The Canada-India Connection Transcript

Kate Jaimet: Welcome to Canada’s History’s “Stories Behind the History” podcast. I'm Kate Jaimet, the senior editor of Canada's History magazine. In this podcast, we take a closer look at some of the stories featured in our award-winning print publication. In our April-May issue, we feature a story about the colonial connections between Canada and India by Madhuparna Gupta. Madhuparna is an instructor in the Department of Global Development Studies at St Mary's University in Halifax. She received her Ph.D. in international relations from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India and worked as an assistant professor of political science in India before immigrating to Canada. 

Madhuparna Gupta: Thank you, Kate. I look forward to hearing from you all. 

Kate: We thank you. We're also joined by Stephen Bown. Stephen is an author who has written ten books on the history of exploration, science and ideas and won numerous awards. His most recent book is the winner of the 2021 J.W. Defoe Prize and is called The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire. Stephen, welcome to the podcast.

Stephen R. Bown: Thank you! It's my pleasure to be here.

Kate: I would like to start by asking Madhuparna about how you got interested in researching the colonial connections between Canada and India.

1: 27:00

Madhuparna Gupta: My research interest primarily began from my landing in Halifax in October 2019 and when I saw this huge university, Dalhousie University, which was established by none other than Lord Dalhousie in 1820 and also while visiting the streets of Halifax—Lucknow Street, Wellington Street, and also the suburbs of Nova Scotia like the cities of Warren, Hastings, Amherst. So that made me much more curious to know what is going on here. Back in India, we also have similar streets like Dalhousie Square, Cornwallis Avenue, Cornwallis Street, Amherst Street, Minto Park and so on and so forth. And also, the impressive buildings of Halifax, the architectural styles: the broad pillars and columns. 

So, all these have a peculiar resemblance with those of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and other colonial cities where the East India Company had a profound basis in the earlier times. So that prompted me to “where lies the connection?” When I started scratching, more and more doors started opening up one after the other and also at the back of my mind, I also came to realize that I'm also equally connected with this entire narrative because of my upbringing in Calcutta primarily because of my schooling. I studied in St. John's Diocesan Girls Higher Secondary School. It was established in 1893 by Christian missionaries and was located at the junction between Lansdowne Road and Minto Park. 

Kate: That’s really interesting, a lot of our listeners will recognize those names like Dalhousie and Amherst and Lansdowne, but we might not know the Indian connection. Stephen?


Stephen: I was just going to comment that it's absolutely fascinating what you've done, and I've not seen it done that way before – drawing the connections between the colonial outposts of the British Empire for all of us who are living in the remnants of that empire. I just find it very intriguing because I never knew that those same names were all over India. I had one brief, general comment on Empire in general. 

When you're travelling around Europe, you see all the roads and the bathhouses and the aqueducts – the remnants of the Roman Empire for when it had conquered that. And if you're travelling around Mexico, you see all these Aztec pyramids that were all built when the Aztec empire expanded and conquered all of Mexico and took that land over. The Middle East and North Africa and Eastern Europe are littered with mosques from when the Islamic armies were taking over and it's just interesting that the remnants of empires are everywhere. We all kind of live amongst the decaying social and architectural infrastructure of, in our case now, it's the British Empire. 

But anyway, I quite enjoyed your article, and I thought it was fascinating to draw the connections and I had never thought of it that way before.

Kate: I think you are right, and these colonial connections are fascinating. But let us just step back for a second and set the scene for our listeners: we are talking probably around the 1500s-1600s; the Great Age of Sail and these European navigators are sailing all around the globe. They’re encountering different peoples, different countries. When they get to India, what kind of society do they encounter there? What does society look like at that time?


Madhuparna: Yes, so the European traders – who later turned colonizers – arrived in India from the fifteenth century onwards. India, at the time, was already flourished at that point in time. Given the fact that India has a long antiquity of over 3,500 years starting from the Indus Valley civilization and by that time Indian empire was basically stretched from Afghanistan in the north to Burma (present-day Myanmar). India at that point in time and even down till when the British came to India, India was [a collection of] fragments of several imperial kings and their respective kingdoms. We had from the very beginning, the Magadhan dynasties and the Gupta dynasties in the north, the Pallavas and the Rashtrakutas in the south, the Palas and the Senas in the east and we have the Rajputs and the Marathas in the west. 

