The British built railroads, highways, ports, government buildings, roads, schools, universities, canals, mills and factories. They established legal and public health systems, air services, postal service, political and commercial institutions, administration infrastructure, and a vast civil service. On top of that they developed agriculture, sports, military and communications.

The British established English as the language of government and commerce. Any Indian who hoped to advance in the British system needed to learn it. They also introduced the concept of buying and selling land. This threatened the status quo of feudal society and the caste system and allowed anyone with money to obtain what had traditionally been handed down. Over time a pro-British nouveau riche replaced some of the traditional feudal leaders.

The 1850s witnessed the introduction of the three "engines of social improvement" that heightened the British illusion of permanence in India. They were the railroads, the telegraph, and the uniform postal service, inaugurated during the tenure of Dalhousie as governor-general. In 1851 the first electric telegraph line was laid in Bengal and soon linked Agra, Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Varanasi, and other cities. The three different presidency or regional postal systems merged in 1854 to facilitate uniform methods of communication at an all-India level. With uniform postal rates for letters and newspapers--one-half anna and one anna, respectively (sixteen annas equalled one rupee)--communication between the rural and the metropolitan areas became easier and faster. The increased ease of communication and the opening of highways and waterways accelerated the movement of troops, the transportation of raw materials and goods to and from the interior, and the exchange of commercial information. When the Sepoy Rebellion was quelled in 1858, a British official exclaimed that "the telegraph saved India." He envisaged, of course, that British interests in India would continue indefinitely.[Source: Library of Congress]

Many Britons look back on what they left behind in India as an inheritance rather than legacy, including institutions to maintain order, justice and democracy. Some are more cynical. Journalist Christopher called partition the replacement of "divide and rule" with "divide and quit". The British established and left behind an infrastructure and administration for a modern state—including a postal and telegraph system, railways, canals, roads, universities, grand Victorian buildings, statues of Queen Victoria and Robert Clive, courts, assemblies, a disciplined non-political army, and a well-organized administrative system made up of dedicated civil servants.

Perhaps the most important thing the British left behind was the English language. English provided a common tongue for administration and education and gave people from a polyglot nation a common language. The Indian constitution and Indian legal code are written in English and the famous independence speech by Nehru was delivered in English. India gave Britain curries, tea, verandas, bungalows, cotton, gin and tonics, pierced noses, spiritual enlightenment, Pakistani-run grocery stores, inspiration for a pile of literary classic and a rich infusion of the exotic. Cigars, polo and shows were all Indian habits introduced to the West by the British.

Railroads in India

In 1852 there were no trains in India. The 1,300 mile journey from Peshawar to Varanasi by steamer-towed barge and litters carried by eight-man relay teams, led at night by torchbearers, took three months. Some 46 years later the same journey could be traversed by train in three days "with the greatest ease and comfort.” [Source: Michael Satow, National Geographic, June 1984]

At first the locals weren’t sure what to make of the trains. One engineer wrote, “When I got out of my Locomotive for trial...natives were astounded...I drove the Engine myself of course at a slow speed...the native thronging all round. I was fearful of some accident. At last I thought I would frighten them away, so I blew the steam whistle loudly. Instantly all rushed back from the ‘Demon,’ falling over one another.” It didn’t take long for the train to catch on. By 1903 nearly 200 million people rode in third class alone.

The railroads did not break down the social or cultural distances between various groups but tended to create new categories in travel. Separate compartments in the trains were reserved exclusively for the ruling class, separating the educated and wealthy from ordinary people. Gandhi initially complained that the railway system helped spread famine by encouraging farmers to sell their harvest where prices were highest rather than meeting the needs of people at home.

History of Railroads in India

The first railroad lines were built in 1850 from Howrah (Haora, across the Hughli River from Calcutta) inland to the coalfields at Raniganj, Bihar, a distance of 240 kilometers. The first passenger train service in India was initiated on April 16, 1854. Fourteen carriages with a 400 people left Bombay to a 21-gun salute and reached Thane 34 kilometers (21 miles away) in 75 minutes. [Source: Michael Satow, National Geographic, June 1984]

The first railways were built inland from Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The trains were initially built to make the final leg of the journey between England and Calcutta reasonably comfortable. Most Britons hated the ocean voyage and would have preferred to take a train all the way from London. The first train in India took passengers that arrived by ship at Bombay. Other trains were built for military purposes. Others still were constructed to help bring cotton to Manchester, jute to Dundee and tea from Darjeeling and coal and fuel to the mills in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

Plans for the railroad were initiated in 1843 but construction did not begin until ten tears later. Critics had doubts about the economic feasibility of the project and some wondered if the terrain and climate might be too difficult to negotiate. Delays caused by the distance between Britain and India also slowed the process. Two weeks after he arrived in India, British contractor Solomon Tredwell died of malaria. His young widow took over and finished the contract.

