FOCUS: Accounting for British History

FOCUS: Accounting for British History

Gurminder K Bhambra

British history did not happen only in Britain.

Indeed, Britain, itself, only came into being in 1707 with the Act of Union bringing together the Kingdoms of England (and Wales) and Scotland. The long-standing personal union (under a monarch in common) with Ireland was not formalised as a political union until 1801. Unlike that with Scotland, however, it is a union which has also been described as colonial.

The creation of a unitary state with a single government across the Kingdoms occurred subsequent to the colonial endeavours of England and Scotland. This was manifest in the expansion westwards to the Americas, including the transatlantic trade in human beings, as well as colonial endeavours across Asia and Africa. The new entity, Britain, or, more properly, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, would go on to govern over a quarter of the Earth’s territory and over one-fifth of its population by the early twentieth century.

The extensive nature of the British polity, and the ongoing contemporary implications of this history, has often been elided in popular discourse and media commentary, particularly as Empire itself has receded. It has even been truncated in initiatives associated with the national curriculum. In 2011, for example, the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, launched a review of the National Curriculum which reduced the teaching of history to a version of the ‘Our Island Story’ narrative.

This was the title of a history book for children, written by Henrietta Marshall in 1905, where British history was understood only in terms of the events that took place within the territorial bounds of the nation. However, as Claire Alexander and colleagues have argued, ‘“Our Island Story” is necessarily a globalized one, and has always been’.

The extent to which British history is understood as ‘national’ in origin, rests in a belief that Britain was a nation that had an empire and can be represented separately from it. I would argue, instead, that Britain should be understood as an empire and for its history to be understood as formed in its imperial connections. The erasure of these broader histories that constitute Britain has long been contested by scholars and activists arguing for a proper accounting.

The erasures have been contested both in their own terms, as well as in terms of their implications for understanding the contemporary configuration of Britain. The centenary commemorations of the two world wars, for example, have mostly failed to address the imperial dimensions of the wars. As Yasmin Khan writes, ‘Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did.’ Why this matters will be discussed subsequently. First, I want to set out, briefly, why Britain’s history ought to be regarded as imperial rather than national.

Early Imperial Activities
The century before Britain came into existence by the first act of Union was marked by a civil war, the invasion of Ireland, the restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. It was also marked by the emergence of joint-stock companies that over the century not only traded commodities, but also engaged in colonial activities.

From the early 1600s, Royal Charters were given to English merchants to explore opportunities for commerce and trade in Asia (East India Company, 1600) and to travel westwards to colonise and convert the territories and populations of the Americas (Virginia Company, 1606). Jamestown was the first permanent settlement by English colonists, established in 1607, and was followed by further settlements along the Eastern seaboard leading to the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies. These were based on the displacement, dispossession, and elimination of indigenous peoples in those territories and by the taking over, most notably, of the fur trade (Hudson’s Bay Company 1670).

The East India Company appropriated silver from Spain’s colonial mining activities in Potosi, imported goods from Asia (pepper, indigo, calico) and reexported them across Europe and, later, to its Atlantic colonies. The goods were also traded for gold and ivory in West Africa. This trade was highly lucrative. As Macaulay set out, in 1676 every proprietor (shareholder) received, as a bonus, a quantity of stock equal to that which was held plus dividends amounting to an average of 20% annually. As he is reported to have stated: ‘Treasure flowed to England in oceans.’ This trade also generated substantial customs revenue for the Crown and the Exchequer as well as providing the basis for substantial loans to the state that were used to fund wars and to establish the Royal African Company (Eacott 2016).

Charles II chartered the Royal African Company, in 1660, with a specific monopoly to supply enslaved people to the colonies across the Atlantic. The first Governor was the Duke of York who was subsequently to become King James II. Over two centuries, in excess of 3 million enslaved Africans were transported by the Royal African Company and separate traders across the ocean – the Middle Passage – and coerced to work on sugar and tobacco plantations across the Caribbean and the Americas. There was profit to the Company and traders through the sale of human beings, profit to the plantation owners through the use of enslaved labour, and revenue to the Crown and the Exchequer through taxes on all these ventures.

The transportation of human beings as chattel labour was also extensive across the Indian Ocean during this period (Allen 2010). People were taken from India and South-East Asia, as well as from the East coast of Africa, to undertake coerced labour on plantations and ports across the Indian Ocean world, including in Africa itself. This included early plantations in the seventeenth century in places such as Batavia, Taiwan, and Bengkulu to be followed by more extensive systems of colonial plantations across the British Empire in Asia in subsequent centuries.

