Colonial Taxes Built Britain. That Must Be Taught in Lessons on Empire

Yves here. Let us not forget, independent of the effort to empire-burnish in UK schools, that empire has many prominent boosters. I have to confess to having read Niall Ferguson before he went completely off the deep end in his imperial fandom. Published right before he became famous, Ferguson’s book 2001 The Cash Nexus did a fine job of documenting how the UK’s tax collection system (government employees rather than often corrupt tax farmers, as in France), enabled the UK to be perceived in the financial markets of its time as reliably able to fund its spending. That allowed them to punch above their GDP weight in terms of ability to borrow and thus spend as much or more than France on its military. But even then, Ferguson was hectoring the US for being able to have a proper empire but lacking the guts to do so. As I wrote in 2003 in a review of a later Ferguson book:

The current administration has plenty of nerve, but….its narrow conception of how to advance American interests is unlikely to serve either the United States or the world well in the long run.

That is a long-winded way of saying that openDemocracy is correct to focus on the importance of taxes, and even more so of colonies.

By Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex and President of the British Sociological Association. Originally published at openDemocracy

Recent weeks have seen a variety of UK government ministers – fromOliver Dowden to Kemi Badenoch to, most recently, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi – both extol the benefits of British Empire and urge the teaching of those benefits. This follows on from the government’s response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which set out the need for a new model curriculum for history which would advise schools on how best to teach these issues. This is all part of the government’s Inclusive Britain strategy which calls on us to acknowledge the rich and complex history of ‘global Britain’.

In the spirit of this call, I offer one account of the complex, entangled histories of colonial taxation and national welfare that continue to shape modern Britain. Few people know that colonial subjects from the Indian subcontinent paid taxation, including income tax, to the British government in Westminster. Or that that taxation was used to alleviate the conditions of poorer people within Britain at a time when the working class and middle class here were exempt from paying income tax.

Taxation – and the ways in which it is returned to citizens through welfare – is one of the main ways in which the ‘imagined community’ of the nation comes into being. That is, the relationship between taxes and welfare is part of the process of constructing institutions and the idea of the nation. If we were to recognise that this ‘imagined community’ was built not only through national taxes, but also colonial ones, then how might that change our understanding of what it is to be British today?

My grandfather, Mohan Singh, was born in 1913 in a small village in the Punjab, in what was then British India. He was four years old when his father, Gurdit Singh, died and 17 when his uncle, Harnam Singh, who had been supporting him, also passed away. My grandfather had planned on attending the Government College in Lahore, but – needing to support his mother and younger sister – he instead spent six months training as a boilermaker. He then got married to Pritam Kaur and travelled to Calcutta to work in a variety of factories, engineering works and rolling mills.

In 1942, he travelled to the British colony of Kenya – bringing his family over later – and worked for 18 years at the East African Railways and Harbour Company. He spent the last two decades of his life in the UK, working at Chalvey Engineering in Slough as a sheet metal worker before retiring at the age of 65 in Southall, west London.

Mohan Singh criss-crossed three continents during his lifetime, but he never left the jurisdiction of the British Empire. In his application for registration as a citizen of the UK and Colonies – in the aftermath of the British Nationality Act of 1948 – he wrote: “I was born in British India.” He further noted that he lived and worked in India and Kenya, two countries that were colonies of Britain. It was these connections that confirmed his citizenship and gave him the right to travel to and live in Britain. He duly exercised those rights but, on arrival, he had them called into question by the local population, who were either unaware of them or indifferent.

Calls to ‘go home’ have been the refrain of right-wing opponents of immigration from at least the 1970s – as well as having been plastered on the sides of vans as part of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’policies of recent years. They are also implicit in an influential body of scholarly work oriented to questions of belonging and entitlement that argue for priority in public policy to be given to the ‘white working class.’ This is on the basis of them being ‘insiders’ who have contributed through their taxes to the wealth that is disbursed through welfare.

Former colonial subjects, like my grandfather, are regarded as immigrant outsiders even when they come to the metropole carrying passports of British citizenship. They are not seen to have contributed to the wealth of Britain by paying taxes and they are regarded as unfairly gaining access to the national patrimony. As Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Youngwrite in ‘The new East End’: “As newcomers, their families cannot have put much into the system, so they should not be expecting yet to take so much out.”

Britain established direct rule over India after suppressing the 1857 Indian Mutiny (also known as the First War of Independence). In 1860, it implemented an income tax upon colonial subjects, in part to pay for the costs associated with those revolts. Initially, a 2% rate was imposed on those earning between 200 rupees and 500 rupees a year and a 4% rate on those earning above 500 rupees annually.

