Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The British Raj and the Case for Reparations

A couple of years ago, I wrote a version of the old “You have two cows” joke in which I said this about British imperialism:

You have two cows. The British come and kill both. They then force you to grow fodder on your fields instead of food for yourself, and to turn over all this fodder to them. They take the fodder home, feed it to their cows, and sell you the milk at gunpoint. If you refuse to buy it, they hang you.”

This wasn’t, actually, a joke. The whole British colonial project was built on one premise, and one only – loot and exploitation – and every single thing the British did was to maximise that loot and exploitation. The entire “grandeur” and “glory” of the British Empire, the riches on which the modern British state rests, came totally, completely, one hundred per cent, from this loot and exploitation.

How they did it differed according to the circumstances. In countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe, which at the time were tribal pastoral societies with no industrial output, they forcibly took land from the natives – much more land than they could themselves use – and turned those lands into immense settler farms where the same people who would normally have owned the land were turned into nearly destitute labourers. This policy had a name – alienation – and the labourers were tied to the farm they worked on by documents (called kipande in KiSwahili) which served as dual purpose identity cards and passes. If the labourer wanted to visit someone outside the farm, even if it was to visit a friend in the village, he needed his employer’s signature on the kipande. If he was caught off the farm without a kipande, it was prison for him.[Source] This policy continued right to the end of the British colonial rule in Africa – 1960s to 1970s – and is the major reason Zimbabwe evicted the white farm owners off their holdings. But you’ll never hear of it in the British media, even though some of the people responsible are still alive to this day.

Nor will you get an honest depiction of the British colonial enterprise in India, which they called the “Raj”, or “the jewel in the British crown”. I will get back to this “jewel” in a while. British mythology about how they came to acquire their Indian Empire, as repeated by “historians” like Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in their pulp fiction book Freedom At Midnight, and repeated by modern British imperialist apologists like Niall Ferguson, goes roughly like this:

“Historians are amazed at how the British inadvertently came to acquire their Indian empire. The British came as traders, and negotiated with local rulers for trading posts which they then had to protect by fortifying and arming them. In order to secure their rights to free trade, they were then, reluctantly, compelled to intervene in the squabbles of these rulers, ending up by annexing their territories simply to provide good government since the alternative would be chaos. This, in turn, brought them into contact with other rulers in whose squabbles they were again forced to intervene in self-defence. Before they knew it, they found themselves in control of a huge territory, which they ruled as fairly and effectively as possible. Yes, there were a few mistakes here and there, but they did much more good than harm. Without them, India would never have got roads, railways, telegraphs, law and order, modern medicine, and the English language. British imperialism has nothing to regret and nothing to apologise for.”

Bull dung.

They could start off with apologising for that horrible flag.

Building the Empire:

The British colonial project was never, at any point, “inadvertent” – from the beginning it was an aggressive imperialist expansion. The British first did come as traders, in the 17th Century; but at the time India had a fairly strong central government in the shape of the Mughal Empire, with large military forces and economic strength of its own. All that the British managed to secure at the time was trade arrangements – just like the Portuguese, French, Dutch and Danes also did around the same period. But by the 1720s the Mughal Empire, in the space of only two decades, imploded, central power disappeared, and the fringes of the erstwhile empire fragmented among local sultans, nawabs and princes.

At this time the British, in the form of a private firm called the East India Company, had a fortified trading post in Calcutta, with its own army. The local ruler was one Nawab Siraj ud Dawlah. The British seized on an alleged atrocity called the Black Hole of Calcutta, which most likely never happened, and in 1757 declared war on Siraj ud Dawlah. They then bribed one of Siraj’s generals, Mir Jafar, to stay out of the battle, thereby defeating the Nawab more easily than they might have otherwise, and seized his kingdom. Mir Jafar was rewarded with the position of vassal ruler but was shunted aside after a while. To this day in India “Mir Jafar” is a synonym for “traitor”, like “Quisling” is in Europe or “Benedict Arnold” in the Imperialist States of Amerikastan.

From the moment of winning the Battle of Plassey against Siraj ud Dawlah in 1757, the British looting began. The East India Company’s top man was Robert Clive, to this day “celebrated” in British imperial history as Clive of Calcutta. He was such a shameless looter that even his contemporaries protested at his greed. His reply? “Gentlemen, I am amazed at my own moderation”. His successors were in no wise better, and by the 1800s they had given up even the pretence that their aim was anything but the annexation of India territories. One of the most notorious of the East India Company’s Governor Generals, Lord Dalhousie, formalised this as the Doctrine of Lapse, in which any Indian principality whose ruler had no recognised (by the British) heir would “lapse”, that is, be annexed, by the East India Company on the ruler’s death. It was one of the factors that fed the great anti-British rebellion of 1857, these days called the First War of Indian Independence.

