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VOL. XXII NO. 2, MAY 1-15, 2012

A birthday feature

The economist as a Shakespearean scholar
By K. Ravichander (

Dr. Gilbert Slater

There has been many an Englishman who loved India and worked tirelessly for its people and preservation of its cultural heritage. While the story of the lay adventurer or missionary who had fought in India's freedom struggle has been only too well documented, the contributions of academicians like Gilbert Slater, Edgar Thurston and Kathleen Gough have all but vanished from public memory. Most of the aforesaid individuals spent only a few years of their lives in India, but their impact on Indological studies has been immense.

While Thurston lived in India at the turn of the 20th Century and Gough arrived shortly after the Dominion of India had been inaugurated, Slater arrived in Madras during the Great War when British rule in India was at its zenith and yet there were signs – like the emergence of the Home Rule League – that its demise was not far off. Born in Plymouth, England, on August 27, 1864 in a middle-class family, Slater had his education in England and graduated in economics from the University of Cambridge. He worked as a lecturer at Balliol House and Toynbee Hall and was Principal of Ruskin College from 1909 to 1915. During this time, he was active in the British Labour Movement and supported union representation in the college's administration. When the Great War broke out, the college shut down leaving Slater jobless. Fortunately, after a short wait, Slater was offered the newly-created economics chair at the Madras University and he set sail for India after spending a few days trying to familiarise himself with the Tamil language.

Slater served as Professor of Economics at the University of Madras from 1915 to 1921. Dissatisfied with the college textbooks which were based on the economic conditions prevailing in developed countries and, at the same time, convinced that villages formed the lifeline of India, Slater encouraged his students to conduct a detailed survey of their native villages in the Madras Presidency. He instructed his students to gather information on decadal population variations, land ownership, cost of land cultivation, occupations of the people and the income and expenditure of individual families. The survey – the results of which were published in 1918 as the book Some South Indian Villages – covered districts as diverse and far apart as North Arcot and Malabar and Ramnad and Kistna. These villages, numbering eleven in all, later became popularly known as 'Slater villages' and were resurveyed from time to time, some as late as 2008. The methodology pioneered by Slater was adopted by Marxist economists of the 1970s and came to be known as the 'Slater tradition'.

Slater's contribution to Indian economics is significant. He presided over the Annual Conference of the Indian Economic Association held in Allahabad in 1920. One of Slater's distinguished pupils was Sir M. Ct. Muthiah Chettiar of the MCt family who founded United India Life Insurance and whose more popular son M.Ct.M. Chidambaram Chettiar would later found the Indian Overseas Bank and Travancore Rayons Limited. Slater also wrote a foreword to L.C. Jain's book, Indigenous Banking in India. In 2009, the University of Madras published a set of essays on Indian rural economy and dedicated them to Slater's memory.

Slater was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in November 1921. In the Council, Slater was one of the government's well-known "yes men" along with the likes of Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar and Sir Muhammad Usman and was the target of constant brickbats from the Indian National Congress benches. Slater's stint as member of the Council was brief and insignificant, but for his proposal for the adoption of a common script for the whole Presidency.

Slater sailed for England in 1923, but returned a few years later as Labour Commissioner for the Presidency. He went back to England again in the late-1920s, this time never to return. Slater died in his home in England on March 8, 1938.

During his lifetime, Slater wrote more than a dozen books, mostly on economics – about four of which are related to India. (In his 1924 book The Dravidian Elements in Indian Culture, Slater suggests an Egyptian origin for South Indian Brahmins even while accepting the prevalent Mediterranean race theory for other South Indian people.)

Slater strongly supported the retention of English as the medium of instruction in the Madras Presidency. In The Dravidian Elements in Indian Culture, he prophesied the destruction of local vernaculars if Hindustani or any other Indian language was made the medium of instruction

"All India labours under a very serious disadvantage because the language which is the medium of all higher instruction is different from the language of the home. For the present, Dravida suffers least. On the average a student of the Madras University saves about a year, as compared with students of other Indian universities, in the time necessarily spent in the preliminary study of English before beginning his chosen course of study. But, on the other hand, the development of Bengali, Hindi or Urdu into an efficient medium for scientific and general education is a much more hopeful proposition than the modernising of any Dravidian language to attain the same result. Northern India can reasonably hope to make one of its vernaculars the literary and scientific organ of between two and three hundred million people; unification of the language of the masses with the language of the learned in South India is most likely to be reached with the disappearance of the Dravidian vernaculars."

Today, apart from a few economic historians and heritage buffs, Slater remains largely forgotten.

However, unlike in India, in England, Slater is a well-known figure to a small but influential circle of Shakespearean scholars. His 1931 book Seven Shakespeares is a must-read for students of alternative authorship theories of Shakespeare's works. In the book, Slater claims that the plays believed to have been written by Shakespeare were actually penned by seven different authors in different times. The seven, according to Slater, were Francis Bacon, the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe, the 5th Earl of Rutland, Mary Sidney of Pembroke, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh who founded Virginia, the Elizabethan army officer Sir William Stanley and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Slater suggests that all of Shakespeare's plays may have been authored as part of England's propaganda against its 16th Century rival, Spain, and their authorship was attributed to William Shakespeare in order to hide the real identities of their creators. Slater, thus, hints at the presence of a large and well-organised conspiracy, and at the head of the conspiracy, he places the Earl of Oxford – the ringleader, who was instrumental in convincing Shakespeare to lend his name. While there have been many who have questioned the authenticity of Shakespeare's works, Slater was one of only three to suggest a "group theory" of authorship, the others being Harold Johnson (who, in 1910, attributed Shakespeare's works to a bunch of Jesuits) and H.T.S. Forrest (who, in his 1923 book The Five Authors of Shakespeare's Sonnets, proposes that Shakespeare's sonnets could have been written by five different people, thereby pioneering a theory which Slater probably built upon).

A portrait unveiled by the former Finance Minister of Tamil Nadu, Prof. K. Anbazhagan, at the campus of the University of Madras, on January 22, 2009, is the only monument in the city dedicated to Slater.

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Government offers hope again for Heritage Act
The least pedestrian-friendly Indian city: Chennai
When will we get all this power?
An exchange of letters
Perambur Railway Hospital - A remarkable journey to excellence
An Old Boy's advice
METERPODU – A work in progress
The economist as a Shakespearean scholar
A Chola temple near Tambaram

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