The Historical View
I grew up with a particular view of the world. Like all kids I bought what was fed me and what was fed me was "Britain was at the worst a benign ruler who occasionally made mistakes, but was always well intentioned.". Not so. I now know better. Similar pap is being fed American kids, and a similar view pervades American minds. The fact that Britain and America have committed some of the worst crimes against humanity in the history of the world, and have profited mightily from them, is intentionally missing from nearly all British and American school curricula.
In the course of my research for this work I have had the time to read and triangulate the work of economists and historians from former colonies. I have also had access to the most recent interpretations of colonial history from the best western universities. Despite the historical horrors now being documented, I have tried to present the results of the most recent studies of colonial India without unduly emphasizing the evils caused by malign neglect and overt evil.
I do plan to have some pages devoted to a few of the most egregious imperial evils in the future, so that my grandchildren will get a more realistic view of the world than they would normally absorb from their schools.
Our ancestors were humble British soldiers -- "the Scum of the Earth" according to the Duke of Wellington in 1815. "The contemptible trash of which the company's European force is composed makes me shudder" said Lord Cornwallis in 1790 of the army in India which our ancestors joined a decade or two later.
In this memoir I have attempted to trace the effect of global events on the lives of those on the bottom rungs of the economic and social ladder. The historical view I have used here may be called a "Peoples History". There is a bounteous harvest of 19th and early 20th century historians who have studied and reported on the lives of great men. Hopefully I can summarize and present some of the effects of their actions on the "scum" who were our ancestors
A Note on Historical Sources
Until the 1950's British Indian history was written almost exclusively by Englishmen. It was seen through various English lenses including Utilitarianism, Evangelicism and Imperialism. It was almost always self serving. Even the canonical works from the best English universities have enormous blind spots. I will give just one glaring example of this monstrous blindness -- and there are many.
I recently plowed through the three volumes on India in the nine volume set of the "Cambridge History of the British Empire" published in 1932, the year before I was born. Nowhere in the index is the f-word "famine" even mentioned. I tried mightily to find any mention of famine by reading the text, thinking there must be a hole in the indexing. Nothing! This despite the fact that tens of millions of people died in multiple famines just during the 19th century, and famines under the Raj continued through to 1943-1945. My reading says that during the previous 200 years of Moghul rule, famine was relatively rare.
How could this happen? How could these gargantuan near genocidal tragedies not be worth mentioning in British histories? Did these historians believe that famine was the natural state of life in India and therefore not "historical"?. Is it the same mind set which allowed the Great Irish Famine of the 1840's to persist? The answer is a sad "yes" to both the last two questions. It turns out that some of the same British administrators were responsible for refusing aid to millions of starving Indians and hundreds of thousands of starving Irish. It was "natural" for these (inferior) people to starve to death. "Interfering" with the process would only make matters worse and so on and so on. The moral and economic justification was provided by people like Malthus and other Utilitarian thinkers of the 19th century. A quote from Malthus is given on the left as is a quote from Hegel. You can see the justification later used by the Nazis for their "eugenics" progrm. This is only one of the many arguments. Social Darwinism -- the "survival of the fittest..." played right into the hands of the combination of English merchants and English aristocrats who controlled the British Parliament, and who ruled India and Ireland.
"An extraordinary feature of the appalling record of British imperialism with respect to genocide and mass, world-wide killing of huge numbers of people (by ... famine) is its absence from public perception. Thus, for example, inspection of a selection of British history texts reveals that mention of the appalling Irish Famine of 1845-47 is confined in each case to several lines (although there is of course detailed discussion of the attendant, related political debate about the Corn Laws). It is hardly surprising that there should be no mention of famine in India or Bengal." Polya ~1995
Famine in India is only one of the monstrosities which can be laid at the door of the Raj. Crippling taxation and intentional destruction of once highly profitable native agriculture and industry are at least some others. These subjects are now being investigated and recorded by a new generation of British, Indian and American historians.
Just below this section is a quick tour of 1500 years of history. The next few pages go into a little more detail.
The Indian Ocean -- 500AD to 1950AD(!)
The Indian Ocean supplied Europe, during the heyday of
the Roman Empire, with spices, perfumes and jewels. According to Caius
Julius Solinus, a 4th century Roman historian, India had 3,000 great cities
and 'was believed a long time to be the third part of the world.' A
hundred years before Christ, the Roman Pliny was complaining about gold
being sucked out of the Roman Empire in exchange for the luxuries of the
After the collapse of Rome, in the 5th century, the global balance of wealth and civilization shifted to the Indian Ocean region for more than a 1,000 years. Scholars in Baghdad and other great cities ruled by the Muslim caliphs translated and studied the literature of Greece, Persia and India. When the English were still trying to fend off Viking raiders [793 AD], the earth's circumference was being calculated to an accuracy of within 70 miles by al-Biruni, a scientist in the Punjab.
The coastal city of Sirfa, just inside the entrance to the Gulf, was the greatest port in the world, until an earthquake shattered it in AD 977. (Today there is only an Iranian fishing village on one corner of its vast site). Sirfa was replaced by Hormuz, closer to the mouth of the Gulf, which Marco Polo visited during his overland journey to Cathay.
After the 5th century, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, most of Western Europe became a barbaric backwater. Knowledge of Greek and Roman civilization and the connections with the Orient were lost.
As knowledge of the Orient began to filter back into Europe in the 14th century through the travels of Marco Polo and from contact with the Muslims during the Crusades, Western Europeans began to look for a direct sea route to the wealth of the Orient. Conversion of the heathen, elimination of the profits of the numerous middle men involved in the overland routes, help against the Turks from the (mythical) Christian Empire of “Prester John” in the East, and the pursuit of a host of other fables, were the drivers for an incredible series of “voyages of discovery” by various Europeans during the 15th century.
These voyages of the 15th century led to the plunder of the colonial era. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the peoples of Western Europe began a systematic looting of much of the wealth of the Americas, India, and "The Indies" now Indonesia. This treasure transfer, coupled with the free labor of African slaves, fuelled Europe’s Industrial Revolution and beggared the once prosperous transferees. By the end of the eighteenth century the center of world wealth and power had moved to Western Europe.
By the end of the 19th century, the British Empire “bestrode the world like a colossus”. Britain was clearly the most powerful country in the world, and Queen Victoria commanded more than a quarter of the world’s population scattered across every continent and ocean of the globe. The Empire saw its greatest growth and its most powerful period between 1780 (around the time Roberts and Blanchette were born) and 1900, despite the loss of its North American colonies in 1776.
In the five generations and 150 years between the early 1800’s and 1950, the Blanchette-Roberts clan were foot soldiers to Empire. We were low level functionaries in the acquisition and control of the “Jewel in the Crown”. We were in near the beginning of British India (the Raj) in 1800, and we came “home” when they turned out the lights in1947.
On to 16th-17th Century