An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India

Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations, bestselling author, Indian politician and current member of the Indian parliament has written a powerful brief against the British in An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (also published as Inglorious Empire). It’s an enjoyable read but some of the economic history is wrong and a number of the social arguments implausible.

I offer no defense of the British empire which was cruel, rapacious and racist but I do correct the record in my long-form review at the Indian journal Pragati.

Here is one bit:

Hindu and Muslim divisions run deeper than the ink marks of colonial census takers. Emperor Aurangzeb killed his brother Dara Shikoh for apostasy in 1659 and the echoes of that fratricide travel down the centuries to Partition. Aurangzeb’s tax on non-Muslims, the jizya tax, abolished in the 16th century by his great-grandfather, the third Mughal emperor Akbar, but re-imposed a hundred years later is another sign of deteriorating interreligious relations. Even some events outside of India, such as the rise of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam in the 19th century, were clearly more important for Hindu-Muslim relations than were the census takers (Allen 2005, Dalrymple 2008). The rise of Wahhabism and the decline of Sufism were bound to upset Hindu-Muslim relations no matter what the British did. 

Read the whole thing.


Yet, the British and their American successors keep backing Wahabism till this day. The latest shopping mart victim in Hamburg says thank you.

Hamburg is digging its own grave in this respect.

"era of darkness"? I do understand the need/desire to claim victimhood and indeed the British were at the least cloutish in India. But almost everything that brings India into the 20th century (no I don't mean 21st), is thanks to Britain and their effects in India. If anything India should thank them and figure out a way to improve/fix the infrastructure that Britain left them in 1947 and bring themselves into the 21st century. India should celebrate what Britain did (most of it anyway) and not wallow in blaming and looking backwards.

This is a nonsensical trope. Britain and India emerged into the 20th century together. It's not like Britain was some enlightened wonderland when it first started its rule in India, nor was India a savage untamed land.

People don't seem to realize how long the British-Indian association is. It begins in the early 1600s. That was before the English Civil War, for God's sake. Technologically, socially, politically, economically, if anyone told you at the time that Britain was this wonderful country that was ruling India to civilize it, you would have laughed them in their face. Britain itself had a number of deficiencies in its society like India did. Britain evolved during rule of India, not before. And when one country rules another for 200 odd years, it's virtually impossible for some of the progress of the former to percolate into the latter. So no thanks to the British. Any good they did to India was by default, and not by design.

Given all this empire-love here, why don't you guys start by apologizing to Britian for the Boston Tea Party and the subsequent violence? If the Empire was such a wonderful thing, you were chumps to have rebelled against it. Perhaps you should submit a petition to be reunited with the "mother country".

People don’t seem to realize how long the British-Indian association is. It begins in the early 1600s.

Britain, France, and Portugal had some coastal factory colonies. That was it. It was not until the late 18th century that Britain began to acquire territory in India and the process was not complete until about 1850. The French and the Portuguese never had more than coastal settlements.

RE: And when one country rules another for 200 odd years, it’s virtually impossible for some of the progress of the former to percolate into the latter.
I must read this wrong, I would think the opposite.

Sorry, I meant to say "not to percolate". You are correct.

Nice article, Tharoor is an ignorant fool but sadly has a receptive audience.

Although when I am king, all adjectives will be made transitive -- phrases like "the British empire which was cruel, rapacious and racist" will be illegal without explicit mention of what comparison is being made.

Tharoor isn't a fool he is a politician with aspirations to high office. Like all Nehruvians he is a product of the very empire he is bashing but that won't fly in post-Modi Bharat so he has to rattle the saber for the little people before heading back to the club for cocktails.

This is true, I spoke in haste. He's plenty smart and is probably playing the correct cards for what he wants. Since he lacks a chai-wallah backstory he has to get street cred somewhere else. (Maybe he even believes all this, easier to stay in character.)

But as someone to try to learn history from... well, in fact, there is no way to learn it without getting tangled up in the present. And the wounded pride he speaks to is one facet you're going to have to spend a lot of time around, if you want to read this area.

phrases like “the British empire which was cruel, rapacious and racist” will be illegal without explicit mention of what comparison is being made

So, by your logic, no one can be rapacious, cruel, or racist as long as there exists someone else that is more rapacious, cruel, and racist than they are?

No you don't have to be off the scale of a standard. You can be less racist than pre civil war south and more racist than South Africa apartheid.

"no one can be rapacious, cruel, or racist as long as..."

No, rather, everyone is a little bit of all these things. You've never been cruel? You are quite sure you would score zero on every possible definition of racism? And even if you're a saint, an entire government of saints has certainly never existed.

So my point is that these are always comparative terms. And the comparison is often, implicitly, to some utopia, and then conveys no information. It's just an insult.

(To be fair, in Alex's piece this is a rhetorical move, and he later explicitly makes relevant comparisons.) (And reading your sentence again, I'm confused -- clearly nobody can be _the tallest_ person if there exists someone taller, this does not prevent the 2nd-tallest from being tall. My rule is only that you ought to specify that you mean tall compared to average humans -- or average swimmers or average fighter pilots or what?)

Comparison cruelty or racism to height is absolutely brain-dead. Congratulations, you've talked yourself out of this conversation.

That's a strong argument there. One personal insult. One claim that your feeling of disgust excuses you from the rules of grammar.

Cruelest: among some set

Crueler: comparison between two

Cruel alone: implicitly comparative, to zero or to some unstated standard. Often dishonest.

