Review: Era of Darkness

This 2016 book about British colonial rule made me understand the meaning and force of “check your privilege.” The author, Shashi Tharoor, has written many books and has had an extensive career (after earning his PhD at 22 years!) as an Indian politician and international diplomat.

Tharoor’s documents how the British harmed existing, thriving communities during their rule and explains how their misguided and/or intentionally harmful policies still undermine development in the Indian subcontinent.

(Recall that the East India Company [EIC] converted trading posts into a de facto colonial rule between 1613 and 1857. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Crown ruled the territories as part of the British Empire, also called the Raj. These territories included present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but I will refer to them collectively as “India.” The Empire had significant influence on Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. The book does not cover events in other territories of the Raj, but they show up as colonial administrators in London move people, goods and money in one giant game of Risk.)

Aside: my personal story

Long time readers will know that I have some connections to India, so I was fascinated by Tharoor’s steady demolition of the legends and excuses justifying White Man’s rule over Brown People who neither asked for nor received “development”.

This book contextualized my family’s history in colonial India. First, there is the fact (via DNA testing) that my father is “one-third” Indian. This ratio is unfamiliar to anyone who thinks of ancestors in terms of halves, quarters, and so on, but it reflects (I think) the intermingling of various (un)acknowledged ancestors over the many generations. (All 4 of my father’s grandparents were born in India. At least half his great-grandparents were, with the rest “born unknown.”) Tharoor notes that the British were far more open to forming families and marrying in the EIC era, so it is easy for me to believe that our ancestors were having children in the open or in secret, whether or not their names appeared in official records or their original (native) spellings.

Second, Tharoor provides abundant evidence of how the British lived at native expense. Wages to white men were 20-40x higher than wages to locals doing the same jobs. Such wealth explains why white mem-sahib’s had servants for every domestic task . White men also enjoyed privileged trading rights, government contracts and other sources of “rents” that would allow them to make easy money on the initiative and hard work of locals forced to use them. (These contracts are still used to enrich citizens of Gulf States — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, et al. — who act as local partners of the foreigners who want to do business there.) My grandfather worked as one of a dozen Assistant Under Secretaries. His brother traded goods with the “home country.” (I would love to get more information on these roles, but I’ve never had the time to dive into the archives.)

Third, the British enjoyed a degree of political power and legal impunity that made it easy for them to (literally) get away with murder. They were allowed to do as they pleased, since Indians had hardly any power to question, judge or condemn abuses. I wish I could ask my father’s parents about their transition from power to forced retirement on their 1949 “return” to England — a place they may never have seen. I assume their pension was entirely inadequate to support a colonial lifestyle in Post-WWII England, and I am sure they were shocked to meet the English working classes.

Interesting facts and ideas

I highlight passages that are novel or present familiar ideas in elegant ways. These notes are neither balanced nor complete because they omit ideas I know and emphasize ideas that interest me.

