Was the British Empire beneficial for India?

The idea that British rule over India was a force for good is not uncommon in Britain and even in certain sections of westernised Indian elite. Read right-of-centre British newspapers and you will regularly find articles and columns that glorify Britain’s colonial past, giving the impression that Britain was spreading the light of Western Civilisation to the dark corners of the world. Many British history books still do their best to highlight the benefits that British rule brought to the numerous colonies, rather than the hardships.

Recently in an interview with the BBC, Niall Ferguson, a British historian who has recently produced a six-part documentary series for Channel 4, and also works in a research department at Oxford University, said that British Raj greatly benefited the ruled nations and people.

To be sure, many white Britons, perhaps even the majority, think that the colonial era is not something to be proud of. But at the same time it must be acknowledged that the idea of British rule as benevolent is not just a fringe idea. In this light it is worth examining some facts about the British Raj that are seldom discussed in the media.

History is never black and white. There are benefits that come out of otherwise bad situations. In the case of India, British rule certainly did have some benefits, such as development of previously absent infrastructure. Of course, colonial historians such as Niall Ferguson will be fast to point this out:

By the 1880s the British had invested £270 million in India, not much less than one-fifth of their entire investment overseas.

But at what cost were these investments made? The pro-colonial authors miss out or even cover-up some basic points about the British Raj, which should be the foundation of any debate about the ‘merits’ of colonialism,

The economic devastation of India under British rule is discernible from the fact that India’s share of world trade fell from 17% percent in 1800 (almost equal to America’s share of world trade in 2000) to less than 2%. It is a very telling fact that during British rule of India, British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. But even more important are the famine statistics of British-controlled India.

famineAccording to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, 4 million between 1825 and 1850, 5 million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million between 1875 and 1900. Thus 25 million Indians died in 100 years! Since Independence, although poverty still exists, there have been no such mass famines, a record of which India should be proud. Funnily enough, there is no mention of this by pro-colonial authors. It is certainly a strange omission on their part and something they should be ashamed of. Perhaps not surprising as it would make British investment in India seem trivial and pointless by comparison. Any rational person would rather avoid millions of deaths than have a few railway tracks built and some land irrigated.

How did these famines occur? The main reason was not bad weather or natural causes but rather the breaking up of India’s indigenous crop patterns. The British replaced food crops such as rice and wheat and instead forced Indian farmers to produce jute, cotton, tea and oil seeds, which they needed as raw materials for their home industries. The implication of this in times of shortages was catastrophic, as the famine figures show.

Niall Ferguson also credits the British with labouring to improve India’s public health:

It was the British who introduced quinine as an anti-malarial prophylactic, carried out public programmes of vaccination against smallpox – often in the face of local resistance – and laboured to improve the urban water supplies that were so often the bearers of cholera and other diseases.

Once again, there is some truth in this, but also some omission, and some downright distortion. On the subject of smallpox vaccination, it is well documented that before the British arrived, Indians (like the Chinese) had a system of inducing immunity against smallpox, known as “variolation”. The British doctor J Z Holwell wrote a book in 1767 describing the system, accepting that it was safe and effective. European medicine did not have any immunisation against the disease at that time.

Inoculation against smallpox became a part of Western medicine in the early 19th Century. Soon after, the British administration in India banned the older method of variolation, denouncing it as barbaric, without making certain that sufficient number of inoculators in the new technique existed in India. Smallpox in India became a greater scourge than before. This is not the only example in which the British undermined and even banned indigenous systems of knowledge, particularly medicine, creating dire consequences.

In writing this article I am not trying to stir up bitterness. As I have mentioned, many if not most white Britons see colonialism as a dark part of their history, and refrain from glorifying it or acting triumphant over it. I am simply trying to combat the smug, celebratory version of Imperial history that is in vogue in some circles. This distorted version of history should be discarded into the dustbin of history.

This article is dedicated to the millions men, women and children, of India as well as other nations, who perished in unnecessary and avoidable famines during the colonial era.


  1. Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

  2. Reblogged this on euzicasa and commented:
    It was force for good…for the empire!

  3. if this flag goes live, the books can follow

    Jai Hind

  4. Chaitanya says:

    Nice article. A lot of unaccounted facts brought to light.

