James Mill and India
Source: Editor's Introduction to James Mill, Selected Economic Writings, ed. Donald Winch (Edinburgh: Oliver Boyd for the Scottish Economic Society, 1966).
Copyright information: This book is published online with the kind permission of the copyright holders, The Scottish Economic Society.
James Mill spent twelve labourious years writing the History of British India, and it was as its author that he was chiefly known to the contemporary reading public. It was largely as a result of his examination in this book, of Indian society and of the problems facing the British administration, that in 1819 he obtained the important position with the East India Company which he held for seventeen years.1 Mill was accused of having betrayed his principles by accepting an appointment with the Company, but at no stage did he ever question the value of the Company as an instrument of government. John Stuart Mill was simply upholding the family tradition when he fought (unsuccessfully) in 1858 to retain the body which he and his father had so faithfully served.2 As Professor Stokes's excellent study shows,3 utilitarianism exerted great influence on British rule in India during the nineteenth century. No volume devoted to James Mill would be complete which did not take some account of his involvement with Indian affairs.
For some reason the History of British India has been overlooked by historians of economic thought. As an attempt to remedy this state of affairs, it seemed worthwhile making a small selection from this massive work to illustrate Mill's attitude to Indian society in general, and his views on land tenure and revenue in particular. A selection has also been made from his evidence before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1831–2, given when he was at the height of his powers and influence.
1. The History of British India
Mill's magnum opus was conceived and written according to the canons of ‘philosophical history’ popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. It shows clearly the influence exerted on Mill's intellectual outlook by his Scottish education: Hume, Robertson and Gibbon were Mill's models. He believed that the historian's task was to delineate the natural laws of man's progress in society and avoid ‘a dry statement of vulgar, historical facts’; that it was his duty to ‘inflame the public virtues’ and show ‘the natural rewards of virtue and the punishments of vice’.4 These aims were further justified in his letters, his reviews of the works of others, and above all, in the Preface to his History, which his son described as being ‘among the most characteristic of my father's writings’.5
Mill claimed to be attracted to Indian history by the mass of disconnected evidence on the subject, and by the indiscriminate mixture of fact and opinion to be found in the works of previous commentators. To produce order out of this chaos it was necessary to write a ‘critical’ or ‘judging’ history, which would weigh evidence carefully and distinguish between real and false causes, between good and bad ends; the incidental ‘ratiocinations’ required to support these judgments were to be as important as the narrative. To write this type of history the historian had to understand the laws of human nature and the ways in which ‘general laws of motion’ are modified by particular circumstances. ‘In short, the whole field of human nature, the whole field of legislation, the whole field of judicature, the whole field of administration, down to war, commerce, and diplomacy, ought to be familiar to his mind’.6 That Mill considered this aspect of his work to be its most important contribution is confirmed by his claim to Ricardo that ‘it would make no bad introduction to the study of civil society in general’.7
Mill's ‘critical disquisitions’ are spread throughout the work; but the heart of what Bain described as ‘a grand sociological display’ is to be found in Book II, ‘Of the Hindus’, from which the following extracts are taken. In this book he set out to establish the precise position occupied by the Hindus in the ‘scale of civilisation’ by means of a potent combination of Benthamite norms, classical political economy and the techniques of ‘conjectural history’ perfected by Scottish philosophers and historians. The whole of Book II is shot through with what has been described as ‘Europocentrism’; his object was to counter the view that the Hindus enjoyed or had ever enjoyed a high degree of civilisation by European standards.8 He was highly critical of the pro-Oriental school of writers, of whom Sir William Jones was the most distinguished, who, in his opinion, had become so enamoured of Hindu culture as to have abandoned all objectivity and common sense; virtues which he believed existed only among Europeans.9 The impartial European alone was capable of writing the history of India. What might have been an apology for never having been to India and for knowing no Indian languages was turned into a qualification by Mill. The close observer of the Indian scene was likely to be given to ‘partial impressions’, and to lack the detachment necessary for combining and ordering the diverse but limited observations of many commentators.
