Plain Tales from British India – The New York Review of Books

For all the irrigation projects, new railways, and imperviousness to bribes, the Raj presided over the destruction of Indian political institutions and cultural and artistic self-confidence, while the economic figures speak for themselves. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8 percent of the world’s GDP while India was producing 22.5 percent. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1 percent, while India had been reduced a poor third-world nation, a symbol across the globe of famine and deprivation.

-William Dalrymple in a review of two recent books on colonial India.

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By ANIRBAN CHOWDHURY

MUMBAI — The Mahindra Group has acquired a minority stake in luxury brand The East India Co., both companies said Monday.

The joint statement didn’t give details of the deal.

London-based The East India Co. was established in 1600 to trade in commodities such as silk, cotton and tea, and was responsible for a large chunk of global trade for more than two centuries. It was re-launched last year, as a luxury brand selling high-end food products.

The East India Co. plans to invest $100 million over the next five years, expanding into markets in Asia and the Middle East, it said in the statement.

The Mahindra group owns Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., India’s biggest sport-utility vehicle maker by sales, and outsourcing company Tech Mahindra Ltd.

Write to Anirban Chowdhury at anirban.chowdhury@dowjones.com

And it comes a full circle! Only a minority stake but the once colonised are now taking back their history!

I am admirer of the Tata family in their contribution to the industrialisation of India and in making the really big investments that were needed in steel, transport, power that India needed in the early to mid 20th century. They were also widely seen to be less dependent on government handouts and to possess higher ethical standards as opposed to the other large business houses of the day. Potential employees saw them as being more modern and empowering in their treatment of professional managers many of whom were trained via their home grown Tata Administrative Services graduate intake. (I was a candidate for TAS in the eighties after I finished my education, and though I got through the initial selection rounds in Delhi and was called to Bombay House for the final rounds, I was not selected).

So I was more than a bit surprised- and disappointed- to read about the apparent fact of them having been involved in the Opium wars of the late 19th century, when the British East India Company forced China to allow and expand the import of opium from India. Andrew Leonard whose blog, How The World Works, appears to have uncovered evidence in the form of official records released by the legislative Council of Hong Kong.

Included there are the minutes to a Legislative Council meeting held on Friday, March 25, 1887.

During the meeting a group of Hong Kong-based merchants, among whom were included Shellim Ezekiel Shellim, “of the firm of David Sassoon,Sons & Co,” and Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata, “of the firm Tata & Co.,” presented a petition “for and on behalf of the Opium Importers and wholesale Opium Merchants of the said Colony.”

They had come to complain about a Bill before the council, titled “An Ordinance for the Regulation of the trade in Opium,” which they believed “would prejudicially affect their trade.”

That while fully recognizing the necessity of carrying out the object aimed at by the said Bill, namely, the prevention of Opium smuggling into China, and while sympathizing with its spirit, your petitioners submit that the means by which it is proposed to effectuate such object would inflict serious injury upon the Opium trade, and especially on the aforesaid Opium Importers and wholesale and retail Opium dealers, and prove a blow to the general commerce and prosperity of this Colony.

Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata was J.N. Tata’s first cousin, and the father of J.R.D. Tata, who helmed the family business well into the 20th century, before giving way in 1991 to Ratan Tata, his nephew, the current CEO.
As primary source documentation of (legal) drug dealing activity goes, the LegCo minutes strike me as fairly definitive.

Quite amazing. And disturbing. I guess technically the opium trade was ‘legal’ at the time but there is no doubt that it was a form of imperialism that was being conducted against the wishes of the Chinese emperor. If this is true, it certainly dims the halo the Tatas have long worn, at least in my eyes.

While Leonard’s post does cover many of the positive things that the Tatas are associated with, there is a link to another site that does not view the Tata legacy quite so charitably.

The other company mentioned above is one David Sassoon, Sons & Co. and I wonder if this family was also from India. I have known Sassoons in Australia who are descendants of jews who fled from Iraq and landed mainly in India and Singapore. Isn’t there a Sassoon dock in Mumbai’s port? Hmmm.

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Two quotes from a review of two books on colonial India by William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books (via Andrew Leonard) give some food for thought…

Most terrible of all was the plunder of Bengal following its conquest by the British in 1757. The British commander Robert Clive returned to Britain with the huge fortune of £300,000, making him one of the richest self-made men in Europe; after one single battle—Plassey—he transferred to the company treasury no less than £2.5 million that he had seized from the defeated nawab of Bengal. The conquered province was left devastated by war and high taxation, and stricken by the famine of 1769. Its wealth rapidly drained into British bank accounts, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new British masters, and the markets were flooded with British products. As the contemporary historian Alexander Dow put it:

At that time, Bengal was one of the richest, most populous and best cultivated kingdoms in the world…. We may date the commencement of decline from the day on which Bengal fell under the dominion of foreigners.

And, even more thought-provoking:

But amid all the tales of hard work and evenhanded justice, you never get any impression of the many clearly negative effects that British rule had on India. For all the irrigation projects, new railways, and imperviousness to bribes, the Raj presided over the destruction of Indian political institutions and cultural and artistic self-confidence, while the economic figures speak for themselves. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8 percent of the world’s GDP while India was producing 22.5 percent. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1 percent, while India had been reduced a poor third-world nation, a symbol across the globe of famine and deprivation.

Gives things a new perspective, doesn’t it?

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Came across an interesting post about the Khost railway tunnel near Quetta in Pakistan. A marvel of British engineering of that time, it was built to facilitate a rail line to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Apparently the British were afraid of possible Russian incursions into Imperial India and this line was to serve as a communication and supply link to the frontier. It also has a fortifications built into one end.

Lots of photos make the post even more interesting and the writer- Owais Mughal- informs us that

Work on tunnel was started from both ends but due to some surveying error the two tunnels did not meet in the center and the engineer in charge attempted suicide. In second attempt the error was corrected and both tunnels met in the center, however, it created a very distinguished turn and hump (crest) in the center of the tunnel.

Other interesting facts:

  • Built in 1891 it remains the longest tunnel in Pakistan at 3912 m (at least until the 8.6 km Lowari tunnel opens in 2008)
  • There is a system of reflecting sunlight using convex mirrors mounted on trolleys into the tunnel for workmen and this has been in use since inception and continues to be so.

Interestingly, according to a site that collects such information, there are over 80 railway tunnels over 10km in length in the world, none of them in India or Pakistan. The channel tunnel (Chunnel) is the second longest at 50,450m; the longest is a subsea tunnel in Japan 53,850m to be eclipsed in 2008 by a Swiss tunnel of about 57,000m lenght!

India will have a 10,960m long railway tunnel in once the Pir Panjal tunnel when the new Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramula Kashmir Railway is completed in 2009 accompanied by a 8.8km road tunnel across the Pir Panjal range at Rohtang Pass in Himachal.