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British Empire: The Dark Ages of the Modern World

The British Empire was a global framework of dependencies—colonies, protectorates, and other territories—that were placed under the authority of the monarchy of Great Britain and the governance of the British authorities over three centuries. The strategy of authorising or recognising significant degrees of self-government by dependencies, aided by the empire's magnitude, resulted in the development of the notion of a "British Commonwealth" by the 20th century, comprised of largely self-governing colonies that acknowledged an increasingly figurative British sovereignty. The term became legal in 1931.

Origins of The Empire

In the 16th century, the United Kingdom launched its first tentative endeavours to build overseas settlements. Maritime development intensified in the 17th century, spurred by economic aspirations and rivalry with France, and culminated in the creation of colonies in North America and the West Indies. By 1670, Britain had established colonies in various parts of North America including, New England, Virginia, and Maryland, as well as enclaves in the Caribbean in places like Bermudas, Honduras, Antigua The conquest of Jamaica in 1655 resulted in the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company in what became northern Canada in the 1670s.

In the year 1600, the East India Company established commercial stations in India, and the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Labuan) became British as a result of the company's operations. In 1661, the first permanent British outpost on the African continent was established at James Island in the Gambia River. Slave trafficking had commenced in Sierra Leone previously, but the country did not become a British colony until 1787. In 1806, Britain took possession of the Cape of Good Hope (currently in South Africa), and the South African hinterland was opened up by Boer and British explorers under Imperial occupation.

Almost majority of these initial colonies emerged as a result of the foresight of certain corporations and monopolists, rather than any attempt on the part of the English government. The crown had certain administration and oversight powers, but the settlements were largely self-contained entities. As a result, the empire's development was a disorganised process based on fragmentary annexation, with the English authorities sometimes being the least eager stakeholder in the venture.

The crown wielded authority over its colonies primarily in the sectors of economy and shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the mercantilist mind-set of the period, the colonies were seen as a source of vital raw materials for Britain and were awarded monopolies in the British market for their goods such as tobacco and sugar. In exchange, they were required to conduct all of their commerce via English ships and to operate as marketplaces for British-made products. The Navigation Act of 1651 and subsequent legislation established a closed economy between Britain and its colonies; all imperial exports to the British market had to be transported aboard English vessels, and all colonial imports had to come via Britain. This system lasted until the first part of the nineteenth century, when the combined impact of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, the fall of the American colonies, and the rise of a free-trade revolution in Britain gradually brought it to an end. However, this system was kept intact in places like India which was the biggest importer of British goods, almost until its independence.

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Rivalry with France

Under the command of people like Robert Clive, James Wolfe, and Eyre Coote, the British military and naval might acquire control of two of the most crucial regions of its imperial power: Canada and India. Fighting between British and French colonies in North America was common in the early part of the 18th century, but the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which concluded the Seven Years' War, established Britain as the dominant power in Canada. The French Compagnie des Indes challenged the East India Company in India, but Robert Clive's military successes over the French and the monarchs of Bengal in the 1750s presented the British with a large annexation of territory This secured their eventual hegemony in the sub-continent. 

The loss of Britain's 13 American colonies in 1776–83 was offset by settlement expansion in Australia beginning in 1788 and the extraordinary expansion of Upper Canada following the exodus of loyalists from what became the United States. Canadian colonies in Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia expanded British dominance to the Pacific, while other British victories in India included the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, as well as the Central Provinces, East Bengal, and Assam.

Death of Millions and Incompetence of State

While famine was not new to the subcontinent, its occurrence and intensity worsened with the arrival of British colonial control.

The East India Company contributed to the demise of India's once-vibrant textile industries, driving an increasing number of people into agriculture. As a result, the Indian economy became far more reliant on the vagaries of seasonal monsoons. A weak monsoon emerged as the first ominous presage over a century ago.

Drought and a scorching heatwave impacted an astounding 330 million people throughout the country. This summer commemorated the 155th anniversary of the Odisha famine of 1866, a catastrophic climactic crisis. Today, almost no one is aware of the tragedy. Even the most comprehensive books on Indian history make scant mention of it. There will be few if any mournful remembrances. Nonetheless, the Orissa famine in eastern India killed over a million people. One out of every three people died in the state of Odisha, a death rate considerably higher than that induced by the Irish Potato Famine.

