Oxford Union, a prominent debating society at Oxford University, is celebrating its second centenary this year. Public figures ranging from scientists to heads of state have spoken at the forum over time, on topics that have real-world relevance. We take a look at a quote from one of the most viral speeches ever delivered in the Union’s history. Debating the motion “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies”, Indian MP Shashi Tharoor presented a damning criticism of British colonialism in 2015 that struck a chord in India and other formerly colonised nations across the world.
Shashi Tharoor, a diplomat-turned-politician who is a member of the Congress Party, is known for his eloquence and astute knowledge of history and political affairs. His quote refers to a crucial historical question and is an important part of the UPSC Civil Services Examination syllabus. Aspirants will find this quote and its background relevant in Essay, Indian and World History (GS Paper 1), the History optional and Political Science optional papers.
Linked with this quote are the topics like colonial expansion, imperialism, the industrial revolution, deindustrialisation, the economic policy of British rule, India’s contribution to the World Wars, etc. One must not miss understanding why this quote is relevant today, as the UPSC CSE often connects the past with the present in its questions. Some of the following questions on colonialism and related issues have appeared in exams in the past where candidates have been expected to highlight the dark side of colonialism :
*Examine how the decline of traditional artisanal industry in colonial India crippled the rural economy. (2017)
*Examine critically the various facets of economic policies of the British in India from mid-eighteenth century till independence. (2014)
*Is the colonial mentality hindering India’s Success? (2013)
During his speech, Tharoor says: “Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the deindustrialisation of India.” He then points out examples to justify his statement.
Notably, Tharoor speaks about India’s famous handloom weavers. He says, “Britain came right in, smashed their thumbs, broke their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products, and started, of course, taking raw materials from India and shipping back manufactured cloth, flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England. That meant that the weavers in India became beggars and India went from being a world-famous exporter of finished cloth to an importer. It went from having 27 per cent of world trade to less than 2 per cent.”
What the above quote and example illustrate is that there was a direct link between the rise of Britain as a global superpower in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and the depredation of India, the effects of which are felt to date.
The Industrial Revolution refers to a series of transformations in the methods and relations of production that exponentially increased outputs and put the West on its path towards prosperity and power.
These transformations included going from hand production methods to machines; new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes; the increasing use of water power and steam power; the development of machine tools; and the rise of the mechanised factory system.
While the precise date when the Industrial Revolution began in England is debated, the general historical consensus puts it in the latter half of the 18th century. In his classic, ‘The Industrial Revolution (1760–1830)’, historian TA Ashton argues that industrialisation roughly started around 1760 in Britain. On the other hand, Eric Hobsbawm in ‘The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848’, argues that while the Industrial Revolution began in the 1780s, its effects were not felt till the 1830s and 1840s in Britain.
The debate as to why Britain industrialised when it did is still ongoing. Depending on what one prioritises, one can focus on social and political changes in Britain, geographical factors unique to the island nation, new belief systems brought by the Protestant Reformation or important technological innovations such as the invention of the steam engine or advances in bookkeeping.
Another factor integral to the British Industrial Revolution was colonialism.
British colonial conquest was primarily an economic enterprise. The British East India Company was a trading company which began maintaining its own territories to protect its economic interests. As British control expanded over the Indian subcontinent, India became one of Britain’s most important assets – supplying men, materials and markets for its colonial overlord. As Tharoor would say in his speech, “By the end of the 19th century, India was Britain’s biggest cash cow”.
The reason why this was integral to British industrialisation was that in absence of Indian markets as well as, to an extent, raw materials, British industry would neither see the demand nor the supply to help it thrive. Furthermore, as the Industrial Revolution improved the living standards, technological capabilities and economic might of Britain, its ability to colonise became even greater. In effect, this formed a cycle – colonialism supported British industrial growth, which in turn fuelled further colonial expansion and repression.
‘Deindustrialisation’ as a term is misleading – industry as we know it today, with factories and advanced production methods did not exist in human history prior to the Industrial Revolution. But what Tharoor is referring to is the systemic destruction of the Indian domestic economy that was crucial to Britain’s industrial revolution. While there may not have been modern industries, there were thriving economies across the subcontinent.
As the British colonised the subcontinent, they controlled and changed the traditional economies to benefit Britain. The story of the handloom workers, whose fingers and looms were not only broken but who were driven to the streets because of competition from the cheap mill-produced cloth from Britain, is among the most famous.
Perhaps one of the first to write about this was economist Dadabhai Naoroji. In his 1867 book ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule in India’, he proposed the “drain of wealth” theory, in which he articulated how British rule had brought losses to the tune of hundreds of millions of rupees in the Indian economy. Among other things, this was caused by India becoming a source of cheap raw materials rather than expensive finished goods, as well as Britain’s harsh taxation system.
“The capital to finance the Industrial Revolution in India instead went into financing the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” wrote Marxist historian RP Dutt in his 1940 classic, ‘India Today’.
While colonialism, as it existed in the previous centuries, is a thing of the past, its impacts are being felt to date. Numerous historians have traced global inequities between nations to colonialism and consequently, western industrialisation.
However, especially among the population and ruling classes of former colonial countries, the sheer impact of colonialism in shaping current-day inequities is not fully understood. “Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate,” wrote Edward Said, considered the father of postcolonial theory, in ‘Culture and Resistance’.
Speeches like Tharoor’s at the Oxford Union debate are an essential reminder to all about the depravity and long-term consequences of colonialism – for both the coloniser and the colonised.