Taxed to Destitution : The British Empire’s guide to Poverty Generation

Posted on December 24, 2012


I originally did this piece out of self-interest about six and a half years ago when I was a first year student at university, and it lay written pieces on paper till now, but I feel like writing something online (I guess I’m on a roll at the moment)  so have decided to “electrify” it. Despite deciding not to publish this before (it is effectively an angry rant), some recent ‘discussions’ I had with people who thought I rode a cow to work and relived myself on the street, I now think it’s a justified rant.

As tempting as it always is to someone from the sub-continent, this is not intended to be one of those Pommie basher articles designed to ferment nationalist feeling or recreate the sense of euphoria felt at the defeat of the hated colonials.  It is simply an attempt to critique the past and relate it to some present day truths. It is also highly biased by my personal opinion, which is possibly not a very good thing given I’m known to be highly opinionated, if often silently. However the point remains that the British, once they took over India (depending on the part of India you are thinking of, this may mean either the East India Company or the Raj), used the existing feudal revenue streams and the existing – and now effectively disestablished with the loss of sovereignty – local aristocracy, together to good effect to develop a ruthless, and in true British style a highly efficient system to tax the Indian peasantry into generational poverty.   

It so happened that the Mughals had an existing mechanism to tax the peasantry on the basis the existing feudal land tenure system. In a land tenure system, the inhabitants do not own the land they live and grow on. Instead they are ‘owned’ by a local lord and overall by the emperor. The farmers can live and work on these lands in return for loyalty, services and taxes.  Thus the local aristocracy, who owned the land, collected tax on behalf of the Moghul Emperor from those peasants that lived on and used their lands (a commission was included of course). This is accepted to have been repressive, and in dead deliberately so to help the Moghul conquerors subjugate and control the often Hindu local population.

 However two points must be noted: firstly the position of the local nobles were secure as long as they were loyal, given that these titles were inherited and they were very much an integral part of the ruling Moghul establishment. So generally speaking (with may be the odd exception) they would not have had any extraordinary incentive to tax the local population to starvation beyond that demanded by the centre, even though they would undoubtedly have been in competition with each other for royal patronage. Instead the focus would be on delivering the taxes that were due. In dead, it would have been desirable to maintain them at a balanced level in the interest of keeping social harmony and preventing rebellions and satisfy the monarch at the same time. Secondly, given that taxing, especially of the local non- Muslim populations was a widespread and much regulated practice throughout the Islamic world, the rates are likely to have been clearly set based on the revenue required to meet the national and imperial needs. This was charged as a portion of agricultural produce.

Then cometh the Brits. With their dynasty gone, the nobles no longer have a legal basis for their erstwhile authority and were now looking for some way to maintain their old influence and social position). Their feudal masters have been supplanted by a Monarchy normally served by a salaried professional civil service. So what can you do but look to integrate with the new establishment and win over the new masters. Luckily, since the practice of collecting taxes (Diwani) through them was already there and in good working order, the British had allowed them to do so, functioning in their old role and thus maintaining their influence and power over the peasants in their lands. These Zamindars, as they were known, now had the same privileged status as before, but their continued entitlement depended no longer on loyalty alone, but also performance as ineffectiveness in doing their job would result in them being fired and replaced by the civil service. Or someone else.

 While initially being no more than local lords much below the level of the Mughal royals, they also began to style themselves in a much higher regard, as Maharajas and Nawabs around this same time. The Moghuls would care if this happened under their watch, and the insolent nobles who no not their place would most likely find themselves on the block. However, having allowed them to retain much of their previous influence over local governance, the British didn’t really care about these titles or what the new Maharajas’ did with powers retained, as long as the job given to them was done to a satisfactory standard, and why should they?   

Being aware of this, and liking the idea of being a Maharaja in more than just by name, the Zamindars went out of their way to please their new masters. Now there was competition. There were tax targets to surpass. The more impressive the revenue generated was, the less meddling the British as they assumed the area to be in safe hands. Obviously, the maharaja would not be able to generate such an income if his lands were not stable and prosperous, and in any case, and quite conveniently, the constant flow of tax revenue meant that the deal must be honoured and the maharajas left to play maharajas without British interference in their internal matters. Ironically, the fair and principled British thus turned a blind eye to the side effects of this process. 

