Britain’s Indian empire came about almost by accident. The East India Company (EIC), the first globalist, multi-national mega-corporation, established trade with India in the early 1600s. For the company’s first 150 years, until the mid-1700s, trade was more than enough, as the company and its agents amassed spectacular fortunes. Yet as the ruling Mughal Empire splintered, the EIC became, by default, the largest regional economic power. Cutthroat competition with French traders (in the form of the French East India Company) had led the EIC to build a massive private military force to defend their goods and holdings; this corporate army was eventually used to secure much of India in a series of battles, the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s.
Total EIC control didn’t last. The Bengal Famine of 1770 killed an estimated one-third of the entire population of the Bengal territory — up to 10 million people — and responsibility for the event was on the Company’s shoulders. They had deliberately supplanted food crops in order to cultivate the far more profitable harvests of indigo, jute, and opium. They also forbade the stockpiling of rice (which had been long used as a famine-relief measure), and the Company demanded larger crop contributions from farmers than the region’s former Mughal rulers. And the famine dragged on over three years, the Company ignored the human toll, and instead continued to protect its profits.
Concurrent with the famine occurred a depression in global trade. On the verge of bankruptcy, and unable to pay the British government its trade monopoly fee of £400,000 yearly, the EIC asked for financial help. In response, Parliament passed the Regulating Act of 1773, a law that enacted administrative and economic reforms, and gave Parliament de facto control of the Company, specifically via a governing council in which Parliament had a majority of voting members. Although the British Raj did not formally take complete control from the EIC until 1858, this event was the Empire’s foundation.
It’s just as instructive to look at the worst of colonial excesses, the Belgian Congo. An estimated 8 to 10 million indigenous people died as a direct result of the colonial exploitation of the Congo, mostly between 1885 and 1908. Many perished from disease, lacking immunity to European viruses. Millions of others were worked to death, or starved from famines caused by King Leopold’s pillaging armies, or simply murdered when they got in the way of Belgium’s relentless exploitation of African resources.
Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of the book King Leopold’s Ghosts, by Adam Hochschild, notes:
Marchal, the Belgian scholar, estimates that Leopold drew some 220 million francs (or $1.1 billion in today’s dollars) in profits from the Congo during his lifetime. Much of that money, Hochschild suggests, went to buying Leopold’s teen-age mistress, a former call girl named Caroline, expensive dresses and villas, and building ever grander monuments, museums and triumphal arches in honor of the king.
Those profits came at the price of terrible suffering by the Congolese people. Not only was their land summarily annexed — most of the chiefs who signed (famed explorer Henry Morton) Stanley’s “treaties” had no idea what they were signing — but they were also coerced into the arduous job of gathering rubber for Leopold’s men as well.
Those who refused or failed to meet their quotas were brutally whipped, tortured or shot, Hochschild reports; others saw their wives and children taken hostage by Leopold’s soldiers.
According to Hochschild, hostage-taking and the grisly severing of hands (from corpses or from living human beings) were part of the government’s deliberate policy — a means of terrorizing others into submission.
As the “rubber terror” spread through the Congolese rain forest, Hochschild adds, entire villages were wiped out: Hundreds of dead bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes, while baskets of severed hands were routinely presented to white officers as evidence of how many people had been killed.
Back to the Raj, not only was a massive famine a founding event of the Empire, but it was also a continuing feature of British occupation. Indian MP Dr. Shashi Tharoor, in a 2015 debate speech at the Oxford Union, noted that “…between 15 and 29 million Indians died of starvation in British-induced famines. The most famous example, of course, was the great Bengal Famine during the Second World War, when four million people died, because Winston Churchill, deliberately as a matter of written militant policy, proceeded to divert essential supplies from civilians in Bengal to sturdy Tommies and Europeans as reserve stockpiles. (Churchill) said that the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis mattered much less than that of sturdy Greeks; this is Churchill’s actual quote. And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to him pointing out that people were dying because of this decision he peevishly, in the margins of the file, wrote ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ ” Note that Tharoor is talking here about an entirely different Bengal famine.
Pseudoscience, another target of this comic, led directly to such horrors; Victorian misappropriation of Charles Darwin’s explosive theory of evolution birthed the monster of eugenics, founded upon “scientific” ideas that darker races were inherently inferior, and certainly less intelligent than Caucasians (an idea later central to Nazi ideology). The operative justification of colonial exploitation was that Europeans were civilizing the backward savages, giving them the gifts of modernity that would raise them out of the muck. This was, of course, the thinnest of ersatz moral veneers that permitted these conquerors the worst excesses in the pursuit of profit; once you’ve dehumanized an entire people, it legitimizes any atrocity against them. In his book, Hochschild quotes King Leopold’s praise of Dutch colonials, who used Javanese forced labor to increase plantation harvests; the inhumane method, said Leopold, was “the only way to civilize and uplift these indolent and corrupt peoples of the Far East.” Racism operated hand-in-glove with greed.
The corrupt ethical framework of colonialism persists, specifically in the undead notion that the non-white peoples of colonized cultures are too inept to govern themselves. Yet this idea is promulgated by those who choose to be ignorant of history — and also of the rude fact that it’s exceedingly difficult to build functioning systems upon the nightmarish legacy and dysfunctional examples left behind by colonials. As Dr. Tharoor notes later in his Oxford speech, in utter dismissal of the tired argument that British rule in India led directly to functioning democracy: “It’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.”
Read the original comic, The Conquest of Malaria, in Real Life Comics #14
- Dr. Shashi Tharoor: Video of a speech at the Oxford Union in which he sketches out the depredations of the British Raj and argues for reparations. Tharoor has written a (forthcoming) book on Raj atrocities, Inglorious Empire, and has also compared Churchill to Hitler.
- Photos of Life Under the British Raj: Fascinating gallery of recently-discovered photos that depict life in India during the Edwardian Era. (Click on each photo to advance the images.)