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Aid from Its overseas colonies and dominions states saved the British
imperialism. Do you agree with this statement? Explain in the context of First
World War.




British imperialism derived its strength from its array of colonies and
trade connections encompassing almost whole of the world. British navy was an
important part of this hegemonic expansion of the British Empire though this
expansion was neither uniform nor inevitable. In a sense, these colonies helped
in relieving the empire from the competition the regime was facing with the
onslaught of competition from France, Germany and Russia etc. This not only
marked an economic but militaristic crisis that needs to be dealt with both
within and outside Europe. At this conjuncture, the role of colonies becomes
very important and we need to see the imperialist dominance in the context of
how its colonies helped British imperialism keep standing on its feet despite

British overseas colonies and dominions not only formed a basis for
export of goods as well as a source for raw material. By the late 19 th and early
20th century, we see a different nature of British Empire, unlikely Germany,
France, USA which were emerging as important industrial centres in the fields
of iron and steel and other manufactured goods, British established itself not
just as an industrial stuff (where it was facing stiff competition) but also as a
rentier state and as a provider of commercial services , something that John
Darwin calls declining hegemon1 in the sense that British Empire was trying
to cope up both with its dwindling armed strength (British had a much more
superior navy as compared to army) as well as its economy. British helped in
coping with this situation through firstly, creating an agency services network
especially outside Europe which provided commercial services to different
commercial endeavours. Secondly, they build labour intensive enterprises in
their dominions (Argentina) as well as their major colonies like India and South
Africa. Britain, despite losing a major share in European market, was able to
appropriate its overseas markets.

It is here find India as an important catalyst. Not only was India a

prominent example of occidental despotism but also as a single largest source of
tribute for the British Empire soon after the decline of British plantation in the
Caribbean regimes. While Britain had developed a self-organizing business and
industrial structures by the 19th, internal limitations obstructed the internal
growth of industrialisation which was too depended on the surplus derived from
agricultural economy with lack of internal demand and similar lack of proper
1 John Darwin- The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World
System, 1830-1970
supply networks which made local trade a very risky affair. In this context,
British Empire took initiatives not to develop the internal economy but rather
use it for export market to sustain its imperialism2.

Europe was flourishing in its investment banking in order to sustain the

industrial setup but despite having some possibilities in the growth of jute and
leather industries etc. we find protective tariffs for such underdeveloped
industries like India were essential to sustain itself in intense communication
but unfortunately this didnt happened. Similarly, agricultural base of Indian
economy couldnt help them produce internal demand. Thus, Britain used theses
colonies to serve their purposes-labour intensive industries, as a consumer of
manufactured goods and Indian labour as asset to its militaristic endeavour.
According to C Barnett3, the import of Indian wheat helped in resolving the
food crisis that crept in Britain but Dieter Rothermund points out that this was a
period of declining food output for India4.

Amiya Bagchi points out to the terrible consequences of this

exploitation . India, out of its virtues of being the colony of Britain became an
unwilling ally to the war and was a major supplier of arms and capital. Before
the war, indigenous markets hardly made any impact in the international
markets but a few industries managed to remain afloat which included the
cotton and the jute industries and to some extent steel industries 6. There were
hardly any capital in the indigenous markets and the value of silver currency
was depreciating by 1880s. The First World War offered a ray of hope to these

