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Business, Ethnicity, Politics, and Imperial Interests: The United Planters' Association of Southern India, 1893–1950

  • K. Ravi Raman


The United Planters' Association of South India (UPASI), formed in 1893 at the zenith of British colonial rule in India, was an organization dedicated to the interests of British planters, mainly tea planters, of South India. In the first half century of its history, UPASI enjoyed an unusual degree of effectiveness and control. Its authority and reach owed to the fact that, unlike many other planters' organizations of the time, such as the Ceylon Planters' Association and the Planters' Association of Malay, UPASI was an “association of associations,” a cartel of cartels, its members being district associations. But its power also derived from the homogeneous ethnic composition of the firms that constituted and managed this body, making it an exclusive association of Europeans in an Indian world. In this article, I show how this combination of ethnicity and cooperation, dynamics that manifested across the entire range of modern businesses started in colonial India, proved to be both a source of strength and a point of weakness.



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1 Greif, Avner, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Cambridge, U.K., 2006).

2 Alesina, Alberto, Baqir, Reza, and Easterly, William, “Public Goods and Ethnic Divisions,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 114, no. 4 (1999): 1243–84.

3 For a survey of the Indian literature especially, see Roy, Tirthankar, Company of Kinsmen: Enterprise and Community in South Asian History, 1700–1940 (New Delhi, 2010).

4 Olson, Mancur, particularly The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, Mass., 1965) and The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven, 1982). Olson argues that the essentially exploitative nature of cartels is shared by “any combination of individuals or firms for collusive action in the market place, whether a professional association, a labor union, a trade association or an oligopolistic collusive group.” Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations, 44.

5 For a useful discussion of these issues, see Markovits, Claude, Merchants, Traders, Entrepreneurs: Indian Business in the Colonial Era (Basingstoke, U.K., 2008).

6 See the following by Bagchi, Amiya Kumar: Private Investment in India, 1900–1939 (Cambridge, U.K., 1972); European and Indian Entrepreneurship in India, 1900–30” in Entrepreneurship and Industry in India, 1800–1947, ed. Ray, Rajat Kanta (New Delhi, 1992), 157–86; De-industrialisation in India and the Nineteenth Century: Some Theoretical Implications,” Journal of Development Studies 12, no. 2 (1976): 135–64. Also see Tomlinson, B. R., The Political Economy of the Raj, 1914–1947: The Economics of Decolonization in India (London, 1979); Markovits, Claude, Indian Business and Nationalist Politics, 1931–1939: The Indigenous Capitalist Class and the Rise of the Congress Party (Cambridge, U.K., 1985); Ray, Entrepreneurship and Industry, 1–69; Mukherjee, Aditya, Imperialism, Nationalism and the Making of the Indian Capitalist Class, 1920–1947 (New Delhi, 2002); Marika Vicziany, “The Deindustrialisation of India in the Nineteenth Century: A Methodological Critique of Amiya Kumar Bagchi,” and Bagchi, Amiya Kumar, “A Reply,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 16, no. 2 (1979): 105–46.

7 Morris, Morris D., “Indian Industry and Business in the Age of Laissez Faire,” State and Business in India: A Historical Perspective, ed. Tripathi, Dwijendra (New Delhi, 1987). For an engagement with the debate and a technological-productivist argument, see Roy, Tirthankar, “De-Industrialisation: Alternative View,” Economic and Political Weekly 35, no. 17 (2000); Roy, Tirthankar, Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India (Cambridge, U.K., 1999).

8 However, Gupta refuted this argument by maintaining that the Europeans specifically entered the jute industry in view of its “fabulous profits” to the tune of 60 to 70 percent, which could hardly mean that the Europeans were opposed to high profits as a race. P. S. Gupta, “State and Business in India in the Age of Discriminating Protection,” State and Business in India, 157–216; Also see Chakrabarti, Manali and Chatterjee, Biswajit, “Business Conduct in Late Colonial India: European Business in Kanpur, 1900–1939,” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 10 (2006).

