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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: An Ara of Darkness : The history of the British empire in India
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British rule in India was a long story of oppression, suffering, loot, and destruction. The British never ruled from the point of view of benefitting Indians. Instead, the British rulers in India had only one goal. That goal was the enrichment of their own parent country. As a result of this, for over two hundred years, Indians suffered under colonialism as the British stripped the country of all its resources and reduced it to a poverty-stricken, famine-affected nation.
But today, many modern Britishers tend to make the argument that the British rule in India was actually beneficial to India and that the British brought many great things to India. Dr. Shashi Tharoor in this book, “The Empire of Darkness” presents a compelling argument that the British rule in India was terribly destructive and almost completely destroyed the country.
He supports his arguments with well-researched facts and figures. This book makes for very interesting and informative reading.
So without further delay, let’s jump into this dark period in Indian history.
The British conquest of India was essentially a conquest of a nation by a corporation. The East India Company was the driving force of this conquest. They did this by economic as well as military methods.
India in the seventeenth century was a hub of industry, crafts, manufacturing, and architecture. India produced exquisite jewelry, splendid textiles, fine metalwork, and beautiful ceramics. She was also a center of shipbuilding and trade. Its share of the world economy at the beginning of the eighteenth century was a staggering 23 percent. The British had to break this economic capacity before they could rule the nation.
The British East India Company arrived in India during a time when there was political instability and anarchy in the country due to the decline of the Mughal empire. Provincial rulers were breaking away and forming their own kingdoms. The British used this to their advantage and started conquering individual provinces by warfare, treachery, extortion, and bribery. This was the military aspect of the conquest. Let’s now look at some of the economic aspects.
To break India economically, the British had to destroy the Indian industry. Let’s look at how they did this by taking the example of the textile industry. Indian textiles were in very high demand throughout the world. East India Company sent soldiers to destroy the looms and even break the thumbs of the weavers.
This was followed by very high duties and tariffs of up to 80 percent on Indian textiles. Britishers also cut off the foreign trade of Indian textiles, essentially destroying the export market for Indian textiles. Because of these policies, India went from being an exporter of finished textiles to being an importer of textiles from Britain.
India was thus a source of cheap raw material and a market of Britain’s textile mills. In essence, India fuelled the industrialization of Britain at the expense of the destruction of her own industries.
Similar approaches were used to break India’s shipping and shipbuilding industries. India had a long coastline and was a major seafaring nation. Indian traders had extensive trade relations in the countries in the Arabian sea as well as in the Bay of Bengal. There were thriving seaports to support this trade and highly advanced shipbuilding industry to fuel the demand for more and more trade ships.
The British destroyed all of this by first granting a monopoly on the trade routes to East India Company ships. Indian traders were barred from their trade zones. On top of that, they imposed such heavy tariffs on all Indian ports that Indian shipping trade essentially ended.
Similar treatment was given to the local shipbuilding industry. British shipbuilders could not compare in terms of quality and cost with the Indian shipbuilders and so they petitioned the British parliament for an outright ban on Indian shipbuilding. On top of that, heavy restrictions were placed on the hiring of Indian sailors as well. All these steps ensured that a once-thriving industry died by the 1850s.
Many people try to justify the British rule in India by saying that the British gave India political unity. They claim that India was a collection of many different individual kingdoms and the British actually united India. This is simply not true. During the course of Indian history, many kingdoms extended their reach across the entire subcontinent.
Indians have always considered themselves as a part of a unifying nation. The Maurya, Guptas, Mughal, Vijayanagara and Maratha confederacy are some examples of kingdoms which unified large parts of the country. Even the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata refer to India as a single entity.
What the British really did in India was to destroy the local political systems completely. In India, villages were self-contained bodies with their own forms of self-administration and governance. The British totally destroyed it. They replaced local leaders with faceless bureaucracies which did not allow the people to even approach the rulers.
The British only were interested in generating revenues and did not try and understand the problems that the people were facing. In fact, there were many local kingdoms which were being administered very well by their rulers but the British destroyed it all. The new revenue systems introduced by the Britishers destroyed the lives of the farmers and forced many of them to become landless peasants.
