AS THE MADRAS steamed westward from Bombay harbor in late June 1855, Dadabhai Naoroji encountered a world diverging to extremes of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness. He dispatched impressions of his journey to Britain in a series of Gujarati-language articles published in Rast Goftar. The Indian Ocean, once teeming with trade between the ports of Africa, Arabia, and the subcontinent, was now eerily silent and empty. In Aden, the first port of call, Naoroji commented on the piteous condition of Somali laborers, while noting disapprovingly that the town lacked even one proper school. Egypt, which the Parsi travelers passed through under a blazing July sun, presented a study in contrasts. Naoroji admired the wide roads and European-style buildings of Alexandria, and he praised the reform-minded pasha for having begun construction of a railway line and telegraph network. But everywhere, and at all times of day and night, he heard the cry of “baksheesh” from poor Egyptians holding out their hands for alms.
Beyond Egypt, in contrast, lay a “new world.” He marveled at the volume of ship traffic in the Mediterranean, a marked contrast to the empty sea lanes between India and Arabia. After making landfall at Marseilles, Naoroji boarded a series of trains heading north and was simply stunned by the prosperity of the French countryside. He marveled at the networks of canals, abundant fields, and bustling market towns. In Paris, he took in the scientific and technological wonders of the Exposition Universelle. The City of Light, with its modern infrastructure, handsome buildings, and evident wealth, made even the grandest streets of Bombay pale in comparison. All of this left a profound impression on the young man who, not long before, had distinguished himself as a star pupil of political economy. “I make a fervent wish,” Naoroji told readers of Rast Goftar, “that God instills in the subjects and leaders of my dear country the enthusiasm to try to make it as prosperous as France.”
On his first-ever voyage beyond Indian shores, therefore, Dadabhai Naoroji was clearly thinking about the economic condition of his home land and how it compared with other parts of the world. He had more opportunity to do so when, in late August 1855, he and his Parsi business partners reached Britain and established their mercantile firm, Cama & Co., in London and Liverpool. Here, in these two great Victorian metropolises, the former Elphinstone professor no doubt had ample occasions to study how Indian resources enriched Great Britain. Shuttling back and forth between London and Bombay in the late 1850s and early 1860s, while he rode the highs and lows of the cotton trade, Naoroji must have even more keenly felt the stark difference between mother country and colony. For England was the undisputed locus of power and prosperity: home to the newly established India Office, which took over the reins of power from the East India Company without interrupting the ow of wealth from the subcontinent. India, in contrast, lay shattered after the Mutiny of 1857 and enervated from a spate of deadly famines. It seemed to be the very byword for poverty and powerlessness.
Naoroji soon abandoned such anecdotal comparison in pursuit of detailed economic study of India. Between the late 1860s and early 1880s, he produced a prodigious amount of literature—containing extensive calculations, international comparisons, compilations of historical evidence, and refutation of government pronouncements and statistics— highlighting the stark impoverishment of Britain’s Indian subjects. Significantly, he established a direct causal link between poverty and British rule. “So far as my inquiries go at present, the conclusion I draw is, that wherever the East India Company acquired territory, impoverishment followed their steps,” he argued. The instrument of this impoverishment, Naoroji famously contended, was the “drain of wealth”—whereby as much as one-fourth of the annual tax revenue raised in India went into British coffers rather than being reinvested in the country. While its mechanisms were complex, Naoroji clearly understood that the drain was, fundamentally, a question of colonial policy. “I wonder when this Hydra headed policy will ever be broken,” he confided to a friend and political ally in Bombay, Behramji Malabari. “These understand that the wealth they carry away from this Country is the whole & sole cause of our misery. . . . They take away our bread and then turn round asking us why we are not eating it.”
Excerpted with permission from Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism by Dinyar Patel, Harvard University Press. You can buy the book here.
Watch Dinyar Patel in conversation with Mini Menon, as they discuss more about this foundational figure in India’s modern political history,