1945 Britain – Imperial ambitions of a starving nation

Posted in British Raj, European History, History, India, politics by Anuraag Sanghi on December 30, 2009

After WWII, failure at something as basic as agriculture did not stop a Britain from nursing imperial ambitions.

"Food shortages in Britain" - Vicky (Victor Weisz) cartoon First published by Daily Mirror on 11 February 1955

“Food shortages in Britain” – Vicky (Victor Weisz) cartoon, first published by Daily Mirror on 11 February 1955

Britain, after WWII, seeing its colonies slip away one by one, was an anxious nation. Facing food shortages, the mood soon lapsed from anxiety to near-paranoia.

A symptom of that paranoia were villains that Ian Fleming created. Bullion-smuggling Auric Goldfinger or bio-warfare master Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Blofeld, in Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) is caught planning a germ-war against British agriculture.

Factually, British agriculture did not need a Blofeld to trigger a crisis. In doldrums for the previous hundred years, food-shortages till WWI were averted by massive imports – mainly from Russia. After WWII, it was US and Argentina that filled the gaps in food shortages.

But failure in something as basic as food shortages did not stop a Britain from nursing imperial ambitions.

Of Britain itself

It is a notorious weakness of Indian historians that they assume the British were far more clever and subtle than in fact they were. (from a book review Philip Ziegler, Not so duplicitous as painted, Thursday, 21st September 2006, from The Spectator).

Dependent on US food and economic aid, Europe rebuilt its economy with industrial exports based on a favorable exchange rate – much like Japan, Asian Tigers and China did later. His hand forced, Churchill had to call for elections, soon after WWII.

A starving, indebted Britain, took cold comfort in welfare state promises made by the Labour Party – and Clement Attlee (a sheep in sheep’s clothing as described by Churchill) became the Prime Minister of Britain.

Without assured raw-materials sources and protected markets, (especially India), British exports nosedived. The British economy collapsed in the next few decades. British Coal, Railways, Steel, automobile industry, ship-building went into a terminal decline – never to recover.

Memory lapses

Sixty years after decolonization of India, with memories dimmed, Western writers and academics credit British for decolonization and lay the burden of the Partition-related communal violence at Indian doorsteps.

“British government conceded Indian self-rule, they thought this the right thing to do. What would have happened to the Koreans or the Vietnamese if a local Gandhi had tried such tactics against the brutal Japanese kempetai or the French with their mercenaries from Morocco and Senegal? It was not that Gandhi was successful but that the British were forbearing … Gandhi’s tactics only work if the other side lets it …”(from Christie Davies’ Blog The Social Affairs Unit).

"The idea is to spray a little around the kitchen the smell of frying bacon permeates through the house whets the appetite"

“The idea is to spray a little around the kitchen the smell of frying bacon permeates through the house whets the appetite” says cartoonist NEB (Ronald Niebour) First published by The Daily Mail on 20 December 1951

Abdication! … retreat? … fait accompli.

This is an argument worth looking at.

Was Britain, after WWII, in any shape to impose, concede, accede or reject any position by the Indian leadership or the population.

But before that, an interesting extract about the handover of power to India.

But even as it bade farewell, Britain was to visit two disasters on the subcontinent. One was Attlee’s appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy. Conceited, impatient, and breathtakingly arrogant, he took to the grandeur and the raw power of the job with unholy relish.

Mountbatten decided that independence would come on August 1947, on the second anniversary of the day he had accepted the surrender of the Japanese in south-east Asia. Nothing was to stand in the way of this vainglory – not even the unresolved issue of Muslim demands for a separate state, and the gathering storm clouds of communal violence.

In a few summer weeks, colonial servants scribbled lines across the map of the mighty subcontinent, carving East and West Pakistan out of Mother India, and sparking a bloodbath so frightful that no one to this day knows exactly how many millions died. (via 1945-51: Labour and the creation of the welfare state | Politics | guardian.co.uk).

Like this article in The Guardian points out, Mountbatten’s August date for Indian independence was based more on his need to ‘celebrate’ his ‘personal’ milestones than ground realities in India.