  • Tharoor points out early on that Indians share responsibility for their development as well as (for some) collaboration with the British. These facts aside, he asserts that colonialism hindered India’s development.
  • British at home complained of colonial “nabobs” (a mispronunciation of the Indian title of “nawab”) who had grown rich without talent and then returned as nouveaux riches to invade high society.
  • The EIC levied swinging taxes on farmers and returned no public goods. The money was sent to London, and poverty and hunger skyrocketed among peasants.
  • The British displaced village and regional judicial, economic and political governing bodies with centralized rule by whites who had no historic, cultural or linguistic connections to those they ruled, destroying institutions with a thousand years of functional experience. One 24-year old ruled over one million people across 4,000 square miles as tax collector, criminal and civil judge, land administrator, and 7-8 other titles!
  • EIC rule grew more despotic as time passed. In the 1750s, the EIC was taking over territory by force and seizing tax powers from the local rulers they defeated in “treaties.” (This pattern dates back to the conquest of the New World in the 1500s and extended into the colonization of Africa in the late 1800s. Such “treaties” were also used to subjugate China after the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, which may explain China’s nonchalant pursuit of similar policies in recent years.)
  • The British obsession with written procedures and binding decisions subjected locals to inflexible, one-size-fits-all rules that connected locals would try to influence while the majority suffered. In the pre-colonial past, local rulers had debated and ruled in public, according to local conditions.
  • Tharoor, a member or Parliament, thinks that India needs a different political system, i.e., one that separates executive and political roles. Given the shambles of India’s Parliament, where 35 percent of MPs face criminal charges and personalities dominate parties and platforms, I agree.
  • India was originally a “gender fluid,” sexually tolerant society (have you seen its temples?), but the British criminalized most non-heterosexual, unmarried lifestyles.
  • Nearly all British laws — on sex, free speech, labor, etc. — were intended to strengthen rule rather than foster development. It is in this sense that the British set India‘ s development back a few centuries. India and Britain’s share of world GDP were 23 and 1.8 percent in 1600. At independence (1947), these shares had reversed to 3 and 10 percent.
  • Tharoor shows how colonialism introduced intolerance, corruption and dysfunction. The British did not try to understand India’s ethnic, religious, and caste diversity as much as simplify, categorize and fossilize divisions into familiar boxes imported from home. It did this to facilitate rule by outsiders ignorant of local nuances, to impose their superior culture on others (most obviously by codifying fluid and changeable castes to match their notions of class), and to divide and rule by emphasizing Muslim minority status and Brahmin’s “natural” rule over lower castes. It is hard to understate the massive damage of these interventions, which are — in my opinion — mostly responsible for ongoing sectarian strife within India and between India and Pakistan as well as the corruption of caste-based political parties and discriminatory laws. (The ruling BJP trying to remove Muslims from its history, culture and geography.)
  • Hindus and Muslims cooperated during the 1857 Mutiny. The shocked British expanded their “divide and rule” techniques to emphasize the differences between these groups (and many other subdivisions). The prejudices they introduced resulted in the split of East and West Pakistan from India, several wars, and endless sectarian strife. Edit 13 Apr: Here’s that idea in a video
  • India had always produced enough food, but 35 million starved due to British policies of exporting food to “home.” Note that the population during the colonial era was around 200 million, so that’s also a massive share (around 5 percent) of the population, equivalent to, say, 15 million Americans dying today of government-induced starvation. (Not even Trump is that bad.)
  • In the 1519-1939 period, the British “migrated” 5.3 million people, of whom 58 percent were African slaves, 36 percent were Indian indentured laborers, and 6 percent were convicts. The death rate en route among transported Indians was worse than that of slaves. Much of India’s diaspora in the Americas and Southeast Asia was brought by force.
  • The railways were built to exploit locals. Passengers subsidized freight and investors made a fortune lending money for a system that cost nine-times the price per mile of American railways. Locals were prevented from running the system; equipment had to come from the UK.
  • The British used education for exploitation. They shut down the continent’s system of local schools and switched students to English because that was the language of the rulers. In the process they destroyed higher education. (Nalanda University had 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students learning in Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic before Oxford or Cambridge were founded.) The British had no use for local knowledge or education. At independence, India had fewer schools than centuries earlier and a literacy rate of 24 percent for boys and 8 percent for girls.
  • Post-independence India’s disastrous turn to socialism (and ongoing embrace of chaotic bureaucracy) can be traced to a rejection of “capitalism” (as practiced on them) and a colonial educational system devoted to paper-pushing.
  • Read “The Brown Man’s Burden” here for a rejoinder to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”

The impact of colonialism on development

Turning from my notes, I’d like to make a few observations of the importance of colonialism on the growth (quantity) and development (quality) of a country.

First, institutions (formal rules and informal norms) play an enormously important role in how people interact in peer-to-peer (e.g., community and markets) and power (e.g., political governance) settings. Colonial rule usually displaces and interferes with local institutions with disastrous results because colonial powers are often interested in transferring wealth “home” rather than building prosperity locally.

Second, colonials mistook power for wisdom. Local culture takes decades to understand, let alone augment. Colonial powers ignored that fact and replaced local solutions to local problems with imported, oversimplified, mistaken policies that failed.