When my grandfather started work in the 1930s, the average wage for a skilled worker in British India was about 40 rupees a month. He was very unlikely to have paid income tax, however, as he would not have earned enough to meet the threshold, which by then was 2,000 rupees a year. Of the amount that was collected, around three-quarters went to the imperial treasury, with only one rupee in a hundred for local purposes. Local purposes included the building of canals and roads, but not the alleviation of poverty, not even in times of catastrophic famine.

The arrival of the British in India – first via the English East India Company and then through direct rule – had brought endemic famine across the subcontinent. The 50 years after the implementation of the income tax saw one of the most intense such periods of famine, in which it is estimated over 14 million people died of starvation. This was in the context of grain being exported by rail from the famine regions (including to Britain) and colonial taxes continuing to be collected even in the worst-affected areas.

In all cases, the demands of ‘sound finance’ trumped those of public health and the primary thing to be avoided was any idea that the poor in India should be maintained at public expense. Ensuring sufficient funds for the ensuing military campaign in Afghanistan – from the taxes paid by colonial subjects for local purposes – was of more importance than using those taxes to alleviate severe hunger and avert the deaths of millions.

Here, we see quite clearly that the idea of the ‘imagined community’ created through taxation and its redistribution did not include colonial subjects. The taxes that Indians paid to the imperial treasury and to local provinces did not give them any entitlement to the redistribution of that income. Worse, any relief provided during famines was often dependent on undertaking hard labour in camps at a distance from a claimant’s locality.

The most extreme instance was where the rations provided in return for heavy labour were scarcely above the level required for basic subsistence. The ‘Temple wage’ – named after the lieutenant-governor, Richard Temple, who brought it in – produced lethal results and, as Mike Davis notes in ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’, turned the work camps into extermination camps.

The death and destruction brought about by the Empire were known at the time. In 1925, Harry Pollitt, the leader of the Boilermakers Union in the UK, stated that the British Empire was drenched in blood. This was in the context of debates at the Trades Union Congress in Scarborough, where a resolution was eventually adopted – by three million votes to 79,000 – against imperialism and in support of the right of self-determination of those who were colonised.

Such sentiments, however, came up against more hard-nosed understandings concerning the utility of the Empire to those in Britain. As Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin proclaimed in Parliament in 1946, “I am not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire, because I know that if the British Empire fell … it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.”

Here, Bevin acknowledged that the life of all within Britain was enhanced as a consequence of Empire. However, Empire was overwhelmingly disastrous for the majority of people subject to it. Their standard of life fell considerably as a consequence of colonialism and the famines it produced and, in many, many cases, they lost their lives to it.

One mode of survival was to move. This is why my grandfather moved from a village in the Punjab to train as a boilermaker in Lahore, before working in Calcutta, Nairobi and London. This is likely why his grandfather before him moved from famine-struck Orissa to Rajasthan to Punjab. These movements tend not to be seen to be part of the histories of Britain, global or otherwise, or of any consequence to understanding Britain or Britishness in the present.

The forgetting of the Empire involves also the forgetting of the political community – colonial and postcolonial – that was constructed through taxation. Few in Britain today understand the extent to which national projects – from social welfare to cultural institutions such as country houses, museums, and galleries – have been enabled through the taxes paid by former colonial subjects. There is an urgent need for us to recognise our shared histories and account for them.

One aspect of the ‘culture wars’ is the call to take the views of taxpayers into account when discussing ‘contested histories’. Samir Shah, the chair of London’s Museum of the Home, for example, argued that as heritage bodies are funded by taxpayers’ money, then the views of taxpayers – those he considers the silent majority – ought to be taken more explicitly into account. Given that both colonial subjects and their descendants paid taxes to the government in Westminster, then they/we also have a legitimate stake, in the government’s own terms, in how our shared history is represented. There is a benefit to the teaching of British Empire, but the reality is different from what these ministers suppose.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Mikel

    They are a country with Kings and Queens. They’ve long understand the concept of paying tribute (or a variation of it).

  2. KD

    “In 1860, it implemented an income tax upon colonial subjects, in part to pay for the costs associated with those revolts. Initially, a 2% rate was imposed on those earning between 200 rupees and 500 rupees a year and a 4% rate on those earning above 500 rupees annually.”

    OK, so colonial subjects, like grandpa, had to pay income taxes which built the British state. . . but racists say of commonwealth immigrants like grandpa. . .

