Blogs > Liberty and Power > Clio (Not the Empire) Strikes Back

Mar 20, 2005 5:29 am

Clio (Not the Empire) Strikes Back

Niall Ferguson (I understand) suggests in Colossus, the Rise & Fall of the American Empire (2004), that US government officials & politicians should openly & explicitly acknowledge the existence & wide influence of the current -- implicit & unacknowledged -- American empire. This can then be modelled after the benign British Empire, to bring its order & other benefits to the subjects of its US counterpart. This proposition, in turn, has - naturally - brought out the standard anti-imperialist narratives, to show how horrible 'colonialism' really is.

The evil practices of colonialists are perpetrated on their hapless victims. Anti-imperialists then expose this wickedness. Thus colonialists & their opponents are the two protagonists in the story. The victims are there because, obviously, the imperialists' depravity must have an object - it is directed at someone. Victims, then, provide the sticks to beat the colonialists with.

Within this framework, a *pro-colonial case is the only other stance conceivable: how colonialism benefited the colonised. And on both sides, the criteria applied are those that apply to any sort of case: how strong/weak is it? How well does this material support/undermine the case?

Historical inquiry is, of course, an entirely distinct enterprise. It proceeds from a *specific interest in the *object of the inquiry. It poses a series of questions to ensure that all proceeds systematically; that the various influences at work are sorted out; etc. These questions include:- what is the overall historical context of this particular inquiry? What are the main 'sources' for the inquiry? How reliable/otherwise are they? How do the results of the inquiry fit into the overall context? into cognate areas of investigation? -- & so on. Thus historical inquiry is about *particulars -- gaining some sort of knowledge of, & perhaps even mastery over, certain particulars. And so such study is _specialised_.

The object of the exercise here, is to contrast the _respective outcomes_ of:- case-building & historical inquiry, - in *one specific instance. Consideration of the former will provide a bridge to the particular history involved. I take some points from a recent anti-colonialist work (from a Marxist, Mike Davis, see below), used in a review against Ferguson's book (above.) The points relate to the Madras (or Deccan) famine of 1876-78, in India.

Here, it is necessary to say that the historical study of India is highly specialised. To do the job properly requires a close knowledge of its many regions, especially their commercial geography, as also acquaintance with a vast number of specific, very complex circumstances. - This is merely to underline how different the two enterprises are: the study of Indian history, & fashioning an anti-imperial account.

The anti-imperialist points to various precipitating/exacerbating circumstances (relating to the famine), brought on by imperialism. Firstly, the latter broke up a pre-colonial harmony:

Merchants & the ‘cash nexus’ largely replaced the ‘traditional system of household & village grain reserves regulated by complex networks of patrimonial obligation’ (p. 26.)

(Tell that to the untouchables & the lower castes in the villages.) -- Historical inquiry:- Irfan Habib, the leading historian of Mughal India (& an Indian patriot), refers to ‘the _usual_ scenes of horror marking a _serious_ famine’ (in the 16th & 17th centuries; my emphasis.) These horrific pictures included: large numbers of unburied corpses; cannibalism; ‘choked’ slave markets; the sale of children by their parents. Neighbouring areas experienced significant looting. Entire regions were deserted & cultivation took years to recover.

There were less serious famines as well. One episode of ‘scarcity’ had only a limited impact (he feels.) The criterion? Shahjehan, the Mughal emperor, ordered Mughal officials to repurchase & restore the children sold by their parents. This means the numbers of children sold could not have been large - so it was a moderate famine. -- [NB, Shahjehan reigned from 1628-1658; also see below.]

Anti-imperialist: Rice & wheat harvests in the rest of India were good in the previous three years [before 1876-78.] But much of the surplus was exported to England. 'Londoners were in effect eating India's bread' (p.26.)

Historical inquiry:- The majority of the population throughout India ate _millets_, or poor-quality rice. Millets are a tough crop & _very_ coarse in quality (believe me.) They were never export crops, nor was poor-quality rice, nor could they ever be. Wheat is a luxury foodgrain & very delicate in its requirements. Therefore only a smaller proportion of total food output & acreage consists of wheat. It grows in central & northern India. The _small_ quantities of wheat exported were of the very best quality & came from the Central Provinces & the Punjab. The first lay about 300 miles north of the famine areas in the South; the second was over a thousand miles to the northwest. In the Central Provinces, the wheat area _declined_ from about a third of the total area under food (in 1867) to about 28% (in 1875.) The proportion under millets remained constant at around 42%. The famine areas were mainly ‘dry-crop’ areas, without irrigation. And the main rice-exporting region in Asia then & now, was (is) Thailand; its rice is of the very highest quality.