So, India had a very rich connection because of, not only, territorial conquests outside India at the time but it was but generally a kind of maritime trade and interest that India established with Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia because of India's export of silk goods, cotton goods, ivory, spices. And saffron is the most exquisite, richest, a very expensive, spice which is manufactured in Kashmir and even now it is the most expensive one. Traders from around the world used to come over and trade with India for acquiring these types of goods. 

India used to have people, travellers and traders from Italy, Albania, Morocco, Spain, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China so on and so forth. India was a kind of cosmopolitan city or empire at that point in time. Around the fact Indian art, culture, civilization, medicine and history attracted foreigners to come and acquire that knowledge. It was a melting pot in a way, which India was acquiring at that time. 

Also, with the arrival of the Mughals in 1526, they established the Mughal dynasty and by that the Islamic civilization had already started flourishing from the early eleventh century onwards. By that time, from the Spanish city of Toledo to Delhi, was under the Islamic civilization and along with that, flourished Islamic architecture. Along with that, the Hindu temples, and mosques – most of them were already there. The [first to land in India] were the Portuguese in 1496 by Vasco Da Gama. And I would like to mention here that it is not that that Vasco Da Gama was the first European [to discover India]. Alexander the Great had long time back in 327 BC had already made his way inroads into Northern India and also, we also had Greek scholars like Megasthenes and others already knew about Indian people and the West knew about India through their writings and their travelogues. Therefore, India was becoming a very attractive destination. 

But I would like to point out here, the Portuguese King Emperor Emanuel I commissioned two different expeditions: one, would come to North America via this Northwest passage and another via Cape of Good Hope to India and so with the flourishing of Portuguese trade, there came the Dutch, they also established their respective bases and this gave impetus to the British to enter into this uncharted territory. Because of this royal proclamation that the East India Company was established in 1600, it had this mission to acquire the resources that India already had which it was famous for.

Kate: Let me stop you at the East India Company, because we are going jump in on the East India Company, but now that we've set the scene of what India and we have seen what it looked like at the time. Stephen, I am going to ask you the same question for North America. What did North America look like when Europeans first encountered that area of the world and especially in the northern part of North America which later became Canada?


Stephen: Well as you were just mentioning they were very different places. All of India was a densely populated, commercial region of the world with ships and social and economic connections throughout the entire region. That was quite different from North America, which, at the time before European colonization, had a much more limited population density, particularly in the north where the Hudson's Bay Company went. On those coasts of Hudson Bay, I believe, the standard accepted population figure for all of northern and generally western North America at the time was around 500,000. So, there were more commercial networks than are generally acknowledged. On river systems, [archaeologists] find items of trade such as different furs and stones for different purposes and food has been traded throughout central and western North America but it was not on the same scale [as India] because there was not the same population density and so when that Hudson's Bay Company came, they were complete infants in this land – they knew absolutely nothing. 

They didn't know how to survive, how to get any food and getting food was a serious concern for them. Imagine these people: whether they are going to India or North America, this is a new technology – the sailing ship technology. You load a bunch of men onto these ships, you cram them full of people with a bunch of salted and dried food, and you set off sometimes, who the heck knows where, with some primitive inaccurate maps like we've all seen – with some kind of foolish dragon symbols on them in the oceans that don't exist and islands that don't exist. They set off for months at a time. 

On route India, 10 to 20 percent of people on any of those voyages would routinely die of disease or scurvy and other things just to get there. That was a little bit less [in getting to] North America just because of a shorter distance. But when those sailors arrived on the coastthey were not in good health and so the first thing they had to do was to make cultural inroads into the local population which generally had a seasonal occupation of the coastline and that involved learning a language, marrying into those societies.

