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Old Thursday, November 23, 2006
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Default British imperial power, 1858–1947

Climax of the raj, 1858–85

The quarter century following the bitter Indian revolt of 1857–59, though spanning a peak of British imperial power in India, ended with the birth of nationalist agitation against it. For both Indians and British, the period was haunted with dark memories of the mutiny, and numerous measures were taken by the British raj to avoid another conflict. In 1885, however, the founding of the Indian National Congress marked the beginnings of effective, organized protest for “national” self-determination.

On Aug. 2, 1858, less than a month after Canning proclaimed the victory of British arms, Parliament passed the Government of India Act, transferring British power over India from the East India Company, whose ineptitude was primarily blamed for the mutiny, to the crown. The merchant company's residual powers were vested in the secretary of state for India, a minister of Great Britain'sCabinet, who would preside over the India Office in London and be assisted and advised, especially in financial matters, by a Council of India, which consisted initially of 15 Britons, 7 of whom were elected from among the old company's court of directors and 8 of whom were appointed by the crown. Though some of Britain's mostpowerful political leaders became secretaries of state for India in the latter half of the 19th century, actual control over the government of India remained in the hands of British viceroys (who divided their time between Calcutta and Shimla) and their “steel-frame” of approximately 1,500 Indian Civil Service (ICS) officials posted “on the spot” throughout British India.


Social policy

On Nov. 1, 1858, Lord Canning announced Queen Victoria's proclamation to “The Princes, Chiefs and Peoples of India,” which unveiled a new British policy of perpetual support for “native princes” and nonintervention in matters of religious belief or worship within British India. The announcement reversed Lord Dalhousie's prewar policy of political unification through princely state annexation, and princes were left free to adopt any heirs they desired so long as they all swore undying allegiance to the British crown. In 1876, at Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's prompting, Queen Victoria added the title Empress of India to her regality. British fears of another mutiny and consequent determination to bolster Indian states as “natural breakwaters” against any future tidal wave of revolt thus left more than 560 enclaves of autocratic princely rule to survive, interspersed throughout British India, for the entire nine decades of crown rule. The new policy of religious nonintervention was born equally out of fear of recurring mutiny, which many Britons believed had been triggered by orthodox Hindu and Islāmic reaction against the secularizing inroads of utilitarian positivism and the proselytizing of Christian missionaries. British liberal socioreligious reform therefore came to a halt for morethan three decades—essentially from the East India Company's Hindu Widow's Remarriage Act of 1856 to the crown's timid Age of Consent Act of 1891, which merely raised the age of statutory rape for “consenting” Indian brides from 10 years to 12.

The typical attitude of British officials who went to India during this period was, as the English writer Rudyard Kipling put it, to “take up the White man's burden.” By and large, throughout the interlude oftheir Indian service to the crown, Britons lived as super-bureaucrats, “Pukka Sāhibs,” remaining as aloof as possible from “native contamination” in their private clubs and well-guardedmilitary cantonments (called camps), which were constructed beyond the walls of the old, crowded “native” cities in this era. These new British military towns were initially erected as secure bases for the reorganized British regiments and were designed withstraight roads wide enough for cavalry to gallop through whenever needed. The old company's three armies (located in Bengal, Bombay, and Madras), which in 1857 had only 45,000 British to 240,000 native troops were reorganized to a much “safer mix” of 65,000 British to 140,000 Indian soldiers. Selective new British recruitment policies screened out all “nonmartial” (meaning previously disloyal) Indian castes and races from armed service and “promiscuously” mixed the soldiers in every regiment, thus permitting no single caste or linguistic or religious group to again dominate a British Indian garrison. Indian soldiers were also restricted from handling certain sophisticated weaponry.

