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At the first political meeting I attended as a young man back in 1969, an elderly be-whiskered gentleman canvassing for votes forthrightly and vigorously proclaimed: ‘I stand for everything which has made Britain Great – God, Queen and Empire!’ His claim revealed a shocking ignorance of the post-Imperial Britain in which we now lived, the cost to India of having been part of the Empire, and the cost to British citizens of having had this empire.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a much greater politician, had an experience of India, and he saw the Empire differently that the man campaigning for votes in 1969. A member of the Supreme Council of India, Macaulay warned the House of Commons in 1833 about the dangers of opium as used in India where it was “the practice of the miserable tyrants” who dreaded “the capacity and spirit of some distinguished subject, and yet could not venture to murder him, to administer to him a daily dose of the pousta, a preparation of opium, the effect of which was in a few months to destroy all the bodily and mental powers of the wretch who was drugged with it, and to turn him into a helpless idiot.” Macaulay, attacking the very idea of this “detestable artifice, more horrible than assassination itself,”  proclaimed it “no model for the English nation. We shall never consent to administer the pousta to a whole community, to stupefy and paralyse a great people whom God has committed to our charge, for the wretched purpose of rendering them more amenable to our control ("Government of India""). It is odd, almost unbelievable, that Macaulay’s could berate the Indian "tyrants" for their use of opium and to declare that "we" shall never consent to the "people in our charge" being treated similarly, when we remind ourselves of the widespread use of laudanum, the alcoholic tincture derived from opium, in Britain. It was used as a prescribed medicine for adult illnesses, to make babies sleep, and to still the hunger pangs of so many members of the industrial working classes. Macaulay’s paternalistic altruism that he saw as a duty to peoples "whom God has committed to our charge" — Evangelical double-talk for military conquest and commercial exploitation — either clearly did not extend to his own people, or he was unaware of the damage that occurred as a result of imperialism.

Whereas Macaulay protested against the use of opium by tyrants in India but failed to see the effects of imperialism on the British public, John Ruskin see the empire itself as tyranny and straight out robbery. After praising Sir Herbert Edwardes, an efficient, just administrator of British rule in India, he charges that

John Foley's bust of Sir Herbert in the British Library.

the silent feeling and practice of the nation about India is based on quite other motives than Sir Herbert's. Every mutiny, every danger, every terror, and every crime, occurring under, or paralyzing, our Indian legislation, arises directly out of our national desire to live on the loot of India, and the notion always entertained by English young gentlemen and ladies of good position, falling in love with each other without immediate prospect of establishment in Belgrave Square, that they can find in India, instantly on landing, a bungalow ready furnished with the loveliest fans, china, and shawls, — ices and sherbet at command,-four-and-twenty slaves succeeding each other hourly to swing the punkah, and a regiment with a beautiful band to "keep order" outside, all round the house. ["Pleasures of England"; emphasis added.]

Ruskin’s critique is certainly radical but there were others prepared to explore further the implications of living "on the loot of India" which did not comprise exclusively the prospect of being able to afford a Belgrave property, fans, china, shawls and slaves. As far as these enhancements to personal wealth and status, the "loot of India" may well have benefited the so-called "nabobs" and Ruskin hits his target with unerring accuracy.

Robert Clive, by John Tweed, on the
monument to him in Whitehall.

However, when you take the longer view, you realise that Ruskin might as well be criticizing a Clive for the charges of acquisitiveness for which Parliament put the actual Robert Clive on trial. Both miss the way in which many British in India went much further than Ruskin and many others were prepared to allow or recognise. Clive, working in a non-governmental post for the East India Company which was already becoming a law unto itself, even to maintaining its own army, was a key player in the quite insidious history of the operations of the British in India. The medical benefits for the many from drinking tea, the dubious pleasures for the self-indulgent of smoking opium and drinking coffee, and the wearing of fine cottons and silks were accompanied by a shameful history of exploitation and virtually irreparable damage which the British inflicted on India.

In 1915, the Indian National Party quoted this anguished protest from The Black Spot in the East by Sir Walter Strickland: "Let the English who read this at home reflect that, when they sip their deleterious decoctions of tannin, they too are , in their degree, devourers of human flesh and blood. It is not tea alone, but the impoverished blood of the slaves, devoid of its red seeds of life and vigour, that they are drinking" (qtd. in Tharooh 204).