So much for the notion that the Brits “inadvertently” acquired their Indian Empire. There was nothing the least bit inadvertent about it.

How did the British take over the Indian subcontinent anyway? There are many reasons, but none of them rests on British “technological superiority”. In fact in the 1700s, the Indian subcontinent was mostly at least the equal of Britain technologically and economically. Even in armaments, the Indian armies were fairly modern. Indian kings for a long time had been employing European, especially French, officers, and buying their weapons. By the 1820s, the Sikh Empire, for instance, had an army which was indistinguishable from the average European military of the period, even to red uniforms with white facings, shakoes and drill regimens. But that did not save it.

One of the regular things the British did was pick sides in battles they otherwise would have no stake in, battles which but for them would never have been fought. As I said, the Indian subcontinent – after the collapse of the Mughal Empire – disintegrated into multiple small kingdoms. There were also two up and coming Empires, the Marathas and the Sikhs. But the Sikhs were at the time far away on the other side of the subcontinent from the British, and the Maratha power was decisively smashed by an Afghan invasion in 1761. So these two were not a factor. But the rest of the new kingdoms often had their own animosities and quarrels, and when the British offered to intervene on one side or the other they eagerly seized on the offer. The British forces were usually sufficient to tip the balance, and then the side which had accepted the East India Company’s help suddenly found that it had tied itself to the British power and could not get away. If it tried, it would swiftly be invaded and crushed in its turn. [This reached its logical culmination when the titular and powerless Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, who was formally the feudal lord of the East India Company, and which was sworn to protect him with its army, was overthrown and imprisoned by it after the rebellion of 1857.]

This policy, too, had a name, just like alienation. It was called Divide and Rule.

Divide and Rule didn’t only involve kings and princes, it also went to the point of breaking relations between Indian Muslims and Hindus. Islam had first come to India along with Arab traders, and later with a series of invasions by Afghan kings in the 11th and 12th Centuries. But the Afghans had settled down in India, their Islam had over time merged in many ways with Hinduism to produce the Sufi form of the Muslim faith, and had become Indians in India, not foreigners ruling over the subcontinent. Though religious violence by Muslim kings against Hindus continued during the Afghan rule over Delhi and subsequently during parts of the Mughal Empire which succeeded it, rioting between the civilian communities only began after the British takeover, and continued with increasing ferocity as long as they stayed in India.

This, by the way, is one of the excuses British apologists have for their empire: they, allegedly "saved India from the cruelty of the Muslim rulers." Um, no, they didn't; by the time they arrived in force the Muslim rule had already crumbled away. The Mughal Empire was a fiction, the (Hindu) Marathas and the Sikhs were the two major subcontinental powers, Hindu Rajput and Jat kingdoms ruled across most of what was left, and the only two significant Muslim states left were Hyderabad and Awadh. Of these the Hyderabad state was left under titular Muslim rule until independence in 1947.

Then, like all colonial projects in history, the British relied on a comprador class of collaborators. In this it was helped greatly by the fact that Indians have historically been all too eager to bow before foreign invaders and join with them for short term advantage. If it was not for these collaborators, if Indians had resisted as aggressively as, say, the Afghans against foreign invasions, no imperial conqueror, from Alexander of Macedon to the British themselves, would ever have been able to capture this subcontinent. This comprador class was again quite deliberately set up, recruited from compliant and non-violent people (mostly the Bengalis and the Tamils) the British had ruled over longest, and used as administrators, clerks and bureaucrats to enforce the British diktat. Of course, the comprador class swiftly came to see its own interests as identical to the British, because its comfort and riches depended on the perpetuation of British power. And in order to have a link language to this comprador class, the British introduced English, which was taught only to them. At no stage did the British make any serious effort to introduce English among the village and urban poor, something which is only now, in the 21st Century, slowly beginning to happen, and that against a lot of opposition.   

So, by a combination of deceit, temporary alliances of convenience, sowing of enmity between peoples, and creating a class of Vichy enforcers, the British took over the subcontinent and continued and deepened their policy of loot. One thing they did was to destroy the subcontinent’s industrial base. Let’s get this said right away – Indians of the period weren’t savages living in caves or the equivalent. The subcontinent had thousands of years of history, a high level of production of goods and services, and trade relations with countries stretching from the Roman Empire to what are now China and Indonesia. But one of the first things the British did was to destroy all that.

