An Assessment of Sir Daniel Hamilton’s Political Philosophy: The Panacea of Scottish Capitalism and Utilitarianism

Academic study into the life and work of Sir Daniel Hamilton is hampered by the lack of records and written literature surrounding his accomplishments. Fortunately, the ‘utopia’ that he sought to create, in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, still stands. It now encompasses more than 40 districts, which are still, to some degree, under the co-operative wing of the original experiment in Gosaba.

However, regardless of how revered a figure Daniel Hamilton is by the Indians in that region, academic study of the man, especially in English, is frighteningly sparse. The main compendium of his writing and speeches The Philosopher’s Stone by Alapan Bandyopadhyay & Anup Matilal inevitably forms the bulk of any academic exploration of his life. This collection is of course the main source when seeking to understand the thoughts and motivations that led him to set up a co-operative in India.

Therefore, the following paper will use those writings and speeches as a base for study into his personal political philosophy. It will also make use of the Report on the working of the co-operative credit societies in Bengal found in the National Library of Scotland as well as sparse references to him and Gosaba in the Annual report of the Bengal Veterinary College and of the Civil Veterinary Department, Bengal as well as of contemporary primary sources that provide essential wider context and a few pieces of relevant academic work which reference Hamilton’s thoughts and ideas.

Despite Hamilton’s remarkable achievements and consistent good intentions, the philosophical basis for his experiment is rarely explored nor criticised. The fact that his often anti-democratic or anti-English sentiments are glossed over does demand further exploration, as does his willingness to include in speeches the words of fascist political figures such as Adolf Hitler.

Ultimately this paper will deal with the context of Hamilton’s political and social thought, seeking to define a clear message from the context of the time during which Hamilton lived and worked. A wider contextual look is vital to understand how he viewed both the economic Scottish reality he had grown up in and subsequently left, contrasted against the Indian future that he sought to create.


Economic Reform in Scotland

“So deep had been the poverty of Scotland during the first half of the eighteenth century, and so small the amount of accumulated wealth, that even the celebrated honesty of the Scotsman could scarcely have ameliorated their economic condition, had the note issue not stepped in for occupying the place of capital” (Graham, 1911, p. 117).

The economic mire which Scotland had clawed itself out of in the 18th century formed the backdrop to Hamilton’s particularly Scottish perception of capitalism and reinforced, in his mind, the need for a Caledonian solution to the problems of India. “If there is any fallacy in my finances let Sir George [Schuster, financial minister of the council of India] say where.

It is, however, not my finance but the finance of Adam Smith and the Scottish banking system undiluted with English Blood” (Hamilton, 1929). It is clear that Hamilton draws a distinction between English and Scottish colonialism in India “His critique of colonialism in India often became a Scotsman’s rejection of an English project” (Bandyopadhyay, 2003, p. xix).

However, Scottish agriculture, so saved by the Scottish banking system, was spurred into a ‘revolution’ due to the need to catch up to the more incremental agricultural change in England and France. This was a leap forced by the Scottish bourgeois who, as a result of the Union of 1707, “had been able to call on a British army to destroy the internal counter-revolution, but the very fact that this had been necessary indicated how weak the indigenous forces of Scottish capitalism remained, compared with those of England.

And it was in agriculture that this weakness was most keenly felt” (Davidson, 2004, p. 412). Therefore, Hamilton’s contentions of Scottish 18th century capitalist weakness are founded but the idea that the English had no hand in Scotland’s agricultural revival is clearly false. Ultimately, for Hamilton, it was capitalist process that brought prosperity to the nation, and thus it must be mirrored in Bengal.

Scotland was undergoing a process of modernisation, which of course could not ignore the modern agricultural nation just across its own border. However, the weakness of Scottish Agriculture at the point is often overplayed. “Widespread evidence [can] be found of an agriculture in Scotland which was not as backward as was painted by many 19th century commentators” (Wittington, 1975, p. 205).

