Conquest, Culture, and India

I’m in the midst of biz trip hell and one book I’m plowing through is Thomas Sowell‘s Conquests & Cultures. The book is part of a trilogy where Sowell brings his considerable scholarship to the relationship between culture and socio-economic outcomes across a wide span of history & the globe. This is a mighty controversial topic, to say the least, and one which Sowell engages with aplomb.

Clearly, one factor which has shaped the fate of groups over time is, of course, Conquest. And Sowell isn’t afraid to discuss how this dynamic played out for both Worse *and* for Better.

Now, we need to be very clear that by pointing out the Better, Sowell is emphatically NOT making a case for future Conquests of Cultures. Nor is he delving into whether Conquests are / were Morally Good. And, for that matter neither am I (just to forestall some of the comments a post like this generates – let’s try to keep the discussion Type C rather than descend into Type M. One can credit how the K-T extinction helped give rise to Humanity, for example, without calling it Good or “wishing” for another one; same with the British Empire).

What he is noting, however, is that just as many of the leaps and bounds of progress in tech can be traced to conflict & competition (WWII and the Space Race, to pick a few quickie examples), cultures are similarly fluid and subject to evolution. Proof of this & a tremendous source of historical experiments to this effect is Conquest [pg ix]-

The underlying theme of all these books is that racial, ethnic, and national groups have their own respective cultures without which their economic and social histories cannot be understood. Modest as this claim may seem, it collides head-on with the more widely accepted visions in which the fates of minority groups are determined by “society” around them, which society is therefore both causally and morally responsible for the misfortunes peculiar to the less fortunate of these groups — though apparently not responsible for the good fortune of more successful minority groups. This trilogy also collides head-on with prevailing doctrines about “celebrating” and preserving cultral differences. Cultures are not museum-pieces. They are the working machinery of everday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives.

In other words –> Culture is a moving target & is responsible for much of our socio-economic fate(s). One source of Punctuated Equilibrium in Culture’s evolution is/was Conquest. Let’s learn how it got us to where we are today & use those lessons + our volition to further evolve moving forward…


Sowell shares much material with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (for ex., lack of load-bearing animals in Western Hemisphere = less food per acreage = smaller towns and less disease resistence = easy conquest by the Spanish). But, he goes leaps beyond by explicitly adding the variables of culture and conquest to more satisfyingly address Diamond’s core question of why some are rich and some are poor.

Although India would seem to figure prominently in any such broad, empirical assessment, this particular work from Sowell unfortunately doesn’t spend much time there (I’m a fan of his work and some of his other books do, in fact, cover India pretty well). He does provide an example or 2 which we’ll get to in a second.

Instead the book focuses on 4 case studies in depth -

  • the British – particularly the periods when they were a band of tribes conquered by the Romans + *many* other subsequent groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans…); The Dark Ages in Britain were particularly so and overall, the country probably spent more time Colonized than as a Colonizer resulting in a potent cultural mixing. Sowell argues that it’s not accidental that the regions of Britain most externally conquered (basically the South) also eventually became the most dominant as the country became independent and expanded to absorb Wales, Scotland, and Ireland…. later creating the Empire.
  • Africa – perhaps no area of the world more readily comes to mind when you say “post-colonial legacy” so clearly Sowell spends much time here (and, uh, the fact he’s Afro-American is perhaps another reason). As with post-Roman Britain, post-colonial Africa went through a profound period of retrogression after the imperialists were tossed out [pg 173] –
    The entire period of a quarter of a century, beginning in 1965, averaged negative growth in output per capita in Uganda, Tanzania, Chad, Zamia, Ghana, Senegal, Madagascar, Zaire, Niger, Benin and the Central Africal Republican… [Thankfully] By 1997, perhaps a dozen African countries were growing at 5 percnt per year or better.
  • the Slavs of Eastern Europe – as both conquered and conquerors, the Slavs are an interesting tale. One datapoint for just how deeply & long they were “conquered” is that in most Euro and Middle Eastern languages, the word “slave” is quite literally derived from Slav. Hardcore. Why this fate? Sowell asserts that first, relative to other Europeans, Slavic people were the least Romanized. Secondarily, other conquerers (for ex., the Mongols & Arabs) were happy to simply extract tribute and slaves rather than create governance (and thus cultural) structures directly as the Romans had done in Britain. Still other interesting and persistent cultural differences (and thus economic) persist from within the Slavic community – with the ones overrun by the Germans in the Middle Ages and more modern times general fairing better than the others.
  • Native Americans. Of course. Their pre-Columbian conquests of each other, in particular, makes for fascinating reading.

Still, Sowell does pepper the book with a few anecdotes pertinent to India. One set tracks the fascinating tale of Peter the Great’s desire to tap desi mercantile skills for Slavic prosperity via the markets of Astrakhan (this link is fascinating read, BTW).

Desis in Africa weren’t conquerers in the military sense (they road the Brit’s coattails). However, many natives didn’t so readily separate the political and commercial and viewed Indians with much of the same scorn. Gujuratis in particular rather successfully surfed the (comparative) Free Trade Zone that was the British Empire and played a massive role in E. Africa’s economic picture [pg 136] –

[In Tanzania] Indians held an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the import-export trade, 80 percent of sisal lproduction, 80 percent of transport service, and 90% of all town property

This particular snippet, early in the book, is one I thought Mutineers might be able to fact check (and it’s the one that, a couple hours ago, started this long, rambling blog post c’est la vie) [pg 7]-

Among the millions of Telugu-speaking people in eastern India during the colonial era, some lived under the direct rule of the British conquerors while others lived under Indian princes. When these peoples were united, years after India’s independence, into a newly created state of Andhra Pradesh, the Andhras who had lived under British rule proved to be overwhelming competition for the Telanganans who had lived under Indian princes. Andhras not only bested the Telanaganans on civil service examinations, taking over great numbers of government jobs as a result, but also outperformed them in agriculture, where they were able to buy out Telanganan farmers and make their farms much more productive and more profitable.

