Jambudveep's Blog

December 4, 2010

Did the British Civilise us? Part 1:Science and Technology in India

Filed under: British Misrule — Yogeshwar Shastri @ 10:28 am
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Did the British civilise us? The general impression carried by most British people is that they “civilised India”, whatever that means. Even the more intellectual amongst them carry this opinion. The thrust of the   education system in the United Kingdom is to disseminate the myth amongst the British public that the British Raj was some kind of a charitable organisation. The general thinking is, “We gave you railways, education, telegraph, your democracy and we didn’t even charge you for it!!” (The first two were set up primarily to make the economic loot of India easier and enable rapid movement of British troops to any part of British India, their “modern education” destroyed any kind of basic educational access for millions of Indians, while the last one is an outright lie: what was the whole point of the freedom struggle if the British gave us democracy!! In my eyes justifying British colonialism is like saying: “Tough luck you got raped, but   look at the bright side: now you know what sex feels like!!)

Confront any British on the atrocities committed by the British in India and all you are going to get a hostile look of disbelief. For in their mind    that is simply not possible: after all the British Empire was a force for good in the world!!

Or the more common reaction from those who are more aware of the destructive nature of British rule is along the lines of, “Grow up and stop ranting about the past!” .Sanctimonious advice free of cost!

But why blame the British for covering up their genocides, rapes and loot in India? This is after all expected behaviour from a hardened criminal. They will never acknowledge their crimes till somebody brings them to  book.

What should really cause us to hang our heads in shame is the utter failure of our “esteemed” historians to educate Indians in the real character of the British rule. Not that common Indians need educating in how bad British rule was. Thankfully civilisational memories are stronger than the machinations of corrupt academics and apologists of the British raj. Memories of the genocide committed by the British in the suppression of the war of independence of 1857 still linger on in the collective consciousness of Indian people.

More than the common people it is the English educated elite of India which needs to be “educated” in the history of India, whether that is of Islamic or British misrule. The statement by Dr. Manmohan Singh while accepting an honorary degree from his alma mater Oxford University in 2005 that, “Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too[i]” is indicative of the mental colonisation of the Indian mind. I’m sure that the millions of perfectly avoidable deaths, the billions looted were some of the “beneficial consequences” our esteemed Prime minister had in mind when he made the statement .Physical freedom is relatively easy to obtain however becoming mentally free is another thing all together.

Coming back to our topic: How do we define the word “civilise”? A definition I picked up from the Cambridge online dictionary defines it   as: “to educate a society so that its culture becomes more developed”.

So when the British gained supremacy in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were we a barbarous, primitive people who needed to be educated in the ways of modern society, science, technology, living etc? Were our educational institutions outdated and irrelevant? Was the administration system of the country a disorganised mess? Were we completely lacking in any kind of technological and scientific capability?

These and many more questions rose in my mind. And I found at least some of them answered in Shri Dharampal’s excellent books. This great son of mother India was not a professional historian but the research he did and the findings he presented in his books on the nature of Indian society in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is unmatched. His biography and quite a few of his books can be found on this site: http://www.samanvaya.com/dharampal/

As a first step I will post some of the information regarding indigenous science and technology I gleaned from Sri Dharampal’s book. Below I am posting some extracts from his book “Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century” (you can download the pdf version of the book here: Indian Science and Technology-Dharampal. As far as I am aware there are no copyright restrictions. However if there are please let me know and I will take it down ASAP).

Part I: Extracts from “Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century”

Sri Dharampal’s book has original reproductions of several observations made by British administrators, travellers etc about the science and technology of the Indian people. I am only posting these here to stimulate curiosity, for a fuller appreciation reading the book is highly recommended.

1. Inoculation against Smallpox in mid and late 18th century India:

The following passage from 1767 CE is a small fragment of an eye witness account to the process of inoculation against small pox carried out in India before the British supremacy. It describes how trained Brahmins from various major cities like Varanasi etc spread out once a year all over the country to inoculate   common people against small pox.

Inoculation is performed in Indostan by a particular tribe of Bramins, who are delegated annually for this service from the different Colleges of Bindoobund, Eleabas, Benares, & c. over all the distant provinces; dividing themselves into small parties, of three or four each, they plan their travelling circuits in such wise as to arrive at the places of their respective destination some weeks before the usual return of the disease; they arrive commonly in the Bengall provinces early in February, although they some years do not begin to inoculate before March, deferring it until they consider the state of the season, and acquire information of the state of the distemper.”[ii]