Some rail lines were built by the Raj, other by princely states. Many of the trunk works were built by private companies. The amount of track increased from 200 miles in 1858 to 35,000 miles in 1914. The number of passengers rose from 24 million in 1901 to 42 million in 1917. By 1922, almost 60,000 kilometers or track had been laid. In 1924, the entire system—operation, maintenance and construction—was brought under the control of the British-Indian government.

The heaviest construction period was between 1870 and 1900. This is when most of the narrow gauge lines were built hill stations like Darjeeling and Simla. The Matheran railway also built during this period climbs 2,363 feet in 12 miles with 281 curves. At the beginning of the 20th century standard locomotives were introduced to facilitate access to spare parts. After World war II many of the steam engines were replaced with electric and diesel locomotives.

Choosing the Right Gauge for India’s Railroads

Right of ways for the Indian railroads were provided free by the government of India with a guarantee of 5 percent minimum return on capital invested. Historian Michael Satow wrote: "It also shared in the profits in excess of 25 percent and had the right to purchase the railway from the rail companies for 25 years." Lord Dalhousie was the man who really got the ball rolling and insisted that only one rail gauge would be used—five feet six inches.

The use of different gauges required changes of freights. To save money a meter-wide gauge was introduced in 1870 and narrow two-six-inch track followed. Setting the meter track cost about half as much as the wider gauge. Both system were rapidly, to transport military supplies and to speed famine relief to areas near the Ganges and Madras. To get around the different gauge problem some maharajahs built saloon cars that could lifted off the track and have their axles replaces while the occupants were still inside. As late as 1956 when India went metric it continues to build railroads with the wider gauge.

Narrow gauges were used in some mountainous areas because the were cheap to build and they could negotiate sharper corners, The problem though is that they could more easily be blown over. Some have sliplines to stop runaway trains.

Difficulties of Railroad Construction in India

Building the railway in the Indus area was one of the greatest challenges. To get across the Indus River in 1881 trains were rolled onto boats with tracks and rowed and pulled across the river. An attempt to build a tunnel under the river proved to be futile. The greatest challenge was the overcoming inundations the Indus River. [Source: Michael Satow, National Geographic, June 1984]

Even though the Indus river is but a trickle much of the year a bridge with huge foundations, 140 feet deep, had to be built to handle the monsoon floods. Switchbacks had to blasted into cliffs and tunnels burrowed into mountains to accommodate the steep grade of the difficult terrain. in 1869 about 4000 miles of railway was finished on the Indus route at a coast of $93,000 a mile.

Other dangers included landslides, attacks by tribesmen. When a line was complete that didn't mean the problems were over. One line in the mountains of Pakistan was closed 15 times by landslides and washouts six years after it was finished. The entire line was abandoned in 1887 when a cliff face collapsed under the rail.

Many of the early railway workers in India were workers from England, Wales and Cornwall who had difficulty finding work back home. They used primitive equipment and many succumbed to disease and accidents in the harsh climate and conditions . One out of five workers in Baluchistan died of cholera in 1885 and many perished from malaria in the tropical regions. Construction teams of 40,000 workers were used to build individual lines and some camps had over 10,000 laborers.

Classic Imperialism: Britain and Indiam Resources

The classic example of imperialism (the acquisition of territory of one state by another to exploit its resources) is India and Britain. Cotton grown in India was shipped to Manchester, England where it was made into finished goods which were sold back to India for a tidy profit. Gandhi began his home spinning movement and making of clothes to foil this trade.

Describing the excesses of the British East India Company, Horace Walpole wrote in the 18th century: "We have outdone the Spaniards in Peru! We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped. nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three million perished, being caused by a monopoly of provisions by the servants of the east India Company?"

"As the British set about 'improving' India," Pico Iyer wrote, "they were driven partly by their sense of rectitude, partly by an earnest sense of duty, the mixed feelings that would give the raj, its tragic bittersweet tang."

As of the late 1820s, India accounted for 16 percent of the worlds gross domestic product. The construction of the railroads and factories helped the economy to expand further. Jute and textiles production took off in Bengal. Cpal production from fields in Bihar and Orissa increased from 500,000 tons in 1868 to 20 million tons in 1920. Tea exports also soared.

