The Plunder Of Bengal Helps The Industrial Revolution In England
The East India Company had received permission from the Mughal Emperor to start a factory at Surat early in the seventeenth century. Some years later they purchased a patch of land in the south and founded Madras. In 1662 the island of Bombay was presented to Charles II of England by way of dowry from Portugal, and he transferred it to the company. In 1690 the city of Calcutta was founded. Thus by the end of the seventeenth century the British had gained a number of footholds in India and established some bridge-heads on the Indian coastline. They spread inland slowly. The battle of Plassey in 1757 for the first time brought a vast area under their control, and within a few years Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and the east coast were subject to them. The next big step forward was taken about forty years later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This brought them to the gates of Delhi. The third major advance took place after the last defeat of the Marathas in 1818; the fourth in 1849, after the Sikh wars, completed the picture.
Thus the British have been in the city of Madras a little over 300 years; they have ruled Bengal, Bihar, etc., for 187 years; they extended their domination over the south 145 years ago; they established themselves in the United Provinces (as they are now called), central and western India about 125 years ago; and they spread to the Punjab ninety-five years ago. (This is being written in June, 1944.) Leaving out the city of Madras as too small an area, there is a difference of nearly 100 years between their occupation of Bengal and that of the Punjab. During this period British policy and administrative methods changed repeatedly. These changes were dictated by new developments in England as well as the consolidation of British rule in India. The treatment of each newly acquired area varied according to these changes, and depended also on the character of the ruling group which had been defeated by the British. Thus in Bengal, where the victory had been very easy, the Muslim landed gentry were looked upon as the ruling classes and a policy was pursued to break their power. In the Punjab, on the other hand, power was seized from the Sikhs and there was no initial antagonism between the British and the Muslims. In the greater part of India the Marathas had been opponents of the British.
A significant fact which stands out is that those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today. Indeed some kind of chart might be drawn up to indicate the close connection between length of British rule and progressive growth of poverty. A few large cities and some new industrial areas do not make any essential difference to this survey. What is noteworthy is the condition of the masses as a whole, and there can be no doubt that the poorest parts of India are Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and parts of the Madras presidency; the mass level and standards of living are highest in the Punjab. Bengal certainly was a very rich and prosperous province before the British came. There may be many reasons for these contrasts and differences. But it is difficult to get over the fact that Bengal, once so rich and flourishing, after 187 years of British rule, accompanied, as we are told, by strenuous attempts on the part of the British to improve its condition and to teach its people the art of self-government, is today, a miserable mass of poverty-stricken, starving, and dying people.
Bengal had the first full experience of British rule in India. That rule began with outright plunder, and a land revenue system which extracted the uttermost farthing not only from the living but also from the dead cultivators. The English historians of India, Edward Thompson and G. T. Garrett, tell us that ‘a gold-lust unequalled since the hysteria that took hold of the Spaniards of Cortes’ and Pizarro’s age filled the English mind. Bengal in particular was not to know peace again until she has been bled white.’ ‘For the monstrous financial immorality of the English conduct in India for many a year after this, Clive was largely responsible.’ Clive, the great empire-builder, whose statue faces the India Office in London today. It was pure loot. The ‘Pagoda tree’ was shaken again and again till the most terrible famines ravaged Bengal. This process was called trade later on but that made little difference. Government was this so-called trade, and trade was plunder. There are few instances in history of anything like it. And it must be remembered that this lasted, under various names and under different forms, not for a few years but for generations. The outright plunder gradually took the shape of legalized exploitation which, though not so obvious, was in reality worse. The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence, and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India is something which passes comprehension. It is significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is ‘loot.’ Says Edward Thompson, and this does not refer to Bengal only, ‘one remembers the early history of British India which is perhaps the world’s high-water mark of graft.’
The result of all this, even in its early stages, was the famine of 1770, which swept away over a third of the population of Bengal and Bihar. But it was all in the cause of progress, and Bengal can take pride in the fact that she helped greatly in giving birth to the industrial revolution in England. The American writer, Brooke Adams, tells us exactly how this happened:
The influx of Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous, for all authorities agree that the “industrial revolution” began with the year 1770…. Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled the rapidity of the change that followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning-jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the power-loom and in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine…. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movements of the time, they did not cause the acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive … waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed…. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder, because for nearly fifty years Great Britain stood without a competitor.
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