Your RDA of Irony

How To Run an Empire

March 22, 1765:  Parliament Passes a Perfectly Reasonable Law

From a British perspective, the Seven Years’ War might have seemed effortless: victory after victory after victory. Britain gained domination over India and conquered Canada. The few setbacks were just enough to keep James Fenimore Cooper interesting. But all those triumphs did come at a cost–quite literally. Waging a world war is expensive. Britain’s national debt nearly doubled in those seven years, from 72 million pounds to 129 million.

Nor could its new Canadian empire immediately recoup the expenses. Maple syrup was not likely to become a staple of the British diet. Compelling some British regiments to wear bearskin hats would not quickly offset the cost of taking Quebec. Furthermore, peace was no bargain either. To garrison Canada and protect the American colonies from the tribes of the original landlords, a standing army of 10,000 men would be required and at a cost of 200,000 pounds a year. The Exchequer thought “Would it be too much to expect those loyal and grateful colonists to defer some of that cost?” So, on this day in 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act.

The surchanges on printed material, ranging from a half-penny to a shilling, was expected to raise 70,000 pounds a year. That was one third of what Britain would spend to protect the colonists. However, the Stamp Act raised rebellion rather than revenues. No matter how legitimate the expenses, the Americans did not like having taxes imposed upon them. It was a violation of their rights or at least British etiquette: no taxation without representation. Parliament backed down and repealed the Stamp Act, but the national debt could not be easily cancelled. Since the Americans had actually started the French and Indian War, and had simply dragged Britain into it, the Crown felt justified in asking the colonists, “Would you like to pay for your damn war?” But the colonists felt free to say, “No.” Neither George III nor his Tory ministers had the tact or charm to coax the Americans into compromise. (A Whig government would have.) The pompous, badgering presumptions of the Tory government drove America to Revolution.

Ironically, while Britain was losing money and colonies in North America, it was making a fortune in India. The management of the subcontinent was completely different: greedy, amoral, ruthless and so obviously successful. Britain basically subcontracted the control of India to a corporation: the East India Company. The British company was the Halliburton of its day, a private business with a lucrative–really quite incestuous–arrangement with the Crown. When its dealings required “muscle”, the Company was free to borrow the British army or navy; but the sly, insidious approach was preferred. The Company offered its services to the various rajahs and princes of India, providing “western” efficiency–at a considerable fee–while the Indian royalty was lulled into indolence and dependence. Company officials made fortunes as military advisors and tax collectors for the Rajahs. Occasionally, the incomes were so astronomical that Parliament had inquiries; after all, partners-in-crime don’t like being cheated of their share. The Company also preoccupied the Indian populace by the hallowed strategy of “divide and conquered”, princes, sects and castes were pitted against each other. And there was the company in the middle–arbitrating, encouraging and profiting.

Unfortunately for Britain, it never thought of using a similar strategy in North America. An Englishman can’t be treated like a Wog. But in hindsight, why not? What if a West India Company had been given license to manage the American colonies? The India Company approach might have set up the Lees as the Rajahs of Virginia, and then toy with the Randolphs and the Byrds about supplanting the Lees. Maryland and New Jersey would have been advised about the aggressive policies of Pennsylvania–those Quakers aren’t as pacificist as they claim–and Pennsylvania would have to be protected against its neighbors. (And New Jersey can’t really trust those Maryland Catholics.) The Dutch and the English of New York would be at each others’ throats–with only the Company to stop the bloodshed that it had incited. With 13 colonies, the Company could create and manage 52 crises–one for every direction.

And for these indispensable services, the Colonists would gladly pay pounds in taxes to the Company; and the Crown would get its share in shillings without any of the blame. Yes, the Colonists would finally catch on; Americans might have won autonomy or independence under a mystic pacifist named Lincoln. By that time, however, American taxes would have paid off Britain’s debts for several wars, and Sir Andrew Jackson would have won the battle of Old Orleans–against Napoleon.

  1. Kate says:

    My mind wanders to culinary places when I ponder the question you pose about a West Indian Company managing the colonies. Just think! Massala dosa instead of NY slice pizza. Tofu would replace dead pig. Lentils and not black-eyed peas for New Years eve. Atta, not cornmeal. Would we be any healthier down here in the south if we cooked with ghee instead of lard?

    Would we have had fewer Southern Baptists? The music sure woulda been different. Belly dancing instead of the two-step.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Kate,

      I am thinking of how continued British rule would have influenced the class structure of the South. The British social strata proved quite compatible with the Indian caste system. You had Brahmins sounding like Oxford graduates (half of the time they were) while the lower Indian castes sounded as unintelligible as Yorkshire laborers.

      Now imagine Britain’s social phonetics transposed upon the South. Reflecting her prominent position in the O’Hara household, Mamie would sound like Helen Mirren; however, the vacuous Scarlett would have the slurred diction of a debutante.


  2. Michael Gury says:

    Dear Euan,

    Your thought about East India and Halliburton is most apt. The British were rather prone to commercialize financial things involving war, witness the 16th century privateering that went on, to the great benefit of the Queen’s coffers. After all, colonization has its cost, so history is littered with sloppy attempts at bringing the conquered into the fold. The Romans were probably the best at this, only because they left few financial records and built things like amphitheaters and baths that we can hang out in even today.

    I doubt that it would have been a bad idea to have had the East India Company look over parts of the American colonies. Perhaps the curry would have been better, and earlier. Or at least they might have brought chutney.

    I enjoyed your characterization of Lincoln as a mystic pacifist. Either term would explain the seeds for what I think was the torture that this man went through as a country’s leader, given the hand that had been dealt to him.

    Your friend,


  3. Eugene Finerman says:

    Hello Michael.

    I have long suspected that the underlying incentive of the British Empire was an excuse to eat out. The English fought a Hundred Year War with France hoping to capture a chef. (If only Jeanne d’Arc could have made crepes, she could have avoided becoming an overcooked entree herself.)

    By the way, I have written a few more musings on the British in India. Here is the syllabus:


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