Elizabeth II may have passed away but memories of Empire will always linger

The flow of Indian wealth to Britain and the ‘civilising mission’ of Empire may perhaps never find closure

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 09 September 2022
Queen Elizabeth II with the prime ministers of Commonwealth countries at a conference in 1960. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is also seen. Photo: Wikipedia
Queen Elizabeth II with the prime ministers of Commonwealth countries at a conference in 1960. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is also seen. Photo: Wikipedia Queen Elizabeth II with the prime ministers of Commonwealth countries at a conference in 1960. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is also seen. Photo: Wikipedia

It was the night of February 5-6, 1952. A young British girl, newly married, had just attended a dinner with her husband at a hotel located in Kenya, when she learnt about the death of her father thousands of miles away. What happened next is told in the following words:

For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen — God bless her.

That girl was Queen Elizabeth II, monarch and sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The description was by Jim Corbett, the celebrated British Indian hunter and naturalist.

And the ‘tree’ was Treetops Hotel, a hotel in Aberdare National Park in Kenya near the township of Nyeri, 1,966 metres above sea level on the Aberdare Range and in sight of Mount Kenya.

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Queen Elizabeth II died September 8, 2022, at the age of 96 and having reigned for over 70 years as the head of state of the UK. She was an institution and meant different things to different people.

Most millennials know her from the Crown series on Netflix. To the 1990s generation, she was mother-in-law of Diana, Princess of Wales. 

To some people in the subcontinent, she was the last link with the British Empire, of which India was the so-called ‘Crown Jewel’. Indeed, the sun began to set over the empire with the independence of India in 1947 as most British colonies in Asia and Africa followed India’s lead and attained independence. Elizabeth II was part of this transitionary period.

She was also, in a sense, the ‘last coloniser’ of India, the last symbol of a political entity that ruled over south Asia for nearly two centuries.  

The British Empire had far-reaching effects on the economy and ecology of the subcontinent. Let us have a look at how this came about.

How it happened

The story of the British Empire begins in 1599, when a group of London merchants met to “discuss a potential East Indies venture under a royal charter.”

A year later, in 1600, the English sovereign, another Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, granted the merchants, the charter. And there was no looking back.

The East India Company first gained a foothold on the subcontinent’s political scene in 1765, when it gained the Diwani rights of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. This happened after it won the Battles of Plassey in 1757 and Buxar in 1764.

Read Republic Day 2022: Looking back at Anglo-tribal encounters in colonial India

India at that time (around 1750) accounted for about a quarter (24.5 per cent) of the manufactures of the world and China for another third (32.5 per cent) of the manufactures of the world, political economist Amiya Kumar Bagchi notes in On Colonialism and the Indian Economy. Developed countries accounted only for 27 per cent of global manufactures.  

When the British won the three eastern provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, the results were catastrophic for the people there.

Eminent historian Irfan Habib describes it in Colonialization of the Indian Economy, 1757 – 1900 (1974):

The actual collection of revenue from the ‘diwani lands’ in Bengal was pushed up from Rs 64.5 lakhs in 1762-3, under the Nizamat, to Rs 147.0 lakhs in 1765-6, the first year of the Company’s diwani. And, according to another set of figures, the revenues of Bengal increased from Rs 2.26 crores, in 1765-6 to Rs 3.7 crores in 1778-9. Such was the pressure that a famine which in 1769-70 carried off a third, of the cultivators of Bengal, caused no decline in revenue assessments.

One million died in the Bengal Famine of 1770, about a fifth of Bengal, mainly in the western part of the province, historian William Dalrymple had told Down To Earth.

As if famine was not enough, the wealth from Bengal flowed into Britain where it became the capital for the Industrial Revolution. Here is Habib again:

Taking the amount of the tribute to be about 4.70 million pounds on the basis of sale prices, we find that it amounted to over 2 per cent of the British national income, estimated at 232 million pounds for 1801.

