The Spanish mercantile experience following the exploration of the Americas is a case study in the social and political consequences of economic choices. Because they were focused almost exclusively on mining (and gold, in particular), the Spanish did not develop an agricultural base that they might have leveraged to long-term global domination. Having taken a different approach, the British were well positioned as their empire expanded to become the most powerful nation on earth by the nineteenth century. British trade during the Victorian era played a significant role in its growing wealth and power, and the impact on the economic, social, and cultural life of India was dramatic during the colonial period.
Britain’s colonial motivations were economic—plain and simple. Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese, who had an evangelistic motivation (spreading Catholicism), the British wanted to open up lucrative trade routes to the East (Maddison 1971). When it was colonized, India was a patchwork of different rulers, religions, languages. There was a strong economic motive for England to impose a single structure of the Indian subcontinent. This was done through the bureaucratic organization of the Empire, the English language, and the technology of railroads. This legacy of order continues as a positive legacy in India today.
The British interest in India extended beyond extracting natural resources and raw materials and shipping them to London. Britain had an interest in cultivating an enormous market for its manufactured goods (Impact of British rule 2015). . By the early nineteenth century, handcrafts in India were losing their market share to mass-produced goods imported from England. The irony of this is that England drained resources from India in two separate waves. First, they drained natural resources by shipping raw materials to England for manufacturing. Once goods were produced in British factories, the goods were then exported to India and money was drained from the population as those goods were sold. By controlling the country through its colonial institutions, Britain was able to give every advantage to the English-made products at the expense of local goods.
A further impact of British economic policy in India was its commercialization of agriculture. Britain duplicated its successful strategy of developing agriculture in the Americas by importing cash crops into India: tea, coffee, indigo, cotton, jute, sugarcane and oilseed. The British officials were very strategic in their agricultural policies, competing with countries like China (Impact of British rule 2015). One of the consequences of this commercialized agricultural policy was a change in land ownership. A kind of feudalism developed with large landowners displacing local populations.
All of these economic developments led naturally to social and cultural changes as well, such as the rise of a new middle class in India, much as had happened centuries earlier in Europe. These merchants and professionals were generally supportive of British rule as their wealth and social rise depended on the centralized order that the British provided (Maddison 1971). Though not as missionary-oriented as the Spanish, the English did bring their religious beliefs and values. This led to the outlawing of specific practices such as infanticide, child marriage, and sati.
Both the Spanish example in the Americas and the British example in India demonstrate how economic choices and strategies are foundational to the long-term social impact of colonial rule. The British were very strategic in their thinking and planning, and they left a long legacy—both good and bad—on the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps the most significant legacy, however, is the relatively stable political system that was inherited from the order of the old British Empire. The Spanish colonial experience, by contrast, left nothing but political chaos behind in its wake.
- Impact of British rule on India: Economic, social and cultural (1757-1857). Retrieved from http://www.nios.ac.in/media/documents/secsocscicour/english/lesson-05.pdf.
- Maddison, A. (1971). Class structure and economic growth: India & Pakistan since the
Moghuls. Oxford: Taylor & Francis. Retrieved from http://www.ggdc.net/MADDISON/articles/moghul_3.pdf