James Mill, involved in the formulation of the land tax system stated that the crown was the ultimate lord of the soil and should not renounce its right for rent, to justify the Ryotwari revenue collection system. One letter by a British official to the colonial secretary reportedly suggested that (the person’s name escapes me, unfortunately so does that of the documentary where it was shown), that the Maharajas should be allowed to ‘Milk’ the Indian farmers for the benefit of the crown, without concern for their plight. India should not be colonised, due to large local population, but used for revenue generation. She was for Great Britain’s use.

And use her they did. Of course there was the looting and plunder that normally accompanies any conquest, thanks to which the British monarchy can now boast about their crown jewels, the Kohinoor, et al. The story of this diamond is known by all, and symbolises to many a sub-continental, whether he be from Sri Lanka, Napal, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh or India itself, the plunder of his homelands by the European invaders. This however was only a minute speck of dust in a much larger footprint.

The British requested and encouraged the relentless and merciless taxing of the ordinary folk already working hard to maintain a decent and dignified state of living, then turned a blind eye to the resulting oppression and suffering, enjoying their high tea and Lamingtons in the manicured lawns and stately mansions along the boulevards of Calcutta and amidst the mountainous tea gardens in Nuwaraeliya. Meanwhile the country farmers were being milked like the fat cash cows that they really were not and it only took a couple of bad harvests and draughts, before they found themselves having to part with their lands, which was their lifeline, to cover the exuberant taxes. The power hungry local agents, blinded by the power and wealth begotten on them by the poms, showed no mercy on their suffering kin. Soon, the landless peasants, now driven into poverty through taxes and loss of income, and no other choice but to pack up what they had left and head to the now rapidly growing metropolises such as Bombay and Calcutta, to try out their luck there. Initially, the growth in commerce in these cities under the colonialists would have presented the opportunities that they were searching for. The result was that they would inform their friends and relatives back home in their villages, who then would migrate to the cities themselves. This trend is still present in many cities according to contemporary research done by (). So, all good you say, the destruction of livelihood in one sphere have been compensated by the creation of opportunities in another. But to what scale? Eventually, the market saturated and the opportunities dried up. These cities could no longer support the continued influx of rural folk, and the infrastructure, which would only have been built to be sufficient to serve the colonial population in the first place, could not service the majority of the native inhabitants. The result: The already poverty stricken people were now destitute, living in slums, trying to somehow eke out a living amidst rubbish heaps and unsanitary sewage channels. Disease was rife, access to education was low, and with any poverty stricken community, procreation was also high (not sure why but this seems to always happen). So you ended up with an exponentially growing population living in destitution and suffering the miseries and hardships as bad as which life could possibly offer, where they still are. 

 Of course the British gave us their laws (which were actually much more oppressive than the traditional laws that existed in both India and Sri Lanka in pre-colonial times), government, railways and the like, which they still boast of and continue to remind us of, incessantly. It’s ok to boast, but it must be remembered that a coin always has two sides, and that other side must also be acknowledged. This second, darker side of the coin however, is often conveniently forgotten by the colonial apologists, that not only refuse to acknowledge the injustices caused (let alone compensate for them or even say sorry) while overly focusing on the “gifts of British rule”, but also justifies the crimes that they cannot deny were committed, saying it was acceptable then and was only a trend of the times. I wonder how much an African slave hanging off a plantation whipping post would agree with this preposition. Murder, plunder, pillage and usury were always crimes no matter which part of the world you hail from, and no matter what religion you base your values on. So to say that the massacre of Sikhs at Jallianwala Bagh, or 500 years of slavery in Africa were justifiable as they were acceptable then (to whom – I’m sure to the Sikhs and Africans it wasn’t) is just bull sh*t.

