What was the importance of India to the British Empire?
The 1911 Delhi durbar
Brtitish soldiers in India
East India House, London
Missionaries at work
Shipping in Calcutta
In his book ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Empire’ Lawrence James describes the India of the c18th and c19th centuries as a miracle for the way that less than 200,000 British soldiers and administrators ruled over a land of 250 million people. India was also described as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for it was certainly the most important territory in the Empire in the late c19th. It underpinned the British economy and the Indian army played a crucial part in defending the empire throughout the world. The soldiers and administrators who went there lived a life that was harsh in the sense that the climate, and culture were quite alien but going to India provided opportunities for economic and social advancement. Those who went often came back to a country that had little interest in what they had done with their lives, and often had difficulty settling down to quiet retirement. India conveyed though elements of mystery and glamour to people in England and images of India as brought to the English nation by painters and writers had a huge influence on English life. That Britain could dominate such a land gave Britain much prestige and as British pre-eminence declined in the last quarter of the c19th, there was always India to demonstrate that Britain was still a power to be reckoned with. By 1914, it was generally agreed in Britain that Britain needed India, and India benefitted from what Britain did to improve India.
Britain became dependent upon India
The British motive for being in India was not an exercise in altruism. Although the mission to improve and civilise had become an important justification for the expansion of empire in the late c19th, it was the economic benefits provided that were important for Britain. The British economy had become after 1870 dependent upon India. Along with the USA, India was Britain’s main market for her manufactured goods with 60% of British exports going to India by 1913 and India being a focal point for British investments which totalled £390 million just before WW1, (which was 10% of all British overseas investments). At a time of increasing competition from the emerging industrial powers of Europe, the British economy would have suffered badly had it not been for trade with India, and had it not been for the modernising of industry in India in the second half of the century.
The economic importance of India to Britain was transformed as a result of two major events. The first was the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the second the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Indian Rebellion brought to an end the attempts of the British to westernise India and create an India in Britain’s image, something that had been happening since the 1830s. The economic importance of India to Britain was transformed as a result of two major events.
The recapture of Delhi by the British in 1857
The first was the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the second the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Indian Rebellion brought to an end the attempts of the British to westernise India and create an India in Britain’s image, something that had been happening since the 1830s.
However, after 1815, with more control over the East India Company being exerted by the British government, and permission granted to missionary societies to work in India, attitudes towards the Indian people and their religions changed. India became a laboratory for the evangelical, liberal and utilitarian ideas of British reformers. Foremost among the philosophers of the time was James Mill who wanted to liberate the Indian mind. With the growing economic gap between Britain and India and with the British people thinking they were God’s chosen people, a cultural arrogance came to dominate British thinking. Hinduism in particular was portrayed as a barbaric, degraded religion and Christian missionaries going to India saw their job as to convert Hindus in order to destroy Hinduism.
In 1833, during the decade of Whig reforms, Thomas Macauley was appointed to chair a committee to consider future educational needs for India. Macauley insisted that all teaching in India should be in English and using English texts and in the 1830s British style schools were introduced by the missionary societies. There was universal contempt for Indian religious customs as campaigns were undertaken against religious rituals which offended the sensibilities of the British like thugge and suttee. Company employees were asked to disassociate themselves from Hindu ceremonies and involvement with Hindu temples. Relationships with Hindu and Muslim women were regarded as likely to corrupt the morals of soldiers and administrators and were frowned upon.
To justify the British presence in India, the land and its people were increasingly portrayed as ignorant, barbaric and a land in chaos and the British were there to bring peace, stability and material progress. Much concern was expressed in Britain in the early c19th about the apparent contradiction of a liberal democracy acting in an authoritarian way and exerting the frequent use of violence to maintain control.
Herbert Edwardes though in 1848/49 defended the presence of the British as being there to rule in an autocratic and paternalistic way, and rule in the interests of the Indian people. The image of the selfless British civil servant devoting their lives for the benefit of the Indian people was spawned.
The westernisation of India
The westernisation of India though was limited given the lack of any uniform administration. The collection of taxation from the peasantry was seen as the main task of British officials as shown by the land revenues of £16.7 million in 1856/57 as against the government income from opium and salt of £7 million. These taxes funded the building of new schools and metalled roads and from 1850 the building of a railway network.
