Review of “Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India”, by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor lays out the destruction that the English carried out in India over centuries of East Indian Trade company rule and then the British Raj — the lives lost due to famine, the economic plundering, and the social divisions cultivated. In economic terms, he cites research indicating that the debt owed is on the order of $3 trillion; perhaps most starkly, India went from over 20% of global GDP when the East Indian Trade company entered the country, to less than 5% when it left.

Tharoor directly attacks the most common defenses made of British Imperial rule in India: that it a) unified the country under a single government; b) brought in railroads, modern education and the English language; c) laid the groundwork for a democratic, classically liberal society; and d) should be judged by the standards of its time, not modern sensibilities. In the process, he excoriates British figures such as Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling, arguing especially that the former was responsible for up to 3 million deaths during the Bengal Famine.

He argues, weaving in both economic figures and quotes from contemporary figures, that colonial rule’s sole purpose was to enrich England. Any benefits it brought were accidental, and for the most part the British slowed down or destroyed Indian industrialization, education, and political unity. Though it is hard to argue a counter-factual, he asserts that there is no reason that the Indian sub-continent could not have imported/used such things as various industrial technologies — the brutalities of colonization are not a necessary condition for modern education or railroads.

For a summary, watch the 15 minutes speech he gave at Oxford on the same subject: Dr Shashi Tharoor MP — Britain Does Owe Reparations.

I study CS/Econ and applications to socio-technical issues. Blog about books and technical issues. PhD Stanford, BS/BA UT Austin.

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