Dr Shashi Tharoor: Britain Does Owe Reparations (Full Transcript)

Dr Shashi Tharoor

THE OXFORD UNION SOCIETY is the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford. It has been established for 189 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.

For this particular debate, THE MOTION IS: This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies.

Below is the full text [Edited version] of Dr Shashi Tharoor’s speech “Britain Does Owe Reparations“.



Madam President and gentlemen, ladies of the house.

I, standing here with eight minutes in my hands in this venerable and rather magnificent institution, I was going to assure you that I belong to the Henry VIII School of public speaking — that as Henry VIII said to his wives “I shall not keep you long”.

But now finding myself the seventh speaker out of eight in what must already seem a rather long evening to you, I rather feel like Henry VIII’s the last wife. I more or less know what’s expected of me but I am not sure how to do it any differently.

Perhaps what I should do is really try and pay attention to the arguments that have advanced by the Opposition today. We had, for example, Sir Richard Ottaway suggesting — challenging the very idea that it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by the experience of British colonialism.

Well I stand to offer you the Indian example, Sir Richard. India share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain.

Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India.

The handloom weavers, for example, famed across the world whose products were exported around the world, Britain came right in. There were actually these weavers making fine muslin as light as woven wear, it was said, and Britain came right in, smashed their thumbs, broke their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products and started, of course, taking the raw materials from India and shipping back manufactured cloth flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of the Victoria in England.

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That meant that the weavers in India became beggars and India went from being a world famous exporter of finished cloth into an importer when from having 27% of the world trade to less than 2%.

Meanwhile, colonialists like Robert Clive bought their rotten boroughs in England on the proceeds of their loot in India while taking the Hindi word loot into their dictionary as well as their habits.

And the British had the gall to call him Clive of India as if he belonged to the country, when all he really did was to ensure that much of the country belonged to him.

By the end of the 19th century, the fact is that India was already Britain’s biggest cash cow, the world’s biggest purchaser of British goods and exports, and the source for highly paid employment for British civil servants. We literally paid for our own oppression.

And as has been pointed out, the wealthy Victorian British families that made their money out of the slave economy, one fifth of the elites of the wealthy class in Britain in the 19th century owed their money to transporting 3 million Africans across the waters.

And in fact, in 1833 when slavery was abolished and what happened was that a compensation of 20 million pounds was paid not as reparations to those who had lost their lives or who had suffered or been oppressed by slavery but to those who had lost their property.

I was struck by the fact that your Wi-Fi password at this Union commemorates the name of Mr Gladstone — the great liberal hero. Well, I am very sorry his family was one of those who benefited from this compensation.

Staying with India between 15 million and 29 million Indians died of starvation in British induced famines. The most famous example was, of course, was the great Bengal famine during the World War II when 4 million people died because Winston Churchill deliberately as a matter of written policy proceeded to divert essential supplies from civilians in Bengal to sturdy tummies and Europeans as reserve stockpiles.

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He said that the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis mattered much less than that of sturdy Greeks’ – Churchill’s actual quote. And when conscious stricken British officials wrote to him pointing out that people were dying because of this decision, he peevishly wrote in the margins of file, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

So, all notions that the British were trying to do their colonial enterprise out of enlightened despotism to try and bring the benefits of colonialism and civilization to the benighted. Even I am sorry — Churchill’s conduct in 1943 is simply one example of many that gave light to this myth.

As others have said on the proposition, violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience. And no wonder that the sun never set on the British empire because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark.

Let me take the World War I as a very concrete example since the first speaker Mr. Lee suggested these things couldn’t be quantified. Well let me quantify World War I for you. Again I am sorry from an Indian perspective as others have spoken about the countries.

One-sixth of all the British forces that fought in the war were Indian. 54 000 Indians actually lost their lives in that war, 65 000 were wounded and another 4000 remained missing or in prison.

Indian taxpayers had to cough up 100 million pounds in that time’s money. India supplied 17 million rounds of ammunition, 600,000 rifles and machine guns, 42 million garments were stitched and sent out of India and 1.3 million Indian personnel served in this war. I know all this because, of course, the commemoration of the centenary has just taken place.

But not just that, India had to supply 173,000 animals, 370 million tons of supplies and in the end the total value of everything that was taken out of India – India and India by the way suffering from recession at that time and poverty and hunger, was in today’s money 8 billion pounds. You want quantification, it’s available.

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World War II, it was even worse — 2.5 million Indians in uniform. I won’t believe it to the point but Britain’s total war debt of 3 billion pounds in 1945 money, 1.25 billion was owed to India and never actually paid.

Somebody mentioned Scotland, well the fact is that colonialism actually cemented your union with Scotland. The Scots had actually tried to send colonies out before 1707, they had all failed, I am sorry to say. But, then of course, came union and India was available and there you had a disproportionate employment of Scots, I am sorry but Mr Mckinsey had to speak after me, engaged in this colonial enterprise as soldiers, as merchants, as agents, as employees and their earnings from India is what brought prosperity to Scotland, even pulled Scotland out of poverty.

Now that India is no longer there, no wonder the bonds are loosening.

Now we have heard other arguments on this side and there has been a mention of railways. Well let me tell you first of all as my colleague the Jamaican High Commissioner has pointed out, the railways and roads were really built to serve British interests and not those of the local people. But I might add that many countries have built railways and roads without having had to be colonialized in order to do so.

They were designed to carry raw materials from the hinterland into the ports to be shipped to Britain. And the fact is that the Indian or Jamaican or other colonial public — their needs were incidental. Transportation — there was no attempt made to match supply from demand from as transports, none whatsoever.

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