How have the English paid for imperialism/colonialism?

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Yesterday we went for lunch with some friends and rather randomly the husband engaged Vidhi on the merits/demerits of colonialism. I also had a commentator somehow bring up that I’m unfairly blaming the English for South Asia’s problems.

My point being is that the new counter-narrative is that the English seem to have done us a favour by gifting us English, building railways and a United India.

The idea that India was some sort of net expense on the Crown is palpably absurd and I’ll leave it to the Commentariat to discuss.

(1.) the idea of English has no net benefit either way. The fact that English is an elite language in South Asia (and pretty much nowhere else outside of the Anglosphere) benefits the English speaking world. If Africa & South Asia switched out of English, it would deeply impact the strength of the language.

(2.) the railways weren’t a gift to South Asia; they were supply chains to various ports and cities much like the canal colonies in West Punjab. The famines and the vast military personnel India was able to bring forth to the Empire was more than a sufficient advantage.

(3.) India has always found a way to express itself; the ancient Hindu texts sort of scope out the region. The English built on what was before.

The past cannot be undone; colonialism was shite but even if we can’t get the Koh-I-Noor back the least the Colonisers can do is be contrite about it.

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14 Replies to “How have the English paid for imperialism/colonialism?”

  1. Another claim that imperial apologists make is that the British brought the rule of law to India. Clearly there is something to that, as the idea of an impersonal common law administered by “impartial” judges was probably new to South Asia at the time (perhaps others can dispute this?)

    But one could counter this by pointing out that British justice was flawed at its core by its enshrining of special privileges to the ruling class, both in theory and in practice. As Shashi Tharoor points out, whites could literally get away with murder (on the theory that Indians died too easily upon being beaten up, so the beater was not at fault.) There’s also the more famous case of the Ilbert Bill. The ill-effects of this two-tier justice system linger on till today, and I’d argue it has caused enormous harm to the social fabric of this land.

    1. As a counterpoint – Thailand speaks Thai, has an effective bureaucracy (maybe slightly unstable democracy) and is fairly rich (especially compared to South Asi£.

      It wasn’t colonised / I think India would have done very well under a Maratha-Mughal-Sikh revival .. something would have been figured out..

      1. True. The problem for historical analysts is that the British ruled South Asia so long that it’s hard or impossible to disentangle incidental benefits that any ruler (native or foreign) would have brought to the country from the specific benefits that only British rule could have given India. For example, one could imagine railway technology naturally reaching India through some enterprising rulers (I’m not sure why we had to have the British colonize us for that); there’s precedence in the form of Tipu Sultan importing sericulture to Mysore. There was Baba Budan importing coffee into southern India.

        Perhaps building an army along modern lines was something only the British could have done? I mean, at this point it’s hard to imagine India or Pakistan being overcome by Central Asian raiders on horseback as was so depressingly common throughout the medieval ages.

      2. the gap btwn ‘thailand’ and ‘india’ is smaller than the term ‘colonized’ implies. thailand interacted a lot with europeans to maintain their independence, and eventually their independence was preserved partly due their position btwn british colonies and french indochina.

        some of the ‘princely’ states may have been less impacted by the british than the japanese after the meiji restoration.

        1. I would agree with Razib. We should also remember that many Indian princely states were autonomous as well [Bhutan, Nepal, Sikhim, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Nizam, Mysore, Benares, Travancore, Baluchistan Agency, Gwalior Residency, many others]. Their people were citizens of their respective countries and not citizens of the United Kingdom. Indians in areas directly governed by the crown were subjects of the Queen and enjoyed greater freedom and rights. This is why one of the main demands of the independence movement was that the English extend the rule of the crown across more of India. This is also why the Indian independence movement wanted Indian dominian status and to use the English to persuade the princely states to dissolve into British India.

          When Jinnah went to England, he did so as a subject of the Queen and enjoyed full rights. Jinnah could easily have become a member of the British House of Commons and a leading English politician. It is an accident of history that he returned to his beloved India.

