I know Priyamvada Gopal slightly from Cornell, and I’m always happy to read something she’s written. A recent editorial she published on neoconservative imperial historians in the Guardian provides lots of food for thought. I think she makes some important points about the current conservative fad for praising British imperialism, but I wanted to supply some quotes from Niall Ferguson’s book Empire that might challenge some of Gopal’s assertions. My own goal is to use this discussion as a learning opportunity, rather than a chance to throw around more polemical language; there’s been quite enough of that as it is.
(Incidentally, there are quite a number of intelligent comments in respone to Gopal’s essay at the Guardian site linked to above [check out especially the the comments by “Sikanderji”], as well as a lively discussion at Pickled Politics.)Let’s start with Gopal’s substantive, factual claims:
More famines were recorded in the first century of the British Raj than in the previous 2,000 years, including 17-20 million deaths from 1896 to 1900 alone. While a million Indians a year died from avoidable famines, taxation subsidising colonial wars, and relief often deliberately denied as surplus grain was shipped to England.
Tolerance? The British empire reinforced strict ethnic/religious identities and governed through these divisions. As with the partition of India when 10 million were displaced, arbitrarily drawn boundaries between “tribes” in Africa resulted in massive displacement and bloodshed. Freedom and fair play? In Kenya, a handful of white settlers appropriated 12,000 square miles and pushed 1.25 million native Kikuyus to 2,000 restricted square miles. Resistance was brutally crushed through internment in detention camps, torture and massacres. Some 50,000 Kikuyus were massacred and 300,000 interned to put down the Mau Mau rebellion by peasants who wanted to farm their own land. A thousand peaceful protesters were killed in the Amritsar massacre of 1919. (link)
One thought I have in response to this is to point out that Empire operated differently from place to place, and any discussion of its possible benefits ought to take that into account. I beleive the British Raj in India did have some benefits along with its many negatives, but it’s hard to say that the British presence in Africa, from the Slave trade up through formal colonization in the 1870s, had very many positive effects at all. India entered independence in relatively good shape, and largely adopted the British industrial and legal infrastructure when it established a new state; the African states, by contrast, had far less to work with. Also, it’s worth noting that most of the bloodier incidents in the history of the British empire actually took place outside of India (the massacre at Amritsar, while bad, is not of the same order as the suppression of the Mau Mau that Gopal mentions).
Secondly, I have my doubts about blaming the British for the Partition of India, though I concede I am not an expert on the nitty-gritties of that process. Third, “Sikanderji” has some interesting comments on the question of famines and the Indian textile industry:
A few other points: 1) The British regime was the first to make some comprehensive attempt at famine prevention in India, by vastly extending irrigation networks and building railways lines to famine-prone areas, as well as introducing famine codes in most provinces (though not, tragically, in Bengal). The historical record is insufficiently complete for any historian to be able to compare the levels of famine under the British with those under preceding regimes, but it is extremely unlikely to have been higher, given that by the latter half of the 19th century it had at least become possible to move grain and rice to areas stricken by shortage from areas of surplus using the railways. 2) India’s textile industry would have been destroyed with or without British rule, as it was largely export driven, and could not compete with industrial production in Lancashire, which would have taken over its exports anyway. India did eventually industrialise from the 1880s onwards, and the nationalist grievance is that protection of the industry through tariffs did not happen until the 1890s. (link)
I do not know whether all this is correct, and I’m willing to be educated by readers who know the details about the famines and the Indian textile industry (especially ones who come armed with links to actual facts!).
But since this debate concerns Niall Ferguson, I would encourage people participating in this debate to actually go read his book Empire. It’s true that he tells the history of Empire from the British side, but there is really an impressive amount of knowledge on display in the book. Here is a passage from Ferguson’s book specifically on the question of the effect of the British presence on India’s economy. It addresses some of Gopal’s points:
[E]ven Curzon once admitted that British rule ‘may be good for us; but it is neither equally, nor altogether, good for them.’ Indian nationalist agreed wholeheartedly, complaining that the wealth of India was being drained into the pockets of foreigners. In fact, we now know that this drain — the colonial burden as measured by the trade surplus of the colony — amounted to little more than 1 per cent of Indian net domestic product a year between 1868 and 1930. That was a lot less than the Dutch ‘drained’ from their Indonesian empire, which amounted to between 7 and 10 per cent of Indonesian net domestic produce in the same period.
And on the other side of the balance sheet were the immense British investments in Indian infrastructure, irrigation and industry. By the 1880s the British had invested &270 million in India, not much less than one-fifth of their entire investment overseas. By 1914 the figure had reached &400 million. The British increased the area of irrigated land by a factor of eight, so that by the end of the Raj a quarter of all land was irrigated, compared with just 5 per cent of it under the Mughals. They created an Indian coal industry from scratch which by 1914 produced nearly 16 million tons a year. They increased the number of jute spindles by a factor of ten. There were also marked improvements in public health, which increased the Indian average life expectancy by eleven years. It was the British who introduced quinine as an anti-malarial prophylactic, carried out public programmes of vaccination against smallpox — often in the face of local resistance — and laboured to improve the urban water supplies that were so often the bearers of cholera and other diseases. . . .
True, the average Indian had not got much richer under British rule. Between 1757 British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. (from Ferguson’s Empire, 215-216)
After enumerating these economic benefits of Empire in India, Ferguson does go on acknowledge the role of the indentured laborers, as well as the bad British economic policies that exacerbated the famines of 1876-8 and 1899-1900. All in all, a fairly balanced picture. It’s not exactly the story Marxists want to hear, and it’s certainly not quite as bad as what Gopal describes Ferguson doing (“Colonialism–a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, land-grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement–is rewritten into a benign developmental mission marred by a few unfortunate accidents and excesses.”).
I quote Ferguson here not to exonerate him for the kinds of things he said on the radio during the recent BBC interview (which I haven’t heard), nor for other comments he’s made along the way. In fact, I agree with many of Gopal’s criticisms of the smug, celebratory version of Imperial history that is currently in vogue in some circles. But Ferguson’s actual book on the subject of Empire is generally more learned than smug; it’s also well-written and decently documented. I’d rather discuss historical facts and maybe learn a thing or two than simply re-declare that Imperialism was bad, or continue on in the endless bloggy “bartering of positions” that the blogger Rage recently lamented. Once we get past blanket generalizations, the history of the British Empire is both fascinating and thoroughly complex.