The agricultural practices of the nation were fit to feed it, providing that famines such as that of 1690 did not occur. Those criticising Scottish agriculture were locked into the industrial mind-set “their point was that mere adequacy was no longer sufficient” (Davidson, 2004, p. 414). India simply required agriculture to sustain itself, so poor where the current conditions, opposed to Scotland previous sustainability. Not the surplus output desired in Scotland.

Hamilton’s Scottish exceptionalism, although undoubtedly a great source of inspiration, was tainted with scorned English blood from the outset. From him India would get Scottish agricultural capitalism based on an English paradigm.


Paper Currency

For Hamilton the Scottish solution to its agricultural stagnation was to create capital from essential thin air. The printing of money by private or state banks, the creation of pound notes, was as far as Hamilton was concerned, the panacea that put the idle back to work and helped to transform Scotland into one of Europe’s more progressive cultural and agricultural powerhouses. Hamilton quotes from Dunning MacLeod’s Elements of Banking in his writing Man or Mammon. “There were immense quantities of reclaimable land, and abundance of unemployed people, but no capital or money to set the industry in motion” (Dunning Macleod in. Bandyopadhay & Matilal, 2003, p. 69).

Macleod’s quote could just as easily be talking of turn of the century India as of 18th century Scotland. It was the new paper notation, the new form of credit, which had inspired the changes in Scotland’s agriculture. “All these marvellous results, which have raised Scotland from the lowest state of barbarism up to her present proud position in the space of 150 years are the children of pure credit” (Dunning Macleod in. Bandyopadhay & Matilal, 2003, p. 69).

The adoption of bank notes in Scotland was seen at the time as having “produced such remarkable changes…upon the whole of our money dealings” (Maxwell, 1763. p. 585). The 18th century magazine The Critical Review voiced a fear that “An immediate abolition of small paper credit in Scotland might be attended with very dangerous consequences for that country” (1765, p. 239).

Maxwell is still cautious when selling the successes of the scheme, spelling out the dangers that a dishonest private banking sector may bring. “It is liable to abuse… paper money may grow beyond the due proportion it ought to bear to the specie of a country, and it may be difficult to find gold and silver to give in payment for it” (Maxwell, 1763, p. 586). Regarding the need to anchor the capital to precious metals Hamilton often quotes form the opening of Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

“The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations” (Smith, 1776, I.I. 1)


It is men, not gold or silver, that would form the basis of Hamilton’s Gosaba co-operative, backed throughout by a supply of paper credit. “Hard cash starves a nation, because there is not enough to go around; and what there is, is in the wrong hands. The hands of the moneylender or the non-producer” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 64). “Money is only the instrument which sets the men a going, the real capital being the man himself” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 71).

Hamilton, with help of the British authorities and their resources, could become the honest figure that anchored the new currency, providing a Scottish tonic for the Indian malaise of the early 20th century. “To chain young India to a dying gold mine would be like marrying a girl bride to a dying man” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 71).


Reliable Men

Everything hinges on ‘men of conscience’, the reliable and trustworthy that keep a system based on promises to pay the bearer on demand in working order. From Gosaba’s inception Jamini Mohan Mitra, Registrar of Co-operative Societies, Bengal, could see this need as clearly as Hamilton himself, “The scheme has limitless possibilities, but to begin with the society will confine its attention strictly to zemindary business. It is a practical and business-like proposition and cannot fail of success granted the two conditions of a very active and energetic Managing Committee, and, above all thoroughly reliable members. Slackness or half-heartedness in either will be fatal” (Co-operative Societies: Bengal, 1909).

Throughout the annual Report on the working of the co-operative credit societies in Bengal references to Hamilton’s co-operative become fewer and fewer as it became increasingly established and the risk of its failure diminishes. Subsequently their reports are mainly confined to the tiny government controlled section of his estate. “The Bengal Young Men’s Zamindary Co-operative Urban Society, Limited, constitutes a new venture in co-operation. It aims at applying the principles of co-operation in acquiring Zamindary through the collective credit of the members.” (Co-operative Societies: Bengal, 1909). Hamilton needs the central government to be the issuer of credit, but not to support the co-operatives themselves. Gosaba becomes somewhere for the government to experiment. A safe environment, backed by a reliable ma.