"Now when daddy's broken it, we'll proceed anti-clockwise, to take a spoonful each." Cartoon by NEB (Ronald Niebour)First published by The Daily Mail on 24 March 1951

“Now when daddy’s broken it, we’ll proceed anti-clockwise, to take a spoonful each.” Cartoon by NEB (Ronald Niebour) First published by The Daily Mail on 24 March 1951

End of rationing

Potatoes, eggs, milk, cheese, petrol. clothes, meat and bacon (fish excluded) were all rationed – which finally ended in 1954. A huge bureaucracy and rules created an elaborate rationing system which finally ended 9 years after the end of the WWII – in 1954.

Reduction in Russian agricultural exports after Stalinist collectivization of farms, deprived war-ravaged Europe of a nearby source of agricultural commodities. In the Russia of  1953, one year before rationing ended in Britain, the year of Stalin’s death, grain production was below the level reached in 1913.

Instead, high cost food imports from Argentina were needed. This caused much angst and hand-wringing in the British Parliament. One British MP, Sir Waldron Smithers (Orpington), to revealingly, complain about how it “looks as if the Argentine Government took a nice commission of £49 million at the expense of the British taxpayer”. The same MP, Sir Waldron Smithers(Orpington), further referred to “an article which appeared in “Wall Street Journal, New York,” published in the “Evening Standard” on 13th March, with the title, “How to make 200 per cent. profit on wheat … The procedure is simple. Buy wheat from the farmers for £11 to £13 a ton—sell it to the bread-hungry British for £34 a ton.” This, according to the MP, was a price that, “tops the peaks of world war I and the Napoleonic wars … They know that Britain is short of food, and they are getting the highest prices they can.

"He must be very short this week - I've never seen him use a watch-repairers glass before." cartoon by NEB (Ronald Niebour) First published by The Daily Mail on 31 March 1951

“He must be very short this week – I’ve never seen him use a watch-repairers glass before.” cartoon by NEB (Ronald Niebour) First published by The Daily Mail on 31 March 1951

The break …

British and European farmers increased production as massive subsidies were lined up. A Europe-wide agricultural subsidy scheme named Common Agricultural Programme – (CAP) was put in place.

The CAP was instigated against the backdrop of food shortages and rationing after World War II, to stabilise European food markets while giving farmers a steady income and consumers low prices. (from Q&A: Farm funding row).

The CAP scheme was never withdrawn – and what was an emergency scheme, is now a US$70 billion behemoth.

The Gambia Egg Scheme

A desperate UK came out with schemes – non-union, low-cost, African ’employees’ would produce poultry and eggs, and groundnuts (scheme in Tanganyika), rice-and-fish in Nyasaland – ‘to assist in the rehabilitation of the motherland’, i.e. Britain.

The Colonial Development Corporation was set up to invest in the ‘development’ of the colonies. Schemes for ‘encouraging’ and ‘developing’ agriculture in the colonies were proposed and promoted. Each one a greater disaster than the other. Tired of food shortages, rationing, a desperate Britain announced

ill fated grandiose scheme that were heralded, with many a flourish of political trumpets, before grinding to an ignominious halt under the sheer weight of bureaucratic inertia and slipshod planning. The very names of these schemes – groundnuts from Tanganyika, eggs in Gambia, rice in Nyasaland – will evoke wry smiles among those whose memories can stretch back to the immediate postwar years, when “big is beautiful” caught the imagination of planners and politicans alike.

A groundnut scheme and eggs and poultry scheme became objects of much merriment, mirth, concern, and favorite objects of cartoonists – African groundnuts to Gambia egg ranches, ‘cost the Government a tremendous amount of public support‘. Post-War Britain, short of cooking fats, looked at Africa.

"Profiteer" and "Black Marketeer" saying "now we can skin him tax free", rabbit trapped in a hutch marked "British Public". Cartoonist Illingworth cartoon, June 27, 1946.

“Profiteer” and “Black Marketeer” saying “now we can skin him tax free”, rabbit trapped in a hutch marked “British Public”. Cartoonist Illingworth cartoon, June 27, 1946.

Frank Samuel, (managing director of the United Africa Company, a subsidiary of the large British corporation Unilever) suggested groundnuts cultivation in Tanganiyika. Tractors and equipment were airlifted from Canada and Philippines to the nearest airfield, and thence by sea to Dar-es-salaam. After landing at the Dar-es-salaam port, to be transported into the interior, rail tracks from Dar-es-salaam were washed away. Soil and rainfall were unsuitable – and the British taxpayer paid the price for these grand projects.