This is one of the most important battles in the war of ideas in contemporary western society. Whether the transitive property exists.

That's not a sarcastic statement. We are entering an era where the puritans have been reborn as social justice puritans. Same families, surprise surprise. Context is irrelevant. Amount of harm is irrelevant. Consequences are irrelevant. Anubis is not weighing against the feather. This is cultural revolution style adherence to dogma or be destroyed levels of stupidity.

They'll win. My advice is the same as my friends' stories from the USSR, china, Vietnam and Cambodia. Do not speak your mind except in private with trusted friends. Assume everyone will rat you out to the Stasi.

Hint: not everything revolves around your domestic politics. People like me couldn't care less what your SJWs think. We former subjects of imperial rule hate it for objective reasons derived from the study of history as well as experiences passed down by our ancestors, not some stupid post-modern theory dreamed up by leftist academics in Ivy League universities.

Not sure I agree with your overall position, Kris, but this comment was pure gold.

Gandhi, who led the movement for independence from Britain, also led the movement for religious pluralism and tolerance. When Britain granted independence in 1947, India's Muslims demanded a separate Muslim majority homeland and the British accommodated by splitting India between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan. As Muslims and Hindus made their way to their respective homelands, religious violence broke out. When Gandhi, a Hindu, attempted to stop the violence, undertaking several fasts in the effort, he was assassinated by a Hindu who believed Gandhi was being too accommodating to Muslims. Of course, religious violence continues to plague the region, not only between Hindus and Muslims but between Sunni Muslims (especially the Wahhabi branch mentioned by Tabarrok) and Shiite Muslims.

Fun fact:

The earlier proposal was for seats reserved for different electorates, Lebanon style. And Gandhi's first hunger strike was over how many such groups to make: should Dalits be a separate group, or get lumped with the caste Hindus?

Could they be part of a religion from whose temples they were banned? But how else could his dynasty aquire its majority?

"His dynasty"?

The Gandhi political dynasty of India is not related to the world famous Mahatma Gandhi. The political family is named after Nehru's daughter Indira who married a man named Feroze Gandhi who was unrelated to the famous Gandhi. Thus the Gandhi dynasty is often referred to as the Nehru-Ganhdi dynasty because everything links back to Nehru.

Indeed. Not related by blood. But the name was not an accident. And I suppose I mean as much the congress machine as the personal line.

Glad to see alex cites Ambedkar, who deserves a much taller pedestal. He's worth reading too.

As another commenter points out, America and Britain continue to favor Sunni (Wahhabi) Muslims in the continuing religious conflict in the region. The explanation usually given is that the potential violence of Shiite Muslims, in particular Shiite Iran, is far worse than the actual violence of Sunni Muslims (the Sunni Muslim attack on America on 9/11, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers, the unspeakable violence being perpetrated by extremist Sunni Muslims, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria). The simpler explanation is that America and Britain are dependent on Sunni Muslim oil (in particular, from Saudi Arabia, the center of the Wahhabi branch). President Obama's policy was to be less partial. Trump's policy is to double down on Sunni (Wahhabi) favoritism.

Rayward, the US does still import oil but it is out of convenience. We are not dependent on anyone's oil and Trump knows that. He is selling oil from the strategic reserve, talks about energy dominance, has the former CEO of Exxon as his Secretary of State, Former Texas governor as his energy secretary etc. Whatever other faults it has, this administration knows oil.

"Whatever other faults it has, this administration knows oil."
As the Bush dinasty, they know how to make money for themselves out of oil, even if it means selling Americans out to Saudi Arabia.

How much did the Bush dynasty make off the oil? I read they did but never an amount or substantiation.

'We are not dependent on anyone’s oil'

Please, at least do some reading first - 'The United States produces a large share of the petroleum it consumes, but it still relies on imports to help meet demand

In 2016, the United States produced1 about 14.6 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of petroleum, and it consumed about 19.6 MMb/d of petroleum. Imports help to supply the demand for petroleum.

Petroleum includes more than just crude oil

Petroleum includes more products than just crude oil. Petroleum includes refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, unfinished oils, and other liquids such as fuel ethanol, blending components for gasoline, and other refinery inputs.

In 2016, the United States imported about 10.1 MMb/d of petroleum, which included 7.9 MMb/d of crude oil and 2.2 MMb/d of noncrude petroleum liquids and refined petroleum products.

U.S. reliance on petroleum imports has declined in recent years

U.S. petroleum imports peaked in 2005 and generally declined up until 2015. This trend was the result of many factors, including a decline in consumption, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol in gasoline and biodiesel in diesel fuel), and increased domestic production of crude oil and hydrocarbon gas liquids. The economic downturn following the financial crisis of 2008, improvements in vehicle fuel economy, and changes in consumer behavior contributed to the decline in U.S. petroleum consumption. Imports increased in 2015 and 2016 along with consumption.

The net imports (imports minus exports) of petroleum relative to petroleum consumption is one measure of our reliance on imports to help meet petroleum demand. Net imports of petroleum averaged 4.9 MMb/d, the equivalent of 25% of total U.S. petroleum consumption in 2016, up slightly from 24% in 2015, which was the lowest level since 1970.'

And notice how cleverly the definition of petroleum has been expanded - the U.S. produced around 9.3mbd of crude in July 2017, and imported about 17.1 mbd - Of course this is a complex picture, with some of the imported crude being exported as refined product, but basically, the U.S. would have to increase its domestic production by 50% to no longer import crude oil for its own use.

