Sign Up

India and Britain: A Tortured Relationship (Part I)

Why do China and India think in terms of generations, not quarterly results?

April 23, 2009

Why do China and India think in terms of generations, not quarterly results?

For both India and China, globalization's benefits involve a relative return to their previous historical status — and one really not so long ago, given their 5,000-year histories.

The two countries see themselves as victims of a previous cycle of “globalization,” namely European colonialism and its child, the modern western system.

This cycle was accompanied by a precipitous decline from their status in the 19th century, when India and China accounted for almost half of the world's economic output.

Roger Bootle, an economic adviser writes, "By the early 19th century, although India had already begun its long relative decline and the UK its long relative ascent, India's economy was still some three times the size of Britain's. Once I had grasped it, this fact immediately solved something that had puzzled me for years — namely, how could the conquest of India have meant so much for Britain?"

Bootle would have benefited from such insights earlier had he accompanied Robert Clive, who became the first representative in India of King George III.

Clive, whose "plunder" of a "staggering" treasure from India was auctioned in Britain in early 2004, remarked that the Indian city of Murshidabad was "as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London, with the difference that there are individuals in the first possessing infinitely greater property than the last."

Others have perceived why India was the “Jewel” in Britain's crown well before Boone. In 1908, the American journal Atlantic Monthly published a statement by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India: "Powerful empires existed and flourished here [in India] while Englishmen were still wandering painted in the woods, and while the British Colonies were a wilderness and a jungle."

India, said Curzon, "has left a deeper mark upon the history, the philosophy and the religion of mankind than any other terrestrial unit in the universe."

The links between what Bootle called the ascent of Britain and the “long relative decline” of India are significant. According to historian Mike Davis, in the last half of the 19th century, India's income fell by 50% — and in the 190 years prior to independence in 1947, its economy literally experienced zero growth.

Between 1872 and 1921, he writes, life expectancy fell by 20%. A 1938 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on “Industrial Labor in India” reveals that longevity in India was barely 25 years in 1921 (compared to 55 for England), and fell further to 23 in 1931.

The 1908 issue of the Atlantic Monthly also debunked a still-lingering myth, that Britain “gave” India its education system. It noted the lead of several Indian princely states (which were independent of Britain) "in the important matter of popular education. Mysore is spending on education more than three times as much per capita as is British India, while Baroda has made her education free and compulsory."

Historians will no doubt remain divided on how much Britain “gave” and how much it “took” from India — and the link between British supremacy in India and its impact on Europe and the world beyond. They will also continue to argue about setting standards for such “relative” equivalences.

In the face of this, a new constituency — both within today's India and abroad — has begun to simplify the terms of the debate.

Instead of “exploitation” in the pure sense of the term, it may be argued that Britain's presence simply served to keep India out of the Industrial Revolution.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “Rising Elephant” by Ashutosh Sheshabalaya. Copyright 2005 by Ashutosh Sheshabalaya. Reprinted by permission of the author.

You can read Part II of this excerpt tomorrow on The Globalist.


Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, wrote that, "Powerful empires existed and flourished here (in India) while Englishmen were still wandering painted in the woods."

Historians will no doubt remain divided on how much Britain "gave" and how much it "took" from India.