It is clear that this reliability is the cornerstone of Hamilton’s co-operative philosophy. “No credit can be issued if trustworthiness is non-existent in the would be borrower.” (Hamilton, 2003, p 151). “The one rupee note…will do for India what the one pound note, based not on gold or silver but on the labour of poor reliable working men, did for Scotland” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 73). As the population of the Sundarbans was spare at the start of the Gosaba project, many immigrants were essentially ‘shipped in’.

These new raiyats [peasants or agricultural labourers] in Gosaba were somewhat reliable enough to follow Hamilton’s orders, although during an anthrax outbreak in 1917-18 the task of disposing of animal carcasses wasn’t fulfilled, especially in neighbouring abad of Basanti “little or no attention was paid to this instruction” (Bengal Veterinary College, 1918, p. 2-3). For Hamilton to create reliability in the raiyats, he would require more than simply their trust in his economic system. That outbreak alone killed 1,600 individual pieces of livestock, (Bengal Veterinary College, 1918, p. 2-3) so clearly faith in Hamilton’s dictates themselves, and in him as a man, would also be required from the new ‘reliable class.’

In order for Hamilton to create these reliable men he required that they would be free from their shackles of debt. Many of these new citizens of Gosaba were in debt to local Maharajas or other money lenders. Debts, which at a special court, Hamilton settled in an afternoon (Matilal, 2003, p. 10). Through his philanthropy Hamilton solved a problem endemic in the Indian co-operative movements up the 1970s and beyond, the problem of ‘old debt’ that still needed scaling down across India. (Madan, 2007, p. 118).

Hamilton, although a staunched Christian, does not require conversion to produce his ideal man, nor does he demand even freedom via democracy, instead freedom from cancerous debts and a man with the will to work are all that’s needed. The application of debt free loans and hard work wouldn’t however generate the general freedom that was becoming increasing required for the Indian’s to stand on their own.

Those in Gosaba relied in many ways on him, even as a benevolent lord he is still a foreign power, above them in the hierarchy. Hamilton’s approach is practical and crucially utilitarian but as the century wears on and Indian freedom becomes ever more likely, his ideas shift away from pure financial freedom towards wider political suffrage.


Christian Philosopher and Anti-Socialist

“Trust is faith. Faith is the power which removes mountains, and is the only power which will remove India’s Himalayas of debt, and ignorance, and ill-health, and usher in a healthy Swaraj [home rule] (Hamilton, 2003, p. 81). Hamilton has a Christian outlook that permeates all he does. His faith in God is mirrored by his ‘subjects’ faith in him. “It is not by gold or silver that men live, but by labour and bread, and the word of God” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 71).

His representations of the problems in rural India that he hoped to rectify, are steeped in Christian imagery. “Unorganised and disunited as they are now, the great masses of the people are like sheep without a shepherd, and they fall prey to the wolves, whose chief is the mahajan” (Hamilton, 1929, p. 103).

Potentially, it the case that he sees himself as a Jesus figure, their shepherd. More likely he just uses religious imagery to frames his understanding of their plight. In fact, regardless of his biblical language, Hamilton is often more concerned by the indigenous leaders of Indian antiquity, Asoka and Akbar, then by Christ. Hamilton is especially taken with Asoka, a man ruling in India 2,300 years hence, not too far the time of Christ, so revered by external powers looking inwardly at India, as the gently hand, the spreader of Buddhism.

H.G. Wells is regularly quoted describing Asoka in gushing language “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history…the name Asoka shines and shines almost alone, like a star” (Wells, 1920, p. 175) Comparatively, Akhbar is the religious pragmatist, promoting a form of top down tolerance in India, a macrocosm of the cultural and caste composition of Gosaba. “It is Akbar’s religious tolerance that marks him – a fierce autocrat in politics – for his special place in history” (The Economist, 1999, p. 63).