2 Morris D. Morris- The Growth of Large-Scale Industry to 1947 in Dharma

Kumar and Meghnad Desai (ed.) The Cambridge Economic History of India

3 C Barnett cited in Amiya Bagchi Indian Economy and Society during the World War

4 Dieter Rothermund- An Economic History of India: from Pre-colonial times to 1991

5 Amiya Bagchi Indian Economy and Society during the World War One

6 Dieter Rothermund- An Economic History of India: from Pre-colonial times to 1991

industries with the ever increasing demands of jute bags and steel railway
tracks. But even then the Indian industries couldnt derive that much profit from
the war as they could have for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of capital in the
Indian markets was offered to Britain either in the form of tribute or as loans to
British government leaving lesser and lesser capital for Indian traders to
capitalize on, second war led to huge inflation in the market. The value of silver
currency which had by now depreciated to the extent of being valueless now
saw a huge surge in its price leading to increase in its circulation. But this gain
was momentary and actually a lost game in the long run because after the war
the silver currency slumped again and the value of circulating currency was
higher than its value7. Additionally, with the excess of silver currency, the fear
arose of melting of silver coins to be used as bullion. So, the silver currency
didnt actually benefit the economy. Thirdly, even though there was a huge
surge in the demands of jute bag for war purpose, the lack of protective tariffs in
Indian market meant that Indian markets were dominated by Japanese jute bags
and Indian jute bags lagged behind in the competition 8. Fourthly, even though
inflation in the food market led to expensive food grains for the local people,
the export of these food grains was monopolised by 9 British firms which
purchased these grains on standard prices, which profited neither the peasants
nor the grain traders nor the Indian economy.

Apart from capital, another important factor of British overseas

territories was military. According to John Darwin, even though Britain was
very strong in terms of naval strength, their armed forces were too concentrated 9
and thus during the time of world war they relied on the Indian forces and thus
they offered concessions to different regions for military recruitment. In Punjab,
the infantry was not paid salary for their participation in war but rather offered
them land in the vicinity of canal region. It was through these manoeuvres that
Britain was able to sustain so long in the war, and which in the long run created

7 ibid

8 Dieter Rothermund- An Economic History of India: from Pre-colonial times to 1991

9 John Darwin- The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-
in Punjab, a landed feudal class10. Thus according to Darwin, Britain was able to
maintain her empire through acting like the successor of the feudal Mughal state
and through careful manipulation and concessions. On the other hand, situation
was slightly different in other regions like South Africa where the power was
decided between different contenders- the Dutch, Britain, the Afrikaners and
finally the indigenous people. Britains chief interest lie in the gold of the region
and it was through negotiations with the local power magnates who required
Britains support for their political aspirations, Britain carved out a niche for
itself. In their dominions like Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc. even though
Britain hold some favourable returns it was not as dominant economically or
militarily in those regions as it was with India11.

Finally, we also need to consider the repercussions of the First World

War. Bulk of recruitment of British army came from India though racial and
martial prejudices reduced the possibilities of their status in the army (that too,
with ill or no pay, and certain concessions granted to them). But according to
Amiya Bagchi, the agricultural prospects of India were severely hampered by
the war. The agricultural produce during 1914-1918 was steadily declining but
the railways ensured that the bulk of the produce was sent for the war.
Especially the years 1917 &1918 were really bad as both rabi and kharif crops
fell to 30%of ther last yaer produce and which culminated into the 1918
famine12. And even worse, it was followed by influenza epidemic which claimed
more than 800000 lives13. And British government failed to acknowledge the
severity of the crisis. Also, with the end of war the slight increase in the markets

10 Amiya Bagchi Indian Economy and Society during the World War One

11 John Darwin- The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-

12 Amiya Bagchi Indian Economy and Society during the World War One

13 ibid
also slumped down. Some scholars argue that Indian capitalists support to the
boycott of British goods and swadeshi culminated from this misery and

In conclusion we can point out even though the Edwardian trade

(decade following the 1899-1901 war in South Africa) British diplomacy,
economy and military had elements of ruptures and insecurities from all spheres
but it managed to keep itself dominant in the worldly affairs predominantly out
of the surplus derived from overseas colonies and dominions14 which provided
economic, militaristic, logistic and structural support to the edifice of the British
empire even at the cost of their own misery and unasked and unwilling support
to a catastrophic event. Thus the whole affair of colonial appropriation suggests
a two-edged sword wherein those who sustained the British economy were the
same who took a backstage both due to the internal dynamics as well as the
external factors, in their indigenous economy, which had very strong
repercussions in the coming years for Indian economy.


1. Darwin, John - The Empire Project: The Rise and fall of the British World
System, 1830-1970, Cambridge University Press, 2009

2. Kumar, Dharma and Desai, Meghnad (ed.) The Cambridge Economic History
of India, Cambridge University Press, 1983
3. Rothermund, Dieter - An Economic History of India: from Pre-colonial times to
1991, Routledge, 1988
4. Bagchi, Amiya- Indian Economy and Society during the World War One,
Social Scientist, Volume 42, pp 5-27

14 John Darwin- The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-