 The Hudson's Bay Company people didn't go home each year. They often signed seven-year contracts so just to get there was so difficult that when they were there, they remained there, and they started their families there and began small communities on the coast of mixed heritage – the genetic and cultural heritage. That was the genesis of the Hudson’s Bay Company's workforce was the integration of cultures and societies in that region and that's how the trade was spread. For the first hundred and some years, the company never actually left its outposts along the frigid coast of the bay; they remained their kind of like wholesale distribution centers. Well, the retail aspect of the trade was entirely controlled and run by Indigenous business enterprises that pushed the trade as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far south into the northern United States and this far north into the Arctic but that was not controlled by the Company. That was controlled by certain trading captains who for many generations directed the trade and brought it to the company's outposts.


Kate: That's really interesting Stephen and I think it is true that Canadians often do not realize the role that Indigenous people played in not only supplying the furs but also in controlling the trade routes and trade networks in the interiors. I’d just like to give a bit of context to our listeners about the HBC and the East India Company. The East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company were both joint stock companies, commercial enterprises. They were formed in London, England with the purpose of trading. The East India Company (EIC) was established in 1600 and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670 and they were each given a royal charter, so which meant that the king/queen gave them a monopoly over trade in a certain area of the world. For the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was obviously Hudson’s Bay – the northwest of what later became Canada. For East India Company, it was around India and the Indian Ocean. So, Madhuparna, in India as we mentioned, [EIC] began as a trading company but that somehow over the centuries evolved into conquest and colonization. Can you explain to us a little bit about how this original intention of trade turned into conquest, war and colonization?


Madhuparna: That's a very interesting question you have you have raised. As I was talking to you the Mughal Empire was much more interested in establishing land route corridors from the North. From the southern Indian point of view, the coast was basically left unguarded which prompted some of these European traders to appear in this Coromandel and this peninsular area and establish their bases one after the other generally by securing the grants from the emperor. 

At the time the East India Company appeared, this period was very crucial for India because there was a gradual degeneration of the vast Mughal Empire. Given the weakness of the self-administration, there were local chieftains/rulers who were earlier submissive to the Mughal ruler, now they were getting prominent. They were in search of their preponderance against the Mughals. 

So, both the British and subsequently French exploited this kind of connection; they allied with local rulers to gain prominence for each other’s mercantilist policies. In a similar way, during the cold war, when the U.S. and Soviet Union allied with the developing world, and they raged Proxy Wars. In a similar manner, the French, and the British, established connections with the local rulers to establish their bases. In the clash of these inter-imperial conquests, sides were taken by both the British and the French. So that led to the genesis of the Anglo-French rivalries, the rivalry which we all know about. It has a huge context because in Europe the British and the French were long-time rivals for several centuries. 

Bring the chief traders as well as colonizers, they have bases in Mauritius, the Middle East, Sudan and other areas. So, whenever the British contested with the French in Europe, they had the reverberations felt in both Canada, and Mauritius and elsewhere along with India. In this way, the British secured their basis by securing land rights by which they were given unconditional supremacy to acquire lands, and to go for trade. Because of the absence of a strong base by which they could fight against the British, these [local] rulers were fighting individually so that created a kind of problem and that gave the British an added advantage by securing their bases one after the other. Gradually, they established Madras as their headquarters, thereafter Bengal, and thereafter Bombay as their bases. I would like to mention that the Mughals had their seaports in Surat, Masulipatnam, and Nagapattinam through which they used to have overseas trade. Both the French and the British and before that the Dutch, Portuguese, and the Danish, established their bases in these similar areas because of their access to the land through the sea routes. In a similar way, the Hudson’s Bay and New Front were established along the shore of St. Lawrence and Hudson’s Bay. Likewise, the Indian Ocean acted as a huge bridge-builder by which [the Europeans] could have easy access to the land resources they acquired resources from and back home from Europe. This was the beginning of the consolidation of the British Empire. One after the other, we find that they acquired Madras, then Bengal in 1757, Bombay in 1760 and then Pondicherry. In a similar manner, the British acquired French colonies one after the other around Nova Scotia.


