To this day, when India is referred to as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, a preponderance of people tend to assume that this historic title owes its origins to India’s vast and extensive wealth from when the British first set foot in India. However, contrary to popular belief, India was considered a priceless colony, not only because of the immense wealth and its then flourishing economy but also due to a number of other factors that made India important to the administration.
The most predominant cause of British dependence on India, many historians tend to argue is India’s extensive involvement and contribution militarily to the Empire. Having a massive youth population at the time and strong leadership, the British were then attempting to make the most of the resources available to them from their colonies. India served as the perfect resource as the concept of “soldiering” in India was one that was greatly respected and coveted. Long before the Second World War, the British had begun capitalising on this strength; India had established its vital role in supporting the British Empire with their immense manpower during the innumerous wars and conflicts fought by the British. In a matter of just years, India’s army size and manpower for the British grew from approximately 170,000 soldiers to an astounding 2.5 million soldiers as Britain declared war against Germany assuming India’s involvement in World War II. These massive numbers of Indian soldiers over time had been assigned to different parts of the world, a large majority of them being in East Africa (1916), Baghdad (1917), Palestine (1918) and Gallipoli (1915). In short, Indian troops helped the British annexe, maintain and control their colonies.
Another of the primary reasons for India being of paramount importance to Britain was its strategic location. Post “The American Revolution”, India became the strategically located colony, granting access to many parts of the world. During the period of the colonisation of India, under the British, its importance not only extended to resources but also to administrative purposes. Located centrally in the British Sub-imperial system, consisting of several countries such as East Africa, Iran and Turkey, the British viewed India as a strategically placed country. India, for a long time post colonisation, served as the unofficial post for British administration from where some of the British colonies were controlled (directly and indirectly). Countries such as Myanmar were directly controlled and administered from New Delhi, until as late as the year 1937. Additionally, India heightened Britain’s economic interest. The region was a major supplier of raw materials for trade and industry in Britain and also a market for goods produced there. Cotton, pepper, spices and porcelain were exported in large quantities. It was lucrative on all accounts with India supplying its valuable natural resources to aid British trade and the proceeds filling Britain’s coffers.
India’s christening also owed its origin to another predominant reason. One of India’s greatest contributions to the British Empire was its ability to cater to the administration’s requirement for indentured labour. Reducing a large part of the country to illiteracy, with only a 12% literacy rate by 1947, India’s minorities and poor classes (a large part of the population at the time), were for a lack of better knowledge, opportunity and money forced in large numbers into the field of indentured labour. Indentured labour also known commonly as indentured servitude was “a system of bonded labour that was instituted following the abolition of slavery. Indentured labour were recruited to work on sugar, cotton, tea plantations, and rail construction projects in British colonies”. India’s largely illiterate population made it a target for this sort of labour by the British and were sent to various parts of the world such as Africa and Burma; in fact, as early as the year 1882, long before the First and Second World War, the British statesman Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, commonly referred to as Lord Salisbury stated that India’s involvement and importance in the gathering of indentured labour was like “An English barrack in the Oriental seas from which we (the British) may draw any number of troops without having to pay for them” (1882).
India’s contributions to the British were also considered to be invaluable for several other reasons; these meeker factors included its vast textile industry before the British colonisation, which historians point out was undoubtedly the largest in the world at the time. On one occasion, when the philosopher Karl Marx visited India, he described the textile industry by saying “The hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society,”. Such was the extent of India’s economic reliance on the textile industry that was for a large part exploited by the British. Other industries such as the silk industry were also reduced and exploited for gain massively by the British.
Lord Randolf Churchill, a British journalist and the father of Winston Churchill once said “The loss of India would mark and consummate the downfall of the British Empire… From such a catastrophe there could be no recovery”. In retrospect, it is evident why the British relied so heavily on India during the period of colonisation and the two World Wars. India does indeed appear to have been Britain’s “crowning glory”.