Book Review: J.S. Furnivall’s Colonial Policy and Practice

Furnivall argues that British Burma was ruled by direct rule and Dutch East Indies was ruled by indirect rule. Direct rule generally consists of the removal of the local monarchy and legal court and replacement by foreign legal system. Indirect rule is characterized by the retention of local governing bodies and leaders while the top level administration and economic affairs are directed by foreign colonial officials. Although in reality these demarcations are more nuanced, Furnivall makes this distinction to support his overarching argument about the negative impact of colonial capitalism upon colonies’ economic and social welfare. In the case of British Burma, the undermining of local forms of governance such as the monarchy, the village, and Buddhist Sangha and unchecked Liberal capitalism resulted in the disintegration of society into a plural society. In other words, the British colonial government failed to preserve the social and village life of Burma in light of economic forces of capitalism more so than in the Dutch East Indies.

The ‘plural society’ is a multiethnic, atomized society, and race based division of labor. Economic forces have an ‘anti-social’ effect upon social and political structure, destroying social will and community and producing a society driven by purely economic interests.
Overarching arguments in Furnivall’s Colonial Policy and Practice
  1. Furnivall argues that free market capitalism (Liberalism) produced and intensified the plural society.
  2. The plural society is understood as a multiethnic society, where economic forces atomize and determine social relations. (example of Indians as governmental roles, Chinese in trade…) In other words British Burma was a plural society that witnessed the disintegration of social will and concepts of organic communities and a demise of social welfare for native inhabitants (Burmese).
  3.  Furnivall proposes for the social, economic, and political reintegration of Burma towards gradual autonomy and self-rule. (Autonomy leads to social welfare leads to development…autonomy in carefully monitored stages).
  4.  Contribution: The evolution, unevenness, and changes within colonial policy and practice over time and space. transformations in colonial policy (519)
  1. Furnivall argues for gradual, monitored Burmese autonomy, but is not clear and realistic on the details the reintegration of a nation for a plural, divided society. Who are ‘the people’ who will be socially, politically, and economically reintegrated into a new cohesive society?
  2. Furnivall does not address the diverse and powerful nationalist movements and their visions for an independent, anti-British Burmese nation.
  3. Colonial Burma was not governed by liberalism, but by local indigenous forms of administration and models from other British colonies. (Engehart)
  4. False dichotomy of liberalism/change and tradition/static (Englehart)
  5. Liberalism was not a coherent political force and ideology (until 1840s in England)
  6. The pre-colonial Burmese economy was not simply localized and based on barter. Rather more evidence has shown that the thet-kayit (moneylending) during the late Kon-baung is evidence of a monetized commercial economy. Thus, Furnivall exaggerates the dramatic changes of the ‘plural society’ wrought by free trade,domestic markets, and the global economy.
  7. Furnivall oversimplifies and romanticizes the indirect colonial and dual systems of rule in the Dutch East Indies.
In contrast, Jean Gelmann Taylor examines the contacts between Europeans and Asians and the cultural and social transformations that developed due to these contacts. In The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasians in Dutch Asia (1983, 2009), Taylor examines the development of a uniquely hybrid community of Mestizo or Eurasians. Taylor focuses on the importance of colonial elites, particularly the Javanese mother of the children in wealthy Dutch/Eurasian households. She argues that in the early VOC period (17th and 18th centuries) descent was traced through locally born women of mixed Asia/European ancestry and Dutch males forged alliances for positions of power. The second half of the 19th century after the Napoloenic Wars and british interregnnum (1811-1816), marks the beginning of a different attitude towards European and Eurasian identity. With the increase of European women migrants and European immigrants attempted to maintain their identity and connection to Europe. Furthermore, the formalization of the Dutch colonial state ethnic policies, witnessed the demarcation of ethnic, cultural and political difference between Asian and European.
2. The periodization of colonialism
Colonialism of SEA is divided into three loose phases: laissez faire, ethical or cultural policies, and national political democracy and social movements.
For British Burma, the laissez faire began from the 1820 Anglo-Burmese wars and British possession of Burma and India to 1870. The ethical cultural period began the 1870’s to 1923. From 1823 to 1948, Burma became a separate crown colony, the Second World War and national movements characterized a period of domestic political movements.
3. The comparison of pre-colonial and colonialism: the impact of colonialism
Furnivall characterizes pre-colonial Burmese society as pre-capitalist, organic, local, popular, socially cohesive, pre-state and unified by cultural, social, political values. “Under native rule the people lived within a little world, but their cultural horizon was co-extensive with its boundaries; under western rule their horizon is contracted to their life as cultivators and their social life is less comprehensive than before.” (307 ) “The general effect was that the popular self-government of Burmese times was replaced by a foreign legal system unable to control the anti-social forces which it liberated, and favouring the decay rather than the growth of local autonomy.” (76)
Furnivall lists the five evils of British rule as the following: the failure of western self-governing institutions; the growth of debt and agrarian distress; the multiplication of litigation and crime; the reisk of disaffection and unrest among the Buddhist clergy; and widespread corruption in the judicial and administrative services.” (Preface) He adds that the British colonialism replaced the legal system, pushed society towards decline rather than growth of local self-government, which resulted in the decay of ‘organic social ties’ and local autonomy and legal systems.