          The English should have allowed complete equality under English common law far sooner for all Indians who were subjects of the Queen.

          1. Baluchistan was not a Princely state. It had direct agreement with Whitehall and not with the British GovGen or Viceroy. So Balochistan was independent and the British Transfer of Power in 47 did not apply to them. Still, Pakistan gobbled Balochistan by military means and hence the current independence movement.

          2. Baluchistan was not a Princely state. It had direct agreement with Whitehall and not with the British GovGen or Viceroy. So Balochistan was independent and the British Transfer of Power in 47 did not apply to them. Still, Pakistan gobbled Balochistan by military means and hence the current independence movement.

          3. No disagreement with VijayVan.

            Before WWII, how much did it matter if the agreement was directly with Whitehall or British India Viceroy?

          4. Things don’t work out that way. The French Empire wanted to make all it’s subjects equally French culturally. They made north African colonies Departements of France ie French provinces. Still Algeria and Libya rebelled against colonialism and won independence

      3. Governance in Thailand is worse than in India, especially when it comes to controlling corruption and having accountability.

        But India is also a lot better than its South Asian peers, so I dont know how much of this is down to the after effects of the British rule. It probably has more to do with the nature of the Indian freedom movement.

        http://dataviz.worldbank.org/t/DECDG/views/WGI-9-23-16_0/GraphView?:embed=y&:isGuestRedirectFromVizportal=y&:display_spinner=no&:iid=1&:usingOldHashUrl=true&:loadOrderID=0&:display_count=no&:showVizHome=no

        (P.S.: The political stability metric makes absolutely no sense to me, hence not plotting it.)

  2. Can you post all the relevant articles on colonialism at Brown Pundits. These jump to mind for me:
    http://www.brownpundits.com/page/3/?s=colonialism
    http://www.brownpundits.com/?s=imperialism
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2017/09/23/when-all-you-have-is-postcolonial-theory-everything-is-about-the-white-man/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/02/25/nuanced-understanding-of-british-colonialism/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/01/06/why-colonialism-is-always-wrong/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/01/05/does-colonialism-work-metrics-to-evaluate-colonialism/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/01/04/does-colonialism-work/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2015/02/04/colonialism-has-lot-to-answer-for/
    http://www.brownpundits.com/2017/07/20/right-hand-path-orientalism-vs-left-hand-path-orientalism/
    This might be the most discussed topic at Brown Pundit.

    Numinous and Zack, this isn’t a black and white binary topic. We need to get away from simplistic phrases such as “imperial apologists” and say the truth . . . the English were mixed. To say that the English did something well isn’t to say that an independent India couldn’t have done it better. And to say the English did something badly isn’t to say that an independent India couldn’t have done it worse.

    My own ideas on this topic have already been written in two articles above and in many of the other comment sections. I have nothing new to add.

    “the idea of an impersonal common law administered by “impartial” judges was probably new to South Asia at the time” I would dispute this. For evidence please see:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma%C5%9B%C4%81stra
    By the Mahabharata, the Dharma Shastras were obsolete and replaced by Bhishma’s speech on the bed of arrows:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anushasana_Parva
    By Chanakya’s time the Mahabharata’s Anushasana Parva was obsolete and replaced by:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthashastra

    Numinous, in my articles I gave the English a lot of credit for the Indian institutions they built, including:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Civil_Service_(British_India)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Railways
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India_Post
    https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/development-of-judicial-system-during-british-india-1518441346-1
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Indian_Army
    The English did a better job than India’s muslim rulers (who were also imperialists) did with these institutions.

    ” enshrining of special privileges to the ruling class, both in theory and in practice. As Shashi Tharoor points out, whites could literally get away with murder (on the theory that Indians died too easily upon being beaten up, so the beater was not at fault.) There’s also the more famous case of the Ilbert Bill. The ill-effects of this two-tier justice system linger on till today, and I’d argue it has caused enormous harm to the social fabric of this land.”
    Numinous, can you write an article about this for BP. Zach, can we post an article about this subject. I would like to learn more.

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