The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 21 March 2008

10. (i) Empire: India, tigers, cotton and opium

In last week's investigation into what clarity the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica can give to the perhaps surprisingly vague concept of Britishness, we noted in passing that there is no entry in the Index reading EMPIRE, British, the. Is there an underlying significance to this omission? Does it perhaps indicate a characteristic reluctance to brag on such a theme?
Seeking answers to these questions, we must look beyond the Index, and where better to start than Volume 12 and the jewel in Empire's crown, INDIA. As befits the subject, Britannica gives India a splendid and fascinating treatment, of which the cursory and haphazard survey here below is a very poor reflection, for which, as always, my apologies.

Firstly we find a double page spread - a rare indulgence in Britannica - showing a map of the sub-continent . With British Territory coloured pink and Dependent and Subordinate Native States coloured yellow, India looks very much like a strawberry and vanilla mashed dollop of ice cream. Turning the page, the opening paragraph of Sir W. W. Hunter (LL. D., C.I.E, Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India)'s essay confirms that we have come to the right place to illuminate our subject:

India is a great empire of Asia, composed of twelve provinces under direct British administration, and about one-hundred and fifty feudatory states and principalities, which equally with the British provinces acknowledge the paramount sovereignty of the British crown. The whole empire contains close on 1 1/2 million square miles and 240 millions of inhabitants. The area, therefore, is almost equal to, and the population is just equal to, the area and population of all Europe, less Russia. The people exactly double Gibbon's estimate of 120 millions for all the races and nations which obeyed Imperial Rome.

Ha! Take that, Gibbon, and yer damned Romans! Double, I say! And lest anyone was dismayed by the yellow areas of the map of India competing with the sublime pink, note well that those states and principalities equally acknowledge the sovereignty of Her Maj Queen Vic.

Sir W. describes the physical beauty (and wealth) of this empire in a splendid and sweeping portrait "from the highest mountains in the world to vast river deltas raised only a few inches above the level of the sea." He catalogues the sub-continent's wildlife with what seems a seasoned eye that would thrill the blood of any country gent relaxing in his study with a glass of port after a long morning in pursuit of Vulpes vulpes across the Sussex Downs. Of the tiger (who it is "scarcely probable that he will ever be exterminated from India") :

But when once he develops a taste for human blood, the slaughter he works becomes truly formidable. The confirmed man-eater, which is generally an old beast, disabled from over-taking his usual prey, seems to accumulate his tale of victims in sheer cruelty rather than for food. A single tiger is known to have killed 108 people in the course of about 3 years. Another killed an average of about 80 persons per annum. A third caused thirteen villages to be abandoned, and 250 square miles of land to be thrown out of cultivation. A fourth, so late as 1869, killed 127 people, and stopped a public road for many weeks, until the opportune arrival of an English sportsman, who at last killed him.

I would like to draw your attention, distracted perhaps by the laconic image of Johnny Tiger-killer, to what I find to be a particular poetry in the author's varied accounting of the death toll caused by the beasts - a statistician's poetry, perhaps. 108 in 3 years, 80 per annum (for how many annum? Teasingly, we are not told), an unspecified death toll for the third and for the last 127 in an unspecified length of time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, considering the occupation of the author, the real meat of this essay comes in the statistical accounting of peoples and produce. Our esteemed author begins with a justifiable reiteration:

The population of India, with British Burma, amounts to 240 millions, exactly double the number which Gibbon estimated for the Roman empire at the height of its power. But the English government, like the Roman, has respected the rights of native chiefs who are willing to govern peaceably and well, and one-third of the country still remains in the hands of hereditary rulers. Their subjects (including Mysore) make up 54 millions, or over one-fifth of the whole Indian people. The British territories (including Mysore, temporarily under British administration), therefore comprise only two-thirds of the area of India, and less than four-fifths, or 191 millions, of its inhabitants.

Note the use of 'English' rather than 'British' to speak of the government of India.

A land of geographical wonders, with vast millions of population and with colourfully dangerous wildlife, there is also the produce and trade of India for us to consider.

The cultivation of the soil is the occupation of the Indian people, in a sense which is difficult to realize in England, and which cannot be adequately expressed by figures.

Nonetheless, of the cultivation of such diverse crops as rice, wheat, and millet, of spices, palms, sugar, jute, indigo, and of cotton, tea and opium, our esteemed Director-General does a very admirable job of conveying to us a degree of understanding. Under the heading of 'Commerce' tables showing the imports and exports of of 1877 - 1888 tell us something, at least, of the British Empire in India.

Included in a total of £67,377,464 worth of exports are:

Grain (rice, wheat, etc)...£10,134,100
Hides & skins................£3,756,887

Imports to India totalled £58,829,645, and included:

Cotton goods....................£20,172,716
Ales, beers and spirits....£1,401,559
Railway plant...............£902,002

It should be clear from these figures that India's greatest value to Britain was as a market for the cotton goods manufactured in the mills of Lancashire: the import of which far outweighs the export of raw cotton, and at a time when Indian cotton was still in increased demand following the shortages caused by the American Civil War. As Sir W. W. Hunter notes, there was a rather grim historical irony in this situation.

Considering that England's export trade with India thus mainly depends upon piece-goods, it is curious to recollect the history of cotton manufacture. In the beginning of the 17th century the industry had not been introduced into England, and whatever demand there was for cotton in that country was satisfied by circuitous importations from India itself, where cotton-weaving was an immemorial industry. In 1641 "Manchester cottons," in imitation of Indian calicoes and chintzes, were still made of wool. Cotton is said to have first been manufactured in England in 1676. To foster the nascent industry, a succession of statutes were passed prohibiting the wear of imported cottons ; and it was not until after the inventions of Arkwright and others and the application of steam as a motive power had secured to Manchester the advantage of cheap production that these protective measures were entirely removed.

Silk manufacture, or sericulture, is noted to be a "stationary, if not a declining industry". Grains and seeds (such as linseed) provide a healthy volume of trade, but only taken together do they overshadow the opium trade. There is a great deal of interest to be learnt about this trade (which has its own entry elsewhere) from Britannica, well deserving a full-posting in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the Director-General makes some interesting points for us to consider.

The opium of commerce is grown and manufactured in [...] the valley of the Ganges round Patna and Benares and a fertile table-land in central India [...] for the most part still under the rule of native chiefs [...]. In the latter of these two regions the cultivation of poppy is free, and the duty is levied as the opium passes through the British presidency of Bombay ; in the former, the cultivation is a strict Government monopoly.

[...]Under the Bengal system annual engagements are entered into by the cultivators to sow a certain quantity of land with poppy ; and it is a fundamental principal that they may agree or refuse as they please. As with most other Indian industries, a pecuniary advance is made to the cultivator before he commences operations, which is balanced when he delivers over the opium at the subordinate agencies. He is compelled to deliver his whole produce, being paid at a fixed rate according to quality.

Tata the Indian family company which bought British Steel last year and is in the process of giving us the world's cheapest car, began in this highly profitable trade : it's difficult to say which line of business sparks more disapproval today, but you can't knock their enterprise. I imagine that their 2008 balance-sheets and projections would meet with Sir W.'s approval, while the irony of the reversal in the economic position, while unlikely to be savoured, would hardly be lost on him.

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