The US can be self-sufficient in oil production if necessary therefore it isn't dependent on anyone else's oil.

If it can increase domestic crude (and/or condensate) production by about 50%. Of course, if the U.S. was to use less oil, the amount of increase in required domestic production would be less.

The idea that the U.S. is likely to be independent of oil imports in the next five years is essentially physically impossible if relying on increased domestic production only. Till now, the U.S. has yet to return to the total of its highest year of domestic oil production, which was 1970.

> America and Britain are dependent on Sunni Muslim oil

As Barack Obama would say, the 1990s called, and wants its outdated falsehoods back.

And the EIA would love it if you could actually inform yourself about America's petroleum imports - 'In 2016, the United States imported approximately 10.1 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of petroleum from about 70 countries. Petroleum includes crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, liquefied refinery gases, refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel, and biofuels including ethanol and biodiesel. About 78% of gross petroleum imports were crude oil.

In 2016, the United States exported about 5.2 MMb/d of petroleum to 101 countries. Most of the exports were petroleum products. The resulting net imports (imports minus exports) of petroleum were about 4.9 MMb/d.

The top five source countries of U.S. petroleum imports in 2016 were Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Colombia.'

Imports from KSA are equal to 1/9 of America's total crude production. (Nobody in KSA considers bioethanol petroleum, by the way.)

rayward, the blitheringly obvious reason we support the Saudi regime is because whenever a regime in that part of the world falls, what ensues is chaos (Lebanon, Iraq, Libya), violent extremism (Iran, Egypt), or both (Syria). It's easy to throw stones when you're not called upon to articulate an alternative.

Saudis attacked America on 9/11 (15 of the 19 were Saudis), the attack planned and carried out by Al-Qaeda (which was funded by Saudis), Saudis funded the insurgents in Iraq who killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers, and Saudis fund the Sunni extremists, including ISIS, committing unspeakable acts of violence against Christians and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria. So it's blitheringly obvious we should continue to support the Saudis so the authoritarian government in Saudi Arabia doesn't fail, the government that continues to do nothing about the Saudis who are funding the conflagration in the region?

'the blitheringly obvious reason we support the Saudi regime'

Can be summed up in one line from the EIA - 'Saudi Arabia has 16% of the world's proved oil reserves, is the largest exporter of total petroleum liquids in the world, and maintains the world's largest crude oil production capacity.'

Maybe you are unfamiliar with the term 'swing producer'? After all, it has been more than a generation since Texas Railroad Commission played that role - 'A company or country that changes its crude oil output to meet fluctuations in market demand. Saudi Arabia is seen as the world’s major swing producer, as it deliberately limits its crude oil production in an attempt to keep supply and demand roughly in balance.'

A bit of American history - 'The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC; also sometimes called the Texas Railroad Commission, TRC) is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) industry, and surface coal and uranium mining. Despite its name, it no longer regulates railroads.

Established by the Texas Legislature in 1891, it is the state's oldest regulatory agency and began as part of the Efficiency Movement of the Progressive Era. From the 1930s to the 1960s it largely set world oil prices, but was displaced by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) after 1973.'

We support the Wahhabi regime in Riyadh because of a faustian bargain Nixon made with King Faisal:

So that is why the USA attacked Iraq and tries to undermine Iran: neither of those are in the Middle East... Maybe they are Cuba's neighbours after all. Seriously, Saudi apologists are getting weirder by the second.

You're unclear on what region we're talking about, huh?

We support Sunni over shia in the region because the shia are a very small minority and politically irrelevant.

The Iranians beg to differ.

Another person too stupid to know what region we're talking about. It's South Asia, PA. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh.

I offer no defense of the British empire which was cruel, rapacious and racist

Compared to whom? And with what result? Would you ever bother to compare the parts of this world once ruled by the British to the parts never ruled by the British?

Just wierd. What is your point? Racism is bad, whether your more or less. Ditto with the other descriptors. If you simply deny the charges.... fine (though stupid) . If you dont then....?

Sure it's bad. It was also a global norm when Britain ruled India. The caste system, while not predicated on race, seems to be about as vile, and still going strong... in an independent India.

It might have originated partly from race; I suppose the ancient DNA people might cast more light on caste.

The one truly vile aspect of the caste system was treating some castes as untouchables. But that's been pretty much gone for a while now, and has been constitutionally illegal in India since Independence. The rest of the caste system simply functions as a collection of endogamous guilds. Not great for national cohesion, but hardly a moral blot. Most countries around the world have similar internal groupings. The college-educated city-living group in the US is as (or more) distant from the rural gun-loving Evangelical set as two caste groups in India, where most castes are on similar economic and political footing today.

RE: distant from the rural gun-loving Evangelical set
LOL I would say that is an ill-informed statement and could be deemed very offensive and hate speech. But really I find it funny as I know many 'college-educated' people living in rural areas. Granted, they went to college before the students needed safe spaces to avoid hearing opposing ideas.

I don't give a damn about 'racism'. My interest is in his contention that it was 'cruel' and 'rapacious'. Find me a place in this world in 1885 where hard living was not the norm, because that's how life is when you have to make a living from the land or from mines. Explain to me how the British Raj, sparing with manpower, could be considered 'rapacious' or 'cruel'. Just who was this thin sliver of civil servants and soldiers 'raping'? Does Tabarrok consider the suppression of suttee to be 'cruel'? How did the British Raj compare to actually existing alternatives, not to some fantastical libertarian techno-utopia?