So ‘Londoners’ ate a delicate, specialised export crop. The majority of Indians ate coarse millets.

Anti-imperialist:- ‘The taxes that financed the railroads also crushed the ryots’ [small farmers] (p.27.)

Historical inquiry:- The railways were built by British investors, as part of the world-wide process of railway-building, utilising British expertise, steel, & rolling stock, in the 19th century. By the late 1870s, the major part of the Indian railway network was complete, although construction of branch & feeder lines continued. By 1913, it was the world’s fifth largest network. Goods carried increased from just under 5 million tons in 1873 to 81 million tons in 1914. The goods were almost overwhelmingly agricultural commodities, including foodgrains. The Government of India paid interest (to British investors) out of railway revenues. No taxes burdened Indians for _this_ purpose.

Anti-imperialism:- Merchants used newly-constructed railroads to ship grain _out_ of drought-stricken areas to central depots, safe from rioters. In the cotton-exporting districts of the Deccan, forest enclosures & the displacement of ‘gram’ [chick-peas] by cotton, greatly reduced food security ( p. 26. )

Historical inquiry:- Before the railways were built, all regions _had_ to grow all crops, regardless of soil & climate -- transport facilities were that inadequate/nonexistent. Thus food crops were grown in unsuitable areas. Outputs were low, quality was poor, & the crops were highly vulnerable. Railway transport made regional specialisation & _exchange_ possible. In areas best suited to food crops, farmers increased the land under food & decreased the land under cash crops. In areas best suited to non-food crops, farmers did the opposite. Thus food output increased, quality improved, & risk was reduced. Interregional & national markets in foodgrains developed for the first time. Cash crops expanded spectacularly, increasing farmers’ incomes substantially. -- Incidentally, the railway network included ‘famine’ lines, built specifically for access to famine-prone regions.

Anti-colonialism:- Indians were unable to purchase subsistence partly because of the steep rise in the cost of imports -- the [silver] rupee was depreciating against the gold standard currencies (p.27.) The worsening depression in world trade spread misery & ignited discontent in the cotton-exporting districts of the Deccan….(p.26.)

Historical inquiry:- There are a number of distinct developments here.
A. Food imports into India were insignificant, except for Bengal, which imported rice from Burma when harvests declined [Davis does mention this.] Famines gradually fell in severity & then disappeared as output rose & as markets were integrated. Crop failures are usually localised; increased & improved transport allowed stocks to be brought in from neighbouring areas. And stocks rose with output. Further, the railways permitted temporary migration. When crops failed in a district, virtually all the able-bodied men moved to urban or to other rural areas to seek temporary work. Their earnings sustained them & their families & some of their cattle. These incomes also enabled the purchase of more cattle & of seed-grain in due course.

The officials of the Government of India also instituted a Famine Code (after 1878.) When crops failed, taxes were remittied & loans made for the purchase of cattle & seed-grain.

B. The silver currencies began depreciating in the late 1860s. But gold prices also declined from around 1873 to 1896 -- so import prices remained steady for the silver countries. Trade, output, employment -- the world economy -- expanded spectacularly during these years. In the silver areas, with the fall in silver against gold, exports & export incomes rose substantially. The bulk of Indian exports were agricultural commodities -- produced by _small farmers_: jute (from Bengal), cotton, hides & skins, bones, wheat, oilseeds & oilcake, wool, spices, dyes, tobacco, sugar. These exports rose dramatically; they went to the gold standard countries.

C. The Deccan riots of _1875_ occurred over other issues altogether. Cotton was exported to the expanding textile industries of Britain & Japan (both on the gold standard) & to the burgeoning Indian textile industries, mainly in Bombay.

Overall: India, as all the LDCs, participated in the world economic growth of the 19th century. This meant considerable improvement in the lives of the mass of the population.

I hope this has shown the difference between: (1) inquiring into the history of the people of India & (2) using sticks to beat imperialists with.
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, London, Verso 2002.
Irfan Habib, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, London & Bombay, Asia Publishing House 1963, p. 107 (quote), pp.100-110, p. 105 fn 35 (moderate scarcity.)
comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Sudha Shenoy - 3/23/2005

I thought I might just mention the following quickly:
1. For articles on both China & India: Journal of Asian Studies & Modern Asian Studies. For specialist monographs on both: Routledge/Curzon.