After 1869, with the completion of the Suez Canal and the simultaneous introduction of steam transport, reducing the sea passage to India from about three months to only three weeks, British women came to the East with ever greater alacrity, and the British officials they married found it more appealing to return home with their British wives during furloughs than to tour India, astheir predecessors had done. Fewer British men now dared to consort openly with Indian women, although some still ventured briefly into the prostitute quarters of old Indian cities. While the intellectual calibre of British recruits to the ICS in this era was, on the average, probably higher than that of servants recruited under the company's earlier patronage system, British contacts with Indian society diminished in every respect, and British sympathy for and understanding of Indian life and culture were, for the most part, replaced by suspicion, indifference, and fear.

Queen Victoria's 1858 promise of racial equality of opportunity in the selection of civil servants for the government of India had theoretically thrown the ICS open to qualified Indians, but examinations for the services were given only in Britain and only to male applicants between the ages of 17 and 22 (in 1878 the maximum age was further reduced to 19) who could stay in the saddle over a rigorous series of hurdles. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that by 1869 only one Indian candidate had managed to clear these obstacles to win a coveted admission to the ICS. British royal promises of equality were thus subverted in actual implementation by jealous, fearful bureaucrats posted “on the spot.”


Government organization

From 1858 to 1909, the government of India was an increasingly centralized paternal despotism and the world's largest imperial bureaucracy. The Indian Councils Act of 1861 transformed the viceroy's Executive Council into a miniature cabinet run on the portfolio system, and each of the five ordinary members was placedin charge of a distinct department of Calcutta's government—home, revenue, military, finance, and law. The military commander in chief sat with this council as an extraordinary member. A sixth ordinary member was assigned to the viceroy's Executive Council after 1874, initially to preside over the Department of Public Works, which after 1904 came to be called Commerce and Industry. Though the government of India was by statutory definition the “Governor-General-in-Council” (governor-general remained the viceroy's alternate title), the viceroy was empowered to overrule his councillors if ever he deemed that necessary. He personally took charge of the Foreign Department, which was mostly occupied by relations with princely states and bordering foreign powers. Few viceroys found it necessary to assert their full despotic authority, since the majority of their councillors usually were in agreement, but in 1879 Viceroy Lytton (governed 1876–80) felt obliged to overrule his entire council in order to accommodate demands for the elimination of hisgovernment's import duties on British cotton manufactures, despite India's desperate need for revenue in a year of widespread famine and agricultural disorders.

From 1854 additional members met with the viceroy's Executive Council for legislative purposes, and by the act of 1861 their permissible number was raised to between 6 and 12, no fewer than half of whom were to be nonofficials. While the viceroy appointed allsuch legislative councillors and was empowered to veto any bill passed on to him by this body, its debates were to be open to a limited public audience, and several of its nonofficial members wereIndian nobility and loyal landowners. For the government of India the legislative council sessions thus served as a crude public-opinion barometer and the beginnings of an advisory “safetyvalve” that provided the viceroy with early crisis warnings at the minimum possible risk of parliamentary-type opposition. The act of 1892 further expanded the council's permissible additional membership to 16, of whom 10 could be nonofficials, and increasedtheir powers, though only to the extent of allowing them to ask questions of government and to criticize formally the official budgetduring one day reserved for that purpose at the very end of each year's legislative session in Calcutta. The Supreme Council, however, still remained quite remote from any sort of parliament.