The situation didn’t improve when the British crown took over from the East India Company. The British imposed a Civil service on India which was only a source of employment for the British educated class. The employees of the Civil service were totally ignorant of the sensitivities and customs of the local people.
Their only task was to ensure that revenues were collected on time and delivered to the treasury. The British attempts to rule in India were just examples of cruelty, inefficiency, racism, and deprivation.
Many people claim that the British introduced the concept of a free press to India. But here also, the British only permitted what they felt comfortable with. Starting from 1780 many newspapers started to be published in India. The East India Company was alarmed that they could not actively control the press and so Lord Wellesley introduced the Censorship of Press Act in 1799 which gave the company control over the press. There was effectively no free press. You could only publish what the East India Company allowed you to publish.
Some of the more aggressive newspapers were closed down and in some cases, the editors were arrested and jailed.
For some time, the British allowed the press limited freedom. The reason was that there was nobody who could challenge the company in India anymore. But by the early twentieth century, the newspapers were beginning to spread the word for the independence movement. The newspapers soon began reaching the interior parts of the country and started spreading nationalist views among the public.
The British were not happy about the rising popularity of the newspapers and promptly started suppressing the press.
They brought in various laws and rules to suppress the local language newspapers as well as the English language ones. Any new newspaper had to pay a huge security deposit of five thousand rupees and if they published anything against the establishment, their press was closed, the deposit was forfeited and the publishers were jailed. The pro-imperialist papers, on the other hand, were free to publish anything they liked.
A policy which caused long term damage to India’s social fabric was the policy of divide and rule adopted by the British. Before the British rulers arrived in the country, India had a social fabric which assimilated people of vastly different castes, languages, religions, and beliefs.
During the rebellion of 1857, people of many different religions and creeds united together and fought against the British. This scared the British and they adopted “Divide and Rule” as a policy. While caste and religious distinctions existed in India, the British used them as reasons to divide the people and make them easier to control and dominate. They propagated the idea of a rigid caste system among the Indian public which was not followed before. Indian society was a far more meritocratic society before.
Now it became more caste-based and rigid. The British also encouraged the divisions between Hindus and Muslims. This led to major divisions in the society which the Indian subcontinent is facing even today.
Due to the British policy of religious divide and rule, the Two-Nation theory came into being in the twentieth century. This theory ultimately led to the partition of the country which was one of the most brutal and tragic episodes in Indian history.
Indians of all religions had lived together and shared many beliefs, customs, and practices. But the British destroyed all of that. The end result of all that was the partition of the country into Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. This painful separation was accompanied by massive bloodshed, rioting, displacement, and suffering.
British policies also led to massive famines in the country. What is even more tragic is that all of these famines were completely preventable. These were a result of bad British policies. Between 30 to 35 million people died of starvation due to the bad economic policies of the British empire. The second half of the nineteenth century alone saw five famines and 15 million deaths. In just ten years between 1891 and 1900, 19 million people died. This was nothing short of a holocaust on an unimaginable scale.
All these famines were happening even though the country was producing sufficient food to feed the population. But the British not only exported the grains to England, they even refused to render assistance to the famine victims.
This was due to the British policy of following Malthusian economics where it was considered best for market forces to work out the price of commodities. The problem was that the starving people were often too poor to pay for food which was being sold at a very high price. On top of that, The British rules refused to render aid to the starving public out of fear that this would make the public expect aid and relief effort every time.
During the Bengal famine of 1943, Winston Churchill ensured that the surplus food supplies were diverted to Europe as a reserve stock for England and Greece. On top of that, the British government even refused aid from the Canadian and American governments.
The only relief to the victims came from their own fellow citizens who organized various relief measures to help the starving victims.
Now let’s look at some remaining examples of British misrule in India. Many people who look with favor at the British empire in India claim that British rule brought modernization and development to India. This is a false argument. Throughout its history, India has produced great advances in metallurgy, mathematics, medicine, architecture, and education.
There is no reason to believe that India needed the British rulers to come and push them towards modernization. In fact, by looting India for two hundred years, Britishers actually destroyed any chances of development. India had produced some of the most advanced civilizations in the world and did not need the British misrule to modernize.
The greatest proof lies in the fact that today, India is the world’s third-largest economy. India is also the fastest growing economy in the world. Independent India sent a spacecraft to the Mars orbit in its first attempt.
