Peasants and Farmers


After the Battle of Plassey (1757), the British gradually expanded their rule in India. The colonial rulers tried to impose a regular system of land revenue, increase revenue rates and expand the area under cultivation. Increased rates of revenue and decreasing forest cover created problems for the Indian farmers and pastoralists.

By the end of the century, India became a major centre for production of sugarcane, cotton, jute, wheat and several other crops for export. More and more farmers were now producing for feed the population of urban Europe and to supply to the mills of Lancashire and Manchester in England.

Taste for Tea: The Trade with China

The English East India Company was buying tea and silk from China. About 15 million pounds of tea was being imported into England in 1785.The figure had jumped to over 30 million pounds by 1830. The quantum of the tea trade was so much that it affected the profitability of the East India Company.

The Confucian rulers of China, the Manchus, were suspicious of all foreign merchants because they were apprehensive of foreign merchants meddling into local politics. Hence they were not willing to allow the entry of foreign goods. This meant an outflow of treasure from England because tea could be bought only by making payment in silver coins or bullion. The English traders wanted a community which could be easily sold in China so that the import of tea could be financed in a profitable way.

Opium was introduced in China in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese. The Chinese Emperor had forbidden the sale and production of opium except for medicinal purpose because the Chinese were aware of the problems of opium addiction. But Western merchants began an illegal trade in opium in the mid-eighteenth century. Opium was unloaded in a number of sea ports of south-eastern China and carried by local agents into the interiors. By the early 1820s, about 10,000 creates of opium were being smuggled into China annually. This quantity increased to over 35,000 crates within fifteen years. This speaks about the growing addiction for opium among the Chinese.

Where did Opium come from?

After conquering Bengal, the British went on to produce opium in the lands under their control. With the growth of market for opium in China, export from Bengal ports increased. Before 1767, no more than 500 chests were being exported from India. This quantity trebled within four years. About a hundred years later, i.e. in 1870; about 50,000 chests were being exported annually.

The Indian farmers were not willing to divert their best fields for opium cultivation because it would have resulted in poor production cereals and pulses. Many cultivators did not own land. For opium cultivation, they had to lease land from landlords and pay rent. The cultivation of opium was a difficult process and time consuming. This would have left little time for the farmers to care for other crops. The government paid very low price for the opium which made it an unprofitable proposition.

How Were Unwilling Cultivators Made to Produce Opium?

The British introduced a system of advances to cajole the unwilling farmers into opium cultivation. From the 1780s, the village headmen began giving cash advances to poor farmers for opium production. The headmen got the money from the government agents. The farmer could not grow any other crop after taking the advance for opium cultivation. Moreover, he also had to accept the low price offered for the produce. The government was never keen to increase the procurement prices. It wanted to buy very cheap and sell at high premium to the opium agents in Calcutta. Thus, the British wanted to earn huge profit in opium trade.

This system was not in favour of farmers and hence many of them began agitating against the system by the early eighteenth century. They also began to refuse the advances. Many cultivators sold their crop to travelling traders who offered higher prices.

By 1773, the British government in Bengal had established a monopoly to trade in opium. No one else was legally permitted to trade in the product. By the 1820s, the British found that there was a drastic fall in opium production in their territories. The production of opium was increasing outside the British territories. It was produced in Central India and Rajasthan which were not under British control. The local traders in these regions were offering much higher prices to peasants. Armed bands of traders used to carry the opium trade in the 1820s. The Government instructed its agents in those princely states to confiscate all opium and destroy the crops.

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