I’d like you to comment on a tendency in the Third World to blame the colonial masters for all the problems that are besetting their countries today. They seem to say, “Yes, India has problems, but it’s the fault of the British — before that, India was just one happy place.”
It’s difficult to assess blame for historical disasters. It’s somewhat like trying to assess blame for the health of a starving and diseased person. There are lots of different factors. Let’s say the person was tortured — that certainly had an effect. But maybe when the torture was over, that person ate the wrong diet, lived a dissolute life and died from the combined effects. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.
There’s no doubt that imperial rule was a disaster. Take India. When the British first moved into Bengal, it was one of the richest places in the world. The first British merchant warriors described it as a paradise. That area is now Bangladesh and Calcutta — the very symbols of despair and hopelessness.
There were rich agricultural areas producing unusually fine cotton. They also had advanced manufacturing, by the standards of the day. For example, an Indian firm built one of the flagships for an English admiral during the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn’t built in British factories — it was the Indians’ own manufacture.
You can read about what happened in Adam Smith, who was writing over two hundred years ago. He deplored the deprivations that the British were carrying out in Bengal. As he puts it, they first destroyed the agricultural economy and then turned “dearth into a famine.” One way they did this was by taking the agricultural lands and turning them into poppy production (since opium was the only thing Britain could sell to China). Then there was mass starvation in Bengal.
The British also tried to destroy the existing manufacturing system in the parts of India they controlled. Starting from about 1700, Britain imposed harsh tariff regulations to prevent Indian manufacturers from competing with British textiles. They had to undercut and destroy Indian textiles because India had a comparative advantage. They were using better cotton and their manufacturing system was in many respects comparable to, if not better than, the British system.
The British succeeded. India deindustrialized, it ruralized. As the industrial revolution spread in England, India was turning into a poor, ruralized and agrarian country.
It wasn’t until 1846, when their competitors had been destroyed and they were way ahead, that Britain suddenly discovered the merits of free trade. Read the British liberal historians, the big advocates of free trade — they were very well aware of it. Right through that period they say: “Look, what we’re doing to India isn’t pretty, but there’s no other way for the mills of Manchester to survive. We have to destroy the competition.”
And it continues. We can pursue this case by case through India. In 1944, Nehru wrote an interesting book [The Discovery of India] from a British prison. He pointed out that if you trace British influence and control in each region of India, and then compare that with the level of poverty in the region, they correlate. The longer the British have been in a region, the poorer it is. The worst, of course, was Bengal — now Bangladesh. That’s where the British were first.
You can’t trace these same things in Canada and North America, because there they just decimated the population. It’s not only the current “politically correct” commentators that describe this — you can go right back to the founding fathers.
The first secretary of defense, General Henry Knox, said that what we’re doing to the native population is worse than what the conquistadors did in Peru and Mexico. He said future historians will look at the “destruction” of these people — what would nowadays be called genocide — and paint the acts with “sable colors” [in other words, darkly].
This was known all the way through. Long after John Quincy Adams, the intellectual father of Manifest Destiny, left power, he became an opponent of both slavery and the policy toward the Indians. He said he’d been involved — along with the rest of them — in a crime of “extermination” of such enormity that surely God would punish them for these “heinous sins.”
Latin America was more complex, but the initial population was virtually destroyed within a hundred and fifty years. Meanwhile, Africans were brought over as slaves. That helped devastate Africa even before the colonial period, then the conquest of Africa drove it back even further.
After the West had robbed the colonies — as they did, no question about that, and there’s also no question that it contributed to their own development — they changed over to so-called “neocolonial” relationships, which means domination without direct administration. After that it was generally a further disaster.