Third, colonials were interested in resources they could carry away (gold, wood, fish, oil) rather than local economic activities or the local environment. In such a “resource curse” situation, they would favor the resource sector, undermine the local economy, and destroy the environment that residents needed for there physical and mental health. Their administrative systems of exploitation also undermined democracy and popular participation, as the one and only goal was wealth extraction.

Fourth, colonial shocks put the vast majority of the world’s population on a worse development path. With the exception of Europe, the “Anglosphere” colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US) and the few non-colonized countries in the world, the net damage (benefit to colonizers less harm to those colonized) is surely negative in terms of wealth, physical and mental health, and political autonomy and freedom.

Fifth, the disaster of Brexit is being mismanaged by the same types who mis-ruled India and the rest of the Empire.

Sixth (and see comments below), many academics have a hard time explaining the impacts of colonialism because they compare different post-colonial results (using “colonized by the French” or “colonized by the English” as dummies in regressions) rather than considering where the countries (or regions, given how inappropriate colonial borders were) would be in the “counterfactual” world without colonialism. It is in this sense that we both underestimate the damage of colonialism and overestimate the success of “the West.”

My one-handed conclusion is that anyone lucky enough to live in a country with a colonial past (and that includes the US) should remember that much of their current prosperity and opportunity relative to colonized countries reflects historic rape and pillage more than virtuous hard work. I highly recommend that you read this book (or others written by colonial subjects) to learn how lucky you are — and the challenges that others face.

After reading Era of Darkness, I asked some of my UC Davis professors to recommend some readings on colonialism and development. They hesitated to make any recommendations on such a complex topic, as explained below:

Steve Boucher writes:

It’s very important to have students make the link between colonialism and modern, hegemonic notions of “development”.  In this vein, you might find useful some of the chapters from Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development. I often use Chapters 3 (“The Making of a World System”) and 4 (“The Invention of Development”) for this purpose.

There are, of course, a ton of case studies in history that go into gory detail about the direct horrors of colonialism, but I personally think that it is impossible to do justice to the magnitude and complexity of the impact of colonialism in an economics course — unless that is going to be the entire focus of the course.  I encourage students to take courses in US, African and Latin American colonial history, where they will be able to get a serious exposure to these issues.

In our econ development courses, I think it IS feasible to take a bit of time to get students to think critically about the notion of development and how and when it emerged as a hegemonic concept, and how this historical process shaped the types of questions economists ask (i.e., in Chapter 4 of the Rist text, he discusses how the transition from colonialism to post-colonialism and the emergence of the US helps us understand how and why per-capita growth became the hegemonic development indicator in the post WWII era).

Anyway… I guess my take-home point is that, I completely agree that colonialism and its legacies are crucial to understanding the world today.  However, this is such a big and complicated topic that you have to be careful [about presenting one or two papers on the topic] and make sure that what you cover is useful for the economic concepts that you are charged with developing in the course.

Tu Jarvis writes:

In my epoch, there were numerous efforts to measure the exploitation of colonies by the amount of wealth that was transferred to the colonial power. To my memory, none of these turned up much. The amounts transferred were small relative to the GNPs of the central powers, and even relative to the amounts invested, i.e., I in GNP.  However, the negative impact of the colonial powers seems to have been large in terms of restricted development, which showed up in terms of (lower) infrastructure development, education, property rights (laws, rules, customs, etc.), and suppression of entrepreneurship, i.e., the various components that make up what we know as successful modern economic growth and development. In that sense, Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, without focusing directly on colonialism, provides a good sense of the policies that seem to “work” versus those that do not.

I think much of the literature on Institutional Economics has gravitated in this direction over time.  It originally focused on efforts to reduce transactions costs, and then to the need to create a stable civil society where entrepreneurs would encouraged to make longer-lasting productive investments (and thus the emphasis on property rights as a proxy for that environment, which, at least to me, often seemed “conservative” in orientation). More recently, Institutional Economics has recognized the importance of political and economic “inclusionary” policies and recognized the importance of change in institutions, including the disruption of property rights, when such is needed to break with harmful existing institutions.  It is a pretty big change – but the emphasis is on what leads to beneficial, inclusionary, participatory progress.