The Company-State
The East India Company was not simply a trading company, it developed as a company-state with overlapping forms of sovereignty and authority (Stern 2008). During the late seventeenth century, for example, it was granted the right to acquire territory and mint money. This led to its first attempt to gain territory in the Indian subcontinent (Hasan 1991). James II of England sent warships to support the Company’s incursions, but they were defeated in the Anglo-Mughal war. The support of the state was an indispensable condition of the survival and success of the East India Company, and vice versa; in part, because the civil list was itself maintained to a considerable extent by the revenue brought in by it (Lawson 1982). The support of the Crown points to the complex and intertwined relations between state and company from an earlier period than is usually presented in much of the literature.

The trade-to-empire narrative usually situates the decisive moment in its transformation in the late eighteenth century, with the Battle of Plassey. The military assistance provided by the British state to the East India Company in this war consolidates the Company’s orientation to colonial rule. This is exemplified in the takeover of the fiscal authority in Bengal in the late eighteenth century which enabled the East India Company to overhaul the legal infrastructure and increase the tax revenue from Bengal from £2 million to £5 million within 25 years. This is despite a famine generated by the nature of colonial rule that killed one in three of the population in the 1770s – that is, over ten million people.

The increase in taxation combined with the fact that all revenue was taken to Britain meant that when the crops failed no money was made available locally to provide relief to the starving population. Food crops had been destroyed in favour of producing opium and the Company refused to allow the storage of grain as reserves as all produce had to be sold to create profits on which taxes were then to be paid. The taxes collected by the Company were higher in 1772 during the famine than in the years prior to the famine.

In the report by the subsequent Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, he expressed apparent surprise at this, stating in his report: “It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity; that it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” The revenue extracted through taxes was used to purchase goods cheaply from those same people and to fund wars across the continent that brought increasing amounts of territory and populations (and tax revenue) under the control of the East India Company (Patnaik 2017).

The Pivot East
The Declaration of Independence by the Thirteen Colonies in 1776 was a material blow to Britain. While it still maintained colonies in the Caribbean, and in Canada, the loss of what came to be the United States of America can be seen as the moment it shifts its attention even more significantly to the East. This is compounded by the apparent ending of the trade in human beings and the abolition of slavery. Slavery itself was an integral part of the colonial plantation economy and it is notable that the latter did not falter.

In 1794, the revolutionary Constituent Assembly in Paris abolished slavery. In doing so, they were ratifying a decree that had already been passed in the colony of Saint Domingue where revolts by enslaved people had led to their liberation. Napoleon restored slavery in the French colonies in 1802, an act which led to the full independence of Saint Domingue – after a brutal war with the French and involving British troops – and the establishment of the modern republic of Haiti in 1804. This event sent shockwaves through Europe and within three years the trade in human beings was abolished in Britain in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in 1833.

The Slavery Abolition Act provided compensation of £20 million – or £65 billion in today’s money, or the equivalent of 40% of GDP – to those people who had lost the services of enslaved people in the process (Hall et al., 2014, Shilliam 2020). That is, the people who had owned other people as property and understood themselves as entitled to their service were compensated for their loss. There was no compensation to those who had been enslaved for the loss of their liberty. Indeed, they continued to have to work for the planters during an ‘apprenticeship period’ without pay for an additional four years. The money paid out in compensation was raised via bonds and these bonds were finally paid back in 2015. British taxpayers, not just in the British national state, but across its colonial territories, paid through taxes to compensate British slave-owners and their descendants for the abolition of slavery.

The provisions of this Act did not apply to any of the territories in the possession of the East India Company – which at this time included much of the Indian subcontinent and Burma – or to the islands of Ceylon and Saint Helena. As Andrea Major argues in Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772–1843, the relative absence of Indian slavery from abolitionist debates of the time suggests ‘that not all slaveries were considered equal.’ Further, abolition of the slave trade from West Africa and of slavery in the British colonies in the Caribbean was followed by the establishment of new circuits of coerced labour, associated with indenture.

From 1834, Britain intensified its transportation of Indian, Chinese, and Pacific indentured workers to its colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and across the Indian Ocean world. The millions who were moved through these circuits mostly ended up serving plantation economies. The conditions within which they worked, and their means of transportation, approximated the earlier trade in human beings from West Africa, even if there were important differences between them. Indenture was not itself formally abolished until the early twentieth century (neoliberal economists have recently argued for its reinstatement).

Colonial Drain
During the century of rule by the East India Company, official transfers of wealth from India to Britain rose over time reaching around £3.5 million a year in 1856. These figures are from the more conservative estimates of Angus Maddison. In today’s money, this would be the equivalent of about £350 million a year. This sum did not include private remittances, that is, wealth appropriated by individuals working for the Company which was taken to Britain independently. In addition, there were dividend and interest remittances by shipping and banking interests as well as substantial revenue from tea and opium plantations.