To say that we are being backward when we bring these topics up and the argument that we need to move on in order to progress is common, but not really fair. Neither is the argument that the those living  today are not responsible for the crimes of their forefathers. They are not directly responsible, but they are still accomplices as long as they refuse to right those wrong which they know to be wrong and continue to enjoy the fruits of those wrongs. Britain was one of the poorer nations of Europe, even during the pre-colonial early modern times. The only significant exports were linen and wool of very ordinary quality. The Tin trade was not what it was during Roman times and British coal was not really needed in continental Europe. Do you think that, without the plunder from the Americas, Africa and the Asian sub-continent, the British would have been able to become the power it was coming into the Great War, let alone build up prosperous countries from scratch in Australia and New Zealand? They never denied that Indian and Ceylon were the jewels of their empire, and would they have been so if they were always so poor? No, it’s where the biggest market for British products was and the biggest source of their wealth and natural resources was. Why would you invade a country at great cost if success didn’t bring a prize? So to say that “we are not responsible for our grandparents crimes”, while enjoying the wealth stolen en masse by them from South Asia and other colonies, and created via the exploitation of people living there, is that fair?

We do appreciate the good, but the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the injustices that occurred by the authorities (even when many a Brit on the street would himself accept this), is what is annoying. In Sri Lanka, the British did give us tea, which is what we are mostly renowned for. But the Wasteland Act of 1841 that acquired large tracts of land to establish tea gardens, made many landless and without an income. Sri Lanka was a farming nation, which reportedly exported rice in ancient times (according to the local chronicle Mahawansa). Therefore many were farmers, and as it is essential for agriculture, land was important in order to guarantee one’s livelihood. Except for land held by nobility (and often granted by royal decree) however, there were no written deeds that established a citizen’s land ownership then, as the concept of land ownership and use were different to that of Europe. This is what the Wasteland Act exploited by decreeing that land without written deeds in certain hill country (where the climate was suitable for tea growth) are considered to be wasteland and would be acquired by the crown. Thus the crown acquired hundreds of thousands of hectares of land which were then sold off at bargain prices to aspiring British planters, without having to pay any compensation for the thousands of native inhabitants who were evicted.

As a result, there were now so many people in these regions without land and without a job. You would think that the authorities would employ these people, with a good knowledge of the local soil, to work in these plantations. But no, somehow, someone thought it would be a better idea to import workers from south India, which one could never expect to be taken well by the local landless and jobless population (See any parallels with the US Tea Party and Minutemen complaining about Mexican ‘Illegals’?). This was where some of the seeds of the ethnic conflict were sawn. So yes, you gave us tea, thanks! But at what cost?  

So in conclusion all I can say is that while there were a few good things that came off the colonial experience, the massive injustices caused must be acknowledged by the erstwhile colonial powers and their magnitude weighed against any benefits received by the ruled countries, especially in the sub-continent, before any attempt is made to justify and glorify these actions or claim that it was good for us. Because you know, from our point of view it wasn’t. Then, before you say that India is full of slum dwellers or Sri Lankans can’t stop killing each other and somehow try to justify the notion that we are all inferior or backward or can’t rule ourselves or whatever, do make an effort to see how those problems came about. Before criticising the immigration of South Asians to Australia, New Zealand, UK, etc. and jumping to the conclusion that Indians come here because they stuffed things up back home through their own doing and now want to come steal your jobs, know that India was not always poor and neither was Sri Lanka, and that if we were, you probably would have been only too happy to leave us alone. Also know that New Zealand and Australia would not exist if the sub-continent didn’t generate the wealth it did for the British crown.

Finally, it does not hurt to apologise when you and everyone else knows that what happened was wrong, and accept that we have to clean up the mess that you made in our home. Please accept that we have to do it our way, which will take time, and this will impact our short term ability to meet the same standards demanded of the West in such things as carbon emissions cuts. It’s only with this understanding that we can respect each other and work to prosper together as equals. This is when the whinging will finally stop.

A note on this latter subject: yes India must contribute to the cuts, but to expect them to make the same commitments as the West (while she is still trying to feed her people) and using it as a pretext to delay commitments by the west (who by the way is the biggest culprit) is unjustifiable and devoid of common sense.