was never a rigid system. Most Indian kings were traditionally low caste. Be it the Mauryas, Guptas, Nandas, Cholas, Pandyas. India is a nation run for the most part by low caste people. True in 300BCE. True in 2016 AD.

Caste was a system designed to prevent mixing between light-skinned conquerors and their dark-skinned subjects.

It was not entirely successful.

That's just wrong.

Your idea of caste is all wrong.

You are mistaking a very very early version of Varna (say 1700BCE) with Caste (Jati). The two have little to do with each other.

There are any number of very fair skinnned untouchables and dark skinned brahmins

"Plus, the British Empire drained wealth away from Asia and into Europe"

Not true. For most of the British Raj (by Raj I mean the 90 year period from 1857 to 1947 and not EIC), there was a net flow of capital from the UK to India. Not from India to UK. (Ferguson, Empire)

An important point missing in this article is the devastating impact of famines under British rule which were much worse than in previous times due to negligence of the government.

Would you need to also take into account possible *additional* performance in Britain proper by virtue of the wealth it was extracting from India? Maybe economic progress wasn't lost so much as it was shifted from one place to another.

One certainly hopes so - that was the whole point of the enterprise, after all.

See South Africa and gold mining, or Spain and plundering the New World. In neither case did anyone involved in reaping the benefits care the slightest about the people doing the labor.

And let's not forget the far more recent example of the Nazi's plundering Poland and France.

"In neither case did anyone involved in reaping the benefits care the slightest about the people doing the labor."

Yes, this is true.

Don't be too sure the British extracted anything from India, on net. There's an old literature in economics on this from the 1980s or so. I might be wrong, but as I recall, the British got very little from India or put more in than they got out, overall. The East India Company was a for-profit venture, but most of British expenditure and trade alike were after 1857, not before. Moreover, did the East India Company pay for fighting the French? Think about the political economy of it. India was a prestige possession, a first sign it might not be profitable in economic terms. Also, many British companies made a lot of money out of India, creating powerful special interests, a second sign that India might have been unprofitable for the British taxpayer.

Quite possibly true. Was just pointing out that when evaluating the effects of colonialism in India in terms of its effect on economic progress, it could have been "bad for India" while still being net neutral for the world as a whole. Though, if the research you reference is accurate then that seems not to be the case.

Maybe you can twist all of those back to neutral, but the data make it surprisingly hard to make a case for British rule in India.

You think the Indian political order grew out of the soil unbidden?

India, or "Indias" has had a political order (and law) for millenia. The British Empire did not introduce law a political order; it merely modified it. And in my opinion and observations (born and raised Indian), not in good ways.

Yeah, those Muslim kings and Rajas had all the good ideas about political order. That's how they had strong and stable systems that ended up colonizing the British? That's how it went down right? No?

When I saw the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about the obvious and true reason why British colonial rule left India with a deathly economic legacy: a ruling class educated to be Labor Party socialists.

One effect of British rule was what has been discussed above: peace everywhere, and good government in the few places that the British ruled directly. The obvious comparison is with China, which in 1947 was not in as good shape as India. (Or, take 1930, if you want to exclude the Japan effect.) The first effect of independence was for a few hundred thousand people to be killed in localized civil war. After that, India, like Britain itself, was mismanaged by socialists and quasi-socialists (the Conservative Party in Britain, which wasn't much better than Labor on economics) who liked central planning and made being a bureaucrat the goal of every educated Indian. Eventually India rid itself of this plague, starting with the South, which was further from Delhi. At that point growth took off. I don't know about Pakistan and Bangla Desh and Ceylon, but note that the British kept Islam and Buddhism in check, unlike the regimes after independence.

Yes, this too. Somehow America got the common law doctrine and the enlightenment liberalism, and India wound up with socialism and centralized bureaucracies. What the hell happened there?

American, through sheer luck, had a bold and well educated upper class with a firm foundation in radical Republican ideals and not much in the way of an existing heritable power structure (ie nobility, class structure). They seized on the momentary opportunity to create a governmental structure that would entrench those ideals.

Yeah, the fact that the British East India Company basically worked in cooperation with the local Mughal rulers for 100 years , even before the British Raj, meant that the pre-existing aristocracy was largely preserved.

As stated above, the U.S. split and got 1800 British ideals, while India got 1940s British ideals at the height of the world-wide socialist political fad.

As an aside, I'm really enjoying these posts on India. I have a bunch of folks I work with there and am traveling there in July, so looking forward to more. :)

Thank Vishnu the British kept the Brutal Buddhists down for as long as they did.

Without scanning the entire list of replies thus far: it would do to pair this analysis with analysis of just what and how much wealth Britain itself derived from its centuries-long colonial rule of India, no? You certainly wouldn't think Britain LOST money on the enterprise: available wealth was captured and transferred from one set of coffers to another, and the task of explaining those mechanisms surely continues to be undertaken by economic historians (but which ones?).

Yeah, it was a lot less lucrative than most people think.

Even disregarding the costs of fighting the American Revolution I would say the American colonies was a bet money loser for the English treasury.

But the prospect of the French controlling the Americas was threatening enough that England decided it was worth it.

The only way to make a killing in colonies was to discover tons of gold like the Spainiah did or to get to privatize the gains and socialize the losses like Leopold did.

You might be right. There's some real wealth in tobacco and sugar, but the early English colonies had little of either. Later on, the English colonies in the Caribbean are clearly fiscal-positive, but early efforts in Virginia or, God help you, Newfoundland? Puhh! Maybe if you had the fur trade up the St Lawrence...wait, the French got that.

OK, that does it. War.

Ironically Spain is ruined by it's vast wealth; the gold flowing into an autocratic and religious state that squanders it on an endless succession of palaces and religious wars..

