With ‘official’ history as a guide, to many Indians, the Colonial Raj is a mix of clichés and propaganda.
India’s squalor, poverty, disease make many believe that India has always been a historically backward nation. Recent progress and successes make another group believe that we are on the thresh-hold of being a world power.
Both standpoints project current national status backward and forward. It may be instructive to take a dispassionate view of the Indian economy around the 1857, when hundreds of thousands of Indians rose as one against the British Raj.
India and Europe – study in contrasts
From 9th century to the 15th century, Europe was grappling with rampant Church persecution. The Bhakti and the Sufi movements were harmonising Indian belief systems. These movements led the Indian society to a forward-looking, integrative approach. Guru Nanak’s belief systems (Sikhism) and his approach to spreading the creed (make your eldest son my disciple) started making a difference.
While the Levant and the Occident were at each others throats, in the crusades, Islam and Hinduism had begun to acquire a critical balance with each other. Open hostility had receded at a social level (Kabir, Guru Nanak, Akbar, Tansen) and continued, intermittently, at a political level – for instance Aurangzeb.
The Vijaynagar kingdom (after the sacking in 1565, and the rump rulers) was the center of trade for India’s main exports – spices (from the South India and SE Asian archipelago), Wootz steel from the Deccan plateau, a multitude of silk centers from the Deccan and Southern coastal towns were the major exports. India’s biggest import was gold.
Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the trade route (May 20, 1498) expanded market for Indian goods and brought European buyers to India, laden with gold (looted from the New World). The monopoly of the Arab trade was broken. This started a gold rush to begin trade with India. Over the next 70 years, major European, formed chartered companies.
Britain was the first off the mark – with the English East India Company formed in the 1600. The Dutch started soon after with the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Co.) in 1602. The Danish Opperhoved initially started in 1616 and was reborn in 1732, as Asiatisk Kompagni. The Portuguese organised themselves as chartered company in 1628. The French came with the French East India Co. in 1664. The Swedes joined the rat race in 1731 with Svenska Ostindiska Companiet. The Italians came in as the Genoa East India companies. The Hanseatic League had its own operations.
The use of slave labour in huge quantities, the loot of gold from North and South Americas, Australia and Africa was exactly the opposite of trade based economy in India. For instance, slave produced cotton from America was cheaper than Indian cotton. During the American Civil War, when cotton production suffered, it set off a boom in India.
Indian Exports – 1700
Between 1707 (Death of Aurangzeb), and 1757, the Battle of Plassey, the Indian economy was booming. 3 significant sectors which contributed to this boom. Apart from significant agrarian output – spices, timber, Indigo, etc. Indian industrial output was a major item in our goods basket – fabric, gems and jewellery and metals. India was a technology leader in these industrial sectors.
Precision Cutting Tools
South India was the only source of diamonds till middle 18th century. Being the hardest, natural substance on Earth, diamond cutting was a high technology industry and India monopolized this business till the 14th century. From circa 6th century, we have the Buddha Bhatta’s text “Ratnapariksha” which served as a manual for Indian gemologists. The French traveller Tavernier reputedly (call it ancient industrial espionage) took that technology to Europe.
Brazilian diamond finds in 1725, the South African discovery in 1866-67 changed the supply equation. The auction of Napoleon III’s French Royal diamonds in 1871 brought diamonds in limelight. Boucheron, Bapst along with Tiffany and Co. cleaned up this auction. The Koh-i-noor continues to captivate the minds of people.
It is this skill and technology acquired over the centuries that makes India into a global hub for diamonds. The diamond cutting dominance by India is by now a 2500 year old phenomenon.
While on cutting tools, one cannot forget the role of lubricants. The finest lubricants is castor oil – which was identified, grown and a monopoly of India till 1950s. Only in the 1960’s did other synthetic fuels and lubricants start competing with castor oil. It has ‘incredible film strength’ – and can resist tremendous pressure. It’s superior ‘wetting ability’ makes it also very effective. One expert on extracting performance from go-kart vehicles says,
“For consistently squeezing that last bit of performance out of your engine, it’s pretty hard to beat castor oil as the lubricant in your fuel.’