Facilitation Key Points Handout for Discussion


  • Pre-colonial society as pre-capitalist, organic, local, popular, socially cohesive, pre-state and unified by cultural, social, political values
    • “Under native rule the people lived within a little world, but their cultural horizon was co-extensive with its boundaries; under western rule their horizon is contracted to their life as cultivators and their social life is less comprehensive than before.” 307
    • “The general effect was that the popular self-government of Burmese times was replaced by a foreign legal system unable to control the anti-social forces which it liberated, and favouring the decay rather than the growth of local autonomy.” (76)


  • Colonialism:
  • Direct rule:
  • Indirect rule:
    • “In Java the Dutch have tried to conserve both the form and content of traditional self-government while adapting it to the requirements of the modern world; in Burma a contrary policy has been pursued.” 266
  • Fabianism: paternalistic and humanitarian vision of colonialism in which colonial masters would strengthen and protect colonies from predatory forces of free trade (colony ‘autonomous’ partner); overall Fabianism suspicious of radical social change and revolution and emphasized gradual progressive change where colonial administrators could be “social engineers” to manage colonies
  • Two grades of officials: superior officials belonging to central administrative system appointed by the Crown; subordinate local officials whom the most important was Thugyi (hereditary chieftain of a small district)
  • Non-regulation province: Burma under executive authority of Governor-General rather than British Parliament or India Office; thus Burma fell under the Bengal system and was governed using Munro’s ryotwari system and ‘military civilian’ officers especially in the early years


  • Laissez faire: guidance and practical management to private bodies and individuals
  • Liberalism/Liberal doctrines of economic freedom:
  • Individualism: “disregard of common welfare and a reluctance or inability to combine for common ends.” 109
  • Land tenure: Indonesian and Burmese systems similar where individual possession never absolute against the community, cultivated sites taken up temporarily
    • British rule where squatter can take up land by paying revenue, after 12 years can become ‘private property’ even without cultivating it
    • Tenancy problem and land alienation


  • Culture:
  • Social Welfare:
    • “The modern state had created greater security for life and property but had limited the capacity of the population to resist effectively arbitrary administrative rule and more arbitrary economic forces.” (Taylor 54)
  • Social disintegration:
    • “anti-social effect of economic forces in mixed communities.”
  • Government:
    • “The functions of the Government is to create a common social will as the basis for a Government that shall represent the people as a whole; to enable this representative Government to stand alone without support from the colonial power; and by a process of social education ensure that the new Government, while complying adequately with the requirements of the modern world, can be made responsible to the people, and thereby achieve the stability that is derived from popular support.” (489-90)
  • Self-government:
    • “The Government cannot represent the people, because in a plural society there is no ‘people’ to be represented. It cannot stand alone because of the racial and economic cleavage between the various sections, of which some may not wish for independence. And it cannot be fully responsible to the people because the great mass of them do not accept the requirements of the modern world.” (489)
  • Plural society:
    • “it is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market-place, in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines.” (304)
  • nationalism:
  • reintegration:
    • social reintegration:
    • economic reintegration:
    • political reintegration:

“…we shall aim at making dependencies capable as soon as possible of independence, not on altruistic grounds or as a grudging concession to nationalist agitation, but on our own intiative in our own interest as a condition of world welfare, and in order to preserve those established political connections between Europe and the tropics which have come into existence through the temporary incapacity of tropical rulers and peoples to accept the conditions of modern civilization.” (550)

Basic Questions

  • Who are the ‘people’ in Furnivall’s understanding of Burma?
  • Timing of book: why does Furnivall advocate for a reform of British colonialism in Burma, guiding towards self-rule and management of free trade capitalism in the context of anti-colonial movements in SEA at the time?
  • Who is Furnivall’s audience? What is Furnivall’s politics?
  • How does Furnivall have a Marxist reading of culture and history?


  • 1602: Dutch East India Company founded
  • 1813: East India Company loses trade monopoly (Furnivall identifies beginning of Liberalism in Burma)
  • 1824-1825: first Anglo-Burmese war
  • 1852: annexation of Pegu and capture of commercial center of Rangoon (administration military and colonial India)
  • 1858- British possesions in Burma (along with India) from East India Company to the Crown
  • 1852-1870- economic progress, population, production, welfare
  • 1869: Suez Canal opens, allowing ships to travel between Europe and S. Asia without navigating around Africa
  • 1872- first regular census in British Burma
  • 1870: shift from laissez faire to benevolent imperialism, economic progress, welfare for the people
  • 1870-1923: progress, administrative policy, population, trade, production, western enterprise, native enterprise
  • 1886: Burma annexed into province of India and separated from Bengal
  • 1937: Burma becomes separate crown colony
  • 1942-1943: Japanese advance on Rangoon and occupation
  • 1943: Colonial Policy on international collaboration
  • 1947: (September) Burmese independence with Aung San Deputy Chairman of Executive council of Burma (transitional government), (July) assassination of Aung San
  • January 4, 1948: independent republic, Union of Burma with Sao Shwe Thaik as first President and U Nu as firs Prime Minister


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