Dalrymple has extensively lived and traveled in India and shares his time equally between London and India. I find his observations authentic, unbiased and brutally original. Some excerpts –
“At their heights during the 17th century, the subcontinent’s fabled Mughal emperors were rivaled only by their Ming counterparts in China. For their contemporaries in distant Europe, they were potent symbols of power and wealth. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. This was hardly an overstatement. By the 17th century, Lahore had grown even larger and richer than Constantinople and, with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris.
What changed was the advent of European colonialism. Following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, European colonial traders — first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British — slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and caravels a Western imperial system of command economics. It was only at the very end of the 18th century, after the East India Company began to cash in on the Mughal Empire’s riches that Europe had for the first time in history a favorable balance of trade with Asia. The era of Indian economic decline had begun, and it was precipitous. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1%, while India had been reduced for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.
In hindsight, what is happening today with the rise of India and China is not some miraculous novelty — as it is usually depicted in the Western press…
Looking back at the role Europeans have played in South Asia until their departure in August 1947, there is certainly much that the West can be said to have contributed to Indian life: the Portuguese brought the chili pepper, while the British brought that other essential staple, tea — as well as the arguably more important innovations including democracy and the rule of law, railways, cricket and the English language. All contributed to India’s economic resurrection. But the British should keep their nostalgia and self-satisfaction surrounding the colonial period within strict limits. For all the irrigation projects, the great engineering achievements and the famous imperviousness to bribes of the officers of the Indian Civil Service, the Raj nevertheless presided over the destruction of India’s political, cultural and artistic self-confidence as well as the impoverishment of the Indian economy.”
Wow, that’s straight from the gut. Something refreshingly different from the usual banter about cattle on the roads. Thank you Dalrymple, for digging up history.