How Does History Connect Westborough and India?: Taxes

Note: The following is the seventh in a series of eleven weekly posts that present my attempt to answer the question, “How does history connect Westborough and India?” See the Introduction for an overview of the series and to start reading it from the beginning.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Taxes

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was expensive and created massive government debt for Great Britain. The fact that the war was mostly fought in North America and that victory led to a new need to increase the number of soldiers in the colonies more than tenfold in order to prevent revolt in Quebec caused Britain to rethink their taxing strategy in the American colonies. In 1765, the British enacted the Stamp Act, which taxed legal papers and other documents in America. The colonies reacted swiftly against these new taxes—protests were especially intense in Boston, New York, and Rhode Island—so the British had little choice but to repeal them.

Following British victory at Plassey in Bengal during the Seven Years’ War, the East India Company acquired the diwani of Bengal, i.e., the right to collect taxes in exchange for regular payments to the Mughal emperor in Delhi. In 1769, after the British had pushed the limits of taxing Bengal to such a degree that its economy began to teeter, a drought hit. Because the British had already stockpiled food for themselves, food prices began to soar until famine broke out and up to ten million people died as a result. The severe loss of population resulted in dwindling tax revenues for the East India Company, so after the rains returned it wasn’t long before yet another financial crisis hit.

The British basically inherited the administrative tax system from previous Mughal rulers, but as they expanded their rule and taxing powers into other Indian regions, they sought out inconsistencies and put in place ruthless efficiencies to maximize tax collection. In addition to utilizing accounting and administrative tools, they instituted a census (in order to tax people, you have to know who they are and where they live). A British obsession over collecting information about the population for tax purposes grew. These censuses ended up changing the very nature of the Indian population, because it forced Indian society to start placing its people in categories that before were not perceived as important or even existed as concepts, such as caste and race.

The British never “measured” the American colonies in the way they did in India. They had no idea how many people lived in America, how fast the colonies were growing, or how large the militias in each colony were. This lack of data meant that the British had no way to gauge the seriousness of the move towards independence that was beginning to brew in the colonies.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive
by Benjamin West
(The British Library, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shah_%27Alam_conveying_the_grant_of_the_Diwani_to_Lord_Clive.jpg)

This painting depicts Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor, transferring tax collection rights, or diwani, for Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa to Robert Clive and the East India Company in 1765. The moment was a turning point for the East India Company as it became less a trading company and more an administrative and military organization focused on tax collection.

List of Westborough Males Over 16 Years Old, 1777
(Westborough Public Library, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/z316sd686)

This list of Westborough males over the age of sixteen years old was used to determine who was eligible to serve in the American Revolution.

* * *

Read the next post in the series: Tea.

Westborough-India Series Bibliography

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Bunker, Nick. An Empire on the Edge. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

Collingham, Lizzie. Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Darwin, John. Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter. Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

Freeman, Joshua B. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Schama, Simon. Civilizations. PBS television series, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/civilizations/home/.

Vaver, Anthony. The Rebellion Begins: Westborough and the Start of the American Revolution. Westborough, MA: Pickpocket Publishing, 2017.

Wilson, Jon. The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: