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. 

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