Social History: Monumental loss and suffering under the Raj

The Indians suffered as a cruelly exploited work force and their homeland suffered from the new industries. The economic logistics were simple but brutal as the British expanded their production of tea, coffee, viscose, and opium at the expense of the peoples, and the fauna and flora of the sub-continent.

1. The tea producers needed land for growing so they cleared the forests in Assam and in the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains District in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

The coffee producers cleared the forests of Coorg. In doing so they destroyed countless indigenous fauna and flora. But the pay-off for British entrepreneurs was that the deforestation also produced huge quantities of timber for the railway sleepers needed by the burgeoning British-controlled Indian railways, and for exporting to the British furniture and building industries.

The British were causing massive damage not simply through the demands of tea and coffee production. They were supplying viscose for the British textile industry to spin into rayon. But to produce viscose they cultivated gum-trees such as the eucalyptus which are not native to India. Unfortunately, the Myrtaceæ are very thirsty trees, and the loss of the Nilgiris rain forests which the British cleared to make way for their plantations meant that vast areas suffered crippling water shortages.

"In time of drought," by John Lockwood Kipling,
Rudyard Kipling's father.

As a result of their imperial expansion into India, the British began to import opium. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, imports increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837. In 1814 the East India Company’s trade in opium was worth £1m, but by 1856 this had increased to £7m, and in 1839 and 1856, the British even went to war with China to safeguard their own Indian opium trade.

The competition with the Chinese for the control of tea supplies was replicated in the matter of opium. The British forced the Indian farmers to cultivate the poppy, and to facilitate this, as they had done with the cultivation of tea and coffee, they engaged in a programme of vast deforestation in northern India. This time they were not simply clearing ground for the poppies to grow in, they were also making sure that the poppy crops could flourish in a full light with no shade from the trees to inhibit their growth.

There was a further devastating loss involved in these deforestations - India’s big cats. Not only did British commercial activity destroy their habitats, but the British encouraged the hunting of lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs by offering bounties. It was not long before they had established the killing of the wild-life as a colonial gentleman’s "sport." The impact was devastating. Madras was once known as the town of the tigers and leopards ("Puliyur""). The British wiped out both breeds in the area.

Not only the animals suffered. So did the "tribals," the people who lived in the rain forests. They had no proof of possession which the British would recognise, and they were brutally dispossessed. If they tried to return to the forests, the British treated them as trespassers and even criminalised them.

The deforestation and the damage inflicted on the indigenous animal life of Asia continues today and for commercial motives. Today, 24th February, 2018, the British hewspaper

The I is reporting on the annual forest fires in South-East Asia especially in Sumatra and Borneo. The fires are extremely dangerous. Harvard and Columbia University teams carried out studies on the fires in 2015 and have concluded that they contributed to 100,000 deaths. The fires are not natural as are those of Australia but are caused by smallholders and plantation companies clearing the land for producing pulp wood and palm oil.

The deforestation in the Bornean and Sumatran rain forests is threatening a species most important in constructing the history of human evolution – the orangutans whom biological scientists regard as the closest of all animals to human beings. Unfortunately commercial enterprise is destroying their natural habitat, and, according to conservationists working for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the plantation workers regard the orangutans as pests and simply kill them.

Social History: The Raj: Wheat and Rice and Famine

Despite the image of the British Raj being an enlightened governmental system which benefited its native subjects, the opposite view, which is supported by convincing evidence, is that it was an authoritarian regime characterised by terrible but -avoidable- periodic famines, forced movement of people, slavery in the shape of indentured labour, and the brutal suppression of opposition (see Tharoor, passim).

In Britain, the massive increases in urban populations necessitated by the Industrial Revolution had led to increases in the demands for tea and beer but subsistence living on poor wages all too often led to increased demands for alcohol and good quality bread but also for laudanum to help still further to alleviate the hunger pangs. The baking industry thrived, and British farmers began to industrialise (another development lamented by the dewy-eyed nostalgics like A.E Housman), but the unremitting application of classical British economic theory had an impact on Victoria’s Indian subjects through a sequence of famines which took a dreadful toll on them.