The writer of the manuscript further elaborates on the actual process of inoculation, “The inhabitants of Bengall, knowing the usual time when the inoculating Bramins annually return, observe strictly the regimen enjoined, whether they determine to be inoculated or not; this preparation consists only in abstaining for a month from fish, milk, and ghee (a kind of butter made generally of buffalo’s milk); the prohibition of fish respects only the native Portuguese and Mahomedans, who abound in every province of the empire. When the Bramins begin to inoculate, they pass from house to house and operate at the door, refusing to inoculate any who have not, on a strict scrutiny, duly observed the preparatory course enjoined them. It is no uncommon thing for them to ask the parents how many pocks they choose their children should have: Vanity, we should think, urged a question on a matter seemingly so uncertain in the issue; but true it is, that they hardly ever exceed, or are deficient, in the number required. They inoculate indifferently on any part, but if left to their choice, they prefer the outside of the arm, midway between the wrist and the elbow, for the males; and the same between the elbow and the shoulder for the females. Previous to the operation the Operator takes a piece of cloth in his hand, (which becomes his perquisite if the family is opulent) and with it gives a dry friction upon the part intended for inoculation, for the space of eight or ten minutes, then with a small instrument he wounds, by many slight touches, about the compass of a silver groat, just making the smallest appearance of blood, then opening a linen double rag (which he always keeps in a cloth round his waist) takes from thence a small pledget of cotton charged with the variolous matter, which he moistens with two or three drops of the Ganges Water, an applies it to the wound, fixing it on with a slight bandage, and ordering it to remain on for six hours without being moved, then the bandage to be taken off, and the pledget to remain until it falls off itself; sometimes (but rarely) he squeezes a drop from the pledget, upon the part, before he applies it; from the time he begins the dry friction, to tying the knot of the bandage, he never ceases reciting some portions of the worship appointed, by the Aughtorrah Bhade, to be paid to the female divinity before mentioned, nor quits the most solemn countenance all the while. The cotton, which he preserves in a double callico rag, is saturated with matter from the inoculated pustules of the preceding year, for they never inoculate with fresh matter, nor with matter from the disease caught in the natural way, however distinct and mild the species[iii].

The description given by the Brahmins about what causes the disease is a perfect description of the small pox virus.

They lay it down as a principle, that the immediate (or instant) cause of the smallpox exists in the mortal part of every human and animal form; that the mediate (or second) acting cause, which stirs up the first, and throws it into a state of fermentation, is multitudes of imperceptible animalculae floating in the atmosphere; that these are the cause of all epidemical diseases, but more particularly of the small pox; that they return at particular seasons in greater or lesser numbers; that these bodies, imperceptible as they are to the human organs of vision, imprison the most malignant tribes of the fallen angelic spirits: That these animalculae touch and adhere to everyhing, in greater or lesser proportions, according to the nature of the surfaces which they encounter; that they pass and repass in and out of the bodies of all animals in the act of respiration, without injury to themselves, or the bodies they pass through; that such is not the case with those that are taken in with the food, which, by mastication, and the digestive faculties of the stomach and intestines, are crushed and assimilated with the chyle, and conveyed into the blood, where, in a certain time, their malignant juices excite a fermentation peculiar to the immediate (or instant) cause, which ends in an eruption on the skin”[iv].

2. Observatory at Varanasi:

Another account describes the existence of a large observatory at Varanasi.

We entered this building, and went up a staircase to the top of a part of it, near to the river Ganges, that led to a large terrace, where, to my surprise and satisfaction, I saw a number of instruments yet remaining, in the greatest preservation, stupendously large, immoveable from the spot, and built of stone, some of them being upwards of twenty feet in height; and, although they are said to have been erected two hundred years ago, the graduations and divisions on the several arcs appeared as well cut, and as accurately divided, as if they had been the performance of a modern artist. The execution in the construction of these instruments exhibited a mathematical exactness in the fixing, bearing, and fitting of the several parts, in the necessary and sufficient supports to the very large stones that composed them, and in the joining and fastening each into the other by means of lead and iron.”

About the antiquity of the observatory the writer further observes, “This observatory at Benares is said to have been built by the order of the emperor Ackbar; for as this wise prince endeavoured to improve the arts, so he wished also to recover the sciences of Hindostan, and therefore directed that three such places should be erected; one at Delhi, another at Agra, and the third at Benares”[v].

This observatory is apparently still in existence in a very sorry state in Varanasi and is known as “Man Mandir”.


3. Process of making Ice:

A novel Indian method of making ice is described in a manuscript from 1775 CE. The writer further says that this method was used on a large scale to preserve sherbets etc.

The methods he pursued were as follows: on a large open plain, three or four excavations were made, each about thirty feet square and two deep; the bottoms of which were strewed about eight inches or a foot thick with sugar-cane, or the stems of the large Indian corn dried. Upon this bed were placed in rows, near to each other, a number of small, shallow, earthen pans, for containing the water intended to be frozen. These are unglazed, scarce a quarter of an inch thick, about an inch and a quarter in depth, and made of an earth so porous, that it was visible, from the exterior part of the pans, the water had penetrated the whole substance. Towards the dusk of the evening, they were filled with soft water, which had been boiled, and then left in the afore-related situation. The ice-makers attended the pits usually before the sun was above the horizon, and collected in baskets what was frozen, by pouring the whole contents of the pans into them, and thereby retaining the ice, which was daily conveyed to the grand receptacle or place of preservation, prepared generally on some high dry situation, by sinking a pit of fourteen or fifteen feet deep, lined first with straw, and then with a coarse kind of blanketing, where it is beat down with rammers, till at length its own accumulated cold again freezes and forms one solid mass. The mouth of the pit is well secured from the exterior air with straw and blankets, in the manner of the lining, and a thatched roof is thrown over the whole”[vi].


In addition to the above there are a lot of other British eye witness accounts of Indian astronomy, knowledge of the binomial theorem by Indians, paper manufacture, agricultural inventions such as the drill plough, manufacture of iron etc are detailed in the book. As Dharampal points out in his introduction, these accounts only list those everyday innovations which were useful to the British. All the accounts are clear that these activities were part of the everyday life of the people and not niche activities confined to isolated pockets.

As I said, reading the book is an absolute must for every right minded Indian. I will keep posting further extracts regarding administration, economics etc as I   read Sri Dharampal’s other books.

[ii] Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, page 154.

[iii] Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, page 156-157.

[iv] Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, page 160-161.

[v] Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century,  pages 39-40.

[vi] Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century,  pages 171-172.


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