Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not

by Prasannan Parthasarathi

In my continuing researches into the development of human thinking, particularly rationalism, I have frequently run into the question of why Europe suddenly sprinted past all other civilizations with the Industrial Revolution and ended up, in effect, conquering the world. This was certainly one of the most striking developments in history, demanding an explanation, and appears to be closely tied to the development of rationalism in Europe. 

The topic has spawned a flood of books offering a flower-garden of hypotheses. Some of those books I have reviewed:

Intellectual Curiosity and Scientific Revolution
Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial Revolution
The Beginnings of Western Science
How the West Grew Rich
The Great Divergence

I also discussed this question in an essay in my History of Thinking hyper book:
China in Early Modern Times

So along comes a new book on the subject by an expert in the textile industry of India in early modern times, and I just had to get it. Everything went downhill from there.

In the first place, this title is a bit misleading; a better title would be obtained by substituting “India” for “Asia” in the title. The author occasionally mentions China, Japan, and a few other places, but the great bulk of the content is about India.

If I may offer a caricature of the gist of this book, it would be:

Rah! Rah! Rah!
Sis boom bah!
India #1!
India #1!
Hooray for India!

Much of the book is devoted to arguing that India was superior to, or at the very least, equal to Europe prior to the British conquest. Its textiles were cheaper, finer, better, more comfortable, more colorful, and longer-lasting than European textiles. Its mathematicians were every bit the equal of their European counterparts. Its businessmen were every bit as canny as Europeans. Its leaders were just as enlightened, and its scientists were at the forefront of the scientific revolution. Its technology was every bit as innovative as European technology. Reading this book, one gets the impression that India was a breathing down Europe’s neck prior to the British conquest.

Indeed, the author at several points makes it clear that he rejects what he calls “European exceptionalism”, which he never defines but appears to be the notion that Europe was somehow more advanced than other parts of the world in the 17th through 19th centuries. He is emphatic on this point: India was just as advanced as Europe.

How then did Europe soar past the Asian societies in the 19th and 20th centuries? Mr. Parthasarathi’s answer, which is not made clear until the conclusion of the book, is simple: “We wuz robbed!” He claims that British depredations reduced India to penury and robbed it of its rich cultural, scientific, and technical heritage.

There’s no question that he’s right that the British occupation of India is best described as organized pillaging. The British didn’t call India “the jewel of the Empire” out of respect for Indian culture; for Britain, India was a trove of wealth to be sucked dry. Before the British took over, India was a reasonably prosperous society; when they left, it was a desert of poverty. The wealth of India greatly contributed to the prosperity of Engand during the Industrial Revolution. So Mr. Parthasarathi is right to point out that India’s progress was brought to a screeching halt by the ravages of the British.

But the gorilla in the discussion room is “How were a few thousand British able to conquer a society of hundreds of millions?” If India truly were as militarily capable as Britain, why didn’t India conquer Britain rather than the other way round?

The Battle of Plassey
There are many explanations for the supine Indian response to British aggression: political disunity, adept diplomacy by the British, dirty tricks by the British, Indian naiveté, and so on. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 provides a nice vignette as to how the British prevailed. The British forces, commanded by Robert Clive, were outnumbered 30 to 1; they had 8 cannon while their opponents had 53. However, the British had bribed one of the opposing generals to do nothing, which reduced the odds about 13 to 1. The Indian forces were led by the Nawab of Bengal. 

There were many reasons for the British victory; I believe that the most important reason was the difference in solidarity of the two armies. The British soldiers were foreigners in a huge country; defeat meant death. The Indian soldiers were the usual collection of mercenaries and conscripts who really didn’t give a damn about victory or defeat; they just wanted to get out the mess alive. Thus, the Indian army melted away where-ever the British attacked. Small detachments of determined British soldiers routed large groups of Indians. 

But another factor at work was rationalism. The British forces were led by an experienced general who fully understood the tactics of the day; the Indian forces were led by a young hothead who just happened to be at the head of the line of succession when his father died. This fellow had zero leadership capability. The British maintained good communications; Clive had a good idea of what was happening at all times, whereas the Nawab stayed in his tent with little idea of the state of the battle. Clive’s actions in the battle were calculated and rational; the Nawab was by turns hesitant and impulsive.

At a strategic level, the fundamental problem the Indians had was a lack of clear purpose. Their leadership was fissiparous and feckless; at no point was any leader capable of dealing with the British with a strategic frame of mind. Worse, the leadership was so devoid of legitimacy that very few Indians cared about the outcomes; as far as they were concerned, they were trading one tyrant for another. The British conquest of India was more of an occupation than a military triumph. Few battles were fought. The Indian army at Plassey crumbled when it had sustained casualties of about 1%, a dismally low value. Most European armies of the time would keep fighting even with 20% casualties. 

Indian Superiority?
Mr. Parthasarathi’s boasts of Indian achievement are greatly overstated. He asserts that his claims are based on empirical evidence, not idle speculation. Yet his evidence is entirely anecdotal in nature, not quantitative. He slathers us with quotes from European travelers full of praise for Indian achievements. These deserve consideration, but what about the writings of European travelers that weren’t so fulsome in their praise? Is Mr. Parthasarathi giving us a fair-minded representation of the situation, or is he cherry-picking his anecdotes? Not having read the relevant body of literature, I cannot render an informed judgement on the question, but I can point out some glaring inconsistencies. 