Hint: Rapacious doesn't mean what you think it means

Why does everything have to be a comparison? Can a normative judgment not be passed on the British Raj?

It's in the title, can't have a Marginal Revolution without doing some comparisons...

But more seriously, is a boolean classification a useful way to think? About most things but especially something as complicated as an empire? Both because there are so may dimensions on which to judge, and because each of these can improve or degrade every year by a tiny bit. On what day did exactly did first country ever cross your line from guilty to not-guilty?

Guilty or not guilty? I'm not interested in such debates. I think they are as juvenile as the call for slavery reparations. All of us have something to be guilty about in our lineages.

I just want the record to be set straight, and we can all just move into the future without constantly having one foot in the past. But we can't do that when there are periodic spasms of empire-whitewhashing among Westerners, who are misinformed by biased historians (like Niall Ferguson.) If people wouldn't try to defend empire as a positive good, I'd just shut up. When they do, I have no choice but to point out that empire was indeed rapacious, cruel, and racist, whether by the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Turks, or whoever. There relative merits and demerits are beside the point, since that's not what apologists try to exhibit: they go too far and try to claim that because the British weren't so bad in a particular situation like the Turks or Portuguese would have been, they must have been "good". The answer is NO.

Ha ha, your second paragraph is very interested in precisely the binary classification that your first one claims not to be interested in.

I repeat that this doesn't seem like a useful way to think about the world, if you wish to understand. It's all shades of grey out there. Certainly the Raj was far from saintly. And if you listen to some Naxalites you will hear how pleased they are at rule from Delhi today. All grey. You have to deal with the shades.

Unless, of course, you aren't after understanding, and just wish to be awarded a "certified victim" badge. (Although once you get one, you will discover that all such holders are engaged in full-time arguments about whose victimhood is bigger... and that there is rampant inflation in their values.)

I don't want a victim badge. I also don't want the British imperialists to get a hero (or saint) badge. That's exactly what I said in my previous comment, though you pretended to misunderstand it.

Nobody but the pope gives out saint badges. And he gave one to mother teresa, so they can't be worth much these days.

But I've sure met a lot of people with victim badges.

(0) Compared to modern standards: Pointless question, I don't care.

(1) Compared to it's own standard: The empire did badly. One aspect of this is repeatedly making treaties that were plain lies. In terms adminstration, the East India Company combined power of local tyrants with incentives of looters. It was less bad when Britain saw itself as providing competent government to India, but Indian interests we still subordinated to British politics: so for example British manufacturers succesffully lobbied to stifle Indian competion.

(2) Compared to other local rulers: Initially worse (as they basically were local rulers, but with even worse incentives and a more ability to enforce their will). Over time they improved. Had Europeans not conqured, the north would have been chaotic as Mughals and Marathas ground each other up. Some of the southern states would have prospered under some modernising ruler or another, kind of like Thailand only less stable because it would have been Muslim kings ruling over mostly Hindu people.

Regarding point (2), the Mughals were basically finished vis-a-vis the Marathas by the mid-1700s, so no, they wouldn't have "ground each other up"; the Marathas de facto ruled most of the Mughal territories in the north by the time of the Panipat war in 1761. And even after, because the Afghans themselves had no love lost for the Mughals. The Mughals collapsed spectacularly after Aurangzeb's death and never recovered. Others (like the Marathas) left them to be figureheads.

In the absence of British rule, the subcontinent would almost certainly not exist in its current configuration. There is no reason to assume that they would be worse condition than they are now.

Tharoor wrote an essay on the history of cricket in Pakistan that was so blinkered and dishonest it put me off reading anything else by him. A much better recent book on the British Raj is The Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson, an actual historian.

And yet, the essence of what Tharoor is saying seems identical to what Wilson says. (Disclaimer: I haven't read Tharood, but I have seen him talk about his book on YouTube, whereas I've actually read Wilson's book.)

Mea culpa. After defeating the Spanish in the Spanish American War and driving the Spanish from its colony in the Philippines, America refused to grant independence to the Philippines, making the Philippines an American colony instead. Not appreciating the move, the Filipinos chose to fight for independence in what was called the Philippine American War. It lasted roughly three and a half years and, by some Filipino estimates, resulted in almost a million and a half dead Filipinos (the American estimate is about 240,000 dead Filipinos). Atrocities were committed on both sides. America's excuse for denying independence? "Americans altruistically went to war with Spain to liberate Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos from their tyrannical yoke. If they lingered on too long in the Philippines, it was to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for an American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy." Very little good results from subjugation of another country.

The British were so awful that all the places they once oppressed are more stable and prosperous than neighboring lands who escaped the scone-eaters' yoke. Funny, that.

"I hate the Romans. What have the Romans ever done for us??"

Thailand escaped the clutches of British rule, yet is more prosperous than any of the countries that descended from the former British Raj.

And given that all the empire-lovers on this forum seem keen on bringing up comparisons, here's one: India had 25% of world GDP share in the mid-1700s. That share dropped to 3% around 1900, at the high noon of the Raj. Go figure!

That's explained in ATs review.

Also see Iran. Never colonized (couple Northern provinces were under Russian rule at one time). We may not "like" Iran's government or foreign policy, but it's not a basket case.

Also see Iran. Never colonized (couple Northern provinces were under Russian rule at one time). We may not “like” Iran’s government or foreign policy, but it’s not a basket case

Never colonized, but bizarrely revanchist. Iran underwent a paroxysm of sanguinary madness from 1978 to 1989 from which it has yet to fully recover.

India's per capita income has since 1990 been growing much more rapidly than Iran's. If past is prologue, they'll surpass Iran in about 35 years (and the non-oil sectors about 10 years earlier).

That was due to the Industrial Revolution vastly boosting European productivity. Even now the Indian sub-continent is not much of a doctor in global manufacturing.

*player in global manufacturing

Agreed that the Industrial revolution means the fraction-of-GDP figure is meaningless. But it is interesting to look at record in bringing the industrial revolution to India, which is probably an overal positive, but mixed.

Obviously the Empire physically brought in a whole lot of know-how and the gear it knows about. It also created international economic links that could exploit such know-how. But when Indian manufacturers became a competitive threat, British rule meant that they could be stifled.

The British Raj was run first and foremost, to benefit the British. But all my previous reading on the subject indicates if manufacturing was limited in India it was more because Indian workers at the time were not productive enough to compete globally with British factory workers who themselves were competing in a global market with European and American rivals.

The link below may be worth a read, page 172 onwards.

Not sure there's a whole lot of evidence of "stifling"! In which sectors, when, etc.?

Problems of British Empire were low levels of primary education, low levels of agricultural productivity. British:Indian GDP/capita not divergent just because of Industrial Revolution but long before that because of low agricultural productivity - this is a major aspect of Tabarrok's review.

>"Even at the peak of Mughal wealth in 1600, the best estimates of economic historians suggest that GDP per capita was 61% higher in Great Britain. By 1750–before the battle of Plassey and the British takeover–GDP per capita in Great Britain was more than twice what it was in India (Broadberry, Custodis, and Gupta 2015). The Great Divergence has long roots.")

Where and when are the competitive manufacturers coming from? When were they "stifled"?

"Thailand escaped the clutches of British rule, yet is more prosperous than any of the countries that descended from the former British Raj." But nowhere near as prosperous as Hong Kong or Singapore.

Hong Kong and Singapore are cities.

Are you claiming that Singapore is not a country?

Malaysia's more affluent than Thailand as well.

Having a population stock of ethnic Chinese has probably been a little more important in their success. As it was for Taiwan and Macau who were never part of the British empire.


In mean IQ, yes.

You don't even need to go to Singapore or Hong Kong. Even Malaysia is sufficient.

And given that all the empire-lovers on this forum seem keen on bringing up comparisons, here’s one: India had 25% of world GDP share in the mid-1700s. That share dropped to 3% around 1900, at the high noon of the Raj. Go figure!

And you acquired that datum where?

Angus Maddison offers no estimate of per capita income for India in 1750 or for any extra-European country other than Japan.

The Census Bureau reports the median of a raft of estimates of global population in 1750 is 770 million. Populstats lists an estimate of 155 million for India within its latter day boundaries, or encompassing 20% of global population. A raft of estimates for 1900 suggests a global population of 1.65 billion in 1900, with Populstats reporting estimates for India at 270 million, or 16.4% of the total. Maddison also reports that industrialising Britain increased it's per capita output by 2.65x between 1750 and 1900. Well, 16.4 / 2.65 = 6, so we posit that the world at large is increasing its output per capita at British rates while India's per capita income is cut in half?

Indian territories were incorporated into the British Empire piecemeal over the period running from 1775 to 1850, some ruled directly, some ruled by native princes as British clients. Maddison's estimate of per capita income for India in 1870 places it at $533 (in 1990 currency units), very similar to China, Thailand, and VietNam, which had never been dependencies of any European power at that point. Nor do Maddison's data covering the period running from 1870 to 1950 report a decline in Indian living standards over that period of time.

Hey next time you feel like dropping a truth bomb, actually bother to read the article you're commenting on, ok? 1) India's GDP share went down not because of the Raj, but because something important happened between the 1700s and 1900 in technology and the world economy, in which Great Britain was a pioneer. Care to guess what it is? Starts with an I and ends with Revolution. 2) As the article that you didn't read points out, Britain's GDP per capita was higher than India by the time of the Industrial Revolution and even centuries before that. What does this do to your nationalist fantasies?

I'm well aware of all the facts you mention but they were not pertinent to the point I was making.

In the given period, Britain ruled both itself and India. The former was enriched through the Industrial Revolution, the latter stagnated and became impoverished. What is that other than an indictment of British rule?

India before and after British rule was largely a society of peasants. It's just that the peasants were considerably poorer at the end of it than at the beginning. What does that do for your imperial fantasies?

If you read Jon Wilson's book, you'll understand how much Britain came to be in control of the macroeconomy of the subcontinent, and therefore macroeconomic changes in India can be plausibly claimed to be their responsibility. Yet people like you would paint British prosperity during the period as rooted in British virtues (for engendering the Industrial Revolution in the first place, which was indeed a great achievement) and Indian stagnation as the result purely of Indians' shortcomings.

the latter stagnated and became impoverished.

It was already impoverished, Kris, just like everywhere else in the world.

Is anyone else annoyed when people cite GDP figures from hundreds of years ago? GDP wasn't even a thing until the 20th century!

Stanley Engerman, Angus Maddison and others have developed means of reconstructing historical GDP from available data.

I understand the annoyance, but what else can you do?

Assume equal productivity everywhere? Just take the kind of bien-pensant thing that fashionably non-Western nation X was obviously enormously productive per capita, based on the evidence of their marvellous Kohinoor diamonds and such?