The Exploitation:

In this the East India Company was guided by the pure logic of profit.  By destroying the native industry, they made the entire and growing colonial empire a huge captive market with nowhere else to turn for the manufactured goods it needed. Having a total monopoly, the Company (as it was known) could charge as it wished, and thus suck out the riches that it could not loot directly. [A somewhat similar technique was to be used a hundred years later by the Nazis – who intensely admired the British colonial empire – in the Warsaw and Krakow Ghettoes. Jews who were evicted from their homes in Germany or the Netherlands often managed to smuggle gold and other valuables with them into the ghettoes, and the Nazis knew that. By forbidding any kind of food production in the ghettoes, and controlling all import of food, the Nazis managed to get hold of almost all the gold the Jews still had. Only when they were out of valuables and had nothing to offer were the ghettoes finally destroyed and their inhabitants sent to the camps.]

There was also the British crackdown on Indian food production. Instead of growing food for themselves, Indian farmers were compelled to produce raw materials for the British factories – cotton for the mills of Manchester, indigo for their dye works (the indigo farms especially were run with extreme cruelty by British overseers) and opium. This opium, which was grown at gunpoint, was then shipped to China where the decaying Manchu empire was compelled to buy it, again at gunpoint.

And this was quite apart from taxes, on everything from the goods the British sold to the resources they could not loot. They even taxed salt, which led to a rather famous act of civil disobedience by Mohandas Gandhi. There was no avenue of making money they left unexploited.

Oh, colonialism was extremely profitable for the British!

Some time ago I saw photographs someone I know had sent of her time in England, wandering around stately castles and majestic architecture. I could not enjoy those photos at all. Every single bit of it, every moulding, every statue, every fancy staircase, was built on the loot extracted from the blood of the colonised of the empire.

In order to get an idea of the catastrophic effect the British exploitation of Indian agriculture had, one needs to just look at the history of Indian famines. Before the advent of the British, the Indian subcontinent had no mass famines. After the British left, though the territory of modern India has shrunk by a quarter and the population grown by over 400%, there has not been a single mass famine. But during the “benevolent” years of the British rule, there was one famine about every forty years. The last of this was the quite deliberately induced Bengal Famine of 1943, which killed between 3.5 to 4 million Indians, and which Churchill refused to allow food shipments to alleviate.

Yes, that’s right. Between 1938 and 45, Hitler allegedly killed 6 million Jews (the figure is almost certainly fictional; the actual number was more likely about 4 million), and for that, among other things, he’s quite rightly considered a villain. But in the course of a single year alone, Churchill verifiably starved a minimum of 3.5 million Indians to death (that being only one of his many war crimes). And yet Churchill is a British hero.

To get back to the topic.

It was only in the early 1900s that the British, by now the British Empire (the East India Company had been replaced by the British Empire after the revolt of 1857, and aggressive annexation abandoned in favour of establishing protectorates), finally permitted an Indian industrial base to start growing. A general European war was obviously approaching, and Britain needed cloth, among other things. So – still over the strident objections of British manufacturers – textile mills were finally allowed to be set up...in the huge port of Bombay, from where the products could be shipped off to Europe at minimum cost. Again, the logic of British profit was paramount.

The British looted not just Indian resources and treasures, but Indian manpower. The British colonial wars, as soon as they had captured enough of India to begin recruiting troops, depended on Indian soldiers. Indian soldiers (“sepoys”) helped Britain invade Afghanistan, put down the Boxer rebellion, occupy Burma (now Myanmar), fight both World Wars, all conflicts in which India had no stake whatsoever. They also conscripted Indian labourers (“coolies”), who were sent all over the British colonial empire from the Caribbean to East and Southern Africa to Mauritius to Malaya to Fiji, to work in British plantations, build British railways, hew wood and draw water for the British. That is why those parts of the world till today have large ethnic Indian populations, in some places (Guyana and Mauritius come to mind) even majorities – they’re the descendants of those slave labourers.  

The British Empire was built with the blood of Indian sepoys and the muscles of Indian coolies.

Just now I mentioned the word “railway”. One of the repeated claims of modern British apologists of colonialism is that if not for the white rulers, India would have had no trains or telegraphs, roads or modern medicine. This is of course demonstrably rubbish – in the 1700s, India was the owner of two thousand years of medical endeavour, some of which is still in (perfectly respectable) use today. In the 1550s, the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri had built the Grand Trunk Road, which connected the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent to the southeast – a superhighway of the era, which still exists, in modernised form, today.

