Comparisons between the Spanish and British empires are inevitable. Difficult, odious and even ahistorical, yes, but unavoidable given the antagonism between the two entities and the fact that in many cases they shared a geographical and temporal sphere. For example, in America.
Boston Tea Party, 1773
England’s colonial failure in the 13 Colonies is often attributed to the fact that, unlike Spain, they did not find local empires with political and material structures, such as the Inca or the Mexica, that could be used to the benefit of European interests. It is true that beyond Mexico, to the north, the tribes were disorganised, there was little population density and, in general, little scope for explosive growth for the newly founded cities; however, even in this geographical area Spain was able to control more square kilometres and to develop more fruitful arrangements with these dispersed tribes. When Spain finally left North America, many of the treaties with the Apache and Comanche were still in place.
A greater ability to deal with the different, something probably inherited by the Spanish from the period we call the Reconquista, and the autonomy granted to these American viceroyalties and their inhabitants gave this nation an advantage in making its way across the New World. Both in the north and in the south. The British, on the other hand, had great difficulty forging such strong ties in America, resulting in an economy stifled by London and cities that failed to take off until they achieved independence. Nor did the British show any greater ability to interbreed or to understand each other in their next target, India.
Another New World
The British conquest of India does not bear direct comparison with what Spain did or failed to do in the Americas. First, because the political situation of the pre-Columbian world does not bear any comparison with what the British found in India, a territory that when they arrived in the early 17th century was heavily guarded by old Mongol and Persian dynasties. Second, because the historical periods are very different (even if one compares Columbus’s arrival in America with that of the Mayflower pilgrims). And third, because the very statement that the British Empire conquered India is completely false.
This ‘letter patent’ of 1693 by William III and Mary II prescribes regulations for the conduct of business of the East India Company. It confirms the Company’s privileges, as well as regulating its activities. The richness of the decoration may well be an indication of the significance attached to it.
In reality, India was conquered by a private company, the East India Company, taking advantage of the commercial privileges granted by the British Crown, which in spite of everything has always presented itself as the great champion of global free trade. From its trading emporiums in the Bay of Bengal, the East India Company grew in influence throughout the 18th century and, using superior European tactics, gained increasing political power on the back of the anarchy brought about by the fall of the Mongols in Delhi. The company, in which many of the British lords held shares, grew to an army larger than the Crown’s own and controlled the destiny of millions of souls on purely economic grounds for a century.
The result was plunder, violence, industrial paralysis, lawlessness and famine. Between 1857 and 1900 there were eighteen famines in the area, with a death toll of twenty-six million. Alarmed by the dangers and greed of this corporate violence, the Victorian state finally had to cut off the company’s excesses and annex India. Nor can it be said that this change of rule improved the welfare of India’s population, reversed the policies of segregation between British and Indians, or ended the problem of famine in a region of the world that had never lacked good harvests until then.
It could be said that the East India Company was as private as the Spanish conquistadors themselves, who were still businessmen who risked their wealth to conquer lands using capitulations signed with the Crown, with a very limited capacity for manoeuvre in the New World. The difference is that from the outset the territories conquered in America passed into the hands of the Crown, which sought a way to create a mixed-race society, to Christianise and to equalise the rights of the natives with the rest of the subjects, while in the case of India the kings consented to such outrages as the company prohibiting, for example, the children of mixed marriages from holding posts in the administration or in the colonial army. Partly out of ignorance, and partly because the idea of what would come to be called colonialism was taking hold in that period and, with it, the racist thesis to support the depredation of the “uncivilised” part of the world.
Suppression Indian Revolt by the English, Blowing from a Gun Execution
Colonialism in the nineteenth century understood that the colonies were subjects to be squeezed for the benefit of the increasingly wealthy metropolis and that the passage through these satellite territories was only a parenthesis, almost a penance, for the adventurers to return home as soon as possible with a pocket full of money. The colonisation of India and other territories in the British and French spheres certainly fit the bill. London grew fat on the profits from an increasingly famished India, while Madrid and other peninsular cities, rather than growing, regressed in comparison with the economic and cultural splendour achieved by Lima or Mexico over the centuries.
The likes of Robert Clive, a leading figure in the East India Company, were quick to flee Asia as soon as he made a fortune in the millions, while Francisco Pizarro died in his beloved City of Kings, Lima, and Hernán Cortés died in Seville desperately trying to return to Mexico. Few conquistadors returned to live in Europe or poured their profits back into their homeland…
A still from the film, Gandhi (1982), depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre
Bridging the gap
Yes, it’s true, they are different times. Different areas. Different ideas of empire. Different motivations (religion played a prominent role in the case of the Spanish). And it can even be pointed out that, precisely when the East India Company was squeezing India, the last Bourbons of the 18th century, Carlos III and Carlos IV, proposed measures to bring their control of the American territories closer to the British and French model, seeking greater economic returns and a more unequal relationship. Or that the Spanish model in the West Indies was not the same as the one that was later deployed on the mainland. There are a thousand nuances, but making a comparison in favour of Spain is as inevitable as it is to see a huge grievance in the way both empires have been judged.
Even the Anglo-Saxons, drunk on the Black Legend, convinced that the Spanish were fanatics who had made their way over a river of blood, gauged the negative actions of their empire by constantly using the Catholic Monarchy as a yardstick. By 1771 the politician and writer Horace Walpole criticised the pain being caused in India by the East India Company thus:
We are worse than the Spaniards in Peru! They were butchers, but, diabolical as they were, they were butchers on religious principles. We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped. What have you to say to the fact that the Bengal famine, in which three million people have perished, was caused by the hoarding of food by the officials of the East India Company? All this will come to light unless the gold that inspired such horrors can silence it.
What the British liked to omit was that the Spanish were very early in a high-level debate about the legitimacy of the conquest, the need for the Crown to curb abuses against the Indians, and the possible harm caused. The Laws of Burgos (1512) defined very early on that the Indian had the legal nature of a free man with full property rights, who could not be exploited, although on the ground these terms were not infrequently flouted. There was no lack of self-criticism when the empire was rolling, nor when it slowed down… Although Spain lost its empire, criticism remained and events were distorted.
Here, too, there is a big difference between the Spanish way of proceeding and the British way of proceeding, which has yet to exercise self-criticism for its actions in India. Attributing all the blame to a private company, as they did and continue to do, sounds like a poor excuse. There were repeated judgements of the East India Company, the ideal, depersonalised scapegoat, but not of what followed, including famine and ruin. I say that someone must take responsibility for the unquestionable fact that India’s per capita income did not rise by a single shilling in the period between 1757 and 1947. What a coincidence that this period coincided with the British presence, the Company’s and the Crown’s!