Saturday, March 11, 2017

The fact that they are inconceivable does not make them impossible.

From Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson, starting page 22. Much of our ideological colonial history teaching is so hostage to gramscian memes and simple ideology that it is easy to forget that the Europeans were not, at least initially, all conquering powers. They were the despised intruders on the periphery of despotic empires.
It would be quite wrong to imagine that the Anglo-Dutch merger handed India over to the English East India Company. The fact remained that both Dutch and English traders were minor players in a vast Asian empire. Madras, Bombay and Calcutta were no more than tiny outposts on the edge of a vast and economically advanced subcontinent. The English at this stage were merely parasites on the periphery, reliant on partnerships with Indian businessmen: dubashes in Madras, banyans in Bengal. And political power continued to be centred in the Red Fort in Delhi, the principal residence of the Mughal Emperor, the Muslim 'Lord of the Universe' whose ancestors had swept into India from the north in the sixteenth century and had ruled the greater part of the subcontinent ever since. English visitors like Sir Thomas Roe might attempt to disparage what they saw when they visited Delhi (`Religions infinite; laws none. In that confusion what can be expected?' was Roe's verdict in 1615), but the Mughals' was a wealthy and mighty empire, which dwarfed the European nation states. In 1700 the population of India was twenty times that of the United Kingdom. India's share of total world output at that time has been estimated at 24 per cent — nearly a quarter; Britain's share was just 3 per cent. The idea that Britain might one day rule India would have struck a visitor to Delhi in the late seventeenth century as simply preposterous.

It was only by the Mughal Emperor's permission — and with the consent of his local subordinates — that the East India Company was able to trade at all. These were not always forthcoming. As the company's Court of Directors complained:
These [native] governors have . . . the knack of trampling upon us, and extorting what they please of our estate from us, by the besieging of our factorys [sic] and stopping of our boats upon the Ganges, they will never forbear doing so till we had made them sensible of our power as we have of our truth and justice . . .
But that was more easily said than done. For the time being, appeasing the Mughal Emperor was a crucial part of the East India Company's business, since loss of favour meant loss of money. Visits had to be paid to the Mughal court. Company representatives had to prostrate themselves before the Peacock Throne in the Red Fort's inner court, the Diwan-i-am. Complex treaties had to be negotiated. Bribes had to be paid to Mughal officials. All this called for men who were as adept at wheeling and dealing as they were at buying and selling.
It is interesting to note that in 1700 India was 24% of global productivity. The US is today 22% of total global productivity. Things change fast and in inconceivable ways. The fact that they are inconceivable does not make them impossible.

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