9 This is in conformity with the dynamics of some other sectors such as shipping, automobiles, locomotives, chemicals, banking, and insurance. See Mukherjee, Aditya and Mukherjee, Mridula, “Imperialism and Growth of Indian Capitalism in the Twentieth Century,” Capitalist Development: Critical Essays, ed. Shah, Ghanshyam (Bombay, 1990), 77114; Mukherjee, Imperialism.

10 Ray, Rajat Kanta, Industrialization in India: Growth and Conflict in the Private Corporate Sector, 1914–47 (New Delhi, 1982).

11 While discussing the politics of business associations in the developing world, John Lucas elaborates on Richard Doner's concept of a “growth coalition,” which acknowledges the role of cooperative relationships between state and businesses in the achievement of development goals. However, collaboration is much preferable to collusion, the latter bringing in a deterioration of affairs in place of progress.

12 Ville, Simon, “Rent Seeking or Market Strengthening? Industry Associations in New Zealand Wool Broking,” Business History Review 81, no. 2 (2007): 297321; Merrett, David, Morgan, Stephen, and Ville, Simon, “Industry Associations as Facilitators of Social Capital: The Establishment and Early Operations of the Melbourne Woolbrokers Association,” Business History 50, no. 6 (2008): 781–94.

13 Carlos, Ann M. and Nicholas, Stephen, “‘Giants of an Earlier Capitalism’: The Chartered Trading Companies as Modern Multinationals,” Business History Review 62, no. 3 (1988): 398419.

14 Das, Rajani Kanta, History of Indian Labour Legislation (Calcutta, 1941), 1141.

15 Report of the Southern India Planter's Inquiry Committee (Madras, 1896), 24–33, Cover System File Numbers 15781, 1878, Directorate of Archives, Government of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

16 Although the colonial government was typically reluctant to intervene in such matters, it often had to bow to political, social and economic pressures, including those from organized interest groups.

17 UPASI Proceedings, 1894, 6–7; Mayne, W. Wilson, “The Story of UPASI,” UPASI, 1893–1953, ed. Speer, S.G. (Coonoor, 1953), 6.

18 Southern India Planter's Report, 37–39.

19 Muthiah, Subbiah, A Planting Century: The First Hundred Years of the United Planters' Association of Southern India, 1893–1993 (New Delhi, 1993).

20 The development and implementation of the law of contract held major implications for master-servant and labor relations (as opposed to labor law) within colonial India, a topic touched upon by many authors both with respect to India and more generally. See particularly Robb, Peter, ed., Dalit Movements and the Meanings of Labour in India (New Delhi, 1993); Raman, K. Ravi, Global Capital and Peripheral Labour: History and Political Economy of Plantation Workers in India (London, 2010); Behal, Rana P. and van der Linden, Marcel, eds., Coolies, Capital and Colonialism: Studies in Indian Labour History (Cambridge, U.K., 2006).

21 Muthiah, A Planting Century.

22 Frederick James, “Political Relations,” in UPASI, 1893–1953, 240–51.

23 Joseph, E. K., “Introduction,” The Central Travancore Planters' Association Centenary Souvenir, 1874–1974 (Kottayam, 1974), 56.

24 CSF, Political, Numbers 198, 1914, Directorate of Archives, Government of Kerala, Travancore.

25 Brown, Hilton, Parry's of Madras (Madras, 1954), 187–88.

26 Griffiths, Percival, History of the Indian Tea Industry (London, 1967), 542–43; Rege, Dattatraya V., Report on an Enquiry into the Conditions of Labour in Plantations in India (Simla, 1946), 183.

27 Mayne, “The Story of UPASI,” 101.

28 Royal Commission on Labour in India, Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India (London, 1931), 349.

29 Tharian, George K. and Tharakan, P. K. Michael, “Penetration of Capital into a Traditional Economy: The Case of Tea Plantations in Kerala, 1880–1950,” Studies in History 2, no. 2 (1986): 199229.

30 See various correspondences in Proceedings of the Travancore Sri Chitra State Council (PTSCSC), Kerala University Library, Thiruvananthapuram, and Kanan Devan Papers, compiled by the Government of Kerala, n.d. Kerala University Library, Thiruvananthapuram.

31 Baak, Paul, “Planter's Lobby in Late Nineteenth Century: Implications for Travancore,” Economic and Political Weekly 27, no. 33 (1992): 1747–53.