The Englishman, a newspaper published by Calcutta wrote, “It can, we fear, no longer be concealed that we are on the eve of a period of general scarcity”, in late 1865. The Indian and British press reported on soaring rice prices, decreasing food stocks, and the distress of peasants who could no longer buy food.

All of this did nothing to elicit action from the colonial authorities. It was conventional economic knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century that government action in famines was useless and even detrimental. The market would rebalance itself. According to Malthusian doctrines, any excess fatalities were nature's method of responding to overpopulation.

This argument had been employed to a deadly extent in Ireland two decades earlier, where the British administration had, for the most part, determined that no aid was the best aid. Cecil Beadon, the colonial governor of Bengal (which encompassed Orissa at the time), staked out a similar stance during a visit to Orissa in February 1866. “No government can do much to prevent and alleviate the distress”, he proclaimed.

It was no longer possible to ignore the escalating devastation in Orissa in May 1866. British authorities in Cuttack reported hungry troops and law enforcement officers. Puri's surviving residents were digging ditches to bury the deceased in. As further harrowing reports reached Calcutta and London, Mr Beadon launched a last-ditch attempt to ship rice into Orissa. It was ironically hampered by an excess of rain and floods. Relief was too little, too late, too rotten. The people of Odisha paid the ultimate price for bureaucratic incompetence. For years, a rising population of western-educated Indians claimed that British control was causing India's desolation. The Odisha famine provided shocking confirmation of this concept. It inspired one early revolutionary, Dadabhai Naoroji, to embark on a lifelong study of Indian poverty.

As the famine receded in early 1867, Mr Naoroji drew the first iteration of his "drain theory"—the notion that Britain was prospering itself by practically draining the lifeblood out of India. "We have better security of life and property in these times, without a doubt," he said. "However, the annihilation of a million and a half lives in a single famine is an odd example of the value of the life and property so secured."

His argument was straightforward. Why, when India had enough food to feed people, did the government instead let them die? While people of Odisha died in massive numbers in 1866, Mr Naoroji noticed that India had sold more than 200 million pounds of rice to Britain. During previous famine years, he observed a similar trend of widespread exporting.

It was not going to end any time soon. Famines struck again in 1869 and 1874. During the Madras famine of 1876-1878, between four and five million people died when the viceroy, Lord Lytton, took a hands-off policy similar to that used in Ireland and Odisha.

By 1901, another prominent nationalist, Romesh Chunder Dutt, had identified ten great famines since the 1860s, with a total death toll of 15 million. He said that "every year of drought was a year of famine" because Indians were now so impoverished and the government was so oblivious to their plight. A wealthier, less reliant on agriculture India can now assure that this does not happen often. Significant issues remain: The Indian Supreme Court recently chastised several state governments for their "ostrich-like" response to the drought-like situations seen in central and west India this summer. 

For these reasons, it is very essential to commemorate the Odisha Famine and countless other similar instances. This humanitarian tragedy, and those that followed, motivated Indians to resist British colonial control. A strong national drought programme, as mandated by the Supreme Court, will be an appropriate approach to remember the millions of Indians who died 150 years ago.


Many of these Indians were disgruntled by the 1880s. The nation was controlled by the British Viceroy and his Council. These educated Indians wanted the opportunity to advance to the highest levels of the civil service. They also desired that India have its government, with men like them serving as MPs. These concepts were initially proposed by the Indian National Congress in 1885. They had little influence on British attitudes, though. Many British colonists in India despised Indians and did not feel they were capable of running their state. The British government in London supported certain initiatives to include Indians in the governance of India. They were, however, wary of upsetting their people. Also, Britain prized India so highly that they were hesitant to cede too much power.

India gained independence in 1947 after making significant contributions to Britain's military effort. Less than a year later, communist rebels started a deadly campaign to drive the British out of Malaya in south-east Asia. Thousands of people were slain, but a strong political and military response averted a Communist takeover. On August 31, 1957, Malaya gained independence as an independent democracy. In the Middle East, Britain fled from Palestine hastily in 1948. Ghana became the United Kingdom's first African colony to gain independence in 1957. By 1967, almost 20 British colonies had achieved independence.

Britain’s conquest of colonizing territories wasn’t a glorious campaign derived from morality and civility as it is often portrayed by some English observers. It was a conquest fuelled by greed and lust for power, which resulted in despicable atrocities and the undermining of local culture and traditions. It isn’t a shiny medal of valour but a blemish on British history, which shall never come off. 

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