In attempt to preserve resources more equitably the British government took control of forest and grazing areas that were previously communally held. The plan backfired because people found it easier to cheat and steal from the government than from people they knew. Selling sandalwood was a highly lucrative trade when the British arrived. The British took over the trade by making it illegal for Indians to cut down sandalwood trees, even one that are on their own property while the British cornered the market. The newspapers at that time were filled with stories of sandalwood smuggling and police shootouts reminiscent of today’s illegal drug trade. ["Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row.]


Cotton starting flowing out of India after the supply from the United States was cut off by the American Civil War. Cotton originated from South Asia. Cotton undergarments made in India in the 16th century were said be so delicate and beautifully embroidered they only lasted for a couple of hours. It was no surprise that Gandhi's first fast in 1918 was conducted to support textile workers in Ahmadabad striking for higher wages.

The cotton textile factory where these men worked was still running in the 1990s. "To drive the looms," wrote Jon Thompson in National Geographic, "huge wheels clattered and clanked, now run by electricity but powered by steam engines in the 19th century. Cotton dust had accumulated on the windows and on every pipe and loom and wire...Overhead pipes sprayed mist into the air to moisten the cotton fiber. The workers...wore only loin clothes...because of the unbearable heat and humidity...Although some of the workers were speaking , no sound came from their mouths. They were lip reading—some of them permanently deaf by the unrelenting noise." [Jon Thompson, National Geographic, June 1994]

Almost all of the cotton in India is picked by hand. But the big difference between now and years pasts is that cotton is turned into cloth in India factories that in some cases "virtually run themselves" with modern equipment; in other cases uses machinery brought from England 100 years ago. [Ibid]

Opium and the Opium War

Much of the British East India Company’s opium that ended up in China in the Opium War era was cultivated and processed in India and sold at auctions in Calcutta. About a sixth of India's revenues and much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade. Opium was the largest traded commodity up to that time in history. Parsis in India were among those that made a fortune off the opium trade.

In 1636, King Charles I authorized a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Captain John Weddell, to sail to China and establish trade relations. At Canton the expedition got into a firefight with a Chinese fort. Other battles occurred after that. The British blamed the failure in part on their inability to communicate.

In 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the world's gross domestic product and China and India together accounted for more than half of the world’s output. Foreigners thought they could get rich in China. There is a famous story about an 18th century Englishman who thought he could make a fortune in the textile business by convincing every Chinese person to extend the length of their shirt tails by one inch. A Harvard historian told Smithsonian magazine, “People signing on to voyages to Asia weren’t just looking to make a living, They were looking to make it big.”

Book: Opium Regimes, China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952 edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (University of California Press, 2002).

Trade in Canton

Up until the late 17th century, Western traders were allowed to conduct business only in Macau, a Portuguese enclave 75 miles south of Canton. In 1685, the powerful Qing emperor Kangxi was persuaded that he might profit from an expansion in trade and thus he permitted Western merchants to trade in Canton itself, which at that time was a bustling city along the Pearl River with about a million people.

Trade with Europe expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries. Favorable concessions were given to French and British traders, who set up shop on the East Coast of China. The reasoning was that if they were preoccupied with trade they would not cause mischief. Failure to keep pace with Western arms technology and the isolation of the Qing dynasty made it vulnerable to attacks from European weapons and exposed China to European expansion.

The lives of Western traders in Canton were greatly restricted. They could only come to Canton half of the year and then were forced to live in ghettos outside Canton's walls and were not permitted to bring their families (who were required to stay in Macau). They were also forbidden from boating on the river and trading with anyone other than authorized representatives of the Emperor, who tried to bilk the foreigners for everything he could get. The "foreign devils" worked out of offices called "factories" where the local people came by to stare at their big noses. Their vessels were required to anchor ten miles downstream on the Pearl River at Whampoa.

Tea became a major Chinese export product to Britain. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652. By the late 18th century and early 19th century traders from newly industrialized Britain were importing millions of pounds of tea from China. The British had hoped to trade finished goods such as textiles for tea and silk without having to go through the Emperors' greedy middlemen, but that didn't happen. Imperial China had no need for foreign products and they were importing virtually nothing from Europe. In an effort to get the Chinese Emperor to open up markets outside of Canton, British King George III, sent a regent to China that was welcomed with great ceremony but was told China has "no need of the manufactures of outside Barbarians."