As a result, while I think it useful to point out to students that colonial rule was extremely damaging to many regions of the world for a long period of time, I would point to the reasons why it was damaging – and also how difficult it has been in many countries to change even after colonialism ended.  Nonetheless, countries did emerge, and relatively quickly, at least in historical perspective.  The East Asia Tigers were growing rapidly by the 1960s, China joined in the 1980s, India a bit later, and Africa has shows signs of progress in the last 15-20 years.  So, institutions have changed and growth has spread.  “Convergence” means different things to different people, but lower income countries are, in the main, clearly growing more rapidly than developed countries today.  It’s not always clear whether this is due to the end of colonialism or to increasing globalization which has allowed such exceptional increases in communication, travel, education, trade and the like, but there must be many reasons.

Obviously, there were countries like Thailand that were never colonized that also took a long time to develop, and Latin America, which was independent by roughly 1810, has grown, but not rapidly, despite being free of direct colonialism for many years. Was it affected by colonialism?  Probably.  But would the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas have been markedly more successful in the absence of contact with Spain?  Not an easy question to answer in my opinion.

I guess I’m suggesting that it’s useful for students to understand history, including the desire for some people to dominate and benefit from others, but that isn’t limited to colonialism.  It existed throughout history and was often more vicious than was colonialism, and it continues today by a wide range of countries, e.g., US, Russia, China, with different economic and political institutions.  I’d thus try to focus on the broader policies and institutions that seem beneficial.  If students can think about those and come up with a useful tool bag, they’re more likely to be able to do something beneficial in their own work.

I’m always reminded that revolutionaries, whether Mao, Castro, Ortega or whomever, always seem to be incredibly certain that they know the way and are quite willing to use power to cement their own rule, which is often not democratic or broadly beneficial.  So, the end of colonialism still required other changes.

Read all my reviews here.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

7 thoughts on “Review: Era of Darkness”

  1. Hi David,

    I don’t know about this guy man. Things like “to my memory, none of these turned up much” don’t inspire much confidence. If you are writing a book, go refresh your memory and come back with some facts. It feels like a politician making a nationalist campaign statement: we are better off alone!

    Also what is restricted development? Many societies stagnated for centuries in terms of wealth and development. Where does he base his calculations on. Does he have records of 1612 where some Indian bureaucrat predicted they were going to grow with 5% that year but then the pesky EIC came and really drained the economy with all that trade. These kind of memo’s exist today and they are damn unreliable.

    I haven’t read his book but I find most anti-colonialism arguments coercive. It sounds like: “colonial rulers did bad things so colonial rulers are bad and if you disagree you are bad”. That kind of analysis does not convince me. I have heard it before about for instance drugs. “Bad things happen when you take drugs, so drugs are bad and if you take drugs you are bad”. Here is one I have heard less:

    Bad things have happened since the US became a nation. Transatlantic slave trade, native american genocide (part of it), Civil war, the great depression, Vietnam… these are obviously horrible, often bloody and unjust occurrences that would never have happened had the US remained a colony of the British. So, was colonialism good then? Should the US have remained a colony? Or maybe the US should have never existed in the first place.

    To ask if colonialism was good is to ask if the existence of the US was good. That’s is actually interesting. Did British colonialism in America not play a major part in it’s becoming a sovereign nation? There is no denying it. If you consider for a second the US to be a good development in history, than colonialism can be good. And if colonialism can be good, maybe it could have been good in India?

    We mustn’t be the only ones thinking about this very legitimate question: was colonialism good in India? So, I tried to find and argument for colonialism. Just to see the reasoning and this is what I found:

    Our question is legitimate yet we are forced by our own academic communities to forfeit them. Colonialism is bad and don’t you dare disagree, you racist.

    This is the issue with this debate. The lack of another side weakens the argument against colonialism. It makes it a dull, repetitive and predictable debate that is only good for airing grievances and making excuses and no use for building a better future for India. But at least Tharoor can sell some copies, thus expanding his so far “restricted” development.