2. For Indian material: Indian Economic & Social History Review, Indian Historical Review.For monographs: Cambridge South Asian Studies.

3. The above only barely scratches the surface, of course.

4. For the specific references I used in the post: please get in touch.

Sudha Shenoy - 3/21/2005

I certainly do not want to _replace_ case-building, whether pro- or anti-imperialist; & in any case, it is none of my business to do so. My point was that historical inquiry is _distinct from_ case-building: it is an _additional/alternative_ option. I've based myself on _specialist_ studies of the relevant aspects of Indian & Chinese history, & of the substantial changes - growth - that occurred in the 19th century. This is one of the requirements of historical inquiry.

William Marina - 3/21/2005

Dear Sudha,

Increasing the amount of historical information on a given subject is not the same as developing an interpretation or a position, I cannot see how your attempt to develop a third, synthesis (historical) position has replaced the imperialist/anti-imperialist dialectic, although the sum of your information tends to downplay the role of the West in what happened to several civilizations in the last several centuries. We have not even included the US forcing open Japan after 1853, nor such things as the influence of the missionaries, etc.

As an anti-imperialist, I do think things might have developed quite differently, had Western Statism. and competition among same, not become such a dominant factor. I think that very much in the stream of what one might call a Misesian view.

I am pessimistic in that the American people are beginning to accept the notion of an Empire, and that American policy makers have been pursuing for more than a century, especially our own Anglophiles going back to Franklin, without the assistance of Prof. Ferguson. This pursuit is only hastening the corruption of the Rule of Law that once was a part of our now disappearing Republic.

The primary problem ahead will be with natural resources, especially food.
In the last few years China's grain imports have increased enormously, in the face of desertification and the disappearance of 24,000 villages, while global production has not kept pace, and demographic projections show that sometime in this century India will pass the former in population. Few politicians want to face or discuss these trends.

Bill Marina

Sudha Shenoy - 3/21/2005

1. There have been a number of academic studies of the effects of the Indian railway network, published in specialist journals.There has also been at least one book. In asking the question, 'What impact did Indian railways have?'- the answer depends on whether one is making an historical inquiry. In that case, one looks to the _specialised research_ on the matter.

_For purposes of historical inquiry_, I would not include Jude Wanniski's book amongst these specialist studies. Clearly, it has its own aim, & has to be judged against this aim. (Incidentally, my comment on Wanniski's account of the fall of Bretton Woods may be of some interest: the Mises list for 26 Jan 2005.)

2. The Taiping rebellion was against the Qing - Manchu - dynasty. It ran from 1851-1866. It was in large part a tax rebellion by southern peasants: the latest in a long line of such peasant revolts. The leader was a southerner who failed the civil service exam & who developed an ideology which mixed Protestant Christian ideas with fairly radical social reforms. The rebels were - eventually - defeated by the provincial armies raised by various senior Chinese civil servants. Thus the rebellion prefigured the eventual disintegration of the Qing empire. Total casualties are estimated at 30 million.

The Europeans in the treaty ports formed defence associations against the rebels; these units were essentially a sideshow to the _main_ conflict, between the Qing rulers & the rebels. It was the former invited 'Chinese' Gordon to join their service, to train & lead one of their armies (relatively small.)

Certainly the radical _ideas_ of the Taiping rebels influenced later revolutionaries, including the Communists.

3. The post was intended to contrast the outcome of two distinct enterprises: historical inquiry, on the one hand, &, on the other, building a case for/against 'imperialists'. I would say the distinction has been fairly well illustrated.

William Marina - 3/21/2005


None of what you discuss undercuts the arguments about the exploitative nature of Empire. For a different view about railroads from your own Historical Note, see the chapter on India in Jude Wanniski, The Way the World Works.

In the Chinese case, the major British intervention was in the T'ai Ping Rebellion with Charles "Chinese" Gordon's "Ever Victorious Army. By the 1890s young men like Mao were growing up in villages hearing from the old veterans of those encounters in which God only knows how many perished as the estimates vary from 10-20 million, far and away the worst war of that century.