What special about castor oil: ‘Two words – IT WORKS.’
As late as 1908, Indian metallurgical skills were known and acknowledged in Europe – the then economic and technological powerhouse of the world.
The high quality of the native-made iron, the early anticipation of the processes now employed in Europe for the manufacture of high-class steels, and the artistic products in copper and brass gave India at one time a prominent position in the metallurgical world. (Page 128 – The Imperial Gazetteer of India: Vol Iii; Originally published in 1908. Author: The Indian Empire Language: English).
The Ashoka pillar made of steel, now in New Delhi, is a marvel of metallurgy. For more than 1600 years, it has stood in the rain, exposed to scorching sun, freezing winters and buried under the earth for a few years.
Still shining. No rust. And no deterioration. Estimated at 6-7 tons in weight, nearly 70 feet in height – and cast in a single block. There are reputedly other such pillars at Dhar and Kodachadri (Karnataka).
Konark Sun Temple (related to Sun Temple at Karnak, Egypt?) used about 2000 tons of lodestone and iron clamps. No mortar, no bricks. Iron clamps helped to keep up parts of this structure in the air based on magnetic repulsion. The iron beams survived for more than 700 years. The Jagannath Puri temple has similar quality and vintage of steel.
As the source (for Konark temple) Dharmapad, recounts, Narasimha Dev, the ruling king, ordered the sculptors to complete construction earlier than the estimated time – with accompanying threats. The team could not keep up with the king’s schedule, and the Sutradhar (Chief Architect) Sri Sibei Samantaray was sidelined. Another architect was assigned the job of completing this work. The newly appointed Sutradhar did complete the work by the stipulated time – but since he did not have the plans, structural inconsistencies crept in.
Wootz steel, was the preferred input in the world, for swords, pistols and such. Known as Damascus steel, it went into Japanese Katanas, European guns. The famed Damascus steel swords, armour and pistols, used steel ingots imported from India as Wootz steel. Indian exports of Wootz was a big earner for India till British efforts killed this industry in India. Subsequent efforts to “reverse engineer” this technology in Europe during the 20th century, has been unsuccessful. Damascus was the trading centre over which the Battle of Kadesh, the biggest chariot battle, was fought between the Indo-Aryan Hittites and the Egyptian Pharoah Ramesses-II fought.
The world’s first suspension bridge, at Menai Straits, in Britain, used Indian steel. Colonial geologists, Pataki Krishna Chaterjee and Thomas Henry Diggs La Touche, noticed that,
“….its (iron’s) superiority is so marked, that at the time when the Britannia tubular bridge across the Menai Straits was under construction preference was given to the use of iron produced in India”.
Was British reluctance and obstruction to Tata Steel plans in early 20th century a result of fear of Indian steel making prowess? Between the Mittals and the Tatas, Indians dominate the world of steel again.
Historical irony in the making?
Fiber, Fabric & Weaving
For 3000 years, Indian fibre and weaving ruled the world. King Cotton and Golden Fibre Jute. While the King cotton story is well-known, Dhaka muslin was till the 20th century the finest cloth you could buy.
Indian silks competed with the Chinese.
What is not so well-known is the cultivation of Jute. Jute, Indian Hemp, Hessian, Burlap, – different names for the same fibre, was the monopoly packing material, till the 1960s – as it was the best packing material for wide variety of goods. Western efforts at ‘beggar thy neighbour’, created some synthetic fiber alternatives that are more expensive – and not in the same class. A new application for Jute is its use in making car interiors and panels.
Model Of Vasco Da Gama's nau
50 years before Independence, a 100 years ago, India was one of the largest ship building countries in the world. Indian shipbuilding was centered along the Western Coast in Kalyan, Bhivandi and Mumbai, in South India at Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) and in Bengal at Chittagong and Hooghly. The “modern era” began with the building of a dry dock at Bombay about 1750; a second was erected in Calcutta about 1780. During the 19th century, the industry was in a period of expansion and prosperity. However, for the last 100 years, the yards have been in a general decline.