The attempts to westernise India was one of the many causes of the Indian Rebellion and with the dismantling of the East India Company and the Proclamation by Victoria in 1858 which promised to recognise Indian rights and treat Indians like any other member of the British Empire, attitudes to India and its people changed in the years after 1858. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cutting 4,450 miles off the trip from London to Bombay, goods from India suddenly became much more profitable to export and India also developed as a market for those industrialised goods being made in the new large factories appearing all over Britain.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 came at a timely point for Britain for after 1870 the newly formed German state began to emerge as an economic competitor to Britain. Britain’s pre-eminent position as the ‘Workshop of the World’ was suddenly being challenged. Prior to 1870 small amounts of tea from China, jute, raw cotton and wheat as well as manufactured goods were exported to Britain (exports worth £23 million in 1855) but by 1910 exports of these goods were worth £137 million, although the export of manufactured goods had been largely replaced by the exporting of wheat. By this time large amounts of money were being invested in India (£380 million by1913) to develop the transport infrastructure and tea plantations in Assam, Bengal and Ceylon and also institute a cotton improvement programme with model farms and legislative control of production and marketing. The development of the tea industry had begun as early as 1834 when the Governor Lord Bentinck sent a delegation to China to obtain seed and Chinese labour in order to introduce the crop to Assam. Production of tea began in Assam, Bengal and Ceylon in the 1850s and by 1900 137 million lbs of tea were being exported to Britain from India compared to just 10 million lbs in 1869.
By 1900 our tea came from India
By 1880 India took 20% of Britain’s exports and 20% of British overseas investment. In the mid-c19th most of Britain’s tea had come from China but by 1900 it nearly all came from India and Ceylon. Whereas Lancashire before 1870 had relied on the USA for its supply of raw cotton, by 1900 Lancashire relied on India.
Poor internal communications had been a reason for lack of trade with India before 1870 but with the development of railways, bridges drainage systems and irrigation canals, parts of India were transformed.
The Indian Army
A territory that was so important for the British economy and for British prestige needed to be defended from both internal and external threats. To meet any such threat the Indian Army was developed. Under the East India Company, British officers were trained at a military College near Croydon who were then sent to India to command Indian sepoys. Altogether the Indian Army consisted in 1857 on the eve of the Rebellion of 45,000 European soldiers of the British regular army and 232,000 native soldiers. Of these 160,000 men were based in the Bengal presidency. Between 1838 and 1920 the Indian army was used outside India on nineteen occasions: in China in 1839, 1856 and 1859, in Persia in 1856, in Ethiopia in 1867, in Afghanistan in 1878, in Egypt in 1882, in Burma in 1885, in Nyasaland in 1893, in Sudan in 1896 and in Uganda in 1896. The Indian army was therefore important as providing a strategic reserve for Britain for its colonial wars. In addition, Sikh police were used in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tientsin and Nyasaland. Without this force of men Britain would not have been able to deal with the many colonial conflicts that had to be fought to deal with local resistance to British rule.
Indian indentured workers
Another group of Indians who went abroad to support the British Empire was the army of indentured workers who provided a cheap and mobile labour force after the abolition of slavery. By 1838 25,000 Indians were working overseas, mainly on plantations of coffee and sugar. With the consumption of both sugar and coffee rising after 1820, and the development of new plantations around the world, labour was needed. In 1858/59 at the peak of the migration of Indian labour 53,000 went overseas with 44,000 going to Mauritius, the rest mainly to Demerara and Trinidad.
India's contribution to the Empire
The contribution of India towards the British Empire in terms of providing essential raw materials, troops and a pool of native labour prepared to go any where in the world was unsurpassed. It is possible to argue that most of the remaining colonies, excepting the dominions, cost much more than they gave the Empire and Britain could well have done without them. However once Britain had decided earlier in the century to become a trading nation and to import food and raw materials in return for British manufactured goods, it was inevitable that Britain would establish an empire. By 1914 the British Empire extended over 24% of the world’s territory and included 23% of the world’s population. That the British Empire was able to expand to the extent it did would not have been possible without India.