(BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 – continued)

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British Imperialism in Asia, to 1900

Economies of India and China to the Early 1800s | The British in India, Ceylon and Burma, to 1825 | Britain's Postwar View of Empire | Afghanistan and the British, 1831-50 | First Opium War | India's Sepoy Mutiny | Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War | Britain in India, ideology and Economics to 1900

Economies of India and China to the early 1800s

Europeans had thought India, China and other countries in East Asia to be lands of wealth. The Asians were, in fact, close to the Europeans in standards of living. India's textile workers in the 1700s had a standard of living equal to that of British workers. This was due to a productive agriculture. Abundant food production kept the price of food low, and cheaper food raised standards of living.

Asian agriculture was producing harvests twenty times the amount of seed planted, while Europe harvests were only eight or less. The Asians were growing rice, and rice took nutrients from water rather than soil. Asians were not leaving land lie fallow as were the Europeans. And farmers in China were impressing visitors from Europe by their ability to get as many as three harvests a year from the same plot of land.

The year 1750 was pre-industrial. Hand and arm muscles were still much involved in manufacturing, and that year India was producing 24.5 percent of the world's manufactured goods. China was producing 32.8 percent. In textile making, particularly cotton, the British had an advantage in steam power. Britain (the United Kingdom since 1800), was the leading nation in commerce and technology. The amount of its manufacturing per person was around 140 percent of what India's per capita manufacturing, and 125 percent of China's. But given the greater populations of India and China, Britain's total production of manufactured goods was much less than theirs. The British in 1750 were producing only 1.9 percent of the world's share of manufactured goods. (Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. 149)

In the early 1800s, India, China and other Asian countries were not maintaining their share of the total manufacturing in the world. In 1800, India's share had slipped to 19.7 percent, and by 1830 to 17.6 percent. China's share in 1800 was up slightly from 1750, at 33.3 percent but down in 1830 to 29.8 percent. Britain's share had risen to 4.3 percent in 1800 and 9.5 percent in 1830. The U.S. share in 1800 was 0.8 percent, and in 1830 it had risen to 2.4 percent. By the end of the nineteenth century, India would have only a 1.7 percent share of the world's manufacturing, China 6.2 percent, Britain 18.5 percent, and the U.S. 23.6 percent (with the U.S. only 69 percent of Britain in per capita manufacturing. (Kennedy, p. 149)

In China, as in India, the abundance in food production had been accompanied by a surge in population growth. By 1800, people in China were moving to lands less suited to high agricultural productivity. Around 80 percent of the people remained in agricultural areas, and more people meant more unemployment. But more important in China not keeping up with the West was its lack of people with both money and interest in investing in technology. In 1800, China had banks in its major cities. It had copper and salt mining and porcelain manufacturing employing millions. Many of China's landlord-aristocrats had money, but they had disdain for grubby matters, including technological change. They saw themselves as gentlemen, and learned gentlemen did not speak of profits. They were imbued with the combination of Confucianism and Taoism. While seeing Europeans pressing upon China with their advanced technology, they tended to claim that it was all heaven's doing. They were not interested in imitating Europe. Their major interest was great books and elevation of the spirit. These intellectuals dominated China's bureaucracy.

In China, government was also little concerned with investing in economic development or in change. Bureaucrats made money from taking payment bites from transactions, and they saw change as merely disruption and jeopardy. While the landlord and bureaucrat aristocrats believed in intellectuality, the peasants believed in work – to survive. And all they had went into their survival.

India in the early 1800s was in turmoil and being taken over militarily by the British. Indian cotton growing was not done motivated by personal gain as were the Southern planters in the U.S., who were encouraged by financiers in New England who made money shipping cotton abroad. Cotton growers in India were inhibited by the Zamindar land tenure system.

In India, the British were following a policy of divide and rule. They were gaining control over civil administrations in India and pursuing their own interests in the buying and selling of goods. Local ruling princes and the Brahmans around these princes were not terribly interested in investing in technological change. India did not have people eager to find or support new ways of doing things that Britain did. In Britain, competition, interest in profit and engineering were inspiring a different spirit. There, economic progress was inspiring more economic progress, leaving traditional ways of doing things behind.

A question remains whether British imperialism in the form of the East India Company was a drag on India's economy. In the 1780s Edmund Burke claimed the his countrymen were ruining the Indian economy and society. An Indian historian, Rajat Kanta Ray, accused the British of depleting food stocks and imposing high taxes that helped cause the famine of 1770, killing a third of the people of Bengal. But their claims are refuted by others. The British built railways and paved roads, which helped India's economy. British inspired irrigation works put 30 million acres into cultivation. And Britain linked India to the latest in science. Mohandas Gandhi was to complain that the English did "everything for us" but had committed the crime of giving us "no responsibility for our own government."


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