Did British Colonialism Improve Conditions For Native Populations?

Did British Colonialism Improve Conditions For Native Populations?
Recent authoritative research has busted the myth of the so-called ‘benign’ British colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent. For gullible or intellectually dishonest commentators, British colonialism was not only oppressive but it was also ‘benign’ as it gave us the irrigation networks, railways and modern state structure in the Indian Subcontinent. This theory is comprehensively debunked in a January 2023 journal World Development article by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel.

The authors estimate that there were “excess” 165 million deaths in the Indian Subcontinent between 1880 and 1920 due to the adverse impact of the British empire on the local population. They calculate these figures by taking into account real wages, height and mortality rates.

Real wages are assessed on the basis of a ‘subsistence basket’ that can give access to people to food, shelter, and clothing instead of the abstract and insufficient GDP measure. Height is used as a proxy for nutritional wellbeing. Mortality rates increase when human welfare decreases and vice versa. The authors calculate real wages on the basis of historical records kept by monasteries, colonial trading companies and heritage projects etc. They calculate the height of the local population by referring to archaeological evidence, health surveys, military records etc. Similarly, they tabulate mortality rates in a similar way and through historical statistical extrapolation.

Actually, the “welfare standards” in the Indian Subcontinent in the 16th century were similar to those of the Western Europe, and they consistently went down with the advent of British colonialism.
The research refers to Wallerstein’s work, stating that the adverse impact of capitalism's rise began to show in the Indian Subcontinent from the 17th century onwards

As other research has shown, the British empire built the railways, irrigation networks and the modern state system to extract greater revenues from the Indian Subcontinent – and it was not done to maximise the welfare of the native population. The authors of the above-mentioned journal article state:

“We see that in the 1870s India’s crude mortality rate had already risen considerably higher than early modern England. The situation deteriorated thereafter, with mortality rising by 19%, and life expectancy plummeting to 22 years. If we estimate excess mortality from 1891 to 1920, with the average death rate of the 1880s as normal mortality, we find some 50 million people lost their lives under the aegis of British capitalism. But this estimate must be considered conservative. India’s 1880s death rate was already very high by international standards. If we measure excess mortality over England’s 16th- and 17th-century average death rate, we find 165 million excess deaths in India between 1880 and 1920. This figure is larger than the combined number of deaths from both World Wars, including the Nazi holocaust.”

The research refers to Wallerstein’s work, stating that the adverse impact of capitalism's rise began to show in the Indian Subcontinent from the 17th century onwards. The militarised European trading monopolies made inroads in the Indian Subcontinent and the demand and prices rose for the local produce and it created “social instability.” This region was made part of the capitalist world-system from 1757 onwards, with the East India Company taking over control of Bengal. Unilateral tariffs were used to crush local manufacturing. The British empire earned a huge surplus by purchasing exports from the Indian Subcontinent with the Indian tax revenues.

Before British colonisation, the Indian Subcontinent’s wages were higher than extreme poverty and they only went down in the period of extreme distress and wars. In the 18th and 19th century when the Indian Subcontinent was made part of the British empire led capitalism; the real wages of its population consistently fell below the subsistence level. Famines also became more common and with more severity under British colonialism than they were under the Mughals. As Amartya Sen has shown in his path-breaking work on Indian famines, the policies of the British empire contributed to the famines in a significant way. It was not the shortage of food that caused famines, but rather the inequitable distribution policies. The British empire refused to permit more food imports during the Bengal famine of 1943 and it made the famine worse. The height of the population of the Indian Subcontinent in the 1840s was lower than those of the ancient Harappan civilisation (2000-1000 BC). In short, all indicators showed the quality of life really deteriorated for those living in the Indian Subcontinent and mortality increased manifold under the British empire’s capitalism, as compared to the pre-colonial past.

This finding is part of the comprehensive research that has used the World-Systems theorists’ (such as Wallerstein, Frank, Amin and others) chronology to assess the claim propagated by Steven Pinker and Bill Gates, amongst others, who state that before the advent of capitalism in the 19th century; approximately 90% of the population in the world lived in extreme poverty. These claims are made on the basis of data of national accounts and purchasing power parity (PPP) rates of exchange that do not fully take into account people’s access to essential goods.

The authors examine these claims in five regions of the world: Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China and South Asia (we are only focusing on the South Asia/Indian Subcontinent in this article) from 1500 onwards and make three main conclusions.

Their first conclusion is that it is unlikely that 90% of the population lived in extreme poverty before the 19th-century rise of capitalism. Actually, people lived in better conditions before capitalism, and with the advent of the capitalist world-system from the 16th century onwards (capitalism did not start in the 19th century; it goes back to the 16th century at least); health and nutritional standards of people declined.

Their second conclusion is that the rise of capitalism actually led to a “dramatic deterioration of human welfare” in all regions of the world.

Their third conclusion is that improvements in human welfare started much after the rise of capitalism. These improvements started in northwest Europe since the 1880s and in the periphery and semi-periphery regions like the Indian Subcontinent; improvements started in the mid-20th century, which is the period of anti-colonialism and other socio-political movements that “redistributed incomes and established public provisioning systems.”

Other than the World-Systems theorists; this research heavily draws on the work of R.C. Allen (from 2001 to 2020), Amartya Sen, and U Patnaik amongst others.

The most starting part of this authoritative research is that the British empire’s policies led to ‘excess’ deaths of 165 million people in the Indian Subcontinent in 40 years from 1880 to 1920 as stated above.

Today, King Charles has inherited this shameful past of the British empire woven in the history of “blood, sweat and tears.” If King Charles has even an iota of moral courage; he should apologise to the people of the Indian Subcontinent and others for British colonialism and prepare his country to pay the reparations.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist and can be reached at fskcolumns@gmail.com.