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Independence and illusion of equality

Independence and illusion of equality
by Jeremy Seabrook

Publication: The Statesman, Kolkatta
Date: July 7, 2002

A recent exhibition at the British Library promoted itself thus, “Imagine an England without tea in china cups without pepper, chintz or chutney; travel back 400 years in time and experience the long and perilous sea voyage from London to Asia in the 1600s and discover how everyday things we now take for granted were once exotic and exciting; and learn how the Asian communities in Britain today first started”.

Claude Alvares in his book, Decolonising History, states that before the East India Company arrived in the sub-continent, there was nothing produced in Europe which India needed. It’s own industrial techniques, of great antiquity, had a richness and subtlety far superior to any which European traders had to offer. Such self reliance could not be permitted to endure. And the arrival of the East India Company at Surat in Gujrat in 1608 swiftly ensured that it would not do so.

The incursions into Asia – Indonesia, India and China – by what it has become cliché to call “the first transnational ” became a story of predatory and coercive violence, in which places were indeed traded: India forfeited its vast superiority in handicrafts and manufactures, and was compelled to open its markets to inferior products from Britain. You won’t learn much about that from the exhibition, with its sanitised account of “cross-cultural fertilisation”. The relationship between the East India Company and India foreshadows that between the South today and its “advanced” industrial “partners” in the great drama of globalisation. “Interdependence” is the cliché of the Contemporary world, an expression that creates an agreeable illusion of equality, though between profoundly unequal countries, it means dominance and subordination. This exhibition is yet another attempt to rewrite history and we have seen and heard a great deal of it since official “death” of socialism.

Textiles from India were first used to buy pepper and spices in Indonesia. Traders of the East India Company in India originally sought to sell Britain’s principal export to Europe – broadcloth. They discovered that demand for it was negligible, and equally, that India possessed fabrics of a far finer quality than anything the British could at that time create. They started the trade in Indian textiles from Masulipatam on the Coromandel Coast, which was outside of Mughal control.

By 1620, 50,000 pieces of chintz reached England; in 1720, this reached 600,000 pieces. The muslins, calicoes and chintzes astonished with their craftsmanship, sophistication and sheer beauty. So much, that there were complaints against the imports of Indian fabrics from the very beginning. By 1700, Acts were passed which prohibited the introduction of printed calicoes for domestic use, either as apparel or furniture, under a penalty of £200 on the wearer or seller. Cotton goods were then smuggled into the country. This was one of the first trade barriers introduced into a country which later became the primary champion of “free trade”.

But not yet. In 1720, an Act was passed, prohibiting altogether the use in Britain of “any garment or apparel whatsoever, of any painted, printed or dyed calicoes, in or about any bed, chair, cushion, window curtain, or any other sort of household stuff or furniture”. The use of cotton was decried as “the passion of ladies for their fashion”. In 1774, a law was passed, sanctioning the manufacture of purely cotton goods. but still prohibiting the import of cotton goods, thereby protecting the early industry in Britain from foreign competition. It was improvements in machinery and the availability of cotton from slave plantations in the USA which gave a powerful impetus to the cotton industry in Britain. Little of this appears in the exhibition, a kind of historical justification for the contemporary view that trade is benign – no matter in what useless or deleterious commodity – it advantages all those involved and is a peaceable pathway to progress and wealth. In 1616, Sir Thomas Roe, an envoy of the Company had declared to the Mughals that war and trade were incompatible.

But by 1669 – even before the bans on Indian textiles – Gerald Ungier, chief of the factory of the factory at Bombay had written to the directors, “The time now requires you to manage your general commerce with the sword in your hands”.

The relative amity in the early days is given great prominence, as befits an interpretation that sees in the relationship an easy, two-way cultural intercourse between civilisations, so that it becomes a kind of make-believe ‘forerunner’ of the claimed “cultural pluralism” of the present: the luxury of the Mughal court impressed senior employees of Company, and many mimicked the lifestyle, including wearing Indian fabrics, and taking Indian women as concubines.

Senior employees of the company followed the Mughal nobles, and also “became patrons of artists and craftsmen”. There are plenty of images of English potentates posturing in Indian costume, conclusive “proof” that there was a benign and mutual English/Indian influence.