To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Opium as a Medium of Exchange

The British East India Company built up a huge debt for silk, tea and lacquerware.The unfavorable balance of trade between Britain and China and resentment over China's restrictive trading practices set in motion the chain of events that led to the Opium Wars. When the United Kingdom could not sustain its growing deficits from the tea trade with China (partially also because the Qing imperial court refused to open the Chinese market for British goods), it smuggled opium into China.

The British had few things that the Chinese wanted so opium, grown in India, was introduced as a new medium of exchange. Opium was the perfect commodity for trading. It didn't rot or spoil, it was easy to transport and store, it created its own market and it was highly profitable. The standard measurement for opium was a 135-pound chest, which sold for as much as a thousand silver dollars. The Chinese referred to opium as "foreign mud" or "black smoke" and sometimes called it yan, which entered the English language as "yen" ("a sharp desire or craving"). [in Chinese, opium has usually been called ya-pian, a transliteration. It was also called Afurung, another, more elegant transliteration, and dayen, big smoke. Yan is the Cantonese pronunciation of Mandarin yin, which means addiction, not opium. Mandarin yen means smoke, as in dayen. Different words.]

Opium was well known in China before the Opium Wars although its quality was inferior to the opium brought from India by the British. In the 1600s, the habit of smoking opium became popular in Formosa (now Taiwan) after Dutch sailors introduced tobacco smoking and residents of the island mixed tobacco and opium. The Formosans introduced the custom to the mainland, where tobacco was abandoned and opium was smoked alone.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century and several emperors had sung its praises. It began to be smoked with the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century, turning its consumption from a medicinal to a social habit. By the 1830s, China was producing large quantities of opium domestically, though the imported drug was judged superior. The British traders argued, disingenuously no doubt, that they were merely supplying an existing demand, delivering the opium to a network of Chinese traders who distributed it across the empire. “[Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

The British-supplied opium was very popular in China. Rich and poor Chinese alike gathered in opium dens called divans to smoke the dreamy drug, and millions of Chinese---government officials, merchants, court servants, sedan bearers---became addicted and subdued. During the next 50 years China’s annual opium imports increased from 75 tons to 900 tons (Chinese sources say that during the early years of the reign of Chian Lung / Qianlong, no more than 200 cases of opium were imported annually. By 1830, 20,000 cases were imported annually, and by 1838, more than 40,000 cases). The opium trade significantly ate into the China's foreign trade reserves. By 1836, it transformed a huge trade surplus into a huge trade deficit.

Opium Business

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, opium was the world's largest traded commodity and Britain operated the world's largest drug cartel. The opium trade was dominated by the British East India Company, which oversaw the cultivation and processing of opium in India that was sold at auctions in Calcutta. About a six of India's revenues and much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade.

In spite the Emperor's objections to the business, the opium trade boomed in China. In 1773, the British unloaded 150,000 pounds of Bengal opium in Canton to pay off their foreign debt. By 1800, they were exporting 200,000 pounds of opium a year to China. The British justified their involvement in the opium trade by saying that they were only trying to meet demands for the drug in China and Chinese officials encouraged the business.

Opium was also brought to China by American ships from Turkey. Englishmen, Scotsman, Parsis in Indian and prominent families in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore all made fortunes off the opium trade. Ancestors of presidents Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt were partners in the United States's largest opium firm; and profits from the opium trade in the United States were reinvested in railroads and factories and used to finance universities and hospitals.

Alarmed by the large amount of silver leaving the country, the Chinese Emperor banned the import of opium, but the edict was largely ignored by British and Chinese traders who had grown filthy rich from the trade and powerful enough to ignore the Emperor who rarely left the Forbidden Palace more than a 1,000 miles away from Canton in Beijing.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “When the indecisive and harassed Emperor Daoguang, himself a user when young, came to the crumbling Qing throne in 1820, he attempted to stamp out a habit that was all but universal. He was ostensibly moved by anxieties about a balance of payments deficit and a shortage of silver, both blamed on the opium trade, but Lovell argues that the trade also became the scapegoat for the many ills and rebellions that beset the empire. In December 1838, after years of debate and ineffective action, the emperor appointed Lin Zexu as commissioner in Canton with instructions to stamp it out. Within two months Lin had arrested 1,600 smokers and confiscated nearly 14 tonnes of opium. “ [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

Chinese officials in Canton staged an elaborate charade to convince the Emperor they were doing everything in their power to halt the opium trade. When the opium was carried by British ships up the Pearl River to Canton from Linton Island, where it was stored in warehouses, Chinese navy junks pursued the British ships, making a big racket, firing their cannons and banging their war gongs, but rarely did much of anything to actually halt the British ships.

See Opium Wars Under China

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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