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Famines in British India: An enduring disaster of the Raj  

In 1901, shortly before the death of Queen Victoria, the radical writer William Digby looked back to the 1876 Madras famine and confidently asserted: "When the part played by the British Empire in the 19th century is regarded by the historian 50 years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument." Who now remembers the Madrasis? In the 19th century, however, drought was treated, particularly by the English in India, as an opportunity for reasserting sovereignty. 

During 1876 Lord Lytton, widely suspected to be insane, ignored all efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria's investiture as Empress of India. The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast of lucullan excess at which 68,000 dignitaries heard her promise the nation "happiness, prosperity and welfare".

(For more on Lord Lytton: India's Nero - Please refer to chapter on Glimpses). 

Traditional Indian polities like the Moguls and the Marathas had zealously policed the grain trade in the public interest, distributing free food, fixing prices and embargoing exports. As one horrified British writer discovered, these 'oriental despots' sometimes punished traders who short-changed peasants during famines by amputating equivalent weights of merchant flesh.

The British worshipped a savage god known as the 'Invisible Hand' that forbade state interference in the grain trade. Like previous viceroys (Lytton in 1877 and Elgin in 1897), Lord Curzon allowed food surpluses to be exported to England or hoarded by speculators in heavily guarded depots. Curzon, whose appetite for viceregal pomp and circumstance was legendary, lectured starving villagers that 'any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralised the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime'.  

Lord Curzon as a celebration of imperialist ideals, even forbade the singing of a particular hymn because it contained an inappropriate reminder of that kingdoms "may rise and wane." 

(source: Colonial Overlords: Time Frame Ad 1850-1900 - Time-Life Books. The Scramble for Africa p. 33).


The empire had its circumstance to impress the native princes and people. At Delhi in 1877, a great display was made to announce the queen's assumption of the title of Empress of India.

(image source: Bound to Exile - By Michael Edwardes).


Vaughan Nash of the Manchester Guardian and Louis Klopsch of the New York Christian Herald were appalled by Curzon's 'penal minimum' ration (15 ounces of rice for a day's hard labour) as well as the shocking conditions tolerated in the squalid relief camps, where tens of thousands perished from cholera.

'Millions of flies,' wrote Klopsch, 'were permitted undisturbed to pester the unhappy victims. One young woman who had lost every one dear to her, and had turned stark mad, sat at the door vacantly staring at the awful scenes around her.'  



Famine: Victims of the 1876-77. Famine awaits death.

(image source: Raj: the Making and Unmaking of British India - by Lawrence James).


Despite Kiplingesque myths of heroic benevolence, official attitudes were nonchalant. British officials rated Indian ethnicities like cattle, and vented contempt against them even when they were dying in their multitudes.  

Asked to explain why mortality in Gujarat was so high, a district officer told the famine commission: 'The Gujarati is a soft man... accustomed to earn his good food easily. In the hot weather, he seldom worked at all and at no time did he form the habit of continuous labour. Very many even among the poorest had never taken a tool in hand in their lives. They lived by watching cattle and crops, by sitting in the fields to weed, by picking cotton, grain and fruit, and by... pilfering.'  

Lytton believed in free trade. He did nothing to check the huge hikes in grain prices, Economic "modernization" led household and village reserves to be transferred to central depots using recently built railroads. Much was exported to England, where there had been poor harvests. Telegraph technology allowed prices to be centrally co-ordinated and, inevitably, raised in thousands of small towns. Relief funds were scanty because Lytton was eager to finance military campaigns in Afghanistan. Conditions in emergency camps were so terrible that some peasants preferred to go to jail. A few, starved and senseless, resorted to cannibalism. This was all of little consequence to many English administrators who, as believers in Malthusianism, thought that famine was nature's response to Indian over-breeding.

It used to be that the late 19th century was celebrated in every school as the golden period of imperialism. While few of us today would defend empire in moral terms, we've long been encouraged to acknowledge its economic benefits. Yet, as Davis points out, "there was no increase in India's per capita income from 1757 to 1947".

As the great Indian political economist Romesh Chunder Dutt pointed out in one of his Open Letters to Lord Curzon British Progress was India's Ruin. The railroads, ports and canals  which enthused Karl Marx in the 1850s were for resource extraction, not indigenous development. The taxes that financed the railroads and the Indian army pauperised the peasantry. Not surprisingly, there was no increase in India's per capita income during the whole period of British overlordship from 1757 to 1947. Celebrated cash-crop booms went hand in hand with declining agrarian productivity and food security. Moreover, two decades of demographic growth (in the 1870s and 1890s) were entirely wiped out in avoidable famines, while throughout that 'glorious imperial half century' from 1871 to 1921 immortalised by Kipling, the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 per cent. 

Author and political activist Mike Davis poses the question in his book, Late Victorian Holocausts: 

“How do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died along railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots?” 

(source: The Observer - 'Late Victorian Holocausts' By Mike Davis,6903,436495,00.html,6121,424896,00.html

A Glowing account:  How an American Christian Missionary wrote about British India  
What has England done for India ?

India is no longer the prey of Western ambitious powers. It is a solid part of the British possessions. It knows, because it is a solid part of the British possession. It knows, because it sends its troops that England cannot fight in a battle in Europe without its help. The expansion of education among all classes of people, the physical care of the helpless classes, the subtle bond of the English language, the development of the soil, the utilizing of the mineral wealth, the opening of the country for the incoming of Western ideas, and greater than all combined, the breaking down of all doors for the free spread of the Gospel. England has never achieved grander victories over Waterloo or Quebec than those which belong to her quiet and peaceful administration of India . The day has not yet dawned when it is possible to measure the whole magnitude of England ’s service to the millions of India . Generations must elapse before this can be done. When the hour does come, it will be seen that the Englishman has never been wiser or more humane on the Thames or that St. Lawrence than on the Ganges, the Indus, and the Godavari . The real fact is, not that he has conquered the country, but that he has discovered it, and now governs it by as generous laws, and as even justice as he rules over the millions within sight of his parliament at Westminster.