And as for railways and telegraph, there are two important points to be made:

First, the British didn’t build them out of altruism. Far from it. Communications, both telegraphic and physical, were essential to managing the empire, to move the extorted raw materials to the harbours, the manufactured goods from the mills of Manchester to their captive markets, and to send troops to intimidate and smash any hint of rebellion. Without communications, the British Empire could never have turned a profit, and therefore railways were merely an investment...one which they recouped many times over.

Secondly, it’s not as though nations never colonised by the British or any other western power never got telegraphs, roads and railways. In fact, every single damn one of them acquired them, often with spectacular speed, without ever having been colonised. Japan, for example, was a medieval relic in 1858. Forty years later, it had railways, telegraph, electric lights, steam ships, even race courses and a stock market. Ten years after that, it had its own little colonial empire in Korea. If India hadn’t been colonised, it would have got railways and the telegraph – simply by, you know, hiring Western companies to build them, and paying them the market rate.

Instead, we paid with everything, starting with our freedom.

The Kohinoor:

I said that India was called the Jewel in the British crown. This got rather literal when it came to the Kohinoor (Mountain of Light). It’s a diamond, at one time the largest the world had ever seen. Originally the property of an Indian dynasty, it ended up in the possession of the Mughals. From there, the Persian king Nadir Shah took it with him when he sacked Delhi in 1740; this was the last occasion on which Persia or Iran waged aggressive war on anybody. After Nadir Shah died, his Afghan general Ahmad Shah Abdali – the same man who would later smash the Maratha Empire – captured his entire treasure, including this diamond. Abdali’s descendant Shah Shuja – of whom I have written here – gave it, very unwillingly, to Sikh Emperor Ranjeet Singh in return for asylum, whereupon it returned to India. When the British – under the same Lord Dalhousie I mentioned – turned on their former Sikh allies, one of their series of betrayals, and captured the Sikh capital of Lahore, they took the diamond as part of the “spoils of war” and compelled Ranjeet Singh’s son to personally hand it over to Victoria, then queen of England. Victoria had the stone cut down to a tiny fraction of its size (approximately one-seventh) and it now occupies a place on the crown which her successor, Elizabeth Windsor, wears.

Under any law which claims to be based on fairness, Britain has to repatriate the Kohinoor. This is not negotiable. If there is any one symbol of the rapacity and destructiveness of British colonial rule, it’s how they treated the diamond, first looting it, and then almost destroying it. They have no right to cling on to it any further, and I would strongly support any action that would coerce the owners of the legacy of the East India Company to return what’s left of the stone. Anything at all.

The case for reparations:

Recently, a politician called Shashi Tharoor, whom I personally detest, made an impassioned speech calling for the British to pay reparations for their colonial rule over India. Prime Minister Narendrabhai Modi – whom, as any reader of these pages is aware, I do not exactly love – strongly supported that demand. Though I despise not just these two gentlemen but their respective political parties as well, I am totally with them on this. Quite apart from returning the Kohinoor, Britain needs to pay reparations.


When a crime is committed, and the criminal gets rich on the proceeds, justice demands that the victim is compensated for the loss suffered. To this day, India is still suffering from the effects of the British colonial period. In fact, just about every single thing that goes into making up India today is a product of British colonialism, starting with the English in which I’m writing this article, instead of Persian as I probably would have if the Brits had never turned up.

The industry the British destroyed, the exploitation they visited on this country, the famines that devastated the land, the wildlife they eradicated in the name of sports hunting, the religious divides they sowed so as to make their rule easier, which ultimately ended in the splitting of the nation into two, and then three, hostile parts – all this can directly be traced to British colonial rule. We can’t undo their crimes, but we can at least compel them to acknowledge they were crimes and make adequate reimbursement.

There is absolutely no way Britain, which to this day uses the proceeds of its loot from its former empire, can disclaim responsibility. It maintains its obscene palaces and its so called royal family from them, it uses them to finance its parasitic House of Lords and its military, complete with nuclear arsenal. It uses them to claim that it provides a higher standard of living than the nations it has looted and reduced to the dust, and hence is “superior” to them. None of this is forgivable.

I agree that the current common Brit shouldn’t be blamed for the sins of his forefathers. Don’t target him. Target those who are responsible. Seize the assets of the royal family and what’s left of the nobility. Abolish the British military and use its money to pay for reparations. Strip the companies of the City of London, empty their bank accounts, and you should be able to come up with enough to reimburse the colonised nations at least a small fraction of the riches the Brits looted over the centuries.    

Should India also ask for reparations from other colonial regimes, like the Portuguese, French and Danes? I should say, yes, but they occupied relatively tiny parts of the subcontinent, which they did not ravage with the same relentless cupidity of the British – and the Portuguese, for one, upgraded their colony to the status of an overseas territory, thus granting their colonial subjects citizenship. The British would not even begin to consider doing that.