Kate: That's a really interesting parallel. Stephen, stepping away a little bit from the Hudson Bay Company when we look at what England and France as colonial powers were doing in North America, it seems like there were some similarities. They were having alliances with different Indigenous First Nations and were conducting their wars in alliance with those nations on the North American territory. Can you speak to that a little bit?


Stephen: I thought of it to just address the previous discussion just a little bit. The reason why those British ships were able to get involved in military aspects of the slowly disintegrating empire in India was that they were so heavily armed when they left their home ports with their own internecine warfare with the Dutch Portuguese, English, and French. They’re all being at war and they would be attacking each other's ships on the route and there were so many pirates along the route. I imagine how to get there all the way down the coast of Africa around the Cape of Good Hope up along the coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean. These are dangerous areas to be going with a lot of piracy and a lot of commerce was in there and so those ships had a lot of soldiers on them – people trained and guns, cannons, swords – everything you can imagine, they had. So, when they came to India, they were armed, and they began functioning a little bit as mercenaries and that's why they were able to be drawn in. People were drawing them into local politics because of their superior military technology which was providing advantages to [Indian] people. That didn't happen to anything in the Hudson's Bay Company to the same extent because Hudson's Bay Company never had a military aspect to it.

Kate: Right. But, apart from the Hudson’s Bay Company, England and France did fight each other in Acadia and in New France and Newfoundland in a similar way as they did in India. Would you say?

22: 02:00

Stephen: Yeah, but I just wanted to draw the distinction that didn't have anything to do specifically with the monopoly Hudson's Bay Company had. That aspect of the conflict had more to do with the national governments and that's not where the Hudson's Bay Company was operating. I'm not trying to dismiss it, I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew that the Hudson's Bay Company wasn't in the St. Lawrence area and didn't participate in any of those conflicts. One other very important thing to point out that's a difference between these two scenarios is that the population of India and the civilization of India was more sophisticated and larger in terms of population than anything that existed in Europe at that time. So, when those companies came, they took over the upper echelons of the ruling capacity which is a conflict of interest. They were just a trading corporation and suddenly found themselves with unusual levels of control. Whereas, in North America owing to a lower population to begin with, and devastating waves of disease which in some cases wiped out up to 80% of Indigenous populations in certain regions over time, these diseases kept coming every several generations continuously battering the population down. In St. Lawrence, there was more of a population replacement instead of just an occupation of the upper echelons of the governing structure and that's a key distinction. So, there were actually British and French colonists and people along the St. Lawrence specifically and that's where the formation of Canada began.


Madhuparna: I would like to add here Stephen and Kate that going through some of the charters of the East India Company, I found that way back in 1657, Oliver Cromwell issued a royal charter in favour of territorial conquests to EIC by exploiting, oppressing the local natives. Subsequently, the Court of Directors in 1766 also issued a similar charter. They wanted to make the East India Company much more militarily superior so as to acquire more and more territories. And also, not only the British sovereign but also the British parliamentarians also had their stocks invested in the East India Company and because of the bounties they were harvesting from India they also getting, fuller and richer back home in Europe. Lord Carson in 1898, it was written, he categorically said that India is [British Empire’s] crown and if the British loses its dominion or control elsewhere, Britain will still carry on [its empire] but if Britain loses India, the sun will already start setting.


Kate: I think that's a great segue to talk about some of these various lords and noble families and Madhuparna you have done such a great job tracking these various noblemen that start out as governor-general in Canada and then why pop up as viceroy in India or they are the governor of Madras and then they're the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. There are so many of these connections. What I am curious about is how did this actually work? How did these noblemen and noble families in England get these appointments at colonial outposts and yet moved around between them?