You need to make some kind of effort at estimating pre-20th century productivity. To do otherwise has consequences. Politically it lays the way for opportunists such as Tharoor and his lesser imitators, and economically, it means you have no real understanding - at all - of why productivity increases and growth happened before the 20th century.


Informative. Nice review, Alex.

An "Era of Darkness" is a comically inapt title in at least one respect. It was British scholars who managed to sort out a useful amount about Indian history. They were rather surprised to have discovered that Indians didn't write history so they plugged the gap. In that sense it was an Era of Illumination.

When I was a boy I used to wonder at the credit given to the Greeks for inventing the writing of history; I suppose the Indian non-example makes the point rather well.

Indians wrote history, but in their languages, which the British couldn't be bothered to study (except for some linguists like William Jones.)

The British did do a good job of putting together a narrative of Indian history, but where on earth do you think they got the pieces from if not Indian sources?

The Indians didn't write their history. The British compiled a fragmentary historical record and wove it into a grand narrative but there are huge gaps (like most of the 1st millennium) in the historical record.

It is a trivial matter for an educated Westerner to summarize the history of post Roman Europe. An Indian would not be able to do the same for India.

Yes to this.

Writing in the vernacular wasn't such an old idea in Europe, let's not forget. Luther is only twice as far from us as Robert Clive. In Bengal this started after the English arrived, and touched off a genuinely productive literary century. A genuinely hybrid culture.

And if you wish to bash someone for not learning the language, bash the Portuguese, who were there for centuries and preferred to send the inquisition to stamp out the heathens. Among the English were a number of people who knew Latin & Greek and were fascinated by Sanskrit, and spent a lot of effort tracking down manuscripts and copying & translating them. Proper enlightenment men.

"in their languages, which the British couldn’t be bothered to study": what complete rubbish. Do you aways invent facts to suit yourself?

"Indians don't write history" is as much rubbish as my generalization. And you didn't answer my question: where did the British get the "pieces" to piece-together the history other than from Indian sources? Here and there, some facts could be corroborated with Persian, Arabic, or Greek source, but what was the original provenance of the so-called facts that currently make up the narrative of Indian history? What languages were those facts written (or said) in? Or are you saying the British invented the facts themselves?

Archaeology was one area where the British did make a novel contribution in India, but then similar archaeological excavation were yielding new insights in supposedly more enlightened parts of the world (like Europe) around the same time where people apparently knew their own history very well (unlike the barbarian Indians.)

Equally, if they did translate from Indian sources, then they clearly "could be bothered" to study them, and in fact further, studied them in such a way as to consolidate them and spread them in a university system which they constructed (though they did neglect primary education, but nothing atypical compared to previous rulers, or princely states).

So you're kind of stomping all over your own point here? Or you just made up the original point, and then you made up another counter point afterwards, not being too concerned with whether both of your points were consistent with each other at all?

It seems to be a clumsy play on VS Naipaul's "An Area of Darkness".
(As I see Skeptic mentions below).

It seems that people are suggesting that this might not be the *best* book on the topic. What would people suggest someone with an interest in the topic read instead?

An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul

There are no "best" books. All writing on India since the 1700s that has been exposed to the West has been through a British lens. Some British writers could be quite fair, even-handed, and incisive, others could be biased and often viciously bigoted. A lot of British in the 1700s and 1800s came to India purely to make money (through the monopolistic rule of the East India Company), and since they had no love for the land and its people, they ensconced themselves in private dwellings and spent their time writing s*** about the natives. A lot of history of that period is drawn from such sources. Now, Indian sources exists from those periods, who had remarkably different takes on the issues, but they were usually ignored by British writers and historians.

To this day, there is no one authoritative version of the history of the British Raj. Tharoor, as many commenters here have indicated, is himself very biased (in the opposite way), and seems to have included a number of salacious rumors in his book, though I agree with its general thesis (that the British period was a dark age for India.)

With respect, I think you can now be safely ignored.

Naipaul's book doesn't deal with History . Although an excellent book , it basically his story ( of travel in India).

Although I haven't read them try:
"The men who ruled India" by Philip Mason
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
A History of India, Part 2-(Penguin) Percival Spear

Read your critique of Tharoor's assertions in Pragati. I am Indian myself and I agree with your third point. We cannot blame the British much for our religious divisions, those are a product of history from long before. However, your second point - that India may not have been better off without the British - is quite wrong. Yes, it is true that Indian society was highly unequal prior to the British arrival, and in many ways was falling apart due to high taxation and low investment in productivity. But, eventually, after historical convulsions, India would have imported the industrial revolution from Britain and the West in the normal course. There is no reason to believe that India would have ignored mechanization for the two hundred years it was forced to under British rule. We would probably have still been behind Britain - first mover advantage is important - but still better off. The worst part of the British Raj (as per what is relevant now) was that it did not give India a chance to participate in the Industrial Revolution for two hundred years.

Except that rather a lot of the big acts of the Industrial Revolution were on stage quite a while before 1947. For example, quoting wikipedia:

"First cotton mill to be established in Bombay, India on 7 July 1854 at Tardeo by Cowasjee Nanabhoy Davar " ... "textile industry flourished until the early 1980s."

Tata steel "established by Dorabji Tata on 26 August 1907" and "by 1939 it operated the largest steel plant in the British Empire."