The British rule in India also completely ruined her education systems. India had a traditional system of education for a long time. There were great universities in Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura Mahavihara, Odantapuri and Jaggadala. Nalanda University was so famous that scholars from around the world came to study here. There were courses offered in linguistics, mathematics, fine arts, medicine, astronomy, politics and even warfare.
Muslim rulers in India also introduced their own systems of education called maktabs which were attended by both Hindus and Muslims. Subjects taught here included trade, languages, public administration and poetry.
India also had a culture of oral education where knowledge was passed on from teacher to student, generation after generation orally. This is how the great classics of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, and the Upanishads were taught and preserved for centuries. East India Company started by supplanting the local education systems with English language education to benefit the British rulers. They also treated all India education systems and the great works in Indian literature with contempt.
Finally, on the recommendation of Lord Macaulay, the entire education policy in India was framed to create a bunch of Indian scholars whose sole purpose was to act as intermediaries between the company and the Indian public. Bare minimum was spent on education of the general public since it did not add to the bottom line.
There was no attempt to develop the skills of analysis and critical thinking in this education system. The end result was a large number of graduates who were only capable of holding clerical posts in the lower rungs of the bureaucracy.
Let’s now take an overall look at how the British empire affected India. On the negative side, the British destroyed the local industries, completely looted the country, demolished its civilizational foundations, ruined its education systems, created great divisions in its social fabric and fundamentally destroyed the country.
When the British came to the country, India accounted for 23 percent of the world GDP. When the British finally left in 1947, India accounted for less than 3 percent of the world GDP. It was reduced to a starving wreck. 90 percent of the population was below the poverty line, education was at 16 percent and life expectancy was at an appalling 27 years.
The reason for this is very clear. The British ruled in India for the benefit of the British people back home and not for the benefit of the people in India. The British entered India because India was a thriving, rich society. In fact India was also known as the bird with golden feathers. In pre-colonial times, India was a great exporter of finished products and had a great artisan class to support this trade. India also had a superb financial network which pre-dated any European banking system by centuries. It had a flourishing agricultural base and a huge pool of talent and knowledge to draw upon. The British rule completely destroyed all of this.
On the positive side, the British introduced the railways, abolished few bad practices like sati and thuggee and created a modern professional army. All of these, however, the British did to serve their own self-interests. There was no intention of improving the lives of the millions of Indians.
All of these measures did not need the kind of slavery that they imposed upon the country. Any social reforms that occurred were due to the efforts of enlightened Indian reformers.
Now let’s look at some of the after-effects of colonialism in India. One effect is that many people in India are now demanding a return of some of the artifacts which were looted from India. This includes the famous Kohinoor diamond. The Kohinoor diamond is now a part of the crown jewels of the Queen Mother.
The East India Company took the famous diamond as a war compensation from the Sikh ruler after defeating him in battle. Today, many Indians are demanding a return of this jewel.
Another after-effect is the peaceful non-violent method of protest which was taught by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi developed this method of protest as a way of opposing British rule. He called it “Satyagraha”. This method of peaceful protest and non-cooperation was later adopted by the Martin Luther King Jr. to defeat segregation in America. In fact, he openly admitted that Gandhi furnished the method that he needed to overthrow segregation in the US.
But there are also residual problems of colonialism which are very difficult to solve. One, of course, is that as a result of the divide and rule policy of the British, India split into India and Pakistan. This was a humanitarian tragedy of unimaginable proportions. This indirectly led to the Kashmir problem which continues to haunt both these countries today.
The same divide and rule policy also led to some of the major cracks and divisions in Indian society. These religious, linguistic and caste divisions still cause hundreds of deaths every year.
Finally, we can say that the British rule in India was nothing but two hundred years of loot, depredation, terror, and exploitation. There was absolutely nothing positive about British rule in India. The British colonialism in India was a rule to benefit the people of England at the expense of the benefit of people in India. Any benefits that the Indians received were incidental and happened because it benefited the Britishers more.
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Shashi Tharoor is a praised author, politician, and former international civil servant. Since 1981, he wrote 18 bestselling works of fiction and nonfiction with the central theme being India’s history, culture, film, soci... (Read more)
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