People in Bangalore, India, suffering from starvation. Wood engraving, 1877. Source: The Wellcome Collection, reference: 578863i.

During her reign, there was a series of major famines: the Agra famine (1837-38), the Orissa famine (1866), the Bihar famine (1873-74), and, at the end of her reign, the Indian famine (1896-1900). Estimates of the dead have varied. Between 1876 and 1879, Digby, Maharatna, and Seavoy have estimated deaths ranging from 6.1 million to 10.3 million, and, between 1896-1902, The Lancet estimates 19.0 million, Maharatna and Seavoy 8.4 million, and Cambridge 6.1 million. This produces a total between 31.7 and 61.3 million. The famines continued into the 20th century culminating in the Bengal Famine (1943-44). Statistics given by Durant are horrifying. He calculates the total deaths from famines during the Raj at over 35 million, 19 million of those between 1891 and 1900. Florence Nightingale commented in 1877: "The more one hears about this famine, the more one feels that such a hideous record of human suffering and destruction the world has never seen before."

The deaths were not inevitable, and some eminent Victorians had no truck with talk of "natural disasters." Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance, described both the famines in India and poverty in Britain’s industrial slums as "the most terrible failures of the century." The government might have intervened, but as Dinyar Patel pointed out in 2016, "it was common economic wisdom that government intervention in famines was unnecessary and even harmful. The market would restore a proper balance. Any excess deaths, according to Malthusian principles, were nature’s way of responding to over-population."

But the apologists were exploiting a barbarous economic theory to disguise a naked serving of self-interest. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Western Europe had been free of famine caused by warfare, and yet India and other colonial territories had been subjected to famines of the magnitude described above, in which millions had died around the railway networks in sight of the trains which the apologists deceitfully claimed were the means of transporting the grain to the areas desperately in need of it, and had died around the grain storage centres. The trains were in fact used to transport the rain to the depots for export to Britain. The figures speak for themselves and support the critics of the Raj. Exports of Indian wheat to Britain were 308,000 quarters in 1875; 757 in 1876; 1,409 in 1877; and 420, 000 in 1878. In fact, taking into account what the British exported to Europe as a whole, in 1877-78, they exported a record total of 6.4 million cwt. And it was not only wheat. While the Indians starved, the British exported 200 million pounds of rice to Britain.

In 1830, Will Durant was more trenchant than Ruskin on the Raj. Commenting on the way in which the British sought to blame what went wrong on anyone or anything but themselves, he comments: "Behind all these as the terrible sources of famine in India, lies such merciless exploitation, such unbalanced exportation of goods, and such brutal collection of high taxes in the midst of the very famine, that the starving peasants cannot pay what is asked for" (36-37). The American theologian, Doctor Charles Hall, shared the same views:

The Indian starves so that India’s annual revenue may not be diminished by a dollar. 80 per cent of the whole population has been thrown back upon the soil because England’s discriminating duties have ruined practically every branch of Indian manufacture. We send shiploads of grain to India, but there is plenty of grain in India. The trouble is that people have been ground down till they are too poor to buy it. [qtd in Durant]

In other words it was not backward peoples who were starving but peoples upon whom the West was imposing the dogmas of Liberal Capitalism. This meant the imposition of a free market in grain, an impoverishment of the native peoples and the destruction of their communal structures. Polyani expressed the situation succinctly: "Indian masses in the second half of the nineteenth century did not die of hunger because they were exploited by Lancashire; they perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished" (159-60).

Lord Lytton, photographed by Alexander Bassano.

Not all of India’s British rulers shared the hard-nosed attitudes of their confréres. Lord Lytton as Viceroy, for instance, did everything he could to frustrate the efforts of men like the Governor of Madras, the Duke of Birmingham, and like-minded humanitarians to stockpile grain supplies for relief in times of crop failure. Lytton showed his true colours in 1876 when he organised a durbar to celebrate the announcement that Victoria had been proclaimed Empress of India. 68,000 dignitaries feasted for a week while 100,000 Indians died in the Madras and Mysore famines. Perhaps Lytton thought that there a natural law which rewarded imperial celebrations with abundance.