A French scholar Barthelemy St. Hilaire, (1805 - 1895) in his book, “L’Inde Anglaise; son Etat Actuel son Avenir, has written:

“Neither in the Vedic times, nor under the great Ashoka, nor under the Mohammedan conquest, nor under the Moguls, all powerful as they were for a while, has India ever obeyed an authority so sweet, so intelligent and so liberal.

England has been a blessing to the helpless continent. England has conquered India . But it has been less a conquest by steel and gunpowder than by all the great forces which constitutes a Christian civilization.

(source:  Indika: The Country and the people of India and Ceylon - By Rev. John F Hurst p. 755 - 766).  


In Bombay, in famine camps, Sir A. P. Macdonnell, President of the Famine Commission, reported, the people "died like flies." 

(source: India And Her People - By Swami Abhedananda p.144).  

Amitav Ghosh author of several books, The Circle of Reason (1986), won France's top literary award, Prix Medici Estranger, and The Glass Palace also makes fun of the claim that the British gave India the railways. 

"Thailand has railways and the British never colonized the country," he says. "In 1885, when the British invaded Burma, the Burmese king was already building railways and telegraphs. These are things Indians could have done themselves."

(source: Travelling through time - interview with Amitav Ghosh).

Nick Robins in his article titled "Loot" has said: "The East India Company found India rich and left it poor." 

And for many Indians, it was the Company's plunder that first de-industrialized that country and then provided the finance that fuelled Britain's own industrial revolution." There was no increase in India per capita income between 1757 and 1947" In the beginning, Britain was buying cloth made in India. In the end, India was buying cloth made in Britain, paying for it not only with money but with the blood of its people. History teaches us that history must never be forgotten. 

(source: East India Company - By Omar Kureishi

According to Francois Gautier: " The British did impoverish India: according to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, 4 million between 1825 and 1850, 5 million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million between 1875 and 1900. Thus 25 million Indians died in 100 years! (Since Independence, there has been no such famines, a record of which India should be proud.)" (source:


The British hunting in India


Mrs Aruna Asaf Ali " How can a civilized and enlightened people like the British have kept us so backward and divided? They tried to educate a certain middle-class and allowed it all the facilities; but the basic reforms they did not carry out. Our literacy rates were so poor, and our technology has taken years to catch up with modern developments." 

(source: Indian Tales of the Raj - By Zareer Masani  p. 130).

An English friend of India said, "England, through her missionaries, offered the people of India thrones of gold in another world, but refused them a simple chair in this world."

(source: India And Her People - By Swami Abhedananda p.169).

William Samuel Lilly, in his India and Its Problems writes as follows:

"During the first eighty years of the nineteenth century, 18,000,000 of people perished of famine. In one year alone -- the year when her late Majesty assumed the title of Empress -- 5,000,000 of the people in Southern India were starved to death. In the District of Bellary, with which I am personally acquainted, -- a region twice the size of Wales, -- one-fourth of the population perished in the famine of 1816-77. I shall never forget my own famine experiences: how, as I rode out on horseback, morning after morning, I passed crowds of wandering skeletons, and saw human corpses by the roadside, unburied, uncared for, and half devoured by dogs and vultures; how, sadder sight still, children, 'the joy of the world,' as the old Greeks deemed, had become its ineffable sorrow, and were forsaken by the very women who had borne them, wolfish hunger killing even the maternal instinct. Those children, their bright eyes shining from hollow sockets, their nesh utterly wasted away, and only gristle and sinew and cold shivering skin remaining, their heads mere skulls, their puny frames full of loathsome diseases, engendered by the starvation in which they had been conceived and born and nurtured -- they haunt me still." Every one who has gone much about India in famine times knows how true to life is this picture. 

Says Sir Charles Elliott long the Chief Commissioner of Assam, "Half the agricultural population do not know from one half year's end to another what it is to have a full meal." Says the Honorable G. K. Gokhale, of the Viceroy's Council, "From 60,000,000 to 70,000,000 of the people of India do not know what it is to have their hunger satisfied even once in a year."

(source: India in Bondage: Her Right to Freedom  - By Jabez T. Sunderland p. 11-12).

Suhash Chakravarty has brilliantly observed in his book, The Raj Syndrome:  "The vision of the Roman Empire did not merely inspire the Raj. It was universally claimed that the Raj was the inheritor of the political and cultural legacy of Rome. This was characterized by snobbery, ruthlessness, and intolerance which were given the nomenclature of patriotism, loyalty and fortitude. Economic benefits were dressed in idealist garb, mercenary motives in a moral crusade and romance and adventure camouflaged political and military aggression. 

As a substitute to Greek and Roman theatre, the American films arrived – early Christian films complete with gladiators and lions, those of Tarzan and the Apes, the ‘westerns’ with trigger-happy cowboys chasing the feathered Indian, followed by the urbanized ‘westerns’ where cars replaced horses and ‘cops’ replaced cowboys. The impact was remarkable because the attempt had been to reduce the quantum of wisdom and wit to the minimum. Superimposed on this was the idea of the ‘chosen people’ operating on the doctrine of Christianity. God was supposed to back only the Christians. Christianity was offered as synonymous with science which was called service and service was the other name for sharp shooting guns."

(source: The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions - By Suhash Chakravarty. Penguin Books. 1991 193).




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