And on the theme of comparisons, I'd also like to know what "in the normal course" means. Presumably not a comparison to the way industrialisation arrived in Russia, or China, the nearby superpowers. I hear that was quite unpleasant. Maybe to Japan, their pre-1947 government were a fully homegrown bunch of patriots. Or to England? Manchester was all flowers and workers thrilled at being in the richest country on the planet...

Replace "a lot" by "a cherry-picked few" and your comment will be just fine. Taxes went up several-fold during the British rule, to finance the wars that Britain was fighting in India and elsewhere - up to one-third of the produce, whereas today most if not all farmers in India do not pay any tax. You don't have to believe in the Laffer curve to see that such things severely impede economic development such as the adoption of industrial revolution.

My "cherry-picked few" are the standard big markers, textiles and then steel. What would you have chosen? (I'm pleased that nobody has mentioned the R-word on this thread, so kept it that way!)

About taxes, I think you're rolling several things together, but actually it's an interesting topic. To focus on one bit, "most if not all farmers in India do not pay any tax" indeed -- they are subsidised by tax collected in Mumbai, to buy their votes. The same is true elsewhere -- isn't half the EU budget spent on farm subsidies, CAF?

And this is a massive historical reversal, because from time immemorial taxing the peasants to build palaces (and armies) was the entire point of being King / Sultan / Pharaoh. This is what the French and English kings were fighting over for centuries. This is what the Mughals were after when they invaded. The more peasants you ruled the richer you could be.

This era stopped, everywhere, within the space of a few decades. Right about the time that European countries gave up their empires.

Which way is the causality here? You can tell the story as being "evil people departed, good patriots stopped taxing the peasants & started subsidising them" but I find this hard to swallow. (Why also in France, then?) The story could also be that "technology made cities sources of wealth, so ruling lots of resentful peasants became a drag".

Maybe this is the difference between Mumbai and Singapore, which were not so different a century ago. But one of them is the golden goose which is squeezed hard to pay farmers. The other one declared independence and spent all its wealth on itself.

The difference between Mumbai and Singapore is that Singapore got to be its own country that could decide what was good for itself regardless of its surrounding areas, whereas Mumbai got to become the waste-yard of its hinterland.

India is ungovernable in its present state and size. We need to go back to (very) decentralized localized governance throughout the country before any meaningful change can start to happen.

India is ungovernable in its present state and size. We need to go back to (very) decentralized localized governance throughout the country before any meaningful change can start to happen.

India has done quite well in the realm of self-government. No other part of the third world has done more with less.


And some of this could have happened, had Delhi been less keen to invade and annex nearby bits of land which it claimed by divine right, sea to shining sea. An independent Republic of Hyderabad? An independent Goa -- this one would surely have happened, barely a decade after the invasion. (These invasions, by the way, would sound awfully Imperial if you didn't know the name of the commander-in-chief in Delhi.)

An independent Bombay Peninsula State is harder to fit into history but more interesting. Ruled like Singapore by a small circle of Parsis? Rich like Hong Kong by now... leading to some griping on the mainland, but also an example of what is possible. We can dream.

Cherry-picked in terms of quantity, not w.r.t. the standardness of the example.

It is well-known that markets are incapable of making farming profitable - this is the case in most parts of the world. That markets can make farming profitable enough to sustain the society is an assumption. But I will concede that the rich Indian farmers should be taxed; the majority should be subsidized yet.

Don't know about the tax numbers but would not be surprised. Though Alex's review does state "In pre-colonial India the rulers, both Mughal and Maratha, extracted anywhere from one-third to one half of all gross agricultural output ", which would be rather plus ca change.

Still, Britain was an advanced constrained fiscal-military state and we know that those taxed at higher ratios of national income than absolutist regimes -, and there are some interesting reasons why that might be the case -

On the other hand, tax is not to be equated with the total extraction by rentiers levied on farmers, or shadow taxes extracted off the books, and there are some reasons to believe that those were pretty high in pre-British India.

Thanks for this comment, M. I need to revisit the tax thing, and could've been wrong on that point (I was quoting from memory).

Exactly; one wonders why one usually has to choose between leftists who say "Hindus and Muslims were all united before the British" (a dishonest attempt to negotiate Hindus into ignoring brutal Islamist excesses) and American imperialism-apologist morons of a typically conservative political leaning who have no clue of how globalized the world already was back then (in particular how much of Indo-British interaction used to exist) before British invasion; the Akbar-queen Elizabeth correspondence, an off-shoot of the Vijayanagara empire granting land to British brothers that now became Chennai etc. To be fair to the latter group, many Indians too depict their ancestors as sword-wielding fiery but technologically challenged people who were defeated by gun-toting British (without knowing, for instance, Indian technological innovations such as Tipu Sultan's Mysorean rockets ).

It is nice though to know that Alex is not in either camp.

And then the idiots who say that the places that British ruled are today more prosperous - don't realize that it was their original prosperity due to the cultivability of land etc. that made the British invade them in the first place.

Excellent article AT, much better than the fake punditry one gets to read by most Indian "intellectuals" on this subject.

Great article - thank you very much for writing this.

Funny fact:

Alex writes an article that, among other things, illustrates how the Hindu-Muslim divide cannot be laid at the feet of the British Raj, which was otherwise not the picture of enlightened rule that empire apologists portray it as.

Many commenters on this forum say thank you for the first part, but "no, you are mistaken" to the second. Those savage Indians should be grateful to the British for bringing civilization to them. And saving India from being ruled by those other people (Portuguese, I guess?) who would have been really rapacious, cruel, and racist, unlike the British.