    “As newcomers, their families cannot have put much into the system, so they should not be expecting yet to take so much out.”

    . . . but then we find out. . .

    “When my grandfather started work in the 1930s, the average wage for a skilled worker in British India was about 40 rupees a month. He was very unlikely to have paid income tax, however, as he would not have earned enough to meet the threshold, which by then was 2,000 rupees a year.”

    . . . so grandpa hadn’t paid in apparently, and the East Enders were right. Instead, it sounds like a surcharge on the Warren Hasting’s types at the East India Tea Company looting the country and ripping off the crown.

    1. begob

      Taking it out of the hide of Hastings is just an indirect way of taking it out of the hide of workers and merchants. I’m curious to know what revenues the UK Treasury used to cover the guaranteed 10% dividend on East India Company shares, after the company was divested of its monopoly in 1832. Company debt, UK gilts, a fund of India taxes?

    2. Chops

      Did he not pay in by being born in a country that Britain was stripping of whatever wealth it could manage to? His contribution was taken before he even saw it.

  3. Eclair

    “The 50 years after the implementation of the income tax saw one of the most intense such periods of famine, in which it is estimated over 14 million people died of starvation. This was in the context of grain being exported by rail from the famine regions …”

    This story of ‘famine’ across the land, when there is enough food but certain groups are deemed unworthy to be fed, repeats again and again. In Ireland, where grain was exported to England and the ‘indigenous’ Irish were left to die in ditches. (Origin of the admonition of Irish-American grandmothers at meals: If you were there the day the dog died in the ditch from The Hunger, you would eat that broccoli.)

    In Sweden, where in the famine in the 1860’s, oats were shipped to feed the horses in London and millions of Swedes, those with enough cash to pay for ship’s passage, fled to North America. My husband’s family history revealed those who simply died ‘deaths of despair’, flinging themselves in front of the train. or taking a length of rope out to the barn.

    I remember hearing an interview from a reporter who had visited an African nation in the midst of famine. He marveled that he had passed emaciated bodies lying on the streets to get to a meeting at a Western hotel, where participants dug into a lavish buffet.

    Leaving people to die of hunger is a political decision. They are inevitably the poorest, the most maligned groups; those whose capacity for paying taxes or rents has been maxed out. So, they are killed in the cheapest way possible; don’t feed them. Re-direct the food to groups that will be ‘more productive.’

    In the past few weeks there has been much talk of failed harvests, of inability to plant due to war, due to lack of fertilizers, due to broken equipment. Based on past experience, we can probably predict where the famines will be directed.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Eclair.

      This explains why in the 1860s the largest Swedish towns after Stockholm were in the Midwest and, such was the level of discontent, that the Swedish upper house of parliament, reserved for aristocrats like the British House of Lords was for centuries, was abolished.

    2. RobertC

      Eclair — In the past few weeks there has been much talk of failed harvests, of inability to plant due to war, due to lack of fertilizers, due to broken equipment. Based on past experience, we can probably predict where the famines will be directed.

      Today we have better, globally visible famine signals, which are already Red in some areas and moving there in many others. European nations not blinded by the European Council are realizing they must address this spreading famine because, as Spanish Government Reaps Whirlwind After Antagonizing Its Biggest Natural Gas Supplier demonstrated, the refugee flows will be primarily across their borders further antagonizing their voters.

      A typical example is Ukraine War Exacerbates Famine in the Global South

      I believe (and hope) Europe will look past the US to quickly find some accommodation with Putin that permits Ukraine’s and Russia’s desperately needed agricultural and mineral commodities to reach food producers and distributors supplying and feeding the starving populations.

      Which is why I watch the UN FAO for indications this accommodation will come about.

      1. Expat2Uruguay

        There is an aspect I don’t understand about all of this talk about coming hunger in the global South. Does that include South America? I followed your link and explored the document there, along with its internal links, and while they did report on hunger in Central America and the Caribbean, I couldn’t find a detailed reference to any country in South America. There was an allusion to hunger in Northern parts of Nicaragua, but when I looked at the list of countries included in the table of contacts of the UN report, a PDF here:
        , I find no South American country listed.

        I wonder about this, because all this talk about hunger in the global South seems to refer to the Middle East and Africa, to a large degree. Living here in Uruguay, there is no feeling of impending hunger. Inflation, yes. But Uruguay has averaged 8% inflation since 2004, with a modest uptrend over the last 3 years.

        Once again, the problems of the world seem to be beyond the veil that apparently covers Uruguay. It is disorienting and surely I I’m missing something…

  4. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    It’s not just the UK.