Sowell’s 100 pages of footnotes reveals the source of the factoid as Myron Weiner’s Sons of the Soil published in 1978. Anyone got more deets? Any of our Telugu-speaking readers know to what extent this was the cause of differences between “Andhras” and “Telanaganans“? Are there similar anecdotes in India between closely related but differently “Brit-ized” groups within the Desh?

60 thoughts on “Conquest, Culture, and India

  1. 50 · Rahul S said

    You should read his other stuff though. He has pretty interesting books. Too bad African Americans & the left doesn’t listen to this guy or Michael Steele.

    Pray tell, what might all those African Americans gain by listening to Sowell?

  2. 51 · NYC Akshay said

    50 · Rahul S said
    You should read his other stuff though. He has pretty interesting books. Too bad African Americans & the left doesn’t listen to this guy or Michael Steele.
    Pray tell, what might all those African Americans gain by listening to Sowell?

    Well, it will tell African Americans to stop blaming racism, and stop producing kids out of wedlock. I stated this before, but in 1940, 9/10 blacks had jobs (when racism existed). Now, blacks aren’t employed to the extent they used to (when racism has cooled off to a certain extent). Stay committed to the family (unlike the situation right now, where many African American families seem to be in a mess). Essentially, blacks should vote for their original (Abe Lincoln) party, the Republican Party. Ever since the 60′s, government dependency (due to LBJ..even though his intentions were good) has hurt the black community since anything else. As you can, the repercussions are still present; slavery isn’t the problem, Jim Crow isn’t…it’s simply government dependency.

  3. 49 · Rahul said

    Thomas Sowell. clarence Thomas. i think we know wot their sister’s sons will call them…


  4. This book seems all bakwas. Even within british india, there is a correlation between the length of time an area was part of the Empire and how poor it currently is. The longer they ruled it, the poorer it is. And the telengana example seems to suggest he may be pulling stats out of thin air.

  5. It takes ignorance of a very high order to apply the understanding of a phenomenon in biology – punctuated equilibria – to human societies. There are so many hings wrong with this, but a few will suffice to show how casual Sowell is about his arguments. PE builds on a wealth of theories and mechanisms uncovered in biology – genetics, biochemistry, systematics, ecology etc., to say that evolution is marked by long periods of stasis punctuated by short bursts of change. In evolutionary terms a burst lasts a few million years while stasis could be of the order of 10s or even 100s of milions of years. On what grounds does Sowell imagine that this applies to human history?

  6. On what grounds does Sowell imagine that this applies to human history?

    War — Peace — War — Peace … War brings about not just abrupt cultural change but, technological change.

  7. Vyasa said :

    And the worst off states in India are the ones which were among the longest ruled by the British: Bengal, Bihar, Orissa etc.

    I grew up in Bihar, and I went to IIT Kharagpur in West Bengal.

    Bihar is chock full of natural resources, coal, iron-ore etc. But its major stumbling block in those days was caste-ism. The kayasth would block the brahmin, the khatri would block the kayasth etc. Today most of where I grew up is called “Jharkhand” but its now between adivasis and everyone else.

    West Bengal had the best education system in Northern India. In fact the IIT entrance exam was modeled after the Bengal H.S. But its problems began with the economic and social devastation that followed the Naxalbari movement which caused industry to leave en-mass for places like Faridabad and Bangalore.

    It doesn’t have anything to do with the British. It has to do with demagogues who promise anger as an antidote to all problems.

  8. Razib, I just started reading Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium. If the introduction is anything to go by (really thoughtful and succinct survey of scholarship, and a nice note on how economic historians approach international trade differently than your vanilla economists), this book appears quite promising. I am so excited! Just wanted to gush.


    “Leading Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s critically acclaimed new novel Sea of Poppies is set during a time when opium trade out of India was flourishing during British rule.

    I had no idea that India was the largest opium exporter for centuries. I had no idea that opium was essentially the commodity which financed the British Raj in India. It is not a coincidence that 20 years after the opium trade stopped, the Raj more or less packed up its bags and left. India was not a paying proposition any longer.

    Opium steadily accounted for about 17-20% of Indian revenues. If you think in those terms, [the fact that] one single commodity accounted for such an enormous part of your economy is unbelievable, extraordinary.

    The idea of exporting opium to China started with Warren Hastings (the first governor general of British India) in 1780. The situation was eerily similar to [what is happening] today. There was a huge balance of payments problem in relation to China. China was exporting enormous amounts, but wasn’t interested in importing any European goods. That was when Hastings came up with idea that the only way of balancing trade was to export opium to China.

    Opium was the fundamental undergirding of our economy for centuries. It is strange that [even] for someone like me who studied history and knew a fair amount about Indian history, I was completely unaware of it.

    It’s such an ironic thing. Before the British came, India was one of the world’s great economies. For 200 years India dwindled and dwindled into almost nothing. Fifty years after they left we have finally begun to reclaim our place in the world. All the empirical facts show you that British rule was a disaster for India. Before the British came 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left it was less than 1%.”