  5. Nikhil Dani says:

    अंग्रेजोंके भारत कब्जे उदात्तीकरण(Glorification of invasion theory)
    मित्रों नमस्कार,
    आज कल आपको बहोत से ऐसे सुशिक्षित लोग मिलेंगे जो कहते है की ” अंग्रेज भारत में आए, उन्होंने हम पर राज्य किया इसीलिए हम प्रगत हुए, अंग्रेजोने हमें आधुनिक शिक्षण दिया, आधुनिक युद्ध तकनीक दी, सिंचन सुविधाए (Irrigation), रेलवे और क्या कुछ नहीं दिया।”
    लेकिन इन सुशिक्षित लोगोंको यह नहीं पता होता की अंग्रेजोंने या कोई भी यूरोपीयन देशने जापान पर राज्य नहीं किया फिर भी जापान आज प्रगत देश है। द्वितीय विश्वयुद्ध में जापान ने अपने युद्ध बल से सबको हैरान कर दिया था। जापानी औद्योगिक प्रगति तो किसीसे नहीं छुपी है। टोयोटा, मित्सुबिशी, सोनी, निप्पोन का नाम नहीं सुना ऐसा शायद ही कोई होगा। चुंबकीय बल पर आधारित अतिवेगवान रेल(Maglev Trains) के विकास में जापान का योगदान महत्वपूर्ण है।
    यह सुनाने के बाद यह लोग कहेंगे की, जापानसे भारत की तुलना मत करो। हम भारतीय तो दुर्बल थे, अज्ञानी थे। उन मूर्खों से मेरा यही कहना है की आपका इतिहास का ज्ञान बहोत कम है।
    पहली बात दुर्बलता की, इतिहास में ऐसे अनेको उदाहरण है जहाँ स्थानिक भारतीय सेनाओं ने अंग्रेजोंको युद्ध में हराया था। उदाहरण तौर पे प्रथम अंग्रेज-मराठा युद्ध में मराठा वीरों ने अंग्रेजोंको पछाड़कर रह दिया था (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Anglo-Maratha_War)। उसके बाद ही इंदौर के यशवंतराव होलकर ने अंग्रेज सत्ता को दिल्लीतक उखाड़ फेंका था। जिन्होंने वॉटरलू की लढाई में नेपोलियन का पराभव किया वह लार्ड आर्थर वेल्सली, आगे जाके ब्रिटन के पंतप्रधान बने। जब उनसे पूछा गया की ‘ आपके पुरे युद्ध अनुभव में आपको सबसे मुश्किल लढाई कोनसी लढानी पड़ी?’ सबको लगा की पंतप्रधान वॉटरलू जिक्र करेंगे पर आर्थर ने लासवारी की लढाई कहा, जो अंग्रेजोंने ग्वालियर के सिंधिया सरदार के खिलाफ लढी थी। इससे जाहिर होता है की हम दुर्बल नहीं थे।
    दूसरी बात अज्ञानी होने की, अंग्रेजोंके शासनकाल में ही भारत में जगदीशचन्द्र बोस, सत्येन्द्रनाथ बोस जैसे वैज्ञानिकोने जागतिक स्तर का संशोधन किया। मुंबई में शिवकर तलपडे ने दुनिया पहिला हवाईजहाज बनाया(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shivkar_Bapuji_Talpade)। इसका मतलब हम अज्ञानी भी नहीं थे। तो समस्या क्या थी?
    एक ही समस्या थी,भारतीयोंकी खुद के संस्कृति और इतिहास प्रति रही हीनता की भावना। इस वहजसे आपसमे भेदभाव और संघटन आभाव होना। यह समस्या आज भी हमारे समाज में पायी जाती है। जबतक हम इस समस्या का समाधान नहीं करेंगे, और अपनी भारतीय संस्कृति और इतिहास का गौरव स्वीकार नहीं करेंगे, तब तक हम इस हीनता की भावना का त्याग नहीं कर पाएंगे। उस वक्त तक समूचे भारत की प्रगति का रास्ता लम्बा तथा कठिन ही लगेगा। आवश्य विचार करें। धन्यवाद ।
    जय हिन्द, जय भारत।

  6. Very well written. Please have a look at my post on a similar argument.


  7. Very well written. I have to add that there were many more reasons that Britain gave to justify their horrors. Sashi Tharoor made an excellent point in a recent Oxford Union debate on a similar topic. Please have a look at my thoughts on the same here:


  8. Shreya Rajpal says:

    awesome PHILOSOPHY
    jai hind

  9. Steve Larkins says:

    There is no prescriptive answer but given colonialism has and probably always will exist wherever people come in contact with each other, I would offer that two ‘Empires’ stand out as having had a huge run of positives as well as the more easily imagined negative impacts. The Roman and British Empires both left largely positive legacies. Britain left physical and social infrastructure wherever its red paint splashed the globe unlike most of its contemporaries. I recall three Indian women remarking to me in Kenya that it had left another invaluable asset – a common language in English, that had bridged gaps that local dialects couldn’t. As for the competition; Spain annihilated two civilisations, The Netherlands Belgium, Italy Germany and Portugal were pretty good at rampant exploitation and occasional violent subjugation, and left very little. The French still can’t be fully extracted from theirs. At least they made great pastrycooks out of the Vietnamese. The Brits weren’t blameless in that space but having travelled and worked in Africa and Asia it is notable that in its former colonies, Britain left legal educational and police/military structures and in some cases physical infrastructure such as railways and bridges which in many cases persist to this day. They managed to extract themselves in the post colonial era in a measured and generally respectful way. Not perfect but certainly better than most of the competition. As for the next wave, China’s behaviour will be interesting.


  1. […] Was the British Raj beneficial for India?. […]

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