An Agrarian History of South Asia

By David Ludden | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
MODERNITY

In the nineteenth century, industrial empire brought new force into the transformation of agrarian regions. Britain controlled the corridors of mobility in southern Eurasia. English became the imperial language. A new rupee homogenised the money supply.

In 1800, cowry shells from the Andamans were the currency in Sylhet, and dozens of different silver, gold, and copper coins filled markets from Surat to Chittagong. Money changers worked every corner. But in the 18205, the Company's silver rupee set the monetary standard and market prices began a tumble that lasted thirty years. In these hard decades, markets contracted along routes of imperial expansion, real taxation increased, seasons of scarcity were common, and overseas cloth exports died. The Act of 1793 had established a permanent settlement with no survey, no records of rights, and no definite method of assessment; after 1820, zamindari settlements required the recording of rights, annual assessments of cultivated land, and periodic reassessments. Almost everywhere, routine revenue collections provoked struggles and dislocations. When indigo stocks crashed on the London exchange, Bihari peasants lost their income and tenants lost their land. The Torture Commission in Madras reported routine beatings by revenue officers. Company critics multiplied in London but could not quite topple the old regime before rebellions killed the Company in 1857. Crown rule ended an imperial crisis. Prices had begun moving upward again by 1855, and decades of inflation then steadily lowered the real cash burden of revenue and rent. Land became more attractive for investors as a veneer of modernity covered British India. An imperial system of weights and measures, administration, and law spread along with commodity production in every region, as open land for new farms disappeared. Horrible famines marked the decades from 1860 to 1900, but a long upward price trend stimulated commercial agriculture until the crash in 1929. Then, the great depression introduced two decades of disruption and radicalisation; and it also made the elimination of village poverty and the protection of internal markets a central concern for

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