In 1949 the government had promised: “Within two years, British housewives will be getting 20 million eggs and 1,000,000 pounds of dressed poultry yearly from Gambia.”… The British government put $2,000,000 into a model poultry farm outside Bathurst, but disease and bad feed killed off the chick ens, and after production of 40,000 eggs—at $50 an egg—the farm was transformed into a teacher’s college … While waiting for the local feed supply to be produced, (to feed the chicks), the government authorized spending of more scarce dollars for American grain … Last week Colonial Secretary James Griffiths told the House of Commons that the plan had failed and would be abandoned. Reason: the government planners had regrettably failed to find out whether Gambian land would grow chicken feed. The fact: it would not.

The House of Commons, ever alert to possible cruelty toward dumb animals, had some questions. Richard Hurd, Tory member for the Newbury division of Berkshire, asked Griffiths: “Can the Minister tell us how the birds that will survive are to be fed for the next few months?”

End of WW2 did not end British problems. Illingworth's cartoon published on August 5, 1941. Churchill collecting rubbish into a sack, called "Britain's war problems" like "Dislocation of rail traffic" "Waste of coal" and "Local food shortage"

End of WWII did not end British problems. Illingworth’s cartoon published on August 5, 1941. Churchill collecting rubbish into a sack, called “Britain’s war problems” like “Dislocation of rail traffic” “Waste of coal” and “Local food shortage”

Tory members roared an answer: “On promises and groundnuts.” (This was a cruel reference to the government’s £36 million scheme for growing peanuts in Africa; failure of the groundnut scheme was announced Feb. 20.)

Edward Keeling, Tory member for Twickenham, asked Griffiths: “Can the Minister say if it is true, as was reported in the Daily Telegraph, that the new director of the scheme has stated, ‘I hate chickens’?” (From Time magazine articles; Foreign News: Scrambled Eggs, Monday, Mar. 12, 1951; and Gambia: Newest, Smallest Friday, Feb. 26, 1965).

In the dying days of the Raj

A defensive Britain, never one to lose sight of propaganda opportunity, used India’s ‘ship-to-mouth’ food shortages to diminish  the Indian economy. Even while grappling with the critical food situation at home. Or a war in Europe, British propaganda machine never stopped working.

In the middle of WWII, Britain pulled out a general from the Italian theatre of war and sent him to India – to head colonial India archaeological operations.

John Bull (Britain) pleading from Juan Peron (Argentina) for Food - Does Falklands make sense now?

John Bull (Britain) pleading from Juan Peron (Argentina) for Food – Does Falklands make sense now?

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 Sicily. 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 WWII, suddenly pull a general back from the battlefield – and put him into archaeology! That too, Indian archaeology. Not Egyptian, not Greek! Especially, when it was clear, that they would be departing from India – sooner rather than later.

Considering what theories came from Mortimer Wheeler’s rather fertile ‘imagination’ and his rigourous archaeological process, in hindsight, from a Western perspective, this was sound decision. The main targets for Mortimer were Takshashila and Indus Valley ruins. His ‘explorations’ 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 contains answers to many unanswered questions like: –

  1. The amount of energy expended by the West in defending the Aryan Invasion /Migration Theory
  2. The lack of access to Indian scholars of the archaeological sites in Pakistan
  3. The many myths in Indian history
  4. The clues to the partition of India
  5. The dating problems

et al.

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 WWII – and put him onto the job of digging dirt.

Would the US have funded Britain's Imperial ambitions?

Imperial ambitions! Funded by US? Cartoon by Illingworth, August 6, 1947. (Attlee, the bird feeding a large chicken “British Zone in Germany” taking up the entire nest of “British economy”. 3 malnourished chicks named “Import export gap”, “Food shortage” and “Controls”).

Underneath the Western sky

Making sense of the newly formed Indian nation was herculean task. After more than a century of propaganda, Western ‘education’, inversion of history, post-colonial Indian rulers struggled between the ‘glossy’ imported idioms and the familiar native dialogue.

Caught in this dilemma, the Indian State vacillates between a unique Indic inheritance and the detritus of dead-end colonialism.

The other aspect of the entire Independence debate was of British debt owed to India. After loading every clause and phrase in the terms of trade, in its own favour, Britain was a debtor nation to India.