Book II opens with a summary dismissal of the legendary accounts of ancient Hindu civilisation. In the absence of accurate historical records, the historian who wishes to draw up an account of the state of society and culture achieved by the Hindus in the past and maintained to the present must resort to ‘philosophy’ or conjecture. This method of procedure was justified by Dugald Stewart as follows: ‘In examining the history of mankind…when we cannot trace the process by which an event has been produced, it is often of importance to be able to show how it may have been produced by natural causes.’ And he added that ‘it is of much more importance to ascertain the progress that is most simple, than the progress that is more agreeable to fact’.10 James Mill's opening section is fully in accord with the spirit of Stewart's remarks. The approach he adopts rests on the assumption that since human nature is much the same wherever it is to be found, universal laws of social development can be drawn up by the historian armed with philosophy, and shielded from the glare of apparent diversity.
Mill examines in turn all of the leading characteristics of Hindu society: the caste system, the form of government, the law, the method of taxation, the arts and sciences, religion and manners. The conclusion which he reaches after this extended exercise in social anthropology is that the Hindus are merely on a level with the antique civilisations of the past, and other Oriental civilisations of the present; and that this places them somewhat below the level achieved by Europe in its feudal period.11 This ‘scientific’ conclusion, he claimed, was of great practical importance to the British people.
If the mistake in regard to Hindu Society, committed by the British Nation, and the British government, be very great; if they have conceived the Hindus to be a people of high civilization, while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress of civilization, it is impossible that in many of the measures pursued for the government of that people, the mark aimed at should not have been wrong.12
His low estimate of the state of civilisation attained by the Hindus provided a justification for continued British rule, and supported the view that India should be governed according to civilised European standards, rather than those of the native population. In the course of preparing his History Mill wrote a number of articles on the East India Company which make his position with respect to British rule quite clear. As would be expected, he was strongly opposed to the continuance of the Company's trading monopoly; he believed there to be a prima facie case against all monopolies; they belonged to ‘an unenlightened and semi-barbarous age’, whereas ‘freedom is the offspring of civilization and philosophy’.13 He exposed the Company's case for retaining the monopoly as special pleading; exclusive privileges which were justifiable when the Company was first established were no longer necessary; unfettered competition would expand trade and serve both British and Indian interests better.14 He went to great pains to show that India, like other colonies, did not contribute to British wealth in the form of tribute; the gains of a few nabobs could not compensate for the fact that since 1797 there had been no surplus revenue after meeting the enormous expenses of government.15 India would always be a drain on Britain because of the continued need for military preparedness ‘where a small number of strangers’ ruled ‘an immense and widely extended population’.16
Despite these arguments, Mill considered that ‘the English government in India with all its vices, is a blessing of unspeakable magnitude to the population of Hindustan’.17 In their present state the Indians were unfit to govern themseves; ‘a simple form of arbitrary government, tempered by European honour and European intelligence’ was needed.18 After all, ‘even the utmost abuse of European power is better, we are persuaded, than the most temperate exercise of Oriental despotism… The wider the circumference of British dominion, the more extensive the reign of peace.’19
Mill praised the East India Company for the way in which it had discharged its governmental functions, and was opposed to any suggestion that India should be ruled directly by the British government; this would merely lead to neglect and corruption. He was in favour of encouraging British emigration to India because a large British population would exert ‘moral pressure’ on the natives and act as a civilising influence. He even went so far as to suggest what the flamboyant imperialist Disraeli later partially carried out, namely that, ‘instead of sending out a Governor General, to be recalled in a few years, why should we not constitute one of our Royal Family, Emperor of Hindustan with hereditary succession’.20