    Soon after new year, I joined a Dutch bank and had some “meet and greet” sessions with the leadership, including at HQ. The CEO had picked up that I am francophone and asked how, so I explained and added that the island whence my parents came was a former colony. The CEO said he knew of the island as a holiday destination, but not the links and how the name came about as such things are little taught in schools. It’s like that with all my colleagues at HQ and may explain why, according to a survey I read a few years ago, a majority of Dutch had a favourable view of (their) empire and thought it a good thing, the highest percentages in the former colonial powers.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I recall a few years ago an unusually astute economist here in Ireland corrected someone when he said that Ireland was, post celtic tiger recovery, a wealthy country. He said that Ireland is now a high income country, but not a wealthy country. It takes several generations of high income to be genuinely ‘wealthy’.

      I repeated that story to a colleague of mine who loves long distance hikes. He did a 2 week hike from the Netherlands across the Ardennes. He said he was struck by the incredible wealth he saw in those hidden hills and valleys away from the main towns (now to a large extent dominated by immigrants). Being Dutch and Belgian, the wealth is low key – no big vulgar McMansions or showy Porsche SUVs. Just subtly tasteful houses hidden away with all the signs of having had vast sums (tastefully) lavished on the details. This I think is the real legacy of colonialism (and, to be fair, a couple of generations of industrialisation) – a network of hidden wealth built up over several generations, largely hidden from view.

  5. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    I volunteer for the National Trust and used to work at the queen’s bank as it is known to many. In addition, like NC’s Synoia, I went to a type of school.

    Most Britons, including academics, have no idea of the scale of wealth that derives from the former colonies. One Tory MP, whose name will be recognisable to film buffs who know the Bond films, owns 15,000 acres in England and Ireland and a few hundred acres in Barbados. Much of the Dorset estate is surrounded by a stone wall, the longest in these islands.

    It’s not just the upper class. That wealth cascades into the middle class.

    In recent months, the BBC’s Antiques Road Show has featured members of the public bringing treasures sometimes looted from the former colonies and China. One notices the expert old hands steering the conversations with owners away from the history and provenance, or lack thereof, but a newcomer expert, a young continental, did not get the memo and recently allowed a Boxer rebellion, er, memento to get an airing.

    When I talk about colonies and wealth generated or looted from there, I include Ireland.

    It’s the same in France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

    1. Synoia

      One must add the Looting of the Native tribes of their land, by the (British) settlers in the US.

      It is clear that the Looters had a plan in place for conquest following the French and Indian war in N America.

  6. digi_owl

    The interaction between private lenders and nation states is one that will always puzzle me. In particular as currency moved from being commodity metal to paper notes (and these days, accounting on a computer).

  7. David

    I thought it was a very strange article, not least because the text makes no attempt to justify the assertion in the title. The author wants schools to teach that “colonial taxes built Britain”, which is simply untrue (and the article doesn’t try to suggest it is true). But then if you’re a Professor of Decolonial Studies, I suppose you’re obliged to write things like that, rather than “let’s teach children that some middle class Indians paid taxes, some of which went back to England.” And like a lot of academics of Indian background, the author equates “the Empire” with India, thereby rendering invisible very large numbers of its African and Asian subjects.

    The article implies, though it doesn’t try to show, that the British benefited economically from their Empire (as opposed to benefiting from control of trade routes and raw materials, which they certainly did: but that’s a very different issue.) This was a common belief at the time, as the quote from Ernest Bevin shows. George Orwell, who had seen the Empire at first hand, shared this view: he argued that the Labour Party should publicly admit that granting independence to India would lead to a massive fall in the living standards of ordinary British people. In fact, of course, this proved to be completely untrue, and the period of de-colonialisation, (the generation after WW2) was also the period of by far the greatest improvement in living standards ever recorded in Britain. The two things are connected.

    The Empire was always expensive to run, and, apart from protection of trade routes, there were only really two justifications for it. One was prestige and great power status, the other was a reservoir of manpower and raw materials for use in war. The second turned out, as it happened, to be fundamental to British survival in 1940. But as early as the 1920s, the Government had despaired of finding the resources to administer and defend it properly. Singapore fell so easily in 1942 because there was never enough money to fund the so-called “Singapore Strategy”, which entailed fortifying the island to resist the Japanese for the weeks it would take the Fleet to travel from home waters. The idea of a permanent naval presence in Singapore was just too expensive. And so on.

