British India: How Britain Lost the Jewel in the Crown

From the Lecture Series: Interpreting the 20th Century — The Struggle Over Democracy

By Pamela Radcliffe, PhD, University of California, San Diego

In 1858 India formally became a direct possession of the British Crown, and become known as the Jewel in the Crown. To justify their rule, the British argued that they were going to bring superior European culture and political institutions into a backward continent. It was by their own hand, however, that Britain lost control over the nation.

Map of the British Indian Empire and surrounding countries" (1909), Imperial Gazetteer of India.
(Image: By Imperial Gazetteer of India/Public domain)

The Destabilization of Indian Industry

What was the legacy of imperialism in shaping Indian nationalism? How did British rule subvert their intentions for their precious Jewel in the Crown?

There has been some debate in the historiography about how much imperialism can be blamed for India’s 20th-century poverty. India was a poor region to begin with; it was not as if imperialism caused Indian poverty. In general, the earlier generation of British imperialist historians was less critical of the British side, arguing that India was better off than it would have been—while the more recent generations of colonial historians in South Asia have been more critical, bringing a more nationalist perspective. These critics point out that the irony is the British left India less industrialized than it was before.

This is a transcript from the video series Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

In 1750, India had a thriving handloom weaving industry that by the mid-19th century had been destroyed by the flood of cheap British textiles.

In 1750, India had a thriving handloom weaving industry that by the mid-19th century had been destroyed by the flood of cheap British textiles. In the name of free trade, the British government in India removed all tariffs on imported and British cloth, which were made by machine and could be sold more cheaply than the Indian handmade variety.

The result was that with the flood of British cloth, India’s manufacturing base was destroyed and India become, once again, an agrarian economy. This contrast is reflected clearly in the statistics on Indian exports. Whereas in 1750, India’s largest export was still cotton textiles, by 1850, its largest export was opium—grown in India for the China trade. The Indian economy has become one cog in a world economy that revolved around British and European interests.

In China’s opium trade and the deindustrialization of India, you can see the vulnerable flip side of free trade principles of economic liberalism when carried on between two unequal and not fully consensual partners.

Learn more about the British East India Company

The Effects of a Western Education in the East

But the legacy of imperialism was much more complicated than the negative economic impact. Because the British tried to rule India as well as carry on an economic relationship, they had a serious political impact. The most straightforward impact was that through their public administration and school systems, the British created a large Indian elite educated in Western values. The problem was that this educated elite began to ask why India did not enjoy those same rights.

Studio photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, London, 1931.
Western-educated elites like Gandhi, who studied law in England, took the lead in opposing the British government. (Image: By Elliott & Fry/Public domain).

The great contradiction of India and imperialism was that English imperialism was so proud of its institutions that it taught its unfree subjects to admire them. The result was a glaring inconsistency that provided the Western-educated Indian elites with the philosophical ammunition they needed to question their master’s right to rule.

These Western-educated elites took the lead in opposing the British government that educated them. The best example was Gandhi himself, who studied law in England, as did many of the other nationalist leaders. In a strange irony, the British trained the leaders who would eventually overthrow them. Not only did the British create disgruntled elites, but they also helped create the basis for an Indian national identity.

Learn more about Mahatma Gandhi

British Imperialism Creates Indian Nationalists

First, the British provided a common language. India was a land of dozens of languages, and English became the language of communication between those Western-educated elites. There is an irony that a common foreign language provides the foundation for a political movement that would eventually expel the English teachers.

Second, British racism helped contribute to the formation of an Indian identity. By treating all Indians as members of a single inferior race, no matter what their caste, ethnic, or regional identity, the British rulers helped invent the idea of an Indian person that did not exist before. By treating everyone similarly, it erased the distinctions based on class, ethnic, and regional identity, and imposed a common identity on a diverse population.

Third, it was the British Empire that gave India its identity as a single political unit simply through the administrative unification of India—the building of railroads, political administration, and so on, to link the entire subcontinent.

Finally, it was the British that formed the common enemy against which all Indians could unite, and a common enemy is one of the best pathways to forming a national identity. The British created the conditions for a national identity in India before it became a nation. Indian nationalism is a direct product of its imperial experience, not only in the sense that imperialism created the desire to throw out the foreigner, but more profoundly in the sense that imperialism gave Indians the tools with which to conceive of themselves as a nation.

