Effects of British Colonial Rule in India

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The colonization of India and the immense transfer of wealth that moved from the latter to Britain were vital to the success of the British Empire. In fact, the Viceroy of British India in 1894 called India “the pivot of our Empire …” I examine the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the subcontinent. Besides highlighting the fact that without cheap labor and raw materials from India, the modernization of Britain during this era would have been highly unlikely, I will show how colonial policy led to the privation and death of millions of natives. I conclude that while India undoubtedly benefited from British colonial rule, the negatives for the subject population far outweighed the positives. .

Colonialism, by definition, is exploitative and oppressive, with the rulers enriching themselves at the expense of those they rule. Generally speaking, colonizers dominate a territory’s resources, labor force, and markets; oftentimes, they impose structures -- cultural, religious and/or linguistic -- to maintain control over the indigenous population. The effects of the expansion of European empires, which began in the 15th century, on the colonized can still be felt today. Some historians, for example, argue that colonialism is one of the leading causes in income inequality among countries in present times. They cite patterns of European settlement as determinative forces in the type of institutions developed in colonized countries, considering them major factors in economic backwardness. Economist Luis Angeles has argued that the higher the percentage of Europeans settling in a colony at its peak, the greater the inequality in that country so long as the settlers remained a minority, suggesting that the colonizers drained those lands of essential resources while reaping most, if not all, of the profits. In terms of per capita GDP in 1995, the 20 poorest countries were all former colonies, which would seem to bolster Angeles’ contention.

There are, however, competing views on how much underdevelopment in today’s poorest countries is a byproduct of colonial rule and how much of it is influenced by factors such as a country’s lack of natural resources or area characteristics. For poet, activist and politician Aimé Césaire, the verdict was in: Colonizers were “the decisive actors … the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force, and behind them, the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obliged, for internal reasons, to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies."

This is not to suggest that Western European nations were the first and only countries to pursue imperialistic policies or that nothing good came out of colonial policies for the subject population. Dinesh D’Souza, while arguing that colonialism has left many positive as well as negative legacies, has stressed that there is nothing uniquely Western about colonialism, writing: “Those who identify colonialism and empire only with the West either have no sense of history or have forgotten about the Egyptian empire, the Persian empire, the Macedonian empire, the Islamic empire, the Mongol empire, the Chinese empire, and the Aztec and Inca empires in the Americas.”

For this paper’s purposes, however, I will focus on the British Empire, its colonizing efforts in India (1757-1947), and the effects British policy had on that subject population. A couple of caveats before examining the British-Indian relationship: experiences differed from colony to colony during this period of European imperialism; India was unique in the colonial experience because of its size and history. It also should be noted that India was rather unique among colonized lands during this era for at least two reasons. First, South Asia was “already a major player in world commerce and possessed a...
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