    As for the ostensible subject of the article – the tex levied in India – the article does acknowledge it wasn’t paid by ordinary people. The author seems to be saying that it was paid on incomes about four times that of a skilled worker, so, if we take an current figure to be about $20 per hour, by analogy to the figures for MacDonalds mentioned in comments today, then we’re talking about an equivalent income of something like $100,000 a year today, which can’t have been that many people.

    Almost all writing on this subject, whatever its point of view, suffers from a severe lack of historical imagination. Until at least 1945, the majority of the human race lived in Empires of one kind or another, and had done for thousands of years. The past is a different country, or imperial territory, if you like. If you take a walk over to today’s story about Spain, Algeria and Morocco, you’ll be reading about an area which was successively part of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empires, before being conquered by the Arabs in the 8th century, later to become part of the Ottoman Empire. But you’re not going to get much change out of that nice Mr Erdogan or the Saudi Royal Family if you try to lay a colonial guilt trip on them.

    1. Kevin Walsh

      I can’t find my copy of Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts, but from my recollection of it, Indian peasants were in fact taxed heavily by first the East India Company and then the Raj, and that these taxes essentially forced them to switch from subsistence farming to cotton farming. Furthermore, the deindustrialisation of India promoted by the Company meant that much of the middle class income that was taxed by the income tax would have been obtained by, essentially, forcing the peasantry into debt peonage.

      As for the postwar period, Malaysis was still a colony of Britain throughout the period, and remitted substantial amounts of tax money to the British Exchequer and while Britain’s African colonies were less profitable, Britain still held onto a lot of them until the 1960s.

      1. Kevin Walsh

        Found it:

        The index entry for “tax collection during famines” has pages 55-8, 60-62, 102, 113, 158-9 and 161-3.

        The page 102 reference is to a Dutch colony, so we can exonerate the British Empire for that one. The page 113 entry is for Egypt, which not yet a British colony but where tax revenue was controlled on behalf of largely foreign creditors by the Franco-British Dual Control Commission. The other entries are for British India – basically land taxes on peasants.

        As you might guess from the name of the entry, the tax authorities involved in all cases did not, in the face of famine, apply tax relief, but insisted on payment in full.

        1. Synoia

          To support your data, I’d add that the British referred to India as “The Jewel in the Crown” which illustrates the value the British placed on India.

    2. KD

      While I am not an economist, I would disagree. The period of colonialism lead to the discovery and marketing of a number of New World goods (chocolate, tobacco, sugar, coffee, etc.) as well as textiles and related items in India, and slaves from Africa (as labor for production of New World goods). This provided resources for British (and European) industry, as well as markets for European goods. Control of trade provided tariffs and other revenues. It is hard to see how Europe would have developed without colonization.

      With respect to India, the British ended up seizing control long after they were extensively enmeshed in commerce with the Indians. It is probably true that the expenses of maintaining the empire were a dead weight, provided India could do it for themselves without sacrificing the British interests, but those expenses were put in place in the first place to insure stability for British commercial interests.

      1. juno mas

        …so like today, the military is needed to protect business interests, not the plebes!

      2. Synoia

        One must add the Looting of the Native tribes of their land, by the (British) settlers in the US.

        It is clear that the Looters had a plan in place for conquest following the French and Indian war in N America.

    3. dommage

      For a withering refutation of David’s traditional “Britain did not benefit economically from its colonies” argument see “The Drain of Wealth:
      Colonialism before the First World War” by Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik,

      “With few exceptions, the literature on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial transition in the core countries ignores the drain of wealth, or transfers, from the colonies. The mainstream interpretation posits a purely internal dynamic for the rise of capitalist industrialization, and some authors even suggest that the colonies were a burden on the metropolis, which would have been better off without them…. In the case of India, the concept of drain is based on the fact that a substantial part, up to one third of total rupee tax revenues, was not spent in a regular manner but was used to acquire goods, which were exported and earned gold and foreign exchange from the world. However, these earnings, representing international purchasing power, were never permitted to accrue to the country; they were instead appropriated by the ruling power. The study by Folke Hilgerdt on the pattern of global trade balances and a detailed empirical investigation of Britain’s region-wide trade by S. B. Saul tell us that the gold and foreign exchange earned as export surplus by the tropical colonies, and preeminently by India (and treated by Britain as its own earnings), became so large from the last quarter of the nineteenth century that it underpinned the process of the rapid diffusion of capitalism.3 This took place through Britain’s large-scale capital exports, using its colonies’ export surplus earnings, that hastened the industrialization of Europe and regions of new European settlement. The other side of the process was declining per capita food availability and pauperization of the masses in the colonies.”

