Reading Recommendations

Beyond political interpretations of Indian economic history

Professor Tirthankar Roy

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Left to right: Professor Tirthankar Roy; 'Small Town Capitalism; Professor David Morris

Professor Tirthankar Roy teaches South Asia and global history at the LSE. He is the author and editor of many books and articles, most recently, as co-editor, Global Economic History  (Bloomsbury, 2018), and India in the World Economy from Antiquity to the Present. His work tackles three main topics: long-term patterns in Indian capitalism and the effects of breaks in those patterns, and the role of history in understanding how capitalism in India works today.

‘Towards a Reinterpretation of Nineteenth-Century Indian Economic History,’ David Morris, Journal of Economic History, 1963. 

My first choice of reading is this paper, probably the most cited paper in the field of the economic history of India. It is famous for starting a debate on the impact of colonialism on economic development, still the main debate in the field. To see why it had such an impact, I should first say a few words on the author. David Morris (1921-2012) belonged to a generation of American scholars who returned to graduate school after the Second World War, when America was starting to engage with the Third World. He chose to study an Indian topic, the emergence of a labour force in Bombay, where one of the largest textile mill industries had developed since the mid-1800s using profits from colonial trade. When doing the work, Morris met Bombay’s millowners, a cosmopolitan and progressive elite; and also the factory workers competent enough to meet the needs of the industry. If Bombay was so advanced, why wasn’t all of India? Why was the country so poor? In Morris’s time, the question was answered in two ways: American modernization theorists blamed India’s anti-enterprise culture, and the Marxists said that British colonial rulers had drained the country, destroyed its handicrafts, and left it poor. Morris’ fieldwork experience told him they were both wrong. In this article, he said that both these models were misinformed and offered another explanation. Once published the article became instantly famous, among other reasons because the Marxists ruthlessly criticized it. The more I read it, the more I admire Morris’ project, though the paper is too speculative for the modern classroom.

Small Town Capitalism in Western India. Artisans, Merchants, and the Making of the Informal Economy, 1870-1960
Douglas E. Haynes, Cambridge University Press, 2012

My second choice is a recently published book in the subfield in which I did my doctorate, the history of the handicrafts. Haynes, Professor of History at Dartmouth College, develops a thesis on capitalism based on a study of the small-scale textile industry in western India. Arguing that the belief in the inevitability of the decline of the handicrafts derives from an unthinking application of British history to India, his book ‘centres an understanding of industrial capitalism squarely in the history of the broader structures of the regional economy rather than in Europe.’ I admire the book for its argument and evidence. There is another reason. Thirty years ago, historians dominated the writing of Indian economic history - now economists do. The quality of narrative history was very good then, but much of that work was too preoccupied with imperial politics to qualify as economic history. Haynes is a historian by training and his book marks a return of the historian. But it is a work that scholars on both sides of the divide, economics and history, will find useful, interesting and relevant.