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India and the World Economy

EMPIRE, 1707

By 1707, the Mughal empire was poorly consolidated, but nominally it stretched across much of the Indian subcontinent, from Kabul (in today's Afghanistan) to what today is Bangladesh, and to all but a small portion of the far south. India's population for 1700 is recorded at around 158.4 million (compared to an estimated 6.5 million for England, Wales and Scotland. And with this huge population, India had the world's largest economy and was producing 24.43 percent of the world's Gross National Product (GDP).

This was before the industrial revolution when there were extensive handicraft industries and economies were still largely agricultural. And Asian agriculture was producing harvests twenty times the amount of seed planted, while European harvests were only eight times or less. The Asians were growing rice, and rice took nutrients from water rather than soil. Asians were not leaving land to lie fallow as were the Europeans.

India, however, was big in textiles production. India's most important export was cotton textiles. According to the economist Kanakalatha Mukund (of India), by the early years of the eighteenth century India "was virtually clothing the world." Its fabrics were popular in Europe and were in demand everywhere.

India's agriculture had expanded with peasants having reclaimed land from jungle for wet rice cultivation. Farming had expanded onto lands that had been used for pasture. And with the increase in food production there were prosperous market towns across northern India, towns occupied by traders in grain, moneylenders, retired military officers and other officials.

The Mughal empire was more urban than was Europe in general. Fifteen percent of its population lived in urban centers. Many of its cities had a population between a quarter-million and half-million people.

There was a wide disparity in wealth distribution. There were powerful nobles living in luxury and comfort and impoverished peasants barely subsisting — while India's textile workers, it is claimed, had a standard of living equal to that of British workers (British workers have to pay more for food.)

And the Mughal empire also had serious political problems. There was the old authoritarianism and the old problem of succession. The Mughals didn't have the leadership or governing structure capable of maintaining or winning hearts and minds and policing the continent. And it didn't have what it takes to maintain a thriving economically.

At the turn of the century, the Mughal empire's sixth and last effective ruler was Aurangzeb, known also by his title Alamgir (in Persian, Conqueror of the World). He had taken power, crowning himself in 1658, at age 39, after having decapitated his religiously eclectic brother and another brother and having imprisoned their elderly father who had supported them. Aurangzeb considered himself an orthodox Muslim. He forbade courtiers from saluting in the Hindu fashion, and he prohibited Hindu fairs and festivals. He re-instituted the tax on non-Muslims that his great-grandfather had removed. Aurangzeb had expanded his empire to its farthest extent in the early 1700s, southward across the Deccan, but he was unable to consolidate his rule, to unite India diplomatically or militarily, and he strained his military trying.

Aurangzeb had been warring against Maratha rulers. The Marathas were Hindus and largely peasant cultivators, landowners, and soldiers. According to John McLeod in The History of India, the execution of the Maratha leader Sambhaji "marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal empire." There was a Maratha military resurgence and guerrilla warfare. Maratha warrior bands took advantage of a newfound freedom to raid and plunder. There would be the claim that rebellions occurred because peasants were growing prosperous and were unwilling to share their wealth with the Mughal state.

Following Aurangzeb's death in 1707 there were wars between his three surviving sons. Mughal emperors were to become figureheads, controlled by courtiers and later by warlords. Several Mughal emperors would be killed after only briefly occupying the throne. With a failed Mughal authority, Muslims in India were to face new challenges.

There was another problem. India, like Russia, had little of what could be described as a merchant fleet. India's economy was dependant on the British and Dutch and to a lesser extent the French. They had trading posts in India where shipping was organized. The Mughals had been horsemen. Seafaring had been foreign to them. In India the European companies had trading posts where their agents purchased export good to ships to Europe, the Far East, and America.

Many of the Mughal nobles asserted their independence and founded small states. And a weakened Mughal military failed to stop an invader from Iran, Nadir Shah, who moved eastward across land, penetrated Afghanistan and from there he moved into India. In 1739 he defeated a Mughal army outside Delhi and massacred something like 20,000 to 30,000 men, women and children.

(With his plunder, Nadir returned to Iran and ended taxation there for three years, and he could afford to confront his enemy, the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman-Persian War (1743-1746) began.)

Marathas overran almost all of northern India after 1748. And with the collapse of Mughal power the British East India Company was expanding its influence. From the 1750s, according to the historian Peter J. Marshall, the British "began to wage war on land in eastern and south-eastern India and to reap the reward of successful warfare, which was the exercise of political power, notably over the rich province of Bengal." Wikipedia describes the economy of India as coming under Company rule beginning in 1757 and this helping Britain's textile manufacturing during the coming Industrial Revolution, Britain eventually overtaking India as the world's largest cotton textile manufacturer.

CONTINUE READING: the Great Northern War

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