It is in the need for unity of his new people at Gosaba that Hamilton finds historical justification for co-operative projects. “India’s 700,000 villages and the people who dwell therein are the foundation-stones of the temple of Akhbar’s dream; but the dream will remain only a dream until the people have been organised co-operatively into One” (Hamilton, 2003 p. 275). “Hindu, Moslem, Christian, touchable and untouchable, must stand or fall together” (Hamilton, 1930, p. 138). There is a conscious effort to link the desire for his project to succeed with how it he perceived an Indian would traditionally live, and Indian society traditionally function, in the form of co-operative village unity.

So it is with unity, not division that there would be a road to freedom, and crucially a return to ground-up government and the co-operative salvation of the village unit (Hamilton, 2003, p. 228). The desire to ameliorate the poor of their conditions will also generate their freedom. It is not through democracy as such that this will be achieved. Hamilton, at points, shows a complete distain for democracy as a means of attaining this freedom “But the fruits of democracy are neither freedom from self, nor abundance of good deeds. Its gospel is the gospel of grab, its fruits the apples of Sodom, and taxation which sinks the state” (Hamilton, 1929, p.85).

He too is no blanket supporter of voting, or of enfranchisement. “Votes are well enough in their own place, and the proper place for many of them is the waste paper basket; but votes do not fill empty stomachs” (Hamilton, 1929. p 101). In many ways Hamilton is being astute, judging that a Democracy without freedom from the conditions of poverty, and taking place in an intellectual vacuum of limited education, would not be a democracy in any serious sense. “Votes without money are like curry without spice…without the flavour they may sell it to the highest bidder for what it is worth, and that is not much” (Hamilton, 1929, p. 98).

What is shocking about this political attitude, outside of its Indian pragmatism, is that it is clearly incongruous with the political reality of the United Kingdom, somewhere Hamilton cannot be that dramatically out of touch with. “The people of Great Britain have now more votes than they ever had before, and there is now more unemployment in Great Britain than there ever was before” (Hamilton, 1929, p. 101).

Founded in 1917, the Co-operative Party, has existed, almost unknown, in UK politics for as long as the Labour Party, and since 1927 fielded joint candidates with them in general elections. A year previous to Hamilton’s strong statements on enfranchisement, Britain had arguably achieved full suffrage with the inclusion of women over 21 in the voting process through the Equal Franchise Act 1928. The Co-operative party were keen to canvass this new voter in the subsequent ‘flapper election.’[fig. 1]

The co-operative movement and enfranchisement movement were working in tandem in the UK to such an extent that Lord Rothermere, the dedicated ‘Anti-Socialist’ head of the The Daily Mail, held a distinct fear that these young women would vote overwhelmingly with Labour (Bingham, 2002, p. 17). Enfranchisement was seen as promoting the Socialist cause, something Hamilton was of course opposed to. Labour managed to form a brief minority government in 1924 and then formed another only a few months after Hamilton’s anti-voting statements were made in late January 1929. Governments that were arguably more representative of ordinary people than any that had come before.

Hamilton didn’t see these new British remedies as panaceas for India’s problems. The handing out of the vote to 1920s Indians would not have enabled them to increase crop yield or to reverse the frightening medical reality of their existence, a fact Hamilton was all too aware off. According to the All-India Conference of Medical Research Workers in India, in 1929 around 5-6 million people a year were dying of preventable disease (Hamilton, 1929, p. 101-2).

Literacy rates too were exceedingly low. Hamilton opened schools at all levels, including night schools. Agriculture and weaving were compulsory in all of them. By 1941 25% of Gosaba’s 15,000 residents were literate (Matilal, 2003, p. 14-15), compared to an estimate 16.1% for all India. It would take 20 years for India’s general literacy rate to equal that which Hamilton had managed in Gosaba (Premi, 2002).

