(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, to 1820 | East to Ceylon and Burma | Britain's View of Empire | India and the British debacle in Afghanistan, 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 were 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 India's agriculture. Paying less for food raised standards of living.

Asian agriculture was producing harvests twenty times the amount of seed planted, while European harvests were only eight times 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.

In mechanizing their economy, however, India and China were falling behind. In 1750, hand and arm muscles were still much involved in making and doing things. That year, India was producing 24.5 percent of the world's manufactured goods. China was producing 32.8 percent. In textile manufacturing, particularly cotton, the British had an advantage in steam power. Britain was smaller and had fewer people than India or China. In 1750 Britain was producing only 1.9 percent of the world's share of manufactured goods, but its manufacturing per person was around 140 percent of India's and 125 percent of China's. note37

In manufacturing, Britain was racing ahead. By 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 by 1830 it had fallen to 29.8 percent. Britain's share had risen to 4.3 percent in 1800 and to 9.5 percent in 1830, fives times what it had been in 1750. By the end of the nineteenth century the shift would be more extensive. India would have only a 1.7 percent share of the world's manufacturing, China 6.2 percent. Britain would have 18.5 percent. The United States was also moving ahead. By the end of the century it would have a 23.6 percent share. note38

China had a few problems concerning economic growth. With a growing population, by the year 1800 people in China were moving to lands less suited to high agricultural productivity. Around 80 percent 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 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. Such 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 landlord and bureaucrat aristocrats believed in intellectuality, the peasants believed in work – to survive. And all they had went into their survival.

India's cotton growers were not as motivated by personal gain as were Southern planters in the US (who were encouraged by financiers in New England who made money shipping cotton abroad). And cotton growing in India was inhibited by the Zamindar land tenure system. A Zamindar was an aristocrat, perhaps with an inflated title like Maharaja, who held a huge tract of land and control over peasants whom he could tax. Local princes and the Brahmans around these princes were little interested in investing in technological change. India did not have as many people as Britain did who were eager for new ways of doing things. In Britain, competition, interest in profit and engineering were inspiring more economic progress.

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 that his countrymen were ruining the Indian economy and society. A 21st-century historian in India, Rajat Kanta Ray, has 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. There are those who point to the British having built railways and having paved roads that 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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