But Mill did not set out simply to provide a justification for British rule in India; this, after all, was not the main issue at stake. He was more anxious to demonstrate the virtues of the principle of utility as a guide to the conduct of affairs in India and, by implication, in Britain also. Mill's criticisms of Hindu law and government, and of a society based on caste, tradition and religious dogma, were derived from utilitarian norms. Furthermore, they are put in such generalised form as to make them applicable to supposedly advanced communities like Britain as well. As John Stuart Mill said of his father's History: ‘it was saturated…with the opinions and modes of judgment of a democratic radicalism then regarded as extreme’.21 James Mill himself was highly conscious of the radical content of his work and anticipated (one might almost say welcomed) hostile reactions from those whom he considered to be apologists for the status quo.22
While it is true, as Halévy says, that Mill's History was ‘an instrument of Benthamite propaganda’,23 this view must not be allowed to obscure the context within which Mill applied utilitarian standards of judgment. The basic format of the book was determined by Mill's belief in the idea of progress as a philosophy of history; a philosophy which he inherited from his Scottish mentors, but one to which Bentham does not appear to have subscribed. Although Bentham obviously appreciated Mill's efforts to further the cause of legal and administrative reform in India, he thought the History was badly written and claimed that the account of the ‘superstitions’ of the Hindus made him ‘melancholy’.24 It was to Scotland that Mill looked for recognition of his achievements as a philosophical historian.25
Mill's special contribution lay in combining the idea of progress with the principle of utility, thereby strengthening the normative or propagandist aspects of both traditions.26 In France, as Carl Becker has shown, the philosophes had made use of the idea of progress in their histoires raisonnées as a weapon to further the cause of a rationalist enlightenment.27 In Scotland too, such writers as Adam Smith, Hume, Robertson and Millar employed conjectural history for liberal and didactic purposes.28 But the Scottish writers laid far less emphasis than the French on reason as a determining force in history and human affairs; they depicted history as a blind social process in which order and gradual improvement occur without the conscious intervention of individual reason. The French writers in the same tradition saw the history of the race more as a clearsighted march towards perfection, in which man's reason inexorably overcame the forces of superstition, intolerance and tyranny.29
Mill considered himself to be furthering the tradition of ‘that sagacious contemplator of the progress of society’, John Millar, in carrying out a ‘comprehensive induction’ of the characteristics of Hindu society:
The writings of Mr Miller [sic] remain almost the only source from which even the slightest information on the subject can be drawn: one of the ends which has at least been in view during the scrutiny conducted in these pages, has been to contribute something to the progress of so important an investigation.30
But Mill's use of conjectural history was more explicitly radical than any of his Scottish forebears, including Millar, whose opinions had been considered dangerously liberal by many of his contemporaries. The contrast between Mill and Millar can be seen in their respective attitudes to social change. Millar has this to say on the subject in the Preface to his Origin of Ranks:
When these enquiries are properly conducted, they have likewise a tendency to restrain the wanton spirit of innovation which men are too apt to indulge in their political reasonings. To know the laws already established, to discern the causes from which they have arisen, and the means by which they were introduced; this preliminary step is essentially requisite, in order to determine upon what occasions they might be altered or abolished. The institutions of a country, how imperfect soever they may seem, are commonly suited to the state of the people by whom they have been embraced; and therefore, in most cases, they are susceptible to those gentle improvements, which proceed from a gradual reformation of the manners, and are accompanied with a correspondent change in the condition of society. In every system of law or government, the different parts have an intimate connection with each other. As it is dangerous to tamper with the machine, unless one is previously acquainted with the several wheels and springs of which it is composed; so there is reason to fear, that the violent alteration of any single part may destroy the regularity of its movements, and produce the utmost disorder and confusion.
This can be contrasted with Mill's characteristically confident statement in his correspondence with Ricardo that: ‘All great changes in society, are easily effected when the time is come’.31
Mill wished to change society and so, like the philosophes, he stressed the importance of reason in human affairs. The principle of utility provided a guide for a rational order and was the mark of high civilisation.
Exactly in proportion as Utility is the object of every pursuit, may we regard a nation as civilized. Exactly in proportion as its ingenuity is wasted on contemptible and mischievous objects, though it may be, in itself, an ingenuity of no ordinary kind, the nation may safely be denominated barbarous.32
Mill reinforced philosophical radicalism by philosophical history. Utilitarianism, in his hands, was more than a pragmatic test of the fitness of laws and institutions; it became a universal principle for judging all societies at all times.