During Shivaji’s reign, as per estimates, more than 300 ships of 300 tons capacity were launched. The Wadias alone built more than 350 ships – during 1735-1863 170 war vessels for the East India Company, 34 man-of-war defence vessels for the British Navy, 87 merchant vessels for private firms, and three vessels for the Queen of Muscat at Bombay docks. After the Bombay Port Trust was formed in 1870, the shipbuilding on the Western Coast moved to Mumbai. In 1872, Jamshedji Wadia, from a Parsi ship-building family, constructed the “Cornwallis”, a frigate with 50 guns, bought by the East India Company. This led to several orders from the British Navy.
Bengal was the other major port where ship building was for global markets. Chittagong was the center for shipbuilding (now in Bangladesh). The Turkish Navy (a major world power till WWI) was a major customer. The Mughal and British navies were the other significant defence customers. Merchants cargo ships were in significant demand. Ma Huan, the famous chronicler and interpreter of Zheng He (also called Cheng Ho) voyages, during the Ming dynasty, studied boat building in Bengal during the early 15th century (1400-1410).
The third major center for ship building was Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) port – which was a major center of exports of steel, diamonds, saltpetre (potassium nitrate, for gunpowder, to kill Indians, Negroes, Aborigines and Red Indians with) from the Deccan plateau.
These buyers preferred Indian ships, because of better jointing technology and elimination of metal sheeting. Indian shipbuilders had a special system where wood was seasoned in partial vacuum, with oils for timber improvement. British shipbuilders, colonialists ensured through tariff and other barriers, that Indian shipbuilding “was prevented from continuing to develop, even though it had a proven ability to adapt to changing technological needs” – and thus finally killing it. British naval superiority rested on Indian ships – and paid for by exploitation of Indian resources.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s ocean-going ship, the Sao Gabrielcame to India. The Portuguese caravel are well-known. But what do the Portuguese call their ocean-going ships? Nau. Yes, nau as in Hindi, for boat. Few of these Indian built ships have been recovered in various parts of the world. Indian shipbuilding expertise ruled the world – till colonialism killed it.
During the 13th to 19th century, Europe, Britain and America suffered from many epidemics – plague, influenza, small pox, typhus, TB and others. Africa, China and Levant suffered – but lesser. In the history of epidemics, India’s name is missing – much like in the slavery roster. India joined the epidemics list after the start of colonial rule – the result of an ignorant and indifferent administration, to be generous.
What is it that Indians did, that eliminated their name from epidemics roster before the arrival of colonial rule?
Use of copper for storage of water, among many practices. (Taking a bath daily was another, for instance).
Recent tests have confirmed that copper has significant negative effect on e.coli organisms, when contaminated water is stored in copper vessels. Traditional copper vessels used for water storage, disinfected water naturally. Similarly the use of silver reduced infection rates.
Why did this stop?
With colonial exploitation, famines and scarcity increased. The marginal members of society had to sell their copper and start using earthen pots which have reduced effectiveness. Crime increased in colonial India – by the actions of the Raj itself. Post -colonial Indian society was ‘modernizing.’ So they decided to upgrade to stainless steel – which has no such properties. Hence, water-borne diseases continue to hit India.
Indians pioneered the use of ‘variolation’ to prevent small pox – and spread of this system to Africa and Middle East reduced small pox deaths. Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, wife a British ambassador, introduced variolation to England during early 1700s (estimated date 1717). Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur discovered vaccination more than 75 years after these practices started getting used in Europe.
After 1857 – a war of a different kind
Unable to gain military advantage, British armed forces used Indian human populations as human shield. For each military success of the Indian armies, the British armies exacted retribution on the local non-combatant populations. This reign of terror and brutality on Indian populations disarmed the Indian armies and they ended the war.
And Britain started a more insidious war – a propaganda war. History started getting twisted, perverted, mutilated – and over the next 100 years, Indian and world history was changed beyond recognition.
