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UK-India: How British Colonialism Killed More than 100 Million Indians in 40 Years

Tuesday 3 January 2023, by siawi3


How British Colonialism Killed More than 100 Million Indians in 40 Years

Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel; and Ben Norton

December 25, 2022

How British Colonialism Killed 100 Million Indians in 40 Years

Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel

Recent years have seen a resurgence in nostalgia for the British empire. High-profile books such as Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and Bruce Gilley’s The Last Imperialist, have claimed that British colonialism brought prosperity and development to India and other colonies. Two years ago, a YouGov poll found that 32 percent of people in Britain are actively proud of the nation’s colonial history.

This rosy picture of colonialism conflicts dramatically with the historical record. According to research by the economic historian Robert C Allen, extreme poverty in India increased under British rule, from 23 percent in 1810 to more than 50 percent in the mid-20th century. Real wages declined during the British colonial period, reaching a nadir in the 19th century, while famines became more frequent and more deadly. Far from benefitting the Indian people, colonialism was a human tragedy with few parallels in recorded history.

Experts agree that the period from 1880 to 1920 – the height of Britain’s imperial power – was particularly devastating for India. Comprehensive population censuses carried out by the colonial regime beginning in the 1880s reveal that the death rate increased considerably during this period, from 37.2 deaths per 1,000 people in the 1880s to 44.2 in the 1910s. Life expectancy declined from 26.7 years to 21.9 years.

In a recent paper in the journal World Development, we used census data to estimate the number of people killed by British imperial policies during these four brutal decades. Robust data on mortality rates in India only exists from the 1880s. If we use this as the baseline for “normal” mortality, we find that some 50 million excess deaths occurred under the aegis of British colonialism during the period from 1891 to 1920.

Fifty million deaths is a staggering figure, and yet this is a conservative estimate. Data on real wages indicates that by 1880, living standards in colonial India had already declined dramatically from their previous levels. Allen and other scholars argue that prior to colonialism, Indian living standards may have been “on a par with the developing parts of Western Europe.” We do not know for sure what India’s pre-colonial mortality rate was, but if we assume it was similar to that of England in the 16th and 17th centuries (27.18 deaths per 1,000 people), we find that 165 million excess deaths occurred in India during the period from 1881 to 1920.

While the precise number of deaths is sensitive to the assumptions we make about baseline mortality, it is clear that somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million people died prematurely at the height of British colonialism. This is among the largest policy-induced mortality crises in human history. It is larger than the combined number of deaths that occurred during all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia.

How did British rule cause this tremendous loss of life? There were several mechanisms. For one, Britain effectively destroyed India’s manufacturing sector. Prior to colonisation, India was one of the largest industrial producers in the world, exporting high-quality textiles to all corners of the globe. The tawdry cloth produced in England simply could not compete. This began to change, however, when the British East India Company assumed control of Bengal in 1757.

According to the historian Madhusree Mukerjee, the colonial regime practically eliminated Indian tariffs, allowing British goods to flood the domestic market, but created a system of exorbitant taxes and internal duties that prevented Indians from selling cloth within their own country, let alone exporting it.

This unequal trade regime crushed Indian manufacturers and effectively de-industrialised the country. As the chairman of East India and China Association boasted to the English parliament in 1840: “This company has succeeded in converting India from a manufacturing country into a country exporting raw produce.” English manufacturers gained a tremendous advantage, while India was reduced to poverty and its people were made vulnerable to hunger and disease.

To make matters worse, British colonisers established a system of legal plunder, known to contemporaries as the “drain of wealth.” Britain taxed the Indian population and then used the revenues to buy Indian products – indigo, grain, cotton, and opium – thus obtaining these goods for free. These goods were then either consumed within Britain or re-exported abroad, with the revenues pocketed by the British state and used to finance the industrial development of Britain and its settler colonies – the United States, Canada and Australia.

This system drained India of goods worth trillions of dollars in today’s money. The British were merciless in imposing the drain, forcing India to export food even when drought or floods threatened local food security. Historians have established that tens of millions of Indians died of starvation during several considerable policy-induced famines in the late 19th century, as their resources were syphoned off to Britain and its settler colonies.

Colonial administrators were fully aware of the consequences of their policies. They watched as millions starved and yet they did not change course. They continued to knowingly deprive people of resources necessary for survival. The extraordinary mortality crisis of the late Victorian period was no accident. The historian Mike Davis argues that Britain’s imperial policies “were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.”

