By Muslim Mirror Desk
In the four decades between 1880 and 1920, when British imperialism was at its height, nearly 100 million people were killed in India as a result of British colonialism, according to a recent study published in the journal World Development.
The study by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel, “Capitalism and Extreme Poverty: A Global Analysis of Real Wages, Human Height, and Mortality Since the Long 16th Century,” highlights the depth of the losses that colonialism inflicted on Indians.
The colonial authority began conducting extensive population censuses in the 1880s, and these censuses show that the death rate climbed significantly during this time, rising from 37.2 deaths per 1,000 persons in the 1880s to 44.2 in the 1910s. The average lifespan dropped from 26.7 to 21.9 years.
In a recent article published in the journal World Development, Dylan and Sullivan estimated the number of persons killed by British colonial policy throughout these four bloody decades using census data. Only from the 1880s, they found reliable statistics on mortality rates in India.
“If we use this as the baseline for “normal” mortality, we find that some 50 million excess deaths occurred under the aegis of British colonialism during the period from 1891 to 1920,” the duo said in an Opinion piece in Al-Jazeera.
Robert C. Allen, an economic historian, found that under British control, poverty in India rose from 23% in 1810 to more than 50% in the middle of the 20th century.
In the article, the researchers said that Real salary data showed that by 1880, imperial India’s living standards had already fallen precipitously from where they had been. Prior to colonialism, Indian living levels may have been “on a par with the developing portions of Western Europe,” according to Allen and other academics.
“We do not know for sure what India’s pre-colonial mortality rate was, but if we assume it was similar to that of England in the 16th and 17th centuries (27.18 deaths per 1,000 people), we find that 165 million excess deaths occurred in India during the period from 1881 to 1920,” the duo said in the article.
“While the precise number of deaths is sensitive to the assumptions we make about baseline mortality, it is clear that somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million people died prematurely at the height of British colonialism. This is among the largest policy-induced mortality crises in human history. It is larger than the combined number of deaths that occurred during all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia,” they said.
The researcher also said that Britain effectively destroyed India’s manufacturing sector.
“Prior to colonisation, India was one of the largest industrial producers in the world, exporting high-quality textiles to all corners of the globe. The tawdry cloth produced in England simply could not compete. This began to change, however, when the British East India Company assumed control of Bengal in 1757,” they said in the article.
The duo cited a historian, Madhusree Mukerjee, who said that “the colonial regime practically eliminated Indian tariffs, allowing British goods to flood the domestic market, but created a system of exorbitant taxes and internal duties that prevented Indians from selling cloth within their own country, let alone exporting it.”
“This unequal trade regime crushed Indian manufacturers and effectively de-industrialised the country.”
As the chairman of East India and China Association boasted to the English parliament in 1840: “This company has succeeded in converting India from a manufacturing country into a country exporting raw produce.”
“English manufacturers gained a tremendous advantage, while India was reduced to poverty and its people were made vulnerable to hunger and disease,” the article reads.
According to the article, British colonisers established a system of legal plunder, known to contemporaries as the “drain of wealth.” Britain taxed the Indian population and then used the revenues to buy Indian products – indigo, grain, cotton, and opium – thus obtaining these goods for free. These goods were then either consumed within Britain or re-exported abroad, with the revenues pocketed by the British state and used to finance the industrial development of Britain and its settler colonies – the United States, Canada and Australia.
“This system drained India of goods worth trillions of dollars in today’s money. The British were merciless in imposing the drain, forcing India to export food even when drought or floods threatened local food security. Historians have established that tens of millions of Indians died of starvation during several considerable policy-induced famines in the late 19th century, as their resources were syphoned off to Britain and its settler colonies,” it further reads.
According to the researchers, colonial administrators were fully aware of the consequences of their policies. They watched as millions starved and yet they did not change course. They continued to knowingly deprive people of resources necessary for survival. The extraordinary mortality crisis of the late Victorian period was no accident. The historian Mike Davis argues that Britain’s imperial policies “were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.”
The researchers found that “Britain’s exploitative policies were associated with approximately 100 million excess deaths during the 1881-1920 period.”
“This is a straightforward case for reparations, with strong precedent in international law. Following World War II, Germany signed reparations agreements to compensate the victims of the Holocaust and more recently agreed to pay reparations to Namibia for colonial crimes perpetrated there in the early 1900s. In the wake of apartheid, South Africa paid reparations to people who had been terrorised by the white-minority government,” they said in the article.
“History cannot be changed, and the crimes of the British empire cannot be erased. But reparations can help address the legacy of deprivation and inequity that colonialism produced. It is a critical step towards justice and healing,” Sullivan and Hickel concluded.