In the late eighteenth century, the Company established plantations in Bengal for the cultivation of opium, which was traded, illicitly, with China. This trade was initially tacitly authorised by the British government and then explicitly so through the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) which forced China to open up her markets to international trade as well as to grant extraterritorial rights to British traders within her borders. After the Treaty of Nanking, which concluded the First Opium War, the revenue from the sale of opium to China constituted around 15% of the total revenue from India. It was also the basis, as Lisa Lowe argues in Intimacies of Four Continents, for the increased importation of Chinese labourers through systems of indenture around the world.

British gunboat diplomacy, or ‘free-trade imperialism’, was the means by which Britain, and, by implication, the East India Company, was able to extend the markets within which goods and commodities were sold. It was in this period that the East India Company commissioned Robert Fortune to travel to China’s interior to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. He was also charged with obtaining quality nursery stocks of tea plants – the sale of which China had prohibited. These stocks were used to establish tea plantations in Darjeeling and create an industry that could compete with China’s otherwise near monopoly on the product. The labour on these plantations was indentured and coerced to work under extremely gruelling conditions with high mortality rates.

Simultaneous with the second Opium War, in 1857, what has been termed ‘the Indian mutiny’ leads to the removal of the East India Company and the establishment of direct British rule. This also involves the imposition of an income tax in India to pay for the costs of suppressing the mutiny. The earlier Irish rebellion of 1798 had been similarly brutally repressed, and an income tax had also been imposed upon Ireland to pay for its suppression. The issues of ‘colonial drain’ that many scholars have written about in the context of India apply also to the situation in Ireland, especially with regard to absentee landlords.

Under direct British rule, from 1858 to 1947, Maddison suggests that official transfers of funds from India, also known as Home Charges, were in the range of £40 to £50 million a year by the 1930s. This would be the equivalent of between £2.5 billion to £3.2 billion annually in today’s terms. Again, there were substantial private remittances sent back during this period which Dadabhai Naoroji, in his book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, estimated at around an additional £10 million a year in the 1880s – that is, around £1 billion a year in today’s money.

National Appropriation of Imperial Revenues
The appropriation of profits and dividends from colonial enterprise was supplemented by direct and indirect taxation collected from across the territories and colonies of the empire, as well as its subordinate constituent parts. As Richard Temple notes in his presentation of the ‘General Statistics of the British Empire’ to the Royal Statistical Society meeting in 1884, of the £203 million at the disposal of the British state for general government, £89 million came from the UK [including Ireland], £74 million from India, and £40 million from territories and colonies in the rest of empire.

That is, over half the money at the disposal of the government at Westminster came from the labour and resources of those within empire and beyond the national state. An additional tax was levied on populations across the Empire for local purposes. This revenue was used by the government in Westminster for the benefit of the ‘nation’ despite being derived from the wider empire. It is these ‘relations of extraction’, to use Daunton’s (2008) phrase, that provide a unifying frame for an imperial political economy that is the more appropriate context within which to locate the emergence and development of Britain.

To return to the issue that it wasn’t Britain that fought the world wars, but the British Empire, it would be salient to add that alongside significant personnel from empire, the wars were also financed by it and not by the national state. In the First World War, for example, India contributed nearly 2 million personnel for the war effort including paying for every aspect of associated expenditure. On top of this, as K. T. Shah sets out in How India Pays for the War, there were two “voluntary” war gifts made to the UK in 1917 which amounted to £150 million; this would be the equivalent of around £10.3 billion today.

After the war, and during the global depression, Britain’s extraction of tribute and taxes from India increased significantly. This was despite India having lost at least 14 million of its population to the Spanish flu pandemic which had been brought to the subcontinent by returning soldiers. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the defence budget was increased fivefold and India once again had to find additional funds – primarily through direct and indirect taxation on the population – to pay for the costs charged to its account. This led to inflation in India and was a significant contributory factor in the Bengal famine of 1943 in which over 3 million people were starved to death.

The shared experience of ‘total war’ across the first half of the twentieth century, led British politicians to consider, and to agree to, the deployment of the resources of the nation for collective ameliorative purposes. These developments would eventually lead to the establishment of the welfare state. Ideas of warfare and welfare came together in the idea of the nation as an aggregate of citizens. This was reinforced through the distribution (and redistribution) of resources within national boundaries. That is, a national frame came more explicitly into being in determining the population to whom recompense was to be made in the aftermath of two devastating wars and a growing national electorate able to lobby for such demands.

The shared experience of these wars by imperial subjects, in terms both of military service and the provision of resources, has rarely been acknowledged. As such, ideas of who belongs, who has rights, and who is the legitimate object of public policy in the present is determined by narrow ideas of belonging to the nation.