Madhuparna: I think, Kate, that because of the vast expansiveness of the British Empire, they had this saying that “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves.” So, Britain had colonial bases in every part of the world. And the military generals they had appointed were tried and tested. They were all experienced in acquiring territories and establishing British bases outside Britain. So, therefore, I think this prompted the British government and the British crown to transfer the same generals to all of the places like Lord Cornwallis, [for example], the whole host of the British viceroys and governor generals have bases not only in India and Canada but also a New Zealand, in Australia, in Barbados, in Sudan. Lord Kitchener, after whom there is this place in Ontario, he was the chief of the military staff back in India in 1904. Before the First World War, he was posted as the viceroy or the governor-general of Sudan. Also, Lord Auckland was the Governor General of India in 1936. He was then transferred to New Zealand. Earl Durham was a governor-general of Canada. He was one of the first governors to initiate to start initiating colonizing New Zealand in 1825. This is how, because of the of overwhelming proficiency and also the success that these military generals have acquired by virtue of their experiences throughout the world in the colonial outposts, I think that prompted the British government as well as the sovereign to have the same generals in every part where they could have their own vested interest they could and secured their interest very firmly.


Kate: Were they all generals or were there some who were administrators who were not military people?


Madhuparna: Yes, they were all [kinds of people] everywhere; they were not only the military generals. They also had educators, a chief of staff, but also sculptors like Michael Woods. Michael Woods is famous for unveiling the busts/statues of Queen Victoria. Her bust was first inaugurated in Calcutta Museum by Lord Lytton and a similar statue was unveiled in Montreal and also in Ottawa in parliament. This is how we can explore the hidden threads which connect from country to country.


Stephen: And probably there would be a distinction between the trading era where the East India Company for many years was actually just a small player engaging in trade. Then there's the Robert Clive era when it kind of was drawn into these conflicts by accident. By accident I mean, I don't mean that their intent was accidental, l mean that their success was accidental – such a small force ended up having such a huge impact. A lot of those people right around that era in the mid-eighteenth century were not administrators or generals or anything they were just barbarians or plunderers. It was a shameful destruction and theft for individual/ personal gain, and it took many decades before the British government even tried to put controls on what this independent company was doing on the far side of the world. 


Madhuparna: Well, Stephen, I think that when I was going through some of the books written by some of our freedom fighters and our national leaders way back in the 1900s, I was finding that the British issued Thomas Babington Macaulay. He wrote a very famous or rather infamous minute on India in 1935. He considered the whole education system or administration of India should be made in such a way as to create a new class of intelligentsia who would have the blood of India, but their morals, intellects and decision-making ability would be similar to that of the British. So, this whole bunch of institutions that are popping up, our civil service, our railways, iron and steel companies. This is basically satisfying the British interest by extorting the Indian natives by virtue of our whole language, for several millenniums Indian educational system was based on oriental (languages like) Sanskrit, Tamil, or rather other native languages. They were virtually overthrown and in 1835, English became the official medium of instruction, and this was given by none other than Lord Bentick. Given the fact that Indian native rulers did not have that kind of power and ability to fight back, gradually they became a [British] stooge, allies and they virtually became a kind of yes-men. 


Kate: There is so much ground to cover here and we can talk about this for hours but we need to slowly start wrapping things up. So, I am going to fast forward to the 19th and early 20th centuries and at that time, Britain was slowly letting go of control over its British and North American colonies, over what became Canada after Confederation in 1867, granting gradually more and more self-government until Canada became the independent country we know today. We still have King Charles as our symbolic head of state. Whereas the same did not happen in India. Britain kept a tight hold on India and Indians had to fight for their independence. What do you think was the difference between Britain’s approach to those two colonies and countries? 


Stephen: I have a perhaps cynical observation on the way they've ruled India; they conquered India in steps and took over the pinnacle of society. From the British point of view, India was a cash cow. They were exploiting large the economy of India which was staggeringly huge compared to Great Britain’s economy. Although Great Britain's economy through industrialization did massively expand in the nineteenth century. But, India was a cash cow. There was so much going on. It was so easy to siphon off the profit or in a sense steal it like taking the cream off the top of the milk. Whereas, in Canada because there was a large colonial population, there was a significant expense to running Canada; it was costing them money. They weren't making any money off of running Canada so they would prefer to have a much more hands-off role and it would encourage you to take control of your own affairs you people over there in Canada in other words pay for it yourself. Whereas in India, maybe they want to maintain control of it because they look at the balance sheet as a source of a lot of our national wealth.