Learn more about the British Raj and Early Nationalism

“Self-Government is the Order of Nature”

The best illustration of these tools is the 1885 first national conference, in which a group of 73 Indian men, lawyers, journalists, and educators called a conference to discuss, in English, what they called the “abuses of British rule.” The second conference held the next year gathered 434 delegates from around the subcontinent, and out of these early meetings a permanent organization called the Indian National Congress was formed. Most of the speakers at the two conferences professed loyalty to the British Empire, and there was no talk of independence at this point. What these educated men wanted was a greater share and voice in governing India.

Photo of First National Congress, 1885 , A. O. Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress, is shown in the middle (third row from the front). To his right is Dadabhoy Nairoji; to his left, in sequence, are: W. C. Bonnerjee, Pherozeshah Mehta, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
First National Congress, 1885 (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

As one speaker said: “Self-government is the order of nature,” and “Every nation must be the arbiter of its own destiny.” He, like the other speakers, acknowledged that India was being trained by “one of the most freedom-loving nations” in the world, but that it was time to take off some of the “leading ropes and entrust Indians to at least partially manage their own affairs.”

While not demanding independence, the Indian nationalist movement and the Indian National Congress established the first building blocks for a future nationalism. Perhaps most important is that they claimed to speak for India. This was the first time that people from all over the subcontinent got together and claimed that they were speaking for the Indian nation.

Even before the calls for a nation-state, the idea of an Indian nation was forming in the heads of these British-educated elites. At the same time, the Indian National Congress illustrates the use of the tools that were provided by the British, including the language in which the Congress was held. They demonstrated their education in Western and political theory: Using the language of self-determination, the idea of a nation having the right to control its destiny came right out of Western political theory. In basic terms, the demand was that the British should apply their own free laws to India.

The Case of Religion

Lord Shiva on the Kanduka Hill, India. Karnataka.
(Image: Minikhan/Shutterstock)

There was one major exception to the generalization that the tools of nationalism came from the British, and that was religion. Although missionaries working since the 18th century had been trying to convert Indians to Christianity, in general, this conversion had not succeeded. India remained a religious quilt, with a majority religion of Hinduism, but with a significant minority enclave of Muslims, Buddhists, and so on. As a result of this general refusal to convert, Indian traditional religious identity came to be defined as resistance to British rule.

Already, from the 1820s and 1830s, there was a popular revival of Hinduism and a general sense in the Hindu culture of pride in India’s religious traditions. There was the beginning of the kind of rhetoric that proclaimed that India had a spiritual superiority to the West. In a sense, they were proclaiming not the superiority of Western values but Indian values.

This was the tone of India’s great Nobel laureate poet, Tagore, who received the Nobel Prize in 1913. This religious revival was not direct political resistance to the British, nor was it in the 1820s and 1830s a kind of religious nationalism. What was important was that when a nationalist movement later formed, this religious indigenous culture was drawn on and pulled into nationalism. It became one of the few indigenous sources of common identity that could be mobilized.

Learn more about Nationalists Ambedkar, Bose, and Jinnah

Furthermore, it was an identity that could appeal to the illiterate masses, the people who were not educated in Western schools, who didn’t speak English, and who didn’t have the language of Western political values. In 1949, 88% of the Indian population was illiterate. Religion was a type of resistance that the illiterate masses could participate in.

Traditional religion, then, become one of the fundamental tools of Indian nationalism. More importantly, it became one of the ways to turn it into a mass movement instead of an elite movement. There was a flip side of this as well; since India was a religious quilt, religion could also be a source of divisiveness as well as unity, and that would become one of the great tragic ironies of religion and nationalism in Indian independence.

The result was nationalism that on the one hand, was infused with Western political values, and on the other hand, was infused with traditional Indian spirituality. The merging of these two things—Western political values and an Indian spirituality—was perfectly exemplified in the figure of Mohandas K. Gandhi, both a British-educated lawyer and Hindu saint.

Common Questions About British India

Q: How long was India ruled by the British?

It is generally believed to be true that the British ruled India for 200 years.

Q: When did India first encounter the British?

The British first came to India by ship on May 20, 1498.

Q: What empire ruled India before the British?

 Before the British invaded, India was ruled by the Muslim Mogul Empire. 

Q: Was India wealthy before British rule?

It is commonly believed that India was wealthy before British rule; however, new studies show that this is not accurate. While British rule was generally not good for India, there were some advantages.

This article was updated on December 11, 2020

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