In fact, after 1857, racist propaganda and cultural baggage came covertly – to gain better traction at home and in the colonies. For instance, Priya Joshi, a researcher shows that after 1857, book shipments from Britain to India increased by a factor of three.
The most interesting bit is the cold-blooded murder of the historical Semiramis. You will find that Semiramis as an Assyrian Queen till the 1850-60 period histories. Suddenly, all books from 1860 onwards, treat Semiramis as a wanton, decadent, probably mythical, a perverted sluttish character.
Mired in legend and prejudice, Semiramis is discredited in modern Western history – especially starting from 1853-1857. Her very existence denied, accused of incest, Semiramis has been tarred and condemned to the rubbish heap of modern history – and the Bible. Semiramis established an empire that lasted, practically till WW1. Some 300 years, after the reign of Semiramis, the Assyrian Empire passed into Persian hands. From the Persians, into Alexander’s lap.
Alexander’s raid of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, finally turned out to be an overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty, usurpers of the Assyrian Empire. Unable to make headway into India, as the Indian Brahmins who had influenced Indian princes to organize and support the Indian war against Alexander. Greek sources cite, after this realization, at ‘The City of Brahmans’, Alexander massacred an estimated 8000-10,000 of these non-combatant Brahmans.
Alexander’s massacres in India, a colonial historian informs us (without naming a source), earned him an “epithet … assigned (to) him by the Brahmins of India, The Mighty Murderer.” This Indian Brahmanic characterization of Alexander, commonly taught to English schoolchildren and present in English college texts, as The Mighty Murderer, curiously disappeared from Western-English texts soon after 1860 – and instead now “a positive rose-tinted aura surrounds Alexander” … !
Behind this propaganda
A man who is much (wrongly) admired in India today – Max Mueller. For instance in Max Muller’s colonial propagandist history, when it comes to Indian triumphs over Semiramis, she becomes half-legendary. Yet in another book, the same Semiramis becomes one of ‘the great conquerors of antiquity.’ In a matter of a few pages, he dismisses Indian history completely, in a half-Hegelian manner.
Aiding Max Mueller, English poets were press ganged into this propaganda war. Matthew Arnold wrote how, India, a ‘philosopher’s nation’, from
“The East bowed low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain,
She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.”
Matthew Arnold’s influence in Indian education can be gauged by Indian-English language poetry, that was for long derisively called as “ Matthew Arnold in a Saree”. Just before 1857 War, the writing of another ‘influential’ poet, John Keats, became popular. In a hubristic haze, Keats wrote how,
The kings of Ind their jewel-sceptres vail,
And from their treasures scatter pearled hail;
Great Brahma from his mystic heaven groans,
And all his priesthood moans,
Before young Bacchus’ eye-wink turning pale.
Much of modern history’s debates and questions were born during this time – verily created to wage a propaganda war against India – and the world. India’s cultural stature in the pantheon of world’s societies was reduced to a minimal role – and the Greek Miracle was born.
This propaganda war continued well for another 100 years. In the middle of WW2, Britain pulled out a general from the Italian theatre of war and sent him to India – to head colonial India archaeological operations.
One evening in early August 1943, Brigadier General Mortimer Wheeler was resting in his tent after a long day of poring over maps, drawing up plans for invasion of Siciliy. Mortimer Wheeler was invited to become the director general of archaeology by the India Office of the British government in its last years of rule in South Asia … Summoning a general from the battlefields of Europe was an extraordinary measure, an admission both of the desperate condition of Indian archaeology and an acknowledgment of its vital importance. (from The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture … – Google Books).
Why would the glorious British Empire, on which the sun never set, struggling for its very existence, in the middle of WW2, suddenly pull a general back from the battlefield – and put him into archaeology! Especially, when it was clear that they would be departing from India – sooner than later.
Considering what theories came from Mortimer Wheeler’s rather fertile ‘imagination’ and his rigourous archaeological process, raises even more questions. There may be the facile answer that the British were after all ‘searching for history and truth’.
