Bengal?s plunder gifted the British Industrial Revolution

Who would have believed that one of India?s least industrialised states today, West Bengal, was the ignition of the late 18th century Industrial Revolution in Great Britain?

Who would have believed that one of India?s least industrialised states today, West Bengal, was the ignition of the late 18th century Industrial Revolution in Great Britain? Nobody talks about how Bengal fired up this turning point in the West.

From early 17th century, India had a superior cotton manufacturing industry with dye technology, mechanical devices and elaborate division of labour among specialised craftspeople. Indian cotton was so popular among all classes of British women that English silk and wool weavers felt threatened and rioted. So, by 1725, Britain banned Indian textiles. But the demand for Indian fabrics continued. This stimulated the mechanisation of Britain?s textile industry.

Here?s how Bengal fits in. The East India Company defeated undivided Bengal?s Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey in June 1757, as the Nawab?s commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar, betrayed him. This spurred British domination over India. American historian Brooke Adams has recorded that the ?Bengal plunder? from the Nawab?s treasury was so excessive that it fuelled Britain?s Industrial Revolution from 1760 and changed the world?s lifestyle forever.

The conquerors remitted an estimated ?1 billion to Britain. Robert Clive, who led troops against the Nawab, collected ?2.5 million for the East India Company and ?2,34,000 for himself. His colleague William Watts grabbed ?1,14,000. To put these figures in perspective, an annual income of ?800 was considered sufficient for luxurious living by British nobleman of those days.

So, says history, the plunder of Bengal post the Battle of Plassey sparked the Industrial Revolution, which rapidly auto-mechanised the British textile industry. The inventions between 1764 and 1785 were the spinning jenny by Hargreaves, the water frame by Arkwight, the mule by Crompton and the powerloom by Cartwright. John Kays had invented the flying shuttle and coal began to replace wood in smelting, while in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine.

The spoils from Bengal boosted Britain?s economy, but its fallout was de-industrialisation for India. Once England established industrial capital, it needed markets for selling its products. It was again Bengal, the first Indian region the British colonised, that was forced to absorb these goods so England could sustain its Industrial Revolution. The drain of wealth into Britain destroyed India?s industries, and impoverishment led to a string of famines. Historian RC Dutt writes, ?The people of Bengal had been used to tyranny, but had never lived under an oppression so far reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer?s loom. They … had never suffered from a system which touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped; the sources of their wealth dried up.? This domineering British control pushed India hundreds of years behind in economic development.

Those struggling times made our independence movement look like momentary politics. The call to abandon British manufactured products, make handloom cloth or get salt from the sea without industrialisation once again instigated de-industrialisation. Can this be considered a vision for India or was it just a political shock factor of that time? India today is growing with industrialisation fuelled by foreign investment from the West. This is changing the country?s economic perspective for the better. This development is totally opposite to both India?s de-industrialisation post-1760 and the independence movement?s methods before 1947.

Not only did the British plunder Bengal in 1757, they created two blunders we still continue to suffer from. First, their divide-and-rule policy created fissions between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, which persist in pockets throughout India today. Secondly, they divided Bengal into East Pakistan and West Bengal, aside, of course, from creating West Pakistan too. From 1947, up to 1970, five million people were displaced from East Bengal. West Bengal is yet to recover from displacement, which continues till today.

My family fell victim to this political chaos and had to abandon land holdings and prosperity in East Pakistan. My father, his widowed mother and 10 siblings came to squat on a piece of land with other refugees 30 km from Kolkata. Economists say West Bengal ranks third among states in the number of small retail shops–4.5 million. An estimated 20 million are directly dependent on these small shops. I can vouch for this. Every time I return to my erstwhile refugee colony, my childhood friends have expanded a section of their house to set up a small store as they have no other job opportunity there.

The most frightening part of my refugee colony childhood was the arrival of the land tax man. He?d go around tom-tomming a drum, alerting and threatening people to pay land tax on time, or else face forfeiture of their houses. Our thatched roof, bamboo wall, mud floor house was small, but at least it was better than the tents the other refugees lived in. My grandmother Nalini Bala would console me in this nightmare. I recently heard from my father that the West Bengal government subsequently regularised the squatters? colony and gave free land rights to refugees where their houses stood. My pleasure in owning this miniscule piece of land is more than having a farmhouse in California. It must have been the same for landless farmers who were given land for free. But nobody had taught them the value of industrialisation, so these landowners cannot understand why suddenly their land is required for industrial development. People have not been educated on the need for a balance between agriculture and industry. Without having their buy-in, it?s difficult to have industrialisation, so West Bengal?s livelihood continues to be small retail stores.

After economic liberalisation in 1991, while India flourished, Bengal languished. With no industry, locals fight each other for power and money. The central subject today is who will come to power, not how to industrialise the state or educate the masses for industrialisation.

As Bengal still reels under the ghost of the 1757 British plunder, only an evangeIist, a thinker and implementer can preach to the masses the value of bringing a balance between agriculture and industry to change the state?s economy beyond any political manifestation.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top managements. Reach him at

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First published on: 07-02-2010 at 19:48 IST