Mill's History could not be described as a popular work, but it was undoubtedly a highly influential one. Soon after its publication we learn from Francis Place that it was being presented by the Directors of the East India Company ‘as a premium to all civil servants leaving the college [Haileybury] with éclat’33 ; and subsequently it became the standard textbook at the college. Such was its influence that the pro-Orientalists, represented by Horace Wilson, considered it necessary to bring out a new edition of the book later, correcting some of Mill's opinions on the low state of Indian civilisation. Although Wilson thought it was ‘the most valuable work upon the subject which has yet been published’, he held that ‘a harsh and illiberal spirit has of late years prevailed in the conduct and councils of the rising service in India, which owes its origin to impressions imbibed in early life from the History of Mr Mill’. The work, he said, was ‘calculated to destroy all sympathy between the rulers and the ruled; to preoccupy the minds of those issuing annually from Great Britain…with an unfounded aversion towards those over whom they exercise…power’.34 According to Mill's view of the matter, it was not the object of India's rulers to be popular; their job was to be clear-sighted and efficient.35
2. James Mill and the Indian Revenue System
Mill attached great importance to the ‘mode of providing for the pecuniary wants of the government’ in determining the character and condition of a society and its capacity for progress. As Professor Stokes has made clear, this view was especially justified in the case of the Indian land revenue system:
It was the heart of the British administrative system, and the one subject which brought British rule into intimate contact with the lives of the Indian peasantry… All the great issues, the union or separation of judiciary and executive, the law to be administered and the rights to be protected, hinged upon it. More than half of the revenue of the State was derived from the taxation of land; and the fact that the State demand absorbed almost the whole surplus produce of the soil, after allowing for the bare subsistence costs of the cultivator, made it the determining influence in shaping the structure of Indian society. Except in the cities, every class above the immediate cultivators lived upon allowances or alienations of land revenue. Consequently, the British as sovereigns held in their hands the most powerful agency affecting the composition of Indian society.36
We have noted earlier, when discussing Mill's treatment of taxes on rent in the Elements, that he saw no objection in principle to a system whereby the bulk of the state's revenue was derived from the annual produce of land. One might even say that in so far as the exactions of the state could be confined strictly to rent or the net produce after payment of wages and profits, he regarded it as the ideal system of taxation. But he was bitterly opposed to the existing Indian system, particularly as reflected in the reforms introduced by Lord Cornwallis in Bengal in 1793.
The British administration in India had inherited an incredibly confused, uncertain and corrupt system of assessing and collecting the state's portion of the land revenue. Property and tenure rights were ill-defined; and the revenue demand on the ryots or peasant cultivators and paid by them to zemindars or tax-farmers, varied almost at will. To regularise this situation, Cornwallis decided to set a permanent limit on the demand made by the government on the zemindars, who in turn were to make fixed settlements with the villages or individual ryots in their districts. In this way private property rights were vested in the zemindars in the hope that this would provide them with an incentive to make improvements. At the same time an element of protection was given to the ryots against rack-renting by the zemindars.
The groundwork for Mill's attack on Cornwallis's permanent settlement is laid in his chapter on taxes in Book II of his History. After specifying the general qualities desirable in a tax system—that as little as possible should be taken in a way that does least harm to the people—he gives an histoire raisonnée of the establishment of property in a primitive society, in which he implies that the zemindar is an interloper with no property or tenure rights. His account of the Cornwallis system in operation is given later in Book VI. In Mill's opinion this scheme was based on ‘aristocratical prejudices’ in favour of private landlordism, a complete miscalculation of the character of the zemindars, and a failure to foresee the likely effect of the system upon the ryots. Mill's antagonism to the whole principle of aristocracy needs little further documentation here. Apart from any question of the legality of the zemindar's property rights, he believed that it was pointless to expect them to behave as paternalistic, improving landlords. Large land-owners relying on rent income were the same world over; their extensive possessions blunted the incentive to make profitable improvements; they relished power over their tenants rather than money; they were spenders and not accumulators. The real hope for improvements lay in the immediate cultivators, those who possessed little and relied on their own labour and capital. It was precisely this class, the ryots, that Cornwallis's settlement had sacrificed to the zemindar. In his account of the Cornwallis system in practice Mill dwelt consistently on its failures.37
After twelve years' service with the Company Mill's views were unchanged. He was given a full opportunity to air his criticisms and to expound an alternative solution in his evidence before the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company in 1831–2. The Committee was appointed as a preliminary to the renewal of the Company's Charter in 1834. Since the last renewal in 1813 a good many complaints against the Company's handling of India's internal affairs, and of the monopoly of the China tea trade in particular, had accumulated. As Chief Examiner in charge of the correspondence with India relating to political, judicial and revenue matters, Mill was the star witness for the defence. In August 1831, for example, he appeared before the Committee on no less than eight complete sittings. When the Committee was re-convened in 1832, he was questioned on four more occasions. The evidence, together with his memoranda, covers a wide field, but does not deal with the China tea monopoly, which was outside Mill's province. The extracts reprinted below have been selected chiefly with the intention of illustrating Mill's views on revenue questions. To get some idea of the extent of Mill's responsibilities and of his grasp of affairs, it would also be necessary to consider his evidence on the machinery of government, the judicial system and the political questions involving relations between various Indian states.