    4. PlutoniumKun

      The flows of wealth can be quite complex, as I’m often reminded when I explore hidden parts of Ireland and visit some ‘great houses’ that had truly extraordinary sums of money lavished on them back in the 18th Century. Ireland was both a victim and a beneficiary of colonialism, as the Anglo Irish elite (and their associated PMC) benefited greatly from the flow of wealth, and I’m sure that was the case in all colonies, to some degree or other (the exception maybe being the Belgian Congo as the Belgians seem to have been particularly ruthless in their asset stripping). India had its own elites who were happy to take their cut from colonialism. Anglican cathedrals in Ireland are stuffed with memorials to ambitious young men who died in obscure battles in Asia.

      A key element in assessing if a country was genuinely asset stripped by colonialism is the pattern of infrastructure. In Malaysia, the network of roads and railways was designed for one end only – getting rubber out of the country to supply the industries of the developed world. The Japanese of course took advantage of these in their invasion, using the wide rubber plantation roads (by bike) as the fast track to Singapore. But this wasn’t just a factor in colonised countries – Argentina has a rail network seemingly designed to get its beef and resources out of the country as fast as possible without any processing. This is a key reason why it seems never to have developed beyond a simple extraction economy. To an extent the same applies to Brazil. Sometimes a countries own elites are the worst colonisers.

      1. David

        Yes, it’s obviously the case that individuals became very rich from Empires of different kinds. But that’s not, of course, what this article is about. You can only comment, in the end, on what an article says, not what it might have said, or should have said. And what it says is poorly argued and badly supported, if at all. You can’t give an article credit just because you think its author is in principle on the right side of an argument.

        The fixation with India obscures the reality of the rest of the Empire. Imperialism, as opposed to trade, was never popular with the British professional and financial classes, who resented paying the taxes required to garrison colonies, especially in Africa. The Treasury hated colonies and tried to stop them being established, the military worried about protecting them, and the Foreign Office saw them as entangling Britain in potential conflicts and worried that they would be a threat to its hegemony of foreign policy making. I remember being brought up on the anti-colonialist, marxist-influenced rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s – the Penguin African Library for example – and I assumed uncritically then that the kind of things this article said were in fact true. But there’s a new generation of scholarship now, by people like Duncan Bell, who’ve actually been to the archives and looked at the original documents and followed the original controversies, and obviously the picture that emerges is much more complex. By comparison, this article reads like an undergraduate essay from my university days.

      2. eg

        PK writes, “Sometimes a countries own elites are the worst colonisers.” Sometimes? I think since the mid-20th century that’s become “always” …

  8. Hargrove

    Grandfather learned English and trade skills invented and taught by Englishmen. That was payment enough.

    What would India, Pakistan of for that matter, Hong Kong, be without having been colonized by England?

    Look to SouthEast Asia for a clue.

    1. Lex

      Who knows, but they may likely have had fewer famines and wars. You do realize that the Iron Age didn’t begin in England, right?

      Perhaps the better question to ask is what would England have been if not for its empire of piracy, slaving and the drug trade given that essentially those are the foundations of the British empire. Consider that Caribbean sugar or English slave plantations produced more calories than all the farmland of England was capable of providing. Or how the details of English capitalism were perfected on those plantations where human life was to calculated at 7 years to bring the appropriate return on investment. After that it was a depreciated cost and required replacement.

    2. Kouros

      You know how Hong Kong was established, do you? Mexican cartels have nothing to teach the British…

    3. Kevin Walsh

      “If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947. Indeed, in the last half of the nineteenth century, income probably declined by more than 50 percent…from 1872 to 1921, the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 percent” – Late Victorian Holocausts, chapter 10.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      The Brits are welcome to correct me, but I believe India was the first case of large scale outsourcing. Cottons from India substantially replaced UK textiles. I think woolens stayed in the UK, but the impact of the displacement was still severe. Home linen work, particularly fine embroidery, had been an important source of income for subsistence farmers, since it was paid, at home women’s work. That plus the enclosure movement impoverished formerly self-supporting families, forcing them into cities and towns to try to find industrial work. Depending on who you believe, the standard of living of mid and low wage workers in the UK fell for at least the first generation under the Industrial Revolution, and some contend for as long as two.

      1. Taliesin

        A Brit and happy to correct you.