Our research finds that Britain’s exploitative policies were associated with approximately 100 million excess deaths during the 1881-1920 period. This is a straightforward case for reparations, with strong precedent in international law. Following World War II, Germany signed reparations agreements to compensate the victims of the Holocaust and more recently agreed to pay reparations to Namibia for colonial crimes perpetrated there in the early 1900s. In the wake of apartheid, South Africa paid reparations to people who had been terrorised by the white-minority government.

History cannot be changed, and the crimes of the British empire cannot be erased. But reparations can help address the legacy of deprivation and inequity that colonialism produced. It is a critical step towards justice and healing.

Dylan Sullivan is Adjunct Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University. Jason Hickel is Professor at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics.
Courtesy: Al Jazeera.

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Commenting on this newsreport, another article by Ben Norton, “British Empire Killed 165 Million Indians in 40 Years: How Colonialism Inspired Fascism”, published in ‘Multipolarista’ says (extract):

This staggering figure does not include the tens of millions more Indians who died in human-made famines that were caused by the British empire.

In the notorious Bengal famine in 1943, an estimated 3 million Indians starved to death, while the British government exported food and banned grain imports.

Academic studies by scientists found that the 1943 Bengal famine was not a result of natural causes; it was the product of the policies of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Churchill himself was a notorious racist who stated, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

In the early 1930s, Churchill also admired Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the Italian dictator who founded fascism, Benito Mussolini.

Churchill’s own scholarly supporters admitted that he “expressed admiration for Mussolini” and, “if forced to choose between Italian fascism and Italian communism, Churchill unhesitatingly would choose the former.”

Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, who served as an under-secretary general of the United Nations, has exhaustively documented the crimes of the British empire, particularly under Churchill.

“Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does,” Tharoor stressed. He pointed to “the decisions that he [Churchill] personally signed off during the Bengal famine, when 4.3 million people died because of the decisions he took or endorsed.”

Award-winning Indian economist Utsa Patnaik has estimated that the British empire drained $45 trillion of wealth from the Indian subcontinent.

In a 2018 interview with the Indian news website Mint, she explained:

“Between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to £9.2 trillion (equal to $45 trillion), taking India’s export surplus earnings as the measure, and compounding it at a 5% rate of interest. Indians were never credited with their own gold and forex earnings. Instead, the local producers here were ‘paid’ the rupee equivalent out of the budget—something you’d never find in any independent country. The ‘drain’ varied between 26-36% of the central government budget. It would obviously have made an enormous difference if India’s huge international earnings had been retained within the country. India would have been far more developed, with much better health and social welfare indicators. There was virtually no increase in per capita income between 1900 and 1946, even though India registered the second largest export surplus earnings in the world for three decades before 1929.

“Since all the earnings were taken by Britain, such stagnation is not surprising. Ordinary people died like flies owing to under-nutrition and disease. It is shocking that Indian expectation of life at birth was just 22 years in 1911. The most telling index, however, is food grain availability. Because the purchasing power of ordinary Indians was being squeezed by high taxes, the per capita annual consumption of food grains went down from 200kg in 1900 to 157kg on the eve of World War II, and further plummeted to 137kg by 1946. No country in the world today, not even the least developed, is anywhere near the position India was in 1946.”

Patnaik emphasized:

“The modern capitalist world would not exist without colonialism and the drain. During Britain’s industrial transition, 1780 to 1820, the drain from Asia and the West Indies combined was about 6 percent of Britain’s GDP, nearly the same as its own savings rate. After the mid-19th century, Britain was running current account deficits with Continental Europe and North America, and at the same time, it was investing massively in these regions, which meant running capital account deficits too. The two deficits summed to large and rising balance of payments (BoP) deficits with these regions.

“How was it possible for Britain to export so much capital—which went into building railways, roads and factories in the U.S. and continental Europe? Its BoP deficits with these regions were being settled by appropriating the financial gold and forex earned by the colonies, especially India. Every unusual expense like war was also put on the Indian budget, and whatever India was not able to meet through its annual exchange earnings was shown as its indebtedness, on which interest accumulated.”

(Ben Norton is a journalist, writer, and filmmaker. Courtesy: Multipolarista, an independent news outlet reporting on the transition to a multipolar world.)