Britain now owes £1,030,000,000 (about $4,500,000,000) in the form of sterling credit to India. Britain is unable to repay even a small part of the debt immediately, and does not want India to sell her sterling credit to the U.S. In time she hopes to pay her debt by sales of export goods to India. (from INDIA: The Wavell Plan, Monday, May. 21, 1945).

More interestingly, Jaswant Singh’s book brings out clearly, Jinnah’s shrill demands for 30% reservation in all of India to ’safeguard the interests’ of the erstwhile Muslim ‘ruling class’ left only the Congress, SC Bose and the Hindu Mahasabha as the spokesman for an India – and not for a narrow community, class or section.

1857 again …

What made Attlee finally see the futility of holding on to India was the Indian armed forces.

At the end of WWII, Britain was a ‘superpower’, intact with its huge colonial Empire – apart from the massive debt that it owed the US. With Germany defeated and Hitler dead, Italy in shambles and Mussolini hanged, Britain sat at the head of ‘high tables’ in the post-WWII world deciding the fate of the nations – with its partner in crime, the US of A.

The coming winter, Cartoon by Illingworth, October 1, 1945. Dark clouds over Britain. The storm clouds are 'Lend-Lease End', 'Food Shortage', 'Balkans', 'Russian Demands', 'Fuel Shortage' and U.S. Strikes'.

The coming winter, Cartoon by Illingworth, October 1, 1945. Dark clouds over Britain. The storm clouds are ‘Lend-Lease End’, ‘Food Shortage’, ‘Balkans’, ‘Russian Demands’, ‘Fuel Shortage’ and U.S. Strikes’.

February 18th, 1946. Some the 20 lakh colonial Indian armed forces, united and raised the banner of Independence. United across ranks, skin colour, language, geography, religion, caste, height, weight – with only one thing uniting them. They were all Indians.

On February 18th, the men of Indian Navy (then the Royal Indian Navy) rained on the British parade – by raising the flag of Indian Independence. Britain did not have the stomach to take on the Indian Colonial Army, battle hardened and exposed to warfare in all the global theatres of WWII. The British acquiesced and 18 months later they were out.

By the night of the 20th nearly the entire Royal Indian Navy was in open rebellion: seventy eight ships across various Indian ports — Mumbai (then Bombay), Karachi, Chennai (then Madras), Vishakapatnam (thenVizagapatanam), Kolkatta (then Calcutta) and Kochi (then Cochin), extending to the Andamans. Most of the on-shore establishments lowered the Union Jack. Some ten ships and two on-shore establishments remained loyal to the British.

Before the sun went down, 12,000 seamen of the Royal Indian Navy had seized a score of ships, 18 naval shore stations and a naval dockyard in Bombay Harbor. For two days their ships, deployed in battle line along the harbor wall, defied the British. At Castle Barracks, where besieging British troops fought barricaded Indians, the mutineers turned their artillery on the Bombay Yacht Club (the very symbol of British racial supremacy), where no Indian may enter. At Karachi, Indian naval ratings seized the sloop Hindustan, dueled with British batteries along the waterfront …

British troops, ships and planes converged on Bombay, as rioters swept through the town, setting fire to banks, government grain shops, a cotton mill, a train, British cars, British stores. Night & day they fought police and Tommies, stoned British civilians. British authorities declared a state of “absolute rebellion,” ordered loyal troops to “shoot to kill” anyone moving on the streets at night. Before the mutiny ended, casualties mounted to 240 killed, more than 1,300 injured. On the other side of India, demonstrators surged through the streets of Calcutta, and sympathy strikers tied up transportation.

St.Clement Attlee chases a rabbit, while ignoring the Dragon of Egypt, Famine and India, holds Queen Britannia captive. First published - May 21, 1946

St.Clement Attlee chases a rabbit, while ignoring the Dragon of Egypt, Famine and India, holds Queen Britannia captive. First published – May 21, 1946, (Attlee was pulling back troops from Egypt, India was gaining independence, Britain was facing food shortages, the government was nationalising railways, coal mines, steel industry and public utility companies).

