Reflections on the Bengal and Madras Presidencies in the 1700s

published on November 19, 2013

By Dr. Naresha Duraiswamy
I refer to Dharampal’s land mark thesis titled “Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century: Some Contemporary European Accounts” (New Delhi: Impex 1971) and to other reading.

Archival records of the English East India Company indicate that the Bengal Presidency in the early 18th century was an affluent region with vibrant urban centers, not to mention a prosperous rural hinterland. Murshidabad, Dhaka and Chittagong had thriving economies.

50% of Bengal’s population was urbanized in the 1700s. This population was engaged in manufacturing, artisanship and trade. Bengal was the entrepot for trade between China and East Africa. Hindu, Muslim and Armenian merchants traded overseas. Bengal exported textiles, silk, sugar, jute and opium. It imported gold bullion. There was an incipient banking system, a network of credit and a ship building industry that century.

In the late 1700s, a weakened Moghul empire leased out revenue collection in Bengal to the East India company. This led to a change in land use and land ownership patterns. The cultivation of indigo replaced paddy to meet the demand of the textile industry in Manchester. The import of cheaper factory produced fabric from England contributed to the decline of the local textile industry. This led to the eclipse of thriving urban centers and to the return of people to rural areas. The de-urbanization and de-monetization of Bengal in the late 1700s was sudden and extensive. The urban population fell to a mere 15% of the total population. The land could no longer support the increased rural population and the Great Bengal Famine in 1770 resulted in the death of 10 million people. This marked the beginning of the acute rural poverty in pre-partition Bengal.

The archival records in London reveal that the “Madras Presidency” enjoyed impressive levels of prosperity and literacy in the 1700s as well. The affluent village economy in South India supported a broad network of rudimentary schools centered on the village temple, where basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic were imparted. The contrast with levels of education in pre-industrial age England stands out. Dharampal mentions that the Madras Presidency did better than 18th century England on several fronts. These include: the (i) number of schools proportionate to the total population; (ii) number of students attending these institutions; (iii) duration of time spent in school by the students; (iv) educational background of the teachers; (v) range of subjects taught; (vi) percentage of the non-elite in the student population; and (vii) enrolment of girls. This is not to deny the presence of social inequity in pre-colonial India. While India remained a stratified society and upheld the institution of untouchability, it did offer some avenues of advancement for its non-elite.

The depredations of the Anglo-Mysore wars, the Anglo-French wars in the Carnatic and colonial agricultural policy took its toll. The subsequent decline of the agricultural economy, the irrigation network and urban manufacturing centers in Tamil Nadu led to repeated famine and the disappearance of the traditional village schools. Vast acres of land had become desolate and many immigrated overseas as indentured labor.

We are indebted to the archival records of the East India Company. We lack similar socio-economic data for other parts of India in the 18th century. But let us not forget that it was a wealthy Jain merchant from Gujarat who had bailed out the East India Company in the mid 1700s when it had massive debts. An earlier Jain merchant had similarly bailed out the Moghul Emperor in Delhi. It is entirely likely that Gujarat in the 1700s shared the prosperity of Bengal and the South. The time has come for more research on this era of Indian history as India reclaims its role in the broader world.

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