Before the British occupation, India was a culturally and economically prosperous civilization. According to economist Angus Maddison, in the 18th century India accounted for 23 percent of the world’s GDP, a percentage greater than all of Europe combined. By the time the British packed up their things and sailed home in 1947, that number had fallen to under three percent.
August 14, 1947, as India prepared to declare its independence, the last British Viceroy in India was sitting alone in his study, when, as he recounted later, he thought to himself: “For still a few more minutes I am the most powerful man on earth.” At the midnight hour, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would rise and make his most celebrated speech, triumphantly announcing that after 200 years, India was reemerging on the world stage. But the Viceroy had ample reason to be glum: his empire was relinquishing its crown jewel, one that had enriched Britain for centuries. Louis Mountbatten was not exaggerating the extent of his power. Nehru had noted in his earlier writings that the power of the British Viceroy was greater than that of any British prime minister or American president. His Majesty’s deputy was India’s colonial master, ruling over 350 million bodies across a continent 20 times larger than Britain, accountable to none of the people he governed. When Nehru, writing from a prison cell in the 1940s, did search for an analogy to the Viceroy’s power, the only name he could think of was that of Adolf Hitler.