Madhuparna: Yes, very true Stephen, you have rightly pointed it out. I would like to comment here that [in] both the world wars, India had a profound contribution. Not only in supplying the men in uniforms and also the equipment, ammunition and also the huge supply of raw materials – animals and rice and also salt peter which is a way one of the key ingredients. They were supplied from India by exploiting the Indians.  India suffered some of the worst famines during the British period starting from the 1770s some that the Madras famine in 1890s, and also Bengal famine in 1943. Winston Churchill himself commented that to squeeze out resources from Bengal to cater to European armies. So, there was this how plundering of wealth, called the drain of wealth which the British acquired from India. And Kate you rightly pointed out, when the British were losing [their] grip on Canada, on the other hand, they were tightening their grip in India. I believe there is a kind of racialism was operating in this part of the world. I am not talking about the Indigenous population in Canada but the large immigrant population Canada has. In Canada, they came from Western Europe, they were sharing the same kind of blood [with the British] – the kin and kith. They were all kind of their own men, basically, whereas from the Indian point of view, [Indians] are just like the Indigenous community, people of Canada, they were just dark-skinned natives. Lord Macaulay himself pointed out that oriental languages are not fit for studying so “let’s overthrow them and impose your English as a medium of language.” So, this whole system which India used to enjoy for several millennials was gradually uprooted and supplanted. This is how English became the dominant force: the English way of culture, English judicial system and administration. The Indian civil service was basically shaped upon the British models so as to cater to the British interest in India. This is how the whole system of exploitation flourished.

Stephen: Canada had its own large famines. I just thought of that when you're mentioning all the famines in India that were completely mismanaged by incompetent corporate or company leadership and then the incompetent British leadership too didn't really know what they were doing starved, I believe I'm accurate to say, millions of people died. 

Madhuparna: Yes, yes, millions.

Stephen: In Canada, we had the great bison famine, which was in the 1870s. Now that wasn't directly caused by the government; it was caused by the overhunting of bison and especially in the United States where they were and the policy of shooting and destroying them all in order to starve the Indigenous populations. The management of that by the Canadian government which had only recently proclaimed ownership over those lands was, like a well, shameful. It's a little-known in our history right now. But it's the mismanagement was absolutely incredible. So many people were completely starved to death, and they didn't have the technical capacity to completely solve that situation. No matter what they did but the efforts that they put into it were very limited. And so yeah, we have our own horrible situations here dating back to around the same time period, right? 

Kate: Yeah, for sure. Well this has been a really interesting discussion, but unfortunately we’re going to have to wrap it up here. Madhuparna, just before we go, do you have any last thoughts for us?

Madhuparna: Well Kate, I just can't comprehend that there are several military generals, the administrators and viceroys and the governors-general who are very much lenient towards Canada, but they became very much one-sided or partisan towards Indians. Had they loosened their grip, India could have reclaimed her lost status which [it] used to have before the British. 


Kate: We are going to have to leave it there for today. But I would like to thank both of you for joining us. Madhuparna, thank you.

Madhuparna: Thank you Stephen and thank you Canada’s History and Kate for organizing this insightful discussion.

Kate: And Stephan thank you to you too for joining us on this Canada’s History podcast.

Stephen: Thank you, it was my pleasure to be here.

Kate: The Stories Behind the History podcast is produced by Canada’s History Society. If you enjoyed this podcast, why not subscribe to the Canada’s History magazine? To subscribe or just to find out more about Canada’s history, go to

Our theme music is the Red River Jig performed by Alex Kustrok from the album Metis Fiddling for Dancing by Alex Kustrok, Donny L'Hirondelle, and Garry Pruden. I am Kate Jaimet, thank you for joining us on the Stories Behind the History podcast.