Draining Value, Drowning Labour

Colonial Global Economy - Lecture 7

Lecturer: Dr Lucia Pradella

19 May 2021

How much did the British gain from their empire? According to some calculations, Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India alone between 1765 and 1938: seventeen times more than the total annual GDP of the UK today. This huge amount of wealth was transferred unilaterally from India to England via trade, banking and administrative mechanisms.

While India got nothing in return, the colonial drain played an important role in both the so-called primitive accumulation of capital in England and the reproduction of its industrial system. Only part of this wealth was reinvested in India, and in a way that kept India in a subordinate position within the British colonial empire. This lecture will look at the early theorizations of the colonial drain and discuss the importance of understanding it as part of the overall development of the global capitalist system.

Crucially, processes of colonial extraction and dispossession pushed more and more people into the reserve army of English capital, forcing them to emigrate either to other British colonies, as in the case of India, or to England itself, as in the case of Ireland. But does this framework still hold true today, when former colonial empires seem to be closing their borders to prevent immigration, at huge human cost? Looking beyond the surface of European rhetoric of border controls and its presence in Africa reveals the enduring presence of processes of colonial extraction – of both wealth and labour. 



Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the colonial drain?
  2. What is the link between colonial/neo-colonial drain and migration?
  3. What light does situating borders within broader imperialist dynamics shed on the so-called ‘migration crisis’ in Europe?
  4. How do immigrants describe their experience of detention and forced labour in Libya?