India: An Inspector Calls

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones recalls the Victorian economist who helped resolve the financial crisis in India after the Mutiny of 1857.

The monetary cost to Britain of putting down the Indian Mutiny was estimated at around £42 million, an enormous sum for a conflict that lasted little over a year. It was not only the upfront expense of importing extra ammunition, paying the cost of soldiers shipped to India and setting up hospitals for the wounded, but invisible losses too. Land revenue, the prime source of government income, could not be collected because written records had been destroyed and the officials who should have collected the money had either fled, or were dead. Customs duties and tolls could also not be calculated or collected for the same reason.

Into this financial meltdown came the Right Honourable James Wilson, expressly sent from England to restore order in the finances of India at a period of disastrous confusion, as the inscription on his tomb in a Kolkata (then Calcutta) cemetery tells us. It goes on to praise Wilson, who arrived in India at the end of November 1859, as one of the soundest political economists, safest financiers and best administrators of his generation and a man who had advocated a free trade policy in England as financial secretary to the Treasury. 

Wilson, born in Hawick, Roxburghshire in 1805, already had two lasting achievements to his name, apart from his political career, when he reached Kolkata. In 1843 he founded The Economist, one of the first newspapers dedicated to financial affairs, and was its editor for the next 16 years. He also set up the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China in 1853, which later became the Standard Chartered Bank.

Sadly, Wilson was to have less than a year in his new post as finance member in the Viceroy of India’s Council. Refusing to leave Calcutta during the monsoon, when most British officials adjourned to Simla for the summer, Wilson contracted dysentery and died on August 11th, 1860, aged 55 years. He had already successfully introduced paper currency to India, a considerable achievement in a country which traditionally hoarded its wealth in solid gold, silver and precious stones. He also established a new tax structure, based on income rather than land revenue, which effectively signalled the transition from a feudal to a modern economy.

Income tax is never a vote winner in any country, so it is not surprising that Wilson’s Indian achievements are seldom praised. It took a present-day assistant commissioner of income tax, Mr Chandra Prakash Bhatia, to point out that August 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of this clever Scotsman. Bhatia was posted to Kolkata in 2007 and his research in the National Library there found a description of James Wilson’s funeral at Lower Circular Road Cemetery. The Viceroy, Lord Charles Canning, ordered the flag of Fort William (the government’s military headquarters) to be lowered to half mast, and Minute guns fired from the ramparts. Last year the white marble tomb was restored by Bhatia and the Christian Burial Board and its lengthy inscription picked out in black. It may not be so often visited as some of the more famous tombs in this pleasant cemetery, but it is an important reminder of a lasting contribution by a Briton to India.

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