Economic policy and development

Economically, this was an era of increased commercial agricultural production, rapidly expanding trade, early industrial development, and severe famine. The total cost of the mutiny of 1857–59, approximately £40 million and equivalent to a normal year's revenue, was charged to India and paid off from increased revenue resources in four years. The major source of government income throughout this period remained the land revenue, which, as a percentage of the agricultural yield of India's soil, continued to be “an annual gamble in monsoon rains.” Usually, however, it providedabout half of British India's gross annual revenue, or roughly the money needed to support the army. The second most lucrative source of revenue at this time was the government's continued monopoly over the flourishing illicit opium trade to China; the third was the tax on salt, also jealously guarded by the crown as its official monopoly preserve. An individual income tax was introducedfor five years to pay off the war deficit, but urban personal income was not added as a regular source of Indian revenue until 1886. Despite continued British adherence to the doctrine of laissez-faire during this period, a 10 percent customs duty was levied in 1860 tohelp clear the war debt, though it was reduced to 7 percent in 1864and to 5 percent in 1875. The above-mentioned cotton import duty, abolished in 1879 by Viceroy Lytton, was not reimposed on British imports of piece goods and yarn until 1894, when the value of silver fell so precipitously on the world market that the government of India was forced to take action, even against Lancashire, by adding enough rupees to its revenue to make ends meet. Bombay's textile industry had by then developed more than 80 power mills, and the Indian industrialist Jamsetji N. Tata's (1839–1904) huge Empress Mill was in full operation at Nāgpur, competing directly with Lancashire for the vast Indian market. Britain's millowners again demonstrated their power in Calcutta by forcing the government of India to impose an “equalizing” 5 percent excise tax on all cloth manufactured in India, thereby convincing many Indian millowners and capitalists that their best interests would be served by contributing financial support to the Indian National Congress.

Britain's major contribution to India's economic development throughout the era of crown rule was the railroad net that spread so swiftly across the subcontinent after 1858, when there were barely 200 miles of track in all of India. By 1869 more than 5,000 miles of steel track had been completed by British railroad companies, and by 1900 there were 25,000 miles of rail laid. By the start of World War I the total reached 35,000 miles, almost the full growth of British India's rail net. Initially, the railroads proved a mixed blessing for most Indians, since by linking India's agricultural, village-based heartland to the British imperial port cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, they served both to accelerate the pace of raw-material extraction from India and to speed up the transition from subsistence food to commercial agricultural production. Middlemen hired by port-city Agency Houses rode the trains inland and induced village headmen to convert large tracts of grain-yielding land to commercial crops. Large sums of silver were offered in payment for raw materials when the British demand was high, as was the case throughout theAmerican Civil War, but when the Civil War ended, restoring raw cotton from the southern United States to Lancashire mills, the Indian market collapsed. Millions of peasants weaned from grain production now found themselves riding the boom-and-bust tiger of a world-market economy. They were unable to convert their commercial agricultural surplus back into food during depression years, and from 1865 through 1900 India experienced a series of protracted famines, which in 1896 was complicated by the introduction of the bubonic plague (spread from Bombay, where infected rats were brought from China). As a result, though the population of the subcontinent increased dramatically from about 200 million in 1872 (the year of the first census) to more than 300 million in 1920, the population actually declined by several millions between 1895 and 1905.

The spread of railroads also accelerated the destruction of India's indigenous handicraft industries, for trains filled with cheap competitive manufactured goods shipped from England now rushed to inland towns for distribution to villages, underselling the rougher products of Indian craftsmen. Entire handicraft villages thus lost their traditional markets of neighbouring agricultural villagers, and craftsmen were forced to abandon their looms and spinning wheels and return to the soil for their livelihood. By the end of the 19th century a larger percentage of India's population (approximately 90 percent) depended directly on agriculture for support than at the century's start, and the pressure of population upon arable land increased throughout this period. Railroads also provided the military with swift and relatively assured access to all parts of the country in the event of emergency and were eventuallyused to transport grain for famine relief as well.

The rich coalfields of Bihār and Orissa began to be mined during this period to help power the imported British locomotives, and coalproduction jumped from 500,000 tons in 1868 to over 6,000,000 tons in 1900 and more than 20,000,000 tons by 1920. Coal was used for iron smelting in India as early as 1875, but the Tata Iron and Steel Company, which received no government aid, did not start production until 1911, when, in Bihār, it launched India's steelindustry. Tata grew rapidly after World War I and by World War II had become the largest single steel complex in the British Commonwealth. The jute textile industry, Bengal's counterpart to Bombay's cotton industry, developed in the wake of the Crimean War (1853–56), which, by cutting off Russia's supply of raw hemp to the jute mills of Scotland, stimulated the export of raw jute from Calcutta to Dundee. In 1863 there were only two jute mills in Bengal, but by 1882 there were 20, employing more than 20,000 workers.