        “Cottons from India substantially replaced UK textiles” is incorrect and the exact opposite of what happened during the first 150 years of this trade. The manufacture in the UK of cotton cloth was so efficient and low cost that exports to India and elsewhere badly impacted local manufacturers. Circa 1890 / 1910 the situation began to reverse and post WW2 cotton manufacture from low cost countries, including India, took over export markets previously sourced from the UK. You are correct that the impact of this on UK cotton manufacture was severe but this happened not in 1760’s or 1860’s but in the 1950/ 1960’s.

        I don’t understand your reference to “Home linen work, particularly fine embroidery” and suspect you mean cotton and wool out-work i.e. such as spinning and weaving these materials at home. Linen manufacture was only a very small part of the UK textile industry (wag is less than 3%) and fine embroidery even less. However the transfer of cotton and wool work from home to “dark satanic mills” was a feature of the early Industrial Revolution and had nothing whatsoever to with India.

        The impact of Enclosures was not significant in the overall movement from agricultural to factory work which was largely a voluntary movement where agricultural labourers and some subsistence farmers appreciated that the wages and conditions of the factories were an improvement over their existing conditions. The same thing happened in the USA in late 19th century and in late 20th century China where workers were not “forced” to move to the Cities but made the rational decision to move away from the poor, very hard and uncertain life of subsistence level agriculture to something they deemed to be a better alternative.

        Your assertions re standard of living of low wage earners in the first generation of the IR lacks detail and thus I cannot comment on it.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          It is absolutely false that the enclosure movement did not contribute to the move to factories. Many families depended on being able to have a sheep graze on common pastureland. A review of the literature shows that while agricultural production arguably rose, enclosure most assuredly did displace many formerly independent peasant families and forced them into the labor markets. There were contemporary protests.

          And early factory work was not better. Go read Marx and Engels on the sweatshop conditions in early families. By contrast, pamphlets at the time argued that peasants had it too easy:
          Yasha Levine: Recovered Economic History – “Everyone But an Idiot Knows That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, or They Will Never Be Industrious”

  9. juno mas

    Hmmm, could this article be a prelude to the British version of the “1619 Project”?

    1. Chops

      It would be a very different thing. It sometimes seems to me that in the UK, lunatic government ministers (e.g. that caricature of a Victorian) push this much harder than any actual citizens.

  10. Eclair

    Yes, Colonel, and the Swedes who remained in the home land learned a lesson from this debacle and developed a series of social safety nets, including state-paid long parental leaves, tuition-free post-secondary education, and national health care. Unfortunately, this system is constantly under attack.

    They also revamped their language to reflect the ‘abolition’ of the aristocracy (although, like cockroaches, the aristocracy of almost any nation manages to survive the hard times), doing away, if I remember correctly, with the use of the second person plural used by those of lower station (or age) when speaking with a person of higher station (or age.)

    Not to say that Sweden is a completely egalitarian society. Most of my husband’s cousins remain comfortably working class in Småland, the poor province from which the majority of Swedes emigrated. And, which is the home province of Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, who fled to Switzerland for decades to avoid Sweden’s ‘high’ taxes, returning only to die on his native soil. He has another branch, in the two big cities, upper middle class professionals, descended from the daughter of a widowed great-grand-aunt, who was, we believe, paid off (perhaps with money for the ship passage for herself and two remaining children) to leave behind said 8 year old daughter to be adopted by a childless, wealthy merchant and his wife.

    1. Eclair

      Ack, this is a reply to Colonel Smither’s reply to my post above.

      And, an addendum: Sweden actually invaded Russia in the early 1700’s.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Eclair. I am very grateful.

        Further to the Swedish upper class, they have survived and prospered and often married with the British and German upper classes. I went to school with some and have dealt with some as a banker.

        Their discrete and business led influence is one of the driving forces behind the chipping away of Sweden’s social safety net and tilt towards NATO as exemplified by former PM Carl Bildt.

    2. JohnA

      To Eclair
      They also revamped their language to reflect the ‘abolition’ of the aristocracy (although, like cockroaches, the aristocracy of almost any nation manages to survive the hard times), doing away, if I remember correctly, with the use of the second person plural used by those of lower station (or age) when speaking with a person of higher station (or age.)
      It is a bit more complicated than that. It was originally more along the lines of the Spanish usted in the 3rd person. Ie not even the French vous, more a sentence construction ‘Would the gentleman like to..’ when addressing said gentleman. Then came the ni/du, er/dig that corresponds to the french vous/tu. And even the you/thou/thee in English. Then came the wave of abolishing this ni/du and keeping the ni as plural (the English kept the polite plural and abolished thee/thou except when talking to God). The saying was ‘ska vi lägga bort titlarna’ ie drop the titles and switch to du.
      Strangely, there has been a kind of younger generation wave of reviving the difference. I was surprised to be addressed as ni by a shop assistant in Stockholm some time ago.