32 Bagchi, Amiya Kumar, Private Investment in India, 1900–1939 (Bombay, 1975), 170–74.

33 Sivaswami, K. G., “Non-Indian Concentration in the Tea Industry,” Report of the Plantation Inquiry Commission. Part I, Tea (New Delhi, 1956), 348.

34 Washbrook, D. A., The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency, 1870–1920 (Cambridge, U.K., 1976), 246. This is not to deny the many natural barriers to entry in shipping particularly in terms of capital costs and skills.

35 Muthiah, S., A Planting Century: The First Hundred Years of the United Planters' Association of Southern India, 1893–1993 (New Delhi, 1993), 226.

36 Jeffery, Roger, “Merchant Capital and the End of Empire: James Finlay, Merchant Adventurers,” Economic and Political Weekly, 17, no. 7 (1982): 241–48; James Finlay and Co., Ltd., Manufacturers and East India Merchants, 1750–1950 (Glasgow, 1951).

37 Jones, Geoffrey, Multinationals and Global Capitalism: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2005); Jones, Geoffrey, ed., British Multinationals: Origins, Management and Performance (Aldershot, 1986); Jones, Geoffrey and Wale, Judith, “Merchants as Business Groups: British Trading Companies in Asia before 1945,” Business History Review 72, no. 3 (1998): 367408; Jones, Geoffrey and Wale, Judith, “Diversification Strategies of British Trading Companies: Harrisons & Crosfield, c.1900–c.1980,” Business History 41, no. 2 (1999): 69101.

38 PTSCSC 10, 24 Nov. 1926, 230–33.

39 Local representatives in the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly also now opposed the sale of lands to Europeans and argued in favor of natives. Proceedings of the Sri Moolam Prajasabha, 28 Feb. 1928, 16; 26 Feb. 1929, 25; University of Kerala Library, Thiruvananthapuram.

40 Joseph, Usha, “History of the Central Travancore Planters' Association,” The Central Travancore Planters' Association Centenary Souvenir (Kottayam, 1970), 716, 10.

41 PTSCSC 9, 8 Aug. 1927, 520.

42 Editorial, “Thiruvithamkotte Theyilathottangal” [Tea Plantations in Travancore] Malayala Manorama, 22 July 1916, 2.

43 Ibid.

44 Innes, C. A., Malabar District Gazetteers, Malabar, vol. 1 (Madras, 1951), 243. There were a large number of cases in which the local papers expressed their dissenting views.

45 Gupta, Bishnupriya, “Collusion in the Indian Tea Industry in the Great Depression: An Analysis of Panel Data,” Explorations in Economic History 34, no. 2 (1997): 155–73.

46 See Rothermund, Dietmar, India in the Great Depression, 1929–1939 (New Delhi, 1992).

47 “New Planting of Tea in India,” Tea and Rubber Mail, 6 Jan. 1944, 23.

48 Sivaswami, “Non-Indian Concentration in the Tea Industry,” 351.

49 Mukherjee, Imperialism.

50 Ibid, 40.

51 Mayne, “The Story of UPASI,” 134.

52 Tharakan, P. K. Michael, “Dimensions and Characteristics of the Migration of Farmers from Travancore to Malabar,” Journal of Kerala Studies 5, no. 2 (1978): 287–89; Raman, K. Ravi, “In-Migration vs. Out-Migration: The Case of Kerala,” Mass Migration in the World-System: Past, Present and Future, ed. Jones, Terry-Ann and Mielants, Eric (Boulder, 2010), 122–43; Raman, K. Ravi, “‘Currents and Eddies’: Indian-Middle East Migration Processes,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 5, no. 2 (2012): 189206.

53 “Rubber and Tea Estates Purchased,” Capital, 30 Mar. 1944, 495.

The author is grateful to William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Peter Robb, and David Washbrook for their valuable comments on an earlier draft. I am particularly thankful to Tirthankar Roy for detailed discussions and critical comments on the article apart from sustained encouragement. I have also benefited much from the comments offered by the external reviewers.

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Business, Ethnicity, Politics, and Imperial Interests: The United Planters' Association of Southern India, 1893–1950

  • K. Ravi Raman


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