And it led Mortimer Wheeler to remark,
“They demonstrate with astonishing clarity the extent to which the brief transit of Alexander did in fact Hellenize almost instantly vast tracts of Asia populated previously by nomads or semi-nomads and villagers”
It is this one incident which possibly has answers to many unanswered questions like: -
- The amount of energy expended by the West in defending the Aryan Invasion /Migration Theory,
- The lack of access to Indian scholars of the archaeological sites in Pakistan,
- The many myths in Indian history,
- The clues to the partition of India
- The dating problems
Just why did the world’s foremost imperial power, struggling for its very existence, suddenly pull a general from the battle field, in the middle of WW2 – and put him on the job of digging dirt.
Only one explanation fits – it had to be a struggle for its own existence at a higher level!
5000 Years Of Poverty
By the end of the 19th century, Colonial India was de-urbanising. Populations in Indian agrarian network was increasing. Agricultural taxes were high. Hence, food production declined. Famines had become a regular feature. Industrial production was a distant memory. British colonial rule – especially from 1925 onwards, drastically changed the economic situation in India. From the richest to the poorest in a short period of a 100 years.
Tragically, our illustrious Finance Minister, P.Chidambaram says “I want to end 5000 years of poverty” in the Parliament and the media. In contrast, at various fora, there are discussions about how India will become a super power in this century.
While Chidambaram is factually incorrect, Indophiles are unrealistic. They fondly hope and believe that India is a one step away from being a super power. At best, we have a unique history. To improve the outlook on India’s uncertain future, a better understanding of our situation and more investments (not only money) are required.
Recent macro-economic research and modeling gives an interesting perspective on Indian economy through the last 1000 years. This shows that for much of the last 1000 years, India has been a significant economic power till the 1900 or so.
Rush for credit
Now that India is no longer a ‘basket case’ there are people lining up to take credit for India’s success. Fronting the queue are some from the Indian Diaspora – the likes of Lord Meghnad Desai and Jagdish Bhagwati. Or from the West. For instance, Angus Maddison, writes, in The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India
“British imperialism was more pragmatic than that of other colonial powers. Its motivation was economic, not evangelical. There was none of the dedicated Christian fanaticism which the Portuguese and Spanish demonstrated in Latin America and less enthusiasm for cultural diffusion than the French (or the Americans) showed in their colonies. For this reason they westernized India only to a limited degree.”
Mr.Maddison, British ‘pragmatism’ sprang from the fierceness of the 1857 War. It was the Indian backlash to cultural imperialism, that made British rulers change their policy. The implied enlightenment, modernism of the British, by Shri Maddison, is entirely misplaced.
Initially, in matters of religious conversions the English copied the Spanish. The Chairman of the Directors of the East India Company, Ross Donnelly Mangles, piously declared in the British House Of Commons–
“Providence has entrusted the extensive empire of Hindustan to England, in order that the banner of Christ should wave triumphant from one end of India to the other. Everyone must exert all his strength that there may be no dilatoriness on any account in continuing in the country the grand work of making India Christian.”.
It took a revolution in the Haiti to start the end of the Spanish Empire – and the 1857 War Of Independence in India to end the English campaign to ‘convert the heathen’ and ‘civilize the pagan Hindoos’. After the 1857 War Of Independence, the Colonial India Government printed leaflets in tens and thousands confirming the British policy had changed. One commentator noted, these leaflets informed the local Indian population that “that she (Queen Victoria) would not interfere with the religion of the native, or countenance any favoritism in matters of faith.” (bold letters mine).
In all this congratulations about the Rise of India, what is forgotten, ignored, at least never mentioned is the decline of Great Britain. Ironically, in various debates, Churchill who so well represented British attitudes, saw little future for India, after British departure. Events forced the British hand.
India, led by “men of straw,” has moved from being a ‘ship-to-mouth’ basket-case, to a significant economic and political success. Even though, Indians were after led by ‘men of straw … of whom no trace will be found after a few years’.
And the chief among them was a ‘half naked fakir‘.