Utsa Patnaik has estimated that over two centuries of rule – first by the East India Company and then directly by the British state – Britain extracted over $45 trillion from India. This money, along with that from its earlier colonial initiatives, was used to finance the industrial revolution, to fund the building of railways here and across the empire, to endow museums and arts institutions, Oxford and Cambridge colleges as well as public schools. It was also used to set up country houses and estates, many of which are now the responsibility of the National Trust. Indeed, there is no institution within Britain which has not been enabled by the wealth extracted from the broader reaches of the British Empire, whether through direct appropriation, compensation to slave-owners, or taxation.

Understanding these histories is necessary to any possibility of understanding who we are today and how we got here. In response to current debates about the removal of statues, the Prime Minister has said: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.” Interestingly, in the Prime Minister’s own book about Winston Churchill there is not one mention of the famine in Bengal in 1943 in which over 3 million people lost their lives as a consequence of Churchill’s policies.

Arguing for the colonial histories of Britain to be understood as British history is an inclusive move that seeks to account for the shape of Britain today as a consequence of those histories. This is apparent in initiatives such as the Asians in Britain database held at the British Library; the Blackness in Britain conferences and Black Studies programme set up by Lisa Palmer and Kehinde Andrews; and the Runnymede Trust’s resource for teachers, Our Migration Story. It builds on earlier work by organizations such as the Black and Asian Studies Association and the Institute for Race Relations.

Alongside these initiatives, there is a need, as Yasmeen Narayan argues, for research that addresses the interconnected histories of empire and the ‘detailed cartographies of colonial wealth production’ and their ongoing legacies. Relevant here is the work done by Catherine Hall, Nicolas Draper and colleagues on the excellent Legacies of British Slave Ownership project which meticulously details the ways in which Britons and Britain benefitted from transatlantic slavery, its abolition, and ongoing practices of what they call the ‘slavery business’. To fulfil Narayan’s call, however, we would also need a Legacies of British Colonialism project that could bring the more extensive global hierarchies and connections into an inclusive frame. One that would account for the longer histories of appropriation and enslavement across the British Empire, as has been incompletely detailed above, and the ways in which the appropriation and distribution of that wealth continues to determine the lives of those within Britain and further afield.

We would need to understand the extent of the wealth (or, loot) brought back by early East India Company officials and track the ways in which some of this money was filtered into wider English and Scottish society through acts of philanthropy and charity. We would need to examine the relationship between the East India Company and the establishment of the Bank of England, given the common personnel between the institutions, and the associated intimacies with the Crown and Parliament. We would need to move away from talking about merchants and corporations as distinct from government and sovereignty and instead think of the ways in which these processes intersect and overlap and change over time. We would need to question the legitimacy of taxing populations and taking the entirety of the funds to another geographical location for the benefit of another population that has not contributed to those funds. We would need to think about the callousness that regards the deaths of 10 million people an aspect of corporate mismanagement and not as something stronger. We would need to think about the centrality of the plantation economy to the development of capitalism and examine its proliferation across the Americas, the Indian Ocean world, and Africa. We would need to reconsider how the war was paid for and who paid the cost of that war and who was recompensed for it. We would have to re-examine our understandings of glory and who we glorify. And, perhaps most importantly, we would need to think about how historically produced inequalities continue to structure our societies and what we are going to do about this.

This is what British history is and, if decolonising the curriculum has any meaning, it is systematically to recover those histories that have made us who we are and to account for them.

Allen, Richard B. 2010. ‘Satisfying the “Want for Labouring People”: European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850,’ Journal of World History 21 (1): 45-73.
Daunton, Martin 2008. State and Market in Victorian Britain: War, Welfare, and Capitalism. Suffolk
Eacott, Jonathan 2016. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Hall, C. Draper, N. McClelland, K, Donnington, K. and Lang, R. (eds) 2014. Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain.  Cambridge University Press
Hasan, Farhat 1991. ‘Conflict and Cooperation in Anglo-Mughal Trade Relations During the Reign of Aurangzeb,’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 34 (3): 351-360
Lawson, Philip 1982. ‘Parliament and the First East India Inquiry, 1767,’ Parliamentary History, 1: 99-114.
Patnaik, Utsa 2017. ‘Revisiting the “Drain”, or Transfer from India to Britain in the Context of Global Diffusion of Capitalism’ in Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik (eds) Agrarian and Other Histories: Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri. Tulika Books: New Delhi
Shilliam, Robbie 2020. ‘The past and present of abolition: reassessing Adam Smith’s “liberal reward of labor”,’ Review of International Political Economy online first
Stern, Philip J. 2008. “”A Politie of Civill & Military Power”: Political Thought and the Late Seventeenth-Century Foundations of the East India Company-State,” Journal of British Studies 47 (2): 253-83


Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex. She is currently writing a book, together with John Holmwood, titled Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity Press). Some of the research in this piece is further developed in a forthcoming article in Review of International Political Economy titled, ‘Colonial Global Economy: Towards a Theoretical Reorientation of Political Economy’. Her current research project is titled, ‘Imperial Revenue and National Welfare’.