Ireland and Bengal: Analogies in Agriculture and Trade and the Formation of the British Empire

The circumstances which surrounded colonization in India and Ireland were quite different, yet both colonies played important economic roles in British trading networks. While peripheral elements influenced policies in diverse and divergent ways, there was a large amount of continuity at the higher levels of British politics and policies. Many British officials transferred easily between the two colonies beginning as early as the eighteenth century. In this mobile imperial world, British ideas were formulated, experimented and reformulated; mercantile ideas gave way to liberal, free trade modes of thinking. While many of these ideas emerged domestically, imperial experience influenced them immensely. Ireland and Bengal played important roles in this intellectual history in very similar ways. They both became important agricultural producers within the imperial economic system and social upheaval and famine accompanied this increased agricultural trade. In reaction to these difficulties the British began to modify mercantilist ideas with physiocratic and proto-free-trade principles, enumerating proposals for improvement in agriculture and landownership. While British trade networks did not form a Wallerstein-style “world system”, there was a cohesive worldwide system of British trade upheld by ideology. When British traders, landowners, the East India Company, or the Crown could obtain dominance in the trade of products which were particularly lucrative or important for national security, they influenced and modified policies to achieve their goal. While this left plenty of room for independent indigenous economic actors, the end result was the growth of empire with an evolving ideology on trade and agriculture.