There is another very important aspect to it. Britain’s Empire may, except for dots like the Islas Malvinas and Gibraltar, be as dead as the dodo; but British imperialism is alive and well. It’s no longer capable, of course, of conquering anything on its own, but Britain is now a colony of its former colony, the Imperialist States of Amerikastan, and jumps to join in any aggression committed by its imperial master. In this the support for imperialism coming from “historians” of the tribe of Niall Ferguson and politicians like Tony Blair (who, on first assuming office, immediately called for “enlightened double standards” in dealings with us lesser nations) is crucial. If you think your ancestors’ crimes have nothing to do with you, and then your academics and politicians tell you that they weren’t crimes after all, and in fact you ought to be proud of them, you’ll be ready to cheer on more of the same.

This is why reparations are vital. Once you make restitution, you are admitting that a crime has been committed. You are, to the best of your ability, attempting to right the wrong that has been done. And you are, permanently, sealing off the route to committing the same crime again, unless you admit in advance that you know it’s a crime and you’re going to commit it anyway.

Do I think Britain will actually ever make restitution for all of this? No.

But then they never called it Perfidious Albion for nothing.

I went to some trouble to find a British colonial photo that would not fill me with anger. I hope you appreciate that :/
Further reading:

This article by a good British friend of mine on the topic.


  1. You have two cows. They provide nourishing milk and cheese. Then a millionaire slaughters them to make steak and cowboy boots. 'Murica.

    Seriously, though, thanks for the history lesson. I find India fascinating and know far less about it than I should. As much as you rag on America, remember that my forefathers didn't like being a British colony any more than yours did. (OK, my forefathers didn't make it to America until way after the Revolution, but that's another story.)

  2. I'm in a group called British Politics on Facebook that has been discussing the possibility of reparations to India. I must admit I haven't followed the debate too closely but I'll post this article and see what reaction it gets.

  3. Another entry of yours which is excellent and which compels me to get my thoughts together to make a cogent comment.

  4. Bill,
    Thank you for this history lesson. I have known about the British caused famine in 1943 and how Churchill(shit hill) did nothing to alleviate it and probably made it worse. I sent you a link to an article from 2011 about it before I finished this one by you. Sorry if it is over load.
    One small off topic comment. I think old Benny Arnold did have a cause to go over to the other side. he was the best general the Continentals had and he was passed over for promotion one time too many for his ego to take. Egos can be rather fragile in some humans. I try and keep mine locked up and under armed guard 24/7. Of course it still gets out now and then, hey I never claimed to be perfect. Hell, I don't even claim to be "good" whatever that means. I suppose it means I'm not evil, or not totally evil.
    Yes, the royals should sell off ALL their holdings and repay those peoples they oppressed. Well, maybe not Liz herself, but her damn family sure did.
    My ancestors didn't leave Germany until after 1860 to come to the US.
    One thing that still pisses me off about the Brits and to some extent many 'Merikkkans is the vile word nigger. Oh dear, that is a word I am not supposed to say or even type now days. Well, it IS a word and was used by the Brits in particular to describe anybody who had a better tan than they did. Well, that leaves a whole hell of a lot of niggers then as most Brits look like they have never been in the sunshine ever. Pasty white, nearly the color of freshly washed and bleached white linen. Or am I being a reverse racist now? Ah well, if so, tough beans and hard cheese. It is my opinion. I do know that many Brits did call Indians, India Indians, niggers and Arabs were sand niggers. Partly from reading history and from a few TV programs, such as "The Jewel In the Crown" which was on PBS TV in the US back in the 90's I think it was. The Brits who ran the occupied countries tended to be very racist. Again, my view.
    Dad taught me to accept each person as they are, not by skin color, but by their character. I never got to ask him how/where he learned that. He grew up in dairy country in southern Wisconsin and as a kid there,we only saw black people when we went to Milwaukee or Chicago. Not many black folks around Wisconsin dairy farms in the mid 1950's. No work for them. Same goes for Hispanics on the dairy farms as they were almost exclusively family farms then. Those dairy farmers could not afford hired help and barely made enough to support their own families more often than not.
    I find the word nigger to be one of the most repulsive words in any language. I also think that owning another human being is absurd and vile. Ha, this from an old wage slave/machinist. Well, at least I entered into that eyes wide open.
    Thanks again for this Bill. Good luck even getting the Brits to own up o the crimes they and their forefathers did to your country and others around this planet. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for even the mildest apology.
    Sorry for rambling on so damn long. Hey, I told you before, I talk too much, in person as well as online.


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