In spite of this harmonious coexistence, the East India Company maintained a growing military presence, and by 1803 had 130,000 sepoys in its service; deployed chiefly at first in keeping out other European powers which had an eye on the riches of Asia, particularly the French, but later to defeat the Marathas, and the Sikhs, and to enforce the annexation of Awadh in 1856. When the Nawab of Bengal tried to oust the British from Calcutta, he was defeated by Clive at Plassey, after which Bengal became a Company province.

The raising of the land tax and the rapacity of the Company’s servants led to the Plunder of Bengal, which was reduced to destitution. The famine of the 1769-70 may have claimed the lives of one third of the population. No whisper of this reaches the promoters of the exhibition, the ideology of which is encapsulated in one of its panels that declares “Asian economies were manipulated to turn them into producers of raw materials and consumers of European, largely British, goods. Since 1945 and the demise of the British Empire, powerful Asian economies have emerged and are once again exporting sophisticated manufactured goods to the rest o the world”. So that’s all right then. Only there is no mention of the role of the transnationals in producing from the global sweatshop that many Asian economies have become. There are other elisions and silences, as must be expected in an enterprise supported by Standard Chartered Bank and The Daily Telegraph. There is nothing about the forcing of Bengal farmers to grow indigo to the neglect of their own crops, with the result at many starved.

There is no mention of the compulsory cultivation of opium either, though it is coyly admitted that “evil” of opium cast its shadow, that opium was “smuggled” to China and profits “found their way” into coffers of the Company. That Indian farmers were compelled to grow opium for the imperial government to pay for the tea it imported from China is underplayed.

The opium wars were a consequence of Chinese efforts to stop the trade and led directly to defeat for China and the occupation by the British of Hong Kong. While the commentary suggests that efforts by the British to ban the import of Indian textiles were ultimately defeated by “market forces”, there is no mention of the nature of the ‘forces ‘ involved in creating addiction in China for the sake of he cup that cheers but does not inebriate in Britain.

The laws of supply and demand – emerging from an even more perfunctory view of the relationship between: textile, cotton, slavery, tea and opium – are not quite the “natural” sensitive monitors of human supposed to be, the sacred laws of supply and demand can very well be created by extreme violence.

Britain’s role as an epic pioneer in global drug trafficking receives scant attention. There was no demand in India for Manchester cottons, though these were forced on India with the ending of the Company’s monopoly in 1813, any more than there was “demand” in China for opium: the destruction of the indigenous weaving industry was described by ‘Governor – General’ William Bentinck as a misery without parallel in the history of Commerce. “The bones of the cotton weavers are blanching plains of’ India.

“Contemporary predations of transnationals in the “liberalised” economies of the world are rarely described with such graphic effect. The most offensive element is the suppression of any significant analysis of the relationships between the Imperial masters and their subjects – a taciturnity no doubt prudent in view of, the perpetuation of that relationship in the contemporary world.

It is mentioned that employees of the company traded locally on their own account, in what became known as the “country trade”, and that some grew very rich; but there is little of the systematic plunder that occurred. Even less is made of the fact that the Company was ultimately nationalised – the very reverse of the “freeing” of the multinationals from government scrutiny in our time. The East India Company has to be rehabilitated, since it lays down the model and template for globalisation.

Many of the practices which attended its growth and, development duly accompany the asperities of globalism – the destruction of indigenous industry the ruin of self reliance uprootings and forced migrations of whole populations.

A note on the exhibition claims “The exhibition reveals the beginnings of what is now a 400 year cultural exchange between Asia and Britain. “An unproblematic mutual influence, as though the violent discontinuities the British Created in India and China were nothing more than cultural exchanges. This is characteristic of the re-working of an omnivorous imperialism and capitalism – so that markets which were coercive brutally imposed become “free”, and the most remorseless economic, political and military manipulation takes on the shining appearance of an innocent and benign laissez-faire.

When history, which is a matter of record, is effortlessly reinvented in this way, and narratives plucked out of the air to serve as purification rituals to the plunder of imperialism, how much more difficult it becomes for people to see the continuing unjust and unequal relationships through the great opaque institutions that administer injustice and manage inequity in the contemporary world; though these are the direct descendants of the piratical, exploitative excursions of the Company which has been the object of such a spectacular rehabilitation.

(The author lives in Britain. He has written plays for stage, television and radio, made documentaries, published more than 30 books contributes to leading, journals around the world.)