The most important plantation industries of this era were tea, indigo, and coffee. British tea plantations were started in North India's Assam Hills in the 1850s and in South India's Nīlgiri Hills some 20 years later. By 1871 there were over 300 tea plantations, covering more than 30,000 cultivated acres (12,000 hectares) and producing over 6,000,000 pounds of tea. By 1900 India's tea crop was large enough to export 137,000,000 pounds to Britain, displacing the tea of China in London. The flourishing indigo industry of Bengal and Bihār was threatened with extinction duringthe “Blue Mutiny” (violent riots by cultivators in 1859–60), but India continued to export indigo to European markets until the end of the 19th century, when synthetic dyes made that natural product obsolete. Coffee plantations flourished in South India from 1860 to 1879, after which disease blighted the crop and sent Indian coffee into a decade of decline.

Foreign policy




The northwest frontier

British India expanded beyond its company borders to both the northwest and the northeast during this initial phase of crown rule. The turbulent tribal frontier to the northwest remained a continuing source of harassment to settled British rule, and Pathan ( Pashtun) raiders served as a constant lure and justification to champions of the “forward school” of imperialism in Calcutta, Shimla, and Whitehall. Russian expansion into Central Asia in the 1860s provided even greater anxiety and incentive to British proconsuls in India, as well as at the Foreign Office in London, to advance the frontier of the Indian empire beyond the Hindu Kush and, indeed, up to Afghanistan's own northern border along the Oxus. Lord Canning (governed 1856–62), however, was far too preoccupied with trying to restore tranquillity within India to consider embarking upon anything more ambitious than the northwest frontier punitive expedition policy (commonly called “butcher and bolt”), which was generally regarded as the simplest, cheapest method of “pacifying” the Pathans. As viceroy, Lord Lawrence (governed 1864–69) continued the same border-pacification policy and resolutely refused to be pushed or lured into the ever-simmering caldron of Afghan politics. In 1863, when the popular old amir, Dōst Muḥammad Khān, died, Lawrence wisely refrained from attempting to name his successor, leaving theDōst's 16 sons to fight their own fratricidal battles until 1868, when Shīr ʿAlī finally emerged victorious. Lawrence then recognized and subsidized the new amir. Viceroy Lord Mayo (governed 1869–72) met to confer with Shīr ʿAlī at Ambāla in 1869 and, though reaffirming Anglo-Afghan friendship, resisted all requests by the amir for more permanent and practical support for his still precarious regime. Lord Mayo, the only British viceroy killed in office, was assassinated by an Afghan prisoner on the Andaman Islands in 1872.

The Second Afghan War

Russia's glacial advance into Turkistan and Samarkand sufficiently alarmed Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his secretary of state for India, Robert Salisbury, that by 1874, when they came to power in London, they pressed the government of India to pursue amore vigorous interventionist line with Kabul. Viceroy Lord Northbrook (governed 1872–76), resisting all such cabinet promptings to reverse Lawrence's noninterventionist policy and to return to the militant posture of the First Afghan War era, resigned his office rather than accept orders from ministers whose diplomatic judgment he believed to be disastrously distorted by Russophobia. Lord Lytton, however, who succeeded him as viceroy, was more than eager to act as his prime minister desired, and, soon after he reached Calcutta, he notified Shīr ʿAlī that he wassending a “mission” to Kabul. When the amir refused Lytton permission to enter his hermit kingdom, the viceroy bellicosely declaimed that Afghanistan was but “an earthen pipkin between two metal pots.” He did not, however, take action against the kingdom until 1878, when Russia's General Stolyetov was admitted to Kabul while Lytton's envoy, Sir Neville Chamberlain, was turned back at the border by Afghan troops. The viceroy decided to crush his neighbouring “pipkin” and launched the Second Afghan War on Nov. 21, 1878, with a British invasion over the high passes. Shīr ʿAlī fled his capital and country, dying in exile early in 1879. The British army occupied Kabul, as it had in the first war, and a treaty signed at Gandamak on May 26, 1879, was concluded with the former amir's son, Yaʿqūb Khān. Yaʿqūb Khān promised, in exchange for British support and protection, to admit to his Kabul court a British resident who would direct Afghan foreign relations, but the resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari, was assassinated on Sept. 3, 1879, just two months after he arrived. British troops trudged back over the passes to Kabul and removed Yaʿqūb from the throne, which remained vacant until July 1880, when ʿAbdor Raḥmān Khān, nephew of Shīr ʿAlī, became amir. The new amir, one of the shrewdest statesmen in Afghan history, remained secure on the throne until his death in 1901.