With respect to land revenue in India, the solution favoured by Mill was for the government to be reinstated as the universal landlord dealing directly with the ryots, and eliminating the middle-man. The ownership of land should never have been handed over to the zemindars in return for a fixed contribution to the state. By so doing the government had created private rent income out of what might legitimately and harmlessly have furnished the revenue of the state. In his evidence Mill explains in precise, dogmatic terms the desirability of obtaining government revenue from land; the means by which land nationalisation could be effected; and the importance of the rent doctrine in assessing the revenue demand. By relying on pure rent as a source of income ‘the wants of the government are supplied without any drain either upon the produce of any man's labour, or the produce of any man's capital’. To eliminate the abuses of a system which left the ryot at the mercy of the zemindar, the government should gradually purchase zemindary estates and confirm the ryots as hereditary occupants. A tax settlement based on a calculation of the net produce of every ryot holding, inclining to leniency in case of doubt, would serve the interests of the government without discouraging the immediate cultivator from undertaking improvements.
Apart from his antagonism to the zemindari as a class, Mill was opposed to the principle of permanency embodied in the original Cornwallis settlement. A standard tax assessment levied on all land regardless of fertility offended against the pure rent doctrine; it penalised land of low rent yield and created private rent income on land of higher fertility. This objection applied equally to a permanent ryotwari settlement as to a permanent zemindari settlement. Mill proposed that the ryots should become lease-holders with sufficient permanency of tenure to encourage improvements; but it would still be necessary to make periodic reassessments of the leases to keep the revenue demand in line with the rent-yielding capacity of land. This would allow the ryot to enjoy the ‘profits of stock’ and to accumulate capital, but would not permit him to succumb to the temptations inherent in the receipt of a rent income. Moreover, permanency of settlement entailed ‘an alienation of the great source of the revenue of government’.38
Mill was fully aware of the practical difficulties involved in reaching a settlement with individual peasant cultivators in a country where the population had been demoralised by previous exactions. Nevertheless, he maintained that the fundamental principle was perfectly clear, and no effort should be spared to bring an end to the old system and move in the direction indicated.39 It should be noted in passing that John Stuart Mill, who considered his father to be the ‘originator of all sound statesmanship’ in India, followed him implicitly in this matter.40
The two other major sources of revenue in India were the Company's monopoly of the manufacture of salt and of sales of opium; and Mill was called upon to answer criticisms of the desirability and of the mode of operating these monopolies. His answers to a questionaire on these and other tax matters have been included because they contain a good deal of basic economic reasoning, combined with comments on the practical difficulties of revenue collection in an underdeveloped country.41
In conclusion, as evidence of the utilitarian mind at work in India, and to show how little Mill's attitude towards the native population had changed since he wrote his History, a short extract is included which gives his views, in a nutshell, on the question of employing Indians in the Company's service.42
See above, pp. 17–18.
See Autobiography, pp. 169–70.
The English Utilitarians and India, Oxford University Press, London, 1959.
Review of C. J. Fox's History of James II in the Annual Review and History of Literature for 1808, vol. VII, pp. 99–101.
Autobiography, p. 17.
History of British India, London, 3rd edn., 1826, in six volumes, vol. I, p. xviii.
Letter to Ricardo, 19 Oct. 1817, Works, vol. VII, p. 195. Mill was offered an opportunity by Joseph Hume to review his own work in the Asiatic Journal; he refused, but gave the following indication of what he would have liked to say: ‘Having first laughed inwardly at Hume's proposing me to puff myself—well I said to myself if I were to set about it what should I find to say… I knew that I had endeavoured to go deeper than the surface which is spread over the pages of the vulgar historians, I may say of all historians to a greater degree who have yet written, and that if I have succeeded my book will form a kind of era in the writing of history and render it impossible to acquire reputation by such flimsy things as have hitherto been applauded for history.’ Letter to Place, 6 Jan. 1818. B.M. Add. MSS. 3513, f. 34.