Indian Science
I am particularly contemptuous of Mr. Parthasarathi’s treatment of Indian scientific achievement prior to the British conquest. He begins a chapter on the subject with this statement:

 “Historians are also moving away from seeing early-modern science in national or regional terms and emphasizing the larger networks, some of them global, that were essential for the generation of new knowledge. Individuals in the Indian subcontinent were very much part of these networks and therefore contributors to a global scientific enterprise.”

This is a triumph of insinuation. Scholars have long recognized the scientific progress cannot be confined to a single country. However, the research on the Scientific Revolution and subsequent advances in science rejects any participation outside of Europe and, later, America. Mr. Parthasarathi provides but one example of Indian participation in any scientific effort: a work on the flora of South Asia. And even that project was led by a European. 

In Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, Toby Huff provides us with a detailed examination of the reaction of other societies to the newly-discovered European telescope, and makes it quite clear that Indian rulers, when shown the telescope, were uninterested.

The author claims that “modern mapping emerged out of an interaction between British and Indian surveyors and was therefore a hybrid and global form of knowledge.” He does not explain what he means by “modern mapping”. The history of surveying began with the Egyptians perhaps 5,000 years ago, and was improved upon by a number of civilizations. Indian civilization has been producing maps since ancient times; there is no indication of any special Indian innovation here. The only mention I could find was to Nain Singh Rawat, who received a gold medal award in 1876 for his work in mapping Asia. 

Here’s another sneaky unsupported insinuation:

“European scientific men communicated with their counterparts with India and elsewhere.”

It’s certainly true that Europeans communicated their science to Indians; but the author fails to provide a single instance of an Indian communicating his own science to Europeans.

Here’s another example of a vague statement that is bereft of support:

“In the seventeenth and 18th centuries Indian science made important advances in several areas, including astronomy, a field in which Indians had a long record of sophisticated mathematical and observational achievements.”

What advances in astronomy did Indian science make? Mr. Parthasarathi does not say, and my knowledge of the history of science denies any contribution to astronomy from India during the period in question.

The author does offer an example of Indian science by describing at length the achievements of Jai Singh, an Indian royal who ruled from 1722 to 1737. Jai Singh built five massive observatories — an achievement that would have been impressive had it not been for the fact that the observatories used technology that had been discarded by European astronomers a century earlier. That’s no contribution.

Mr. Parthasarathi writes that Jai Singh determined that the orbits of the planets were elliptical with one focus on the sun. This is also true, but was first discovered by Johannes Kepler in 1605 — more than a hundred years before Jai Singh.

Jai Singh also reported observations of the planets: that Jupiter had four moons, that Venus and Mercury had phases like the moon’s, and others. Those observations were first made in 1610 by Galileo Galilei. We must therefore ask, was this formidable Indian scientist unaware of century-old European science?

Indian Textiles
Much of Mr. Parthasarathi’s case rests on the superiority of Indian textiles. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans imported great quantities of Indian textiles. Clearly, the Indian product provided better value for money. At first glance, one might suspect that the Indian product was superior because of cost advantages, Indian textile workers being (supposedly) cheaper than European textile workers. Mr. Parthasarathi denies this, and offers some anecdotal evidence to support his claim. Consider, however, this graph of per capita GDP:


I got this data from The Maddison Project. It shows European per capita GDP well ahead of Indian GDP by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Per capita GDP is roughly concomitant with individual pay (assuming similar Gini Indeces in the two countries). This certainly suggests that the low price of Indian textiles arose from cheaper labor. 

But there’s another consideration: the role of the Gini Index. I claim — without direct substantiation — that Britain had a lower Gini Index than India. My indirect evidence in support of this claim is the great difference in political systems. The British system made it more difficult for government officials to gather up the wealth of the nation in their own hands. By contrast, India has such a long tradition of rent-seeking that the country today is still racked with problems of corruption. The greater concentration of wealth in India’s wealthy class meant less wealth for the lower classes, which were the source of labor for Indian textiles. This further props up my claim that Indian textiles offered better value for money because of lower labor costs in India.

Just Pathetic
Lastly comes a whole range of statements that strike me as pathetic attempts to establish the intellectual capacity of Indians. On page 229 he talks about a French-owned spinning mill in India in 1832. “In the opinions of the French owners of the enterprise, the Indian workers were as intelligent and capable as those in France.” Elsewhere Mr. Parthasarathi goes to some length to demonstrate the intellectual parity that Indians held with Europeans.

This is especially revealing. I have never read anywhere the claim that Europeans conquered because they were more intelligent than others. Such a claim would be manifestly ridiculous, and would surely be laughed off the stage. Yet we see Mr. Parthasarathi stoutly defending Indians against an accusation that has never been made. This suggests to me that Mr. Parthasarathi is motivated by a parochial desire to enhance the image of his country. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this motivation, it certainly detracts from the credibility of the book.