Bill Marina

Sudha Shenoy - 3/21/2005

It's by Vivek Chibber in the Boston Review Feb/March 2005:

Sudha Shenoy - 3/21/2005

Chinese officials restricted contact between British & Chinese merchants. Officially, British merchants were there only to buy goods from a few nominated Chinese merchants. All other contacts were forbidden. So those 1. Chinese merchants who wished to _buy British goods_ could not do so. In the circumstances, opium-buyers were the only Chinese merchants who found it profitable to evade/bribe Chinese officials. Later in the century, yarn from Indian cotton mills was imported into China in huge quantities for the Chinese handloom industry. And earlier, the East India Company had sold large quantities of Indian textiles to Southeast Asia. So there was certainly potential to sell various goods to Chinese buyers - if Chinese officials had permitted.

2. One cannot take 20th century CIA operatives, put them into 19th century costumes, give them Hollywood-British accents, & see all this as 19th century history. It says nothing about _actual_ circumstances in the 19th
century. -- US govt officials (in the 20th century) obtained vast tax revenues, which had to be spent under various heads. One such head of spending was the CIA. Amongst other things, CIA operatives involved themselves in the opium trade. When (if) the archives are opened, we'll know exactly what went on. But the full story needs the archives of the world-wide trade in opium - access to these is, of course, highly problematical. In any case, the US govt's foreign policy spending does not constitute a universal archetype.

Mark Brady - 3/20/2005

A most interesting post. I have a quick question.

"I take some points from a recent anti-colonialist work (from a Marxist, Mike Davis, see below), used in a review against Ferguson's book (above.)"

Which review do you have in mind? Please provide a citation. Thank you.

William Marina - 3/20/2005

Dear Sudha,

All of what you write is true, but that does not change the reality of the British psuhing opium to ease their balance of payment problem with China.They were always on the lookout for compradors willing to help evade, or eleminate, the gov't intended control of the business, but to correct the payment problem certainly meant an increase in product.

In southeast Asia and elsewhere, the US (CIA) has never been averse to pushing opium production for insider profit.


Sudha Shenoy - 3/20/2005

There are a number of issues here. -- My point was that India was drawn into the expanding world economy in the 19th century; the various effects thereof should be debited to the right cause, not to something else. The world economy was most certainly _not_ created by the (middle-class) Indian Civil Service (maximum strength: 3,000) nor yet by the upper-class twits who provided the very top echelon of India's rulers between 1858 & 1947.

As to China & opium consumption: I think more recent scholarship sees _demand_ as a factor in the situation - perhaps even an impt one.Chinese merchants bought the opium from British merchants & then distributed it inside China. These Chinese merchants opposed the Chinese officials who (ostensibly) wanted to reduce supply, but were not averse to bribes.

In India, Mughal officials had established a _government monopsony_ of opium; British officials continued it. So where Indian farmers previously had to sell to Mughal officials, they now had to sell to British officials (there was a 'black' market, of course.) British officials sold the opium to Scottish Presbyterian merchants who ultimately bought tea, silk & porcelain from the few Chinese merchants appointed by Chinese bureaucrats. This trade was only a small part of the expanding world trade network.This last was _not_ created by the ICS or by any other govt officials.

As to the so-called Opium Wars: I'll just quote from Mises: @But in the wars which the English & the French waged against China between 1839 & 1860, the stake was the general freedom of trade & not only the freedom of the opium trade' (Socialism p. 234 fn. - the whole is worth reading, it's too long to quote in full.)

The Afghans: They were (more recently) ruled by warlords, with the Taliban in kabul. They are now ruled by warlords, with Hamid Karzai as mayor of Kabul. They have been occupied by a variety of armies, from Alexander onwards. The Americans & their few allies are simply the latest in this long list. The Afghans sold opium previously, under a variety of rulers; they contin ue to do so now, under their curent rulers. The world-wide opium trade was _not_ created by any of these rulers or by any other govt officials.

William Marina - 3/20/2005

Dear Sudha,

The primary anti-imperialist argument has always been a moral one, not an economic one, -- that Empire corrupts the people practising it, as per the oft quoted statement of JQ Adams in 1821.

Even in the economic area one has to look beyond the possible policy benefits in one area in 1878.

Let's look at the case of China which is related to India as well. In order to redress their trade inbalance with China, the British forced opium on the Chinese, even fighting a war to do so in the 1840s. Such production in Bengal and other parts of India, certainly helped local Indian farmers and merchants economically as well as the British, just as today, opium production in Afghanistan and elsewhere helps the poor local farmers, while the major profits go to the larger int'l drug cartels. I would not, however, consider this cycle an economic benefit of Empire.

Bill Marina

History News Network