Despite Hamilton’s deep connection to the co-operative movement, a movement that is often associated with the left-wing, Hamilton is clearly no lover of Communism or even Socialist theory. “The Lenin Road is the road travelled by the anti-God Society – the way of the anti-Christ, and it leads to the field of blood, with hell beyond” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 80).

In Fertile Currency and its Crop, among the incredible list of benefits paper currency is meant to bring, alongside doctors, teachers and the preservation of individualism is ‘the destruction of Communism’ (Hamilton, 2003 112-3). The bringing of ‘Scottish’ capitalism to rural India could well destroy its feudal system but to offer it as a panacea for the rise of global left wing movements is naïve at best.


On Indian Independence

Towards the end of Hamilton’s life he was faced with an ever more confident independence-minded India. As the viability of India leaving the empire grew so did his support for it. “While Hindu and Moslem stand facing each other with no love between them, the British soldier must stand between” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 115).

Hamilton has too grand a concept of the perfect conditions needed for Indian independence. On caste Hamilton also has lofty ambitions. “Whilst hand will not touch hand, India will never march hand in hand” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 115). Crucially he vastly underestimates the required conditions to bring about Indian independence. His vision of that independence is also somewhat regressive, often a justification for his co-operative principles via a return to Asoka’s India. “Group life, which is co-operative life, is, therefore, the indigenous form of political system” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 228).

Hamilton also quotes from a speech given by Adolf Hitler about how he put the jobless to work and used that work to underpin a German mark based on man power (Hamilton, 2003, p. 230-31). There is not a political figure, ideology or concept that cannot be crowbarred into Hamilton desire to reform the flow of capital on the Indian sub-continent, and thus secure for them practical freedom. “Germany is now finding financial salvation in the Gosaba currency system – the Man Standard” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 231). He advocates a Panchayat [council of chosen village elders] “chosen by the people from all castes and creeds” forming an “Aristocracy of Democracy” (Hamilton, 2003, p. 239).

However, Hamilton’s assertion that India wasn’t ready for her independence is one that was mirrored across the political spectrum at the time. Nicholas Owen explains how, at the Labour conference in 1930 Fenner Brockway, once suspended in parliament for demanding a debate on India at PMQs, is able like Hamilton, to predict the bloodshed of partition.

“Hindus and the Mohammedans had not sunk their differences of creed. Caste had not been wiped out… Did they want India to go through all the… bitterness and civil war that had characterised China in the last ten years? That was what was likely to happen if there was a hasty ill‐considered departure from India” (Brockway, 1930, p. 217-8).

There is a clear level of practical astuteness about Hamilton’s thinking. He has little time for the grander concepts if they do not improve things at the base level for the ordinary Indian. “For, while the British Government may give India a status on parchment, it is our business to give her a status in life” (Hamilton, 1930, p. 114).he want’s ‘Scottish’ capitalist reform and poverty elevation beyond all other concerns, theories and political figures can be utilised as long as at least a tiny portion of their activity justifies his own.



Hamilton is never truly out of step with either the thinking of the left or right at home, nor with the accepted ideas of when and how India should become independent. As Mishra suggests, most of all Hamilton is a utilitarian who “got attracted with this land of Sundarban to cherish his dream of ameliorating the sufferings of the poverty stricken people and to develop community undivided by caste and religion” (Mishra, 2010, p. 101).

He is concerned with the immediate, healing the sick, feeding the poor and dragging the Indian village back to the power he once felt it had under Asoka, or to at least the power it was clearly capable of. Hamilton’s Christianity is a basis for his theory, as is his capitalism, but democracy or larger political freedom isn’t required if the people aren’t even free from debt or the crippling conditions of poverty. It is in the need to solve the problems of the now that Hamilton implements his ‘Scottish’ brand of compassionate co-operative capitalism. A Scottish capitalism that was truly based on compassion but intrinsically tainted by English blood.



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