      1. Eclair

        JohnA, thank you for your clarification. I always find it fascinating to track these changes in languages.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      Also holds for the northern part of the US, where the Swedes settled and often dominated local communities. Much more egalitarian and community values than you find in the US generally.

      And I am 1/4 Swedish! Maternal grandmother was the first child in her family to be born here. Father got established as a carpenter, then homebuilder. Brough oldest son over first, then his wife and other kids.

      1. Eclair

        Yes, Yves. And I wonder how much of that egalitarianism was (is) a product of the the Free Evangelical Church that so many of the Swedish immigrants belonged to. One usually thinks of the Swedes as Lutheran. That was the official State religion, as well as an effective means of social control.

        Swedish genealogy researchers love the Church Books, kept by each parish priest. Here, they recorded each and every life event: births, baptisms, deaths, relocations. The East German STASI pales beside the Lutheran Church’s far-reaching tentacles into every aspect of Swedish lives, including yearly examinations on their grasp of the Catechism. Eat your heart out, Mao!

        So, as many of the the peasants, sort of religious anarchists, began to lean towards a more free-wheeling, Bible-based, non-hierarchal, version, they were discriminated against. One more reason, aside from starvation and penury, for heading for North America.

        There were two Swedish Free Evangelical churches in the small town in New York where my husband’s extended family lives. They later became subsumed into the local Lutheran Parishes and the small wooden church buildings were destroyed.

  11. Joe Well

    It is stunning that “Empire” was a slur flung on each other by the US and USSR, where it was just taken for granted it was a bad thing, and yet some kind of media bubble makes many Brits think this is inherently a far left position.

  12. Sausage Factory

    The phantom pains of Empire languish everlong in the UK. The reality is that it is a massively indebted feudalist oligarchy, where the serfs meagre earnings are worth less every year but profits soar for the corporate interests and monopolies. The UK establishment are as deluded as the Americans which is why they fit together so well in their bubble of cognitive dissonance. This little spat with the Russians has woken them up somewhat and is beginning to show them their real place in the pecking order, namely dumping obsolete weaponry (for a price) from a distance onto the losing side in the hope of tripping the bear up and giving it a sore toe.

    1. Martin Davis

      Any mention of feudalism is silly. Our modern ‘aristocracy’ is almost entirely parvenue, themselves replacing previous generations of parvenue. What’s sillier is the formal ‘aristocratic’ facade: Royal Family, House of Lords, etc.. Behind it lurks the usual suspects: neoliberal capitalists to the hilt. Real capita income earnings in the UK are similar to other Western European countries, but the distribution is different (i.e. more unequal). ‘Serfs’ – too highly coloured dear sir. Mere wage slaves, that is all. Too true about the delusions, though.

  13. eg

    Yves, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has found Ferguson’s devolution painful to witness.

  14. Diogenes

    British taxation from its colonial subjects is similar to US extraction (i) from world trade through the dollar being the world reserve currency and (ii) from the third world by US-controlled IMF policies, and World Bank lending. This US extraction is similar to colonial taxation.

    That is, by agriculture, oil and much if not most of world trade being conducted in dollars, the US has fabricated a demand for dollars that allows the US to finance its balance of payments deficit. Likewise, this manufactured dollar demand and US post-WW II industrial dominance has enabled the US to find buyers for its bonds to finance the US budget deficit. This entitled, uni-polar, out-dated view now dominates the US neoliberal establishment.

    Essentially, it results in the rest of the world financing US military adventures.
    This is the modern US version of colonial taxation.
    Through this reserve currency tax scheme, the entire world in some respects becomes a US colony.

    Now the US through neoliberalism has taken extraction to an extreme by extracting its own US industrial dominance away from the US–for the benefit of a tiny US elite. This reserve currency tax of course is now collapsing, following the same collapse of the British taxation of its colonies.

  15. nothing but the truth

    EIC (the original multinational) extracted as much taxes as it could, spent some on administration, and used the leftover “profits” to buy Indian goods, and export them to the UK. (some 10-12% of Indian gdp)

    So basically it was a trader which had no cost, the cost was to the Indian taxpayer. India lost 10-12% of gdp to Britain. That explains all that fancy public architecture in the UK and eagerness for war (a difficult habit to lose, given Mr Bozo’s insistence on getting as many Ukrainian kids killed as possible).

    This is why Indian economy was destroyed and had practically no capital accumulation during the British rule.

Comments are closed.