His organisation of celebrations for Victoria were not the only distractions. Lytton was obsessed with covering himself in glory by settling the question of Afghanistan. To finance this enterprise, he was determined that the Indian and not the English taxpayer would foot the bill. He was blissfully unaware of the levels of taxation being levied by his own agents on the Indian peasants and the calamitous effects which this was having. Yet local officials in Ahmednagar and Sholapur had given him warnings - only to be ignored.

As to the famines, his attitudes and policies were cold-heartedly Malthusian, and his refusal to intervene had Adam Smith’s authority:

Whoever examines, with attention, the history of the dearths and famines which have afflicted any part of Europe during either the course of the present or that of the two preceding centuries, of several of which we have pretty exact accounts, will find, I believe, that a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes, perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases by the fault of the seasons; and that a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth (Smith, "Digression concerning the Corn Trade and Corn Laws").

This was the thinking behind Lord Cromer’s comment on the Government’s handling of affairs during the disaster of 1877-79: "Every benevolent attempt made to mitigate effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation." Significantly, Adam Smith’s work had been a major component of the curriculum at Haileybury, the East India Company’s own College, where no less a person than Thomas Malthus had held the Chair of Political Economy. The Company’s influence over India" affairs would be difficult to overestimate. George Landow quotes Bentley’s Miscellany for 1858 describing it as "a commercial body with gigantic resources, and by the force of unforeseen circumstances assum(ing) the form of a sovereign power."

Things were definitely better before the arrival of the British when Indian’s rulers had their own strong traditions of caring for the poor. When, for instance, British officials arrived in Sholapur belatedly to organise "relief," the press who were with them reported that the area had been thoroughly neglected and was depopulated. In the absence of the British having made any sort of emergency provision, the people had made the long journey to Hyderabad where the Nazim was, in the time-honoured tradition, handing out relief.

One can contrast the paternal benevolence of the Nazim with what happened when the Bombay and Madras governments found their attempts providing some relief overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of those in need. Once again, Lytton showed what a profoundly callous man he was. He sent the lieutenant governor of Bengal, Sir Richard Temple, as his plenipotentiary Famine Delegate to rein in the extravagant expenditure on relief work because it represented a serious threat to the financing of his planned Afghanistan expedition. In choosing Temple, Lytton had shown surprising insight. In 1873-74, there had been a drought in Benghal and Bihar which Temple had dealt with by importing 1.5 million tons of Burmese rice, and avoiding a mass starvation by distributing it free of charge. Reaction in London was extremely hostile and Temple was castigated for "allowing the scale of wages paid at the relief works to be determined by the daily food needs of the labourer and the prevailing food prices in the market rather than by the amount that the Government could afford to spend for the purpose." Market forces have their limits then and government is not laissez-faire when it chooses not to be. In fact, senior civil servants did not mince their words and declared Temple mistaken for spending money "to save a lot of black fellows" and accusing Temple of being a Utopian Fourierist. Temple took the criticism to heart and, typical of the man, converted to Malthusianism making him an ideal agent for Lytton. Meanwhile the Empress was assuring Her Loyal Subjects that their "happiness, prosperity and welfare" were "the present aims and objects of Our Empire."

Links to Related Material


"Daily Briefing." I Newspaper, 24 February 2018.

Ferguson, Neil. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin, 2003.

Landow, G. "The British East India Company — the Company that Owned a Nation (or Two)." See "Links to Related Material."

Macaulay, Thomas, B. "'Government of India’: A speech delivered to the House of Commons on the 10th July 10th 1833." in The Miscellaneous writing and speeches Lord Macaulay, Volume 4. Project Gutenberg.

Patel, Dinyar. "How Britain Let One Million Indians Die in Famine". BBC News, 11 June 2016.

Polyani, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Own Time. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Books. 2017.

Ruskin, John. "The Pleasures of England." Lectures Given in Oxford. New York: John Wiley and Son, 1888.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Project Gutenberg.

Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire. What the British Did to India. London: Penguin Books, 2017.

Last modified 23 July 2023 (illustrations, captions and links added)