How Much Did British Colonization Cost India?

One historian puts the figure at $45 trillion. Others say focusing on the size of the British Raj’s bill misses the bigger picture.

Kavya Srikanth

August 4, 2022

How Much Did British Colonization Cost India?
Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762)

When Utsa Patnaik, an economic historian, published a paper in 2018 declaring that Britain had taken $45 trillion (in 2018 U.S. dollars) from India over the course of colonization, her work went viral in the academic world. Some praised her findings as a testament to the gravity of Britain’s injustice, while others called them ludicrous. “The market is an amazing thing: it obscures real relationships,” said Patnaik in an interview soon after the paper’s release, referencing how, despite India’s trade surplus on paper, the economy was actually shrinking dramatically.

Patnaik’s work is novel in that she puts an exact figure on how much Britain had damaged India’s economy, but she is far from the first to suggest that Britain had siphoned money from India. Many consider Dadabhai Naoroji, a British Indian Member of Parliament (MP) and a founding member of the Indian National Congress, to be the face of drainage theory. “These Englishmen cannot understand that the wealth they carry away from this country is the whole & sole cause of our misery…They take away our bread and then turn round asking us why we are not eating it,” he wrote to a colleague in Bombay. And years before Naoroji, Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar, Govind Vitthal Kunte aka Bhau Mahajan, and Ramkrishna Vishwanath — who all taught at Elphinstone in Bombay — wrote extensively on Britain’s drain of wealth starting in the 1840s.

And yet, nearly 200 years after the theory’s introduction, Patnaik’s paper and $45 trillion figure struck a chord — and sparked heated debate. To this day, academics and historians cannot agree on the damage. But many argue that this numbers debate misses the most important point.