Indian's per capita GDP was nearly equal to Thailand's in 1940.

The gravest economic sin Britain committed against India was to educate her future ruling class at Oxford and Cambridge.

To be fair, we also educated OUR post-WWII ruling class at Oxford and Cambridge too.

The one's who weren't statist, declinist, economic incompetents mostly turned out to be communist traitors or fellow-sympathisers. I guess we were lucky not to have the odd cannibal as Prime Minister.

Maddison’s figures for 1950 put Thailand and South Korea ahead of India - but not by a massive margin.

George Friedman has a theory that, after WW2, countries at the crucial boundaries of the East-West Cold War tended to do well, provided they weren’t active “hot” war zones. The State Department wanted to make sure everyone could see that West Germany looked a lot better than East Germany, and South Korea a lot better than North Korea. Maybe Thailand and Singapore benefitted from the Domino Theory in a similar way.

India wasn’t part of that.

It's hard to make a case if your goal is development.

If your goal is to make sure other nations occupy their proper place in the world, I think the British did a pretty good job.

Certainly the British did do some good things in India, such as building railroads. However, a point in favor of Tyler's argument not yet made by anybody is that the part of India where the British Raj rule was the strongest is now the poorest part of the country, the Northeast with such states as Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal. These were the areas where the British supported a very oppressive and corrupt landlord class whose power still persists in those areas and helps hold them back from development

This point is implicit in some posts above, noting role of land reform in helping South India do well and also more generally that the states ruled the least by the British tended to do better. They were especially doing better than those poor northeastern ones where the Raj was at its strongest.

" is that the part of India where the British Raj rule was the strongest is now the poorest part of the country, the Northeast with such states as Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal."

Yes, that doesn't seem to be true. I think you are grasping at straws here.

Here is a map of British rule (red is British Raj, yellow is semi-independent principalities 'princely states'):

Here's is a map of current Indian income by state:

There doesn't appear to be any obvious correlation.

The south and north (or Bengal westwards) were conquered and administered by two distinct British (or EIC) power centers. The latter was organized using the so-called "permanent settlement" scheme, which gave petty landlords (who would suck up to power) too much power and peasants nothing. The former was organized along the "ryotwari" scheme, which started off by dispossessing many landlords of their lands and making peasants directly liable for tax purposes to the administration. This may be the beginning of divergent fortunes of these two regions of India, though if so, it took a long time to manifest. Bengal and surrounding areas had a lot of industrial strength in the first half of the 20th century, while the south remained a backwater until Independence.

As for native-ruled states, some rules tended to be enlightened (or enlightened enough to appoint progressive prime ministers who did all the administration) and others tended to be useless playboys. So you'll not be able to find any clues about India's current economic picture just by looking at a map.

As a general rule if people take dumps in the street in country X that's all you really need to know about country X.

In economic terms, there was little difference between south and north for much of Indian history.

But South has been culturally in the ascendant for atleast a thousand years now. And that matters a lot. Cultural capital is one reason why South is better positioned today to grow, as compared to several northern states.

Northern India is a badly wounded civilization. The scars are deep. And it has had a debilitating impact on the IQ of the people.

It's strange because the light-skinned northerners somehow manage look down on the dark-skinned southerners while they squat to defecate into the holy Ganges.

Your comments are unfunny.

The South is every bit as Indo Aryan and Hindu as the North. In fact I'd argue it is more Hindu than the north

West Bengal is doing better than I thought, even with Kolkata being a famously poor city. But indeed Bihar is the poorest state, and the issue is not where the Raj was but the type and intensity of it. In the northeastern areas the zamindari landlords were put in place by the British, with that system still persistiing in Bihar.

Bombay/Mumbai became a possession of the English crown in 1661. It's India's richest city.

Roosevelt, at a White House lunch, placed Churchill next to the publisher and ardent campaigner for India’s independence, Mrs Ogden Reid, and sat back awaiting the inevitable explosion.

[Mrs. Ogden Reid: “What are you going to do about those wretched Indians?”]

Churchill: “Before we proceed further let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians in India, who have multiplied alarmingly under the benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America who, I understand, are almost extinct?” —1943

The mere fact that this issue can be debated is a tribute to how unique British colonial rule was, normally the purpose of ruling over subject people is to exploit them, not to be a social improvement project. Of course the rule of the British was insulting to the subjugated people, how could it not be. But it doesn't seem to have been cruel or malicious and generally speaking it was not incompetent in keeping the peace. The huge increase in population in that period suggests a Malthusian response to any growth, which doesn't seem to have changed much since independence.

How bad was British colonialism for India?

The only correct answer is "Relative to what?" They might have been better off under self-rule, depending on how seriously the rulers took their rajadharma... but if the British hadn't taken over what would have stopped the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the Japanese, or anyone else who managed to industrialize their way to massive military advantage in this alternative reality? And if they'd never met Westerners at all they'd be far worse off (unless you think they were going to have the Industrial Revolution on their own, or that people are better off without it).

A single example is totally worthless. Singapore and Hong Kong were British colonies and are now richer than the UK. Hurray for Thailand, they managed to play off the Western powers against each other and (barely) maintain self-rule, but South Korea has rarely been free of foreign troops and is significantly wealthier.

All civilizations were pretty awful in the early industrial days, and nearly all of them did really awful things whenever the opportunity arose -- which is really easy for us to point out from our warm, comfortable post-industrial cornucopia of peace, plenty and general non-exploitation of fellow humans. There's a reason the conquistadors (who were awful) immediately found lots of local tribes willing to help them fight the dominant South American civilizations (who were unspeakably awful). America fought an absurd, ugly occupation in the Philippines with people it had no interest in ruling, merely to prevent them being ruled by other people, and were mocked by Kipling for the ridiculousness of all this.

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