    PS: I know the point of the blog is to make bold and clear arguments that may be one-sided like this one, so if this comment misses the point, sorry.

    1. @Jan — Glad you made the comment. I was perhaps lax in omitting that he documents everything, from 1600 onwards, from the British archives. Thus, this treatment is not what you’re worried about. (Although I sympathize with the moral arguments I agree with you that they can be abused.) What’s interesting — and important — is that Tharoor explains and documents the steps and impacts of British “demolition” policies. One easy example is the way the EIC/Raj restricted India’s trade to the EIC/Raj’s merchantile benefit. This is a “bad for India” per se example. There are dozens more. I suggest you read the book. (You can borrow it from me 😉

  2. Zirgham Nabi Afridi (Water and Environmental Engineer) writes:

    “Thank you for this excellent review. Another water related legacy of colonialism: as they left, the British left a pro-British political elite in Pakistan. These loyal-natives had been rewarded during British rule by being presented (or being allowed to keep their) large swathes of lands and water rights. Their progeny still comprise the political elite in Pakistan today. As a water engineer losing sleep over water issues in Pakistan, I worry this political elite will be the biggest barrier in instituting water markets or water pricing for agriculture. Water governance in Pak therefore looks grim and colonization takes some credit for that.

  3. But from what I read, there is a great deal of data (non of which I find terribly surprising) that colonialism was shitty for the native inhabitants for the most part, that there were glaring inequalities, and that informal institutional material was great disrupted. But what I am missing from this review is a link to explain the path dependency and persistance of major development effects into the common era… and how one would establish some reasonable alternative benchmark for how India would have ended up *without* colonialism. There are many societies that were untouched, largely, by colonialism and yet remain ‘underdeveloped’ by any definition nearly anyone would use that renders development a meaningful field or discussion at all. So, it isn’t like ‘naturally evolved societies’ always end up well.

    In short, the question seems harder than the evidence that you’ve cited can possibly answer. It seems to answer well that colonial rule was highly condescending, elitist, racist, and disrespectful… which is kind of a no-brainer for me.

    It seems to me that this is the relevant question.

    Of course, if we are going to just say ‘cultural disruption on the basis of abstract idealized systems of development’ are bad, period…. which I am certainly an argument I am keen to here, it’s worth noting that this should make us not only concerned about imperial actions, but also ‘progressive’ ones… where citizens usually in the metropolis (rather than metropol) are trying to enforce rule over the periphery by tearing apart their native forms of organization. To wit, if it is destructive to tear apart India’s Gender Fluid system, is it not similarly problematic to tear apart the Bible-belts evolved more restrictive system… and if there is a difference, what is it? It would seem to me that any such difference would rely on strong claims about the relative ‘good’ of different cultural practices for development.. and I know enough about that research to know that our understanding of such things is way to poor to substantiate those claims.

    IN any event, the connections between colonialism and progressive policy action is a current research interest of mine that I am working on with some thesis writers so I am eager for your thoughts.

    1. “But what I am missing from this review is a link to explain the path dependency and persistance of major development effects into the common era…” In essence, the Brits replaced a set of multi-dimensional governance systems that varied by location with a more centralized system. The path dependency arises due to the difficulty of changing the status quo without the permission of those in power (the Brits took power, so they didn’t need to ask for their revolution).

      The closest example you can get of where India would be without colonialism — given the handful (“many societies were untouched” implies N > the actual count) — is Bhutan, which is ruled by absolute monarchs experimenting with democracy. Sure it’s tiny, but it was too small and remote to be taken over.

      I totally agree with your statement on cultural disruption. Let the Bible Belt do its thing… except when it comes to “un-Christian” behavior 😉

  4. Hi David,
    Good review for the book, by the way, have you considered applying for an OCI Card?
    If atleast one of your Grand Parents or Great Grand Parents was an Indian and you can prove it, you might be able to get it from the Indian embassy.

    1. Thanks for the idea, but none of my “English” ancestors had any Indian documentation.

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