Viceroy Lord Lansdowne (governed 1888–94), who sought to reassert a more forward policy in Afghanistan, did so on the advice of his military commander in chief, Lord Roberts, who had served asfield commander in the Second Afghan War. In 1893 Lansdowne sent Sir Mortimer Durand, the government of India's foreign secretary, on a mission to Kabul to open negotiations on the delimitation of the Indo-Afghan border. The demarcation, known as the Durand Line, was completed in 1896 and added the tribal territory of the Afrīdīs, Maḥsūds, Wazīrīs, and Swātīs as well as the chieftainships of Chitral and Gilgit, to the domain of British India. The 9th Earl of Elgin (governed 1894–99), Lansdowne's successor, devoted much of his viceregal tenure to sending British Indian armies on punitive expeditions along this new frontier. Viceroy LordCurzon (governed 1899–1905), however, recognized the impracticality of trying to administer the turbulent frontier region as part of the large Punjab province. Thus, in 1901 he created a new North-West Frontier Province containing some 40,000 square miles (about 100,000 square kilometres) of trans-Sutlej and tribal borderland territory under a British chief commissioner responsible directly to the viceroy. By instituting a policy of regular payments to frontier tribes, the new province reduced border conflicts, though for the next decade British troops continued to fight againstMahṣūds, Wazīrīs, and Zakka Khel Afrīdīs.





The incorporation of Burma ( Myanmar)

British India's conquest of Burma, located to the northeast, was completed during this period. The Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852) had left the kingdom of Ava (Upper Burma) independent of British India, and under the rule of King Mindon (1853–78), who built his capital at Mandalay, steamers bringing British residents and private traders up the Irrawaddy from Rangoon (modern Yangôn) were welcomed. Mindon, noted for convening the Fifth Buddhist Council at Mandalay in 1871 (the first such council in some 1,900 years), was succeeded by a younger son, Thibaw, who in February 1879 celebrated his ascendancy to the throne by having 80 siblings massacred. Thibaw refused to renew his father's treaty agreements with Britain, turning instead to seek commercial relations with the French, who were then advancing toward his kingdom from their base in Southeast Asia. Thibaw sent envoys to Paris, and in January 1885 the French signed a treaty of trade with the kingdom of Ava and dispatched a French consul to Mandalay. This envoy hoped to establish a French bank in Upper Burma to finance the construction of a railway and the general commercial development of the kingdom, but his plans were thwarted. The viceroy, Lord Dufferin (governed 1884–88), impatient with Thibawfor delaying a treaty agreement with British India, goaded to action by British traders in Rangoon, and provoked by fears of French intervention in Britain's “sphere,” sent an expedition of some 10,000 troops up the Irrawaddy in November 1885. The Third Anglo-Burmese War ended in less than a month with the loss of hardly 20 lives, and on Jan. 1, 1886, Upper Burma, a kingdom of greater area than Britain and with a population of some 4,000,000, was annexed by proclamation to British India.
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