“We must remember that the total rate of capital formation in Britain was probably no more than 7 per cent of the national income about this time; and this means that, at this crucial stage of the Industrial Revolution, India was furnishing an amount that was almost 30 per cent of the total national saving transformed into capital,” he adds.

The British also destroyed Indian industry. They exported cotton goods, iron (bar and bolt as well as cast and wrought), hardware and cutlery, guns, glass, and ‘machinery’ to India.

“ … (these exports) had increased enormously by 1828. They continued to grow during the following years and naturally caused a slump in the corresponding crafts in India,” Habib writes.

By the middle of the 19th century, the British began to “export capital to India in earnest after capital investment at home reached a saturation point.”

One way in which this was done was the railways, often touted as something that has ‘bound’ India ever since and is a ‘positive legacy’ of the British period.

But Bagchi puts paid to this:

The railways helped to relieve temporary food shortages in particular areas, but, in respect of large-scale failure of crops, the railways tended to spread the rise of prices over a larger territory and so to extend the area of a famine while lowering its intensity.

“Indian railways connected primarily the areas producing exportable crops to the major ports of British India, leaving the vast hinterland of the country unconnected by the railways,” he writes.

In 2018, economist Utsa Patnaik published research according to which Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.

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Alongside the economy, the British also carried their ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘natives’ and ‘ridding’ the land of ‘vermin’ (read wildlife). The latter set the statge for an irreparable loss to India’s faunal wealth.

Here is what Joseph Fayrer wrote in Destruction of life by wild animals and venomous snakes in India (1878):

Now, it seems obvious that more effectual measures are needed to mitigate, if not prevent, this evil. There is reason to believe that the supreme Government has the matter under its anxious consideration, with a view of devising plans by which, with the most efficiency and at the least cost, the evil may be remedied. But I fear the expenditure of more money is needed to make any arrangement competent to grapple with the evil.

The ‘evil’ in question is attacks on humans by wildlife.

“The Government may give rewards for this destruction of noxious animals, but the people must learn to protect themselves, and to bring the resources of improved knowledge and civilisation: to bear on this and other matters that concern their well-being.

As education makes them more self-reliant, and clears away prejudices and superstition — as civilisation produces increase of cultivation, and a more general diffusion of humanising influences — wild beasts will recede, and men will no longer worship, or reverence with superstitious awe, the creatures that destroy them.”

Fayrer’s work also gives the table below which shows how ‘the civilising mission’ was carried out.

Wild animals and snakes destroyed and rewards given  
Animals In 1875 In 1876
Destroyed Rewards (In Rs, Annas and Paisas) Destroyed Rewards (In Rs, Annas and Paisas)
Elephants 5 5 4 50
Tigers 1,789 41,212.8.8 1,693 43,598.12
Leopards 3,512 35,756.14.8 3,786 33,972.12
Bears 1,181 4,453 1,362 4,915.6
Wolves 5,683 15,185.12 5,976 18,633.12
Hyenas 1,386 3,602.4 1,585 3,650.12
Other animals 8,801 3,251.6 8,053 3,985.2
Snakes 270,185 16.548.11.6 212,371 15,757.12.6
Totals 292,542 120,015.8.12 234,830 124,564.4.6

 Source: Destruction of life by wild animals and venomous snakes in India

Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926, a time of transition. World War I had just ended and the Soviet Union had been established in 1917. The high noon of the Age of Empire had ended with the death of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria in 1901.

World War II and the great destruction it caused in Britain and the Continent, the rise of the US and the USSR and the mushrooming of new ideas regarding concepts like colonialism and race meant that ‘Empire’ could no longer hold currency in the new world order emerging from the ruins of global conflict.

Now that Elizabeth is gone, the subcontinent’s last link to this decisive period in its history truly belongs to the ages. But our memories regarding the destruction of the region’s economy and ecology as recounted above may perhaps never find closure.

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