In recent years, nostalgia for the British Empire has flared up again. High-profile books such as Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and Bruce Gilley’s The Last Imperialist, have argued that British colonialism brought prosperity and development to India and other colonies. Two years ago, a YouGov poll found that 32 percent of people in Britain are actively proud of the country’s colonial history.
This rosy picture of colonialism is dramatically at odds with the historical record. According to research by economic historian Robert C Allen, extreme poverty in India increased under British rule, from 23 percent in 1810 to more than 50 percent in the mid-20th century. Real wages fell during the British colonial period, reaching an all-time low in the 19th century, while famines became more frequent and deadly. Rather than benefiting the Indian people, colonialism was a human tragedy with few parallels in recorded history.
Experts agree that the period from 1880 to 1920 – the height of British imperial power – was particularly devastating for India. Extensive censuses conducted by the colonial regime from the 1880s reveal that the death rate rose significantly during this period, from 37.2 deaths per 1,000 people in the 1880s to 44.2 in the 1910s. Life expectancy fell from 26.7 years to 21.9 years.
In a recent newspaper in World Development magazine, we used census data to estimate the number of people killed by British imperial policies during these four brutal decades. Robust data on mortality rates in India has only existed since the 1880s. Using this as a basis for “normal” mortality, we find that during the period from 1891 to 1920, some 50 million excess deaths occurred under the auspices of the British colonialism.
Fifty million dead is a staggering number, and yet this is a conservative estimate. Real wage data indicates that living standards in colonial India had already fallen dramatically in 1880 from their earlier levels. Allen and other scholars argue that before colonialism, India’s standard of living may have been “on par with the developing parts of Western Europe”. We are not sure what the pre-colonial death rate of India was, but if we assume that it was comparable to that of England in the 16th and 17th centuries (27.18 deaths per 1,000 people), we find that in India there were 165 million additional deaths. in the period from 1881 to 1920.
While the exact number of deaths is sensitive to the assumptions we make about the baseline mortality, it is clear that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million people died prematurely at the height of British colonialism. This is one of the largest policy-induced mortality crises in human history. It is greater than the combined number of deaths from all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia.
How did British rule cause this massive loss of life? There were several mechanisms. First, Britain has effectively destroyed India’s manufacturing sector. Prior to colonization, India was one of the largest industrial producers in the world, exporting high-quality textiles to all corners of the world. The tasteless fabric produced in England simply could not compete. However, this began to change when the British East India Company took control of Bengal in 1757.
According to historian Madhusree Mukerjee, the colonial regime practically abolished Indian tariffs, allowing British goods to flood the domestic market, but created a system of exorbitant taxes and internal charges that prevented Indians from selling clothes in their own countries, let alone export.
This unequal trade regime crushed Indian manufacturers and effectively deindustrialized the country. As President of the East India and China Association boasted to the English Parliament in 1840: “This company has succeeded in transforming India from a producing country into a raw product exporting country.” [source] English manufacturers gained a huge advantage, while India was reduced to poverty and its people left vulnerable to hunger and disease.
To make matters worse, British colonists instituted a system of legal plunder, known to contemporaries as the “drainage of wealth.” Britain taxed the Indian people and then used the revenue to buy Indian products – indigo, grain, cotton and opium – obtaining these goods for free. These goods were then either consumed in Britain or re-exported abroad, with the revenue pocketed by the British state and used to support the industrial development of Britain and its settlers – the United States, Canada and Australia – to finance.
This system has stripped India of goods worth trillions of dollars in today’s money. The British were ruthless in imposing the drain, forcing India to export food even when drought or floods threatened local food security. Historians have determined that tens of millions of Indians starved to death during several significant policy-induced famines in the late 1800s, when their resources were diverted to Britain and its colonists.
Colonial administrators were well aware of the consequences of their policies. They watched as millions went hungry and yet they did not change course. They continued to deliberately deprive people of the resources they needed to survive. The extraordinary mortality crisis of the late Victorian period was no accident. The historian Mike Davis argues that Britain’s imperial policies were “often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet”.
Our research shows that British exploitation policies from 1881-1920 were associated with approximately 100 million excess deaths. This is a straightforward plea for reparations, with a strong precedent in international law. After World War II, Germany signed reparations agreements to compensate the victims of the Holocaust and more recently agreed to pay reparations to Namibia for the colonial crimes committed there in the early 1900s. In the aftermath of apartheid, South Africa paid reparations to people terrorized by the white minority government.
History cannot be changed and the crimes of the British Empire cannot be erased. But reparations can help address the legacy of deprivation and inequality that colonialism has produced. It is a crucial step towards justice and healing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.