For an excellent discussion of this aspect of the book see D. Forbes, ‘James Mill and India’, Cambridge Journal, Oct. 1951, vol. V, pp. 19–33.
In the Edinburgh Review Mill commended a recent book on China as ‘one of the most valuable which European good sense and intelligence (there really seems to be no other) has produced, upon the state of the Asiatic nations’ (Jul. 1809, vol. XIV, p. 429). Italics supplied. See also Eclectic Review, vol. I, Jan. 1814, pp. 140–55, and Monthly Review, Jan. 1814, vol. pp. 1–17.
Collected Works, vol. X, p. 37.
History of British India, vol. II, pp. 186–90.
Ibid., p. 135.
Monthly Review, Jan. 1813, vol. LXX, p. 23.
See Edinburgh Review, Apr. 1810, vol. XVI; Jul. 1812 and Nov. 1812, vol. XX; Monthly Review, Jan. 1813 and Apr. 1813, vol. LXX; Feb. 1815, vol. LXXVI.
See Edinburgh Review, Apr. 1810; Eclectic Review, Jan. 1814, vol. I, p. 147; and ‘Colony’ in Supplement to Encyclopaedia Britannica, as separately reprinted, p. 19.
Edinburgh Review, Apr. 1810, p. 149.
Ibid., Jan. 1810, p. 171.
Ibid., Apr. 1810, p. 155.
Ibid., Jan. 1810, p. 171 and again in Apr. 1810: ‘…whatever may be our sense of the difficulties into which we have brought ourselves, by the improvident assumption of such a dominion, we earnestly hope for the sake of the natives, that it will not be found necessary to leave them to their own direction’ (p. 154).
Edinburgh Review, Apr. 1810, p. 156.
Autobiography, p. 17.
See e.g. his letter to Ricardo, 27 Dec. 1817, Works, vol. VII, pp. 233–4. As one reviewer put the matter, the main imperfection of the work ‘is the author's disposition to undervalue the laws and constitution of his native country’. British Review and London Critical Journal, Aug. and Nov. 1818, vol. XII, p. 525.
Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, p. 302.
See Bentham's Works (ed. Bowring), vol. X, p. 450.
Mill wrote to MacVey Mapier for the Edinburgh opinion of his History because ‘as I reckon the best judges to be with you, I am proportionately anxious to know what I am thought of among you’. Letter, 30 Apr. 1818, Bain, op. cit., p. 170.
See D. Forbes, op. cit., p. 25.
Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, Yale University Press, 1932, chapter III.
See D. Forbes, ‘scientific Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar’, Cambridge Journal, Aug. 1951, vol. VII, pp. 643–70; and D. Horn, ‘Principal William Robertson D.D.’, University of Edinburgh Journal, Autumn 1956, pp. 155–68, where Hume and Robertson are compared with Voltaire.
The contrast has been stressed in F. A. Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, chapters III and IV. See also Lois Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress, Johns Hopkins U.P., 1934, pp. 145–53.
History of British India, vol. II, book II, chapter X, p. 139n.
Letter to Ricardo, 19 Oct. 1817, Works, vol. VII, p. 198. See also the letter quoted above, p. 187.
History of British India, vol. II, p. 134.
Letter, 27 Dec. 1817, B.M. Add. MSS. 3513–33.
History of British India, fourth edition, 1846–8, with notes and continuation by H. Wilson, pp. xii–xiii.
See e.g. Mill's answers to Qq. 4193–7 and Q. 400 below, pp. 442–3.
E. Stokes, op. cit., pp. 75–76. For the full background to Mill's ideas on this question the reader should consult chapter II of Professor Stokes's work. The treatment given here is intended only to make the extracts from Mill's writings and evidence intelligible.
History of British India, vol. VI, book VI, chapters 5 and 6. See also his replies to questions 3136–9, below, pp. 424–6.
See below, Q. 3434.
See below, Q. 3555.
Principles of Political Economy, book III, ch. IX, sec. 4.
See below, pp. 435–41.
See below, pp. 441–3.