India’s Britons recalled the horror stories of 1857, when Army mutineers seized seven of India’s cities, including Delhi. Would Indian Army troops revolt again? Already Indian Air Force men had staged sympathy “strikes.” Like the Navy mutineers, soldiers demand better pay, better food, faster demobilization. Indian troops, the bulk of British overseas forces, are scattered wide in the world’s trouble spots: Greece, Indonesia, Syria, Burma, Egypt, Malaya, Iraq and Hong Kong. If the mutiny should spread among them, Britain’s weakened voice in the world’s councils would scarcely be able to whisper. The Army remained quiescent, but even trusted veterans were attending secret meetings of extreme nationalist groups. The British Government would have to act fast … London announced that three Cabinet ministers—Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade—would go to India … The 1946 negotiations might prove more difficult than the first Cripps mission. Moslem and Hindu had drawn much more closely together…

Nehru and his fellows no longer denounced violence as if they meant it. They sensed a new mood in India’s masses, and swung toward extreme methods lest new leaders arise more in tune with the spirit of rebellion.

In the Calcutta riots the Congress tricolor and the Moslem green flag (and sometimes the hammer & sickle) had floated side by side from windows, from taxicabs, over the heads of marching throngs. Together they had flown from the masts of the mutinous ships at Bombay. At Karachi mutineers scrawled on their ships: “Not mutiny but unity among Indian sailors.” A new slogan was heard in India: “Ek Ho!” (We Are One). (from Time magazine INDIA: Ek Ho! Monday, Mar. 04, 1946; ellipsis mine, parts excized).

On February 19th, 1946, PM Clement Attlee announced that a British Cabinet delegation of three ministers would visit India. He followed this up, on 20th February, 1946, with a statement in the British House of Commons,

His Majesty’s Government desires to hand over their responsibility to authorities established by a constitution approved by all parties in India … His Majesty’s Government wish to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take necessary steps to effect the transference of power to responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June 1948 … His Majesty’s Government will have to consider to whom the powers of the Central Government in British India should be handed over on the due date

On 15th March, 1946, Attlee announced in the British House of Commons that Britain was leaving India. 23rd March, 1946, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade came to India for consultations on modalities for power transfer.

Important documents relating to the Naval Action remains classified and inaccessible. What makes the Indian Government classify and withhold information pertaining to the colonial era? What purpose would this serve? What possible reasons exist for delaying de-classification of the 1946 February Uprising by the ‘Naval Ratings’? That was indeed a milestone in India’s history.

Why hide!

Cartoons of the period

Illingworth is, for me, a recent discovery. Leslie Gilbert Illingworth was a visually eloquent cartoonist of the period. His craft is admirable – not for his originality.

Bernard Hollowood, who edited Punch from 1957 to 1969, agreed that Illingworth lacked passionate involvement and “produced very few of his own ideas.” As he recalled, at Punch “the chief political cartoons were produced communally, and the method suited Leslie.”

Illingworth was a mirror that captured the mood, prejudices, biases, opinions, of Britain, so well. His cartoons on India were full of misplaced imperial certitude – extremely gross in hindsight. A favorite subject for cartoonists in 1945-1955 period, was food shortages and rationing.

A Britain fattened by colonies facing a future without an empire. July 9, 1947. (John Bull holding scales. On one side is "Let us face the future" and on the other side, are Britain's problems of Clothing Ration, Housing Problem, Fuel shortage, Food Scarcity ...)

A Britain fattened by colonies facing a future without an empire. July 9, 1947. (John Bull holding scales. On one side is “Let us face the future” and on the other side, are Britain’s problems of Clothing Ration, Housing Problem, Fuel shortage, Food Scarcity …)

8 Responses

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  1. Ajay said, on January 2, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Good post.

  2. cahobs said, on March 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Hii I regularly read this site and have recommended this site to atleast 20-30 of my friends who actively follow, my request to you is why dont you make ur presence felt on facebook too, this would be especially important and would be a great way to pull in more people who feel strongly about India and its history.


  3. Tanisha Bonawitz said, on February 5, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    great post! keep it on!

  4. akhil bhartiya said, on August 14, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    are you anti-India or some @#&* you piece of @#&*

    • masculineffort said, on February 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm

      Dear Mr. Akhil Bhartiya. How did you attain to such idiocy? Were you born this way or did you practice day and night? What part of this article seems anti-India to you?

  5. masculineffort said, on February 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    We Demand a Book, Mr Sanghi! You must must write a Book! Several volumes if need be. If help is needed, please just ask. We must must counter British propaganda or at least do our part. The wise men of the past always wanted us to be part of the Fellowship of effort. If you refuse to write a book, we will come and protest outside your home till our demands are met 😉

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