Given such ingrained attitudes, such articles seem to serve little purpose.

Alex - Pasting the FB discussion here as well

While Mr Tabarrok's piece is very well written and I agree with large parts of it, I think he gets a few points wrong towards the end of the piece -

a) Punishments in "Dharmasutras" / "Dharmasastras" : Olivelle would know better than anyone that Dharmasutras or the Dharmashastras were seldom promulgated or enforced at any point in any region in classical India.

Sure, some of the punishments sound bizarre. But the traditional view is that these "Dharmasastras" were documents addressed at individuals and not the state. The King referred to a different class of texts called "Arthasastras" of which Kautilya's Arthasastra is the most widely cited.

If you read Kautilya's Arthasastras, the penal law appears a LOT more liberal in comparison with say Manu Dharmasastra.

b) Treatment of Dalits : There is little doubt that Dalits have suffered a great deal of atrocities throughout Indian history. But this has greatly varied by region and era. The treatment of the casteless was arguably the worst in the 18th century during the period of Maratha reaction. Also "Dalits" as you are well aware, were never slaves. Slavery hardly existed in a big way in India. Social mobility among Dalits was very low. Yet their continued existence right up to the current time (15% of India's population) shows that ethnic cleansing never happened either.

And Dalits have always featured in Indian history. Some of the greatest saints of South India were Dalits, who are revered even by the brahminical community to this day. (Eg : Thiruppana azhwar - a great Vaishnava saint).

c) Clubbing Dalits with Shudras is wrong : The fourth varna, Shudras, are far far more numerous than the Dalits. In fact, Shudras represent nearly half of Indian population! The so-called "Arya" castes are barely 20% in North India and around 5-10% in South India.

The Indian political class has been largely Shudra for most of Indian history. The Mauryans had Shudra antecedents. So did the Nandas. So did all the great southern kingdoms - be it Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas. India numerically is almost majority-Shudra! And to this day, several Shudra castes (not all) are atleast as dominant both socially and economically as many of the "Arya" castes. Eg : Kayasths of North India, Reddys of South India. Some of the greatest Hindu teachers have been Shudra. Eg : Nammazhwar, a South Indian saint, Vivekananda in more recent times, Shirdi Sai Baba (an early 20th century figure - arguably the most popular saint in India today).

It is just wrong to mention Shudras in the same breath as Dalits. The ill treatment meted out to Dalits was immeasurably greater. WHile the Shudras were ritually considered "low status" , their low ritual status did not necessarily mean low social status.

d) Examples of caste violence in the past such as Rama's killing of Shambaka : Sure, this exists in certain versions of the Ramayana. But then we are discussing 2000 year old texts here. Ancient Greece was no paragon of liberty. Cicero, one of the greatest men who ever lived, was not opposed to slavery :) Also the Shambaka tale features in Uttara-Ramayana - a latter addition to the epic and is hardly big in the popular imagination.

And selective citing from myths is misleading. The same Rama also hesitated in killing Tadaka (on account of her being a woman). The same Rama befriended Nishada (the hunter king - among the lowest castes of his time) - a friendship far far more celebrated in Indian imagination than the relatively less popular Shambaka story. The same Rama also pardoned Ahalya (an adulterous woman) and freed her from her curse.

Ofcourse, Indian society is far from perfect. But then no society is. Sure, the British can't be blamed for the drop in the share of World GDP between 18th and 20th century. That's a stupid assertion by Tharoor. But one doesn't have to counter that by making Indian "society" pecuiarly evil. Which it wasn't. There is no reason to believe that social mobility in India (circa 1000 AD) was massively lower than social mobility in the Continent at the same time (with the possible exception of England).

"what would happen to a Shudra or Dalit who was discovered to be masquerading as a higher caste? "

In fact this has happened throughout Indian history. Atleast among Shudras. All the great Shudra kings have claimed Kshatriya Status over time. Be it the Mauryans, the Cholas, the Cheras. Even the Rajput castes of the present day are surmised to be descendants of the White Hun invasions of the late classical period who "turned" kshatriya, and assimilated into Indian society, as per some historians.

In Southern India, several Jains have turned Brahmin circa 10th -12th century. This is part of the historical record. There is a community of high caste brahmins in Karnataka called "Hebbar Iyengars" who are believed to be Jain converts during the middle ages. This doesn't prevent them from mingling both socially and sexually with other Iyengars - who claim to have been always Brahmin.

Kayasths are another caste regarded as Shudra during the early years of the British Raj, but who stoutly deny this classification and often claim themselves to be part-brahmin and part-kshatriya.

Yadavs, a relatively backward Shudra caste of North India, claim to be descendants of Lord Krishna and claim royal lineage, who just happen to have fallen on bad times :)

One can go on.

Sure, the British can’t be blamed for the drop in the share of World GDP between 18th and 20th century. That’s a stupid assertion by Tharoor.

Why not? The British were running the show after all. And Tharoor's hardly an exception when it comes to making this assertion, though he does embellish his narrative with dubious anecdotes about Company officials cutting the thumbs off of Indian weavers.

The territories the Company first conquered, most notably Bengal but also the Andhra coast, were converted into revenue-generation machines for the Company, regardless of the human and economic cost. As British rule expanded, their influence became progressively less pernicious, and even benevolent (in Punjab.)

So I'm puzzled by your absolving the Britih of any responsibility.

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