From East India Company to The Dow Chemical Company

Inspired by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics (designed by Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire), which focuses on all things the British can be proud of, the opening ceremony of the Bhopal Special Olympics will focus on all things the British can be ashamed of. In particular, the protest will focus on the most shameful moments in of the colonial period in India, such as the role played by colonial policy in the many famines that occurred between 1765 and 1947, the atrocities committed by British soldiers against Indian civilians in the aftermath of India’s First War of Independence (otherwise known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857), and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 (otherwise known as the Amritsar massacre).

East India Company, Dow Chemical Company

Many historians have suggested that the British East India Company can be regarded as one of the world’s first multinational companies. The Company was formed for pursuing trade with the East Indies but ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent. The government owned no shares and had only indirect control. The Company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private army, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India ended in 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the new British Raj. Parallels can be drawn between the ways in which the East India Company in the nineteenth century, and Dow Chemical in the twentieth century, have both been able to act with impunity to ensure maximization of their profits, even where this has been come at a horrendous cost to Indian people. In both cases, official narratives have remained largely silent on the crimes of these companies.

William Low, David Cameron

In March 2012 British Prime Minister David Cameron intervened for the first time in the row over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the wrap that will surround the main Olympic stadium in London, backing the deal in the face of protest from the Indian government and human-rights campaigners. Cameron has followed the line adopted by the International Olympic Committee and London 2012 chairman, Lord Coe, arguing that Dow was not the owner of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster. Interestingly, there is another parallel here: William Low, Mr Cameron’s great-great-grandfather (i.e. his grandfather’s grandfather) was a British cavalryman who fought the Indians more than 150 years ago, during the two-year mutiny against British rule which began in 1857. William Low left behind graphic accounts of how he slew rebels with his sabre and participated in a mass hanging of civilians.

Massacres in British India

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 began as a mutiny of sepoys of the British East India Company’s army on 10 May 1857, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power. As well as hanging mutineers, the British had some “blown from cannon”: sentenced rebels were tied over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces when the gun was fired. A letter published in the Bombay Telegraph and reproduced in the British press after the fall of Delhi, testified to the butchering of all Indian civilians in the city by British soldiers seeking revenge for earlier atrocities committed by the rebels (1).

The most infamous massacre in British India is known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or Amritsar massacre of 1919. On April 13, the traditional festival of vaisakhi, thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) in the city of Amritsar. An hour after the meeting began as scheduled, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer entered the Bagh through the only wide entrance, blocked all exits and, without warning, ordered his 90 soldiers to open fire with their rifles. He explained later that his aim “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience” (2) – on the basis that martial law, forbidding gatherings of more than 4 Indians, had been declared some days previously in response to local unrest. Dyer ordered his troops to shoot towards the densest sections of the crowd, and cease-fire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted, after approximately 1,650 rounds were spent. The final report of the Hunter Commission, set up to investigate, unanimously condemned Dyer’s actions.

Famine in British India

As Amartya Sen has argued, famine is not caused by lack of food availability, but by lack of entitlements to available food. Through policies that made the Indian economy entirely subservient to imperial needs, Britain severely limited entitlements to available food, thereby contributing to 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule, as compared to 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia (3). Between 1875–1900 – a period that included the worst famines in Indian history – annual grain exports increased from 3 to 10 million tons, equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25m people (4). India was made to repay a huge public debt that included reimbursing the stockholders of the East India Company and paying the costs of the 1857 revolt, and was also made to finance British military supremacy in Asia, so that military expenditure was never less than a quarter of India’s annual budget (5). By making their revenue demands too high and inflexibly fixing them to the estimated average produce of the land, with scant regard for climate variation, the British pushed large numbers of Indian farmers into indebtedness that cost them their land and sometimes their lives. In colonial Berar Province (now Vidarbha, the eastern region of Maharashtra state, which has frequently been in the media in recent years for a spate of farmer suicides related to the falling Minimum Support Price for cotton), for example, Berari society was reengineered into a specialised cotton monoculture entirely subservient to the needs of Lancashire’s cotton lobby. During the famine of 1899–1900, when 143 000 Beraris died directly from starvation, Berar Province exported not only thousands of bales of cotton but also 747 000 bushels of grain. Despite heavy labour immigration into Berar in the 1890s, the population fell by five percent and ‘life expectancy at birth’ twice dipped into the 15-years range before finally falling to less than ten years during the ‘extremely bad year’ of 1900 (6).

1. C. Herbert (2008) War of No Pity: The Indian Mutiny and Victorian Trauma Princeton: Princeton University Press.

2. N. Collett (2005) The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer New Delhi: Rupa and Co, pages 255-58.

3. C. Walford (1878) “The famines of the world: past and present” Journal of the Statistical Society 41 (13), pages 434-42, cited in M. Davis (2000) “The Origin of the Third World” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 32 (1), page 53.

4. Davis 2000: 59.

5. Davis 2000: 67.

6. Davis 2000: 66.


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