Late Victorian Holocausts: The Indian Famines

Severe famines killed many millions in India between 1700 and 1900. [Chronology at Wikipedia]. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen's work on endemic deprivation stems from his experiences of the Bengal famine as a child.

i-9875e6414eba230ccc20b338c641521b-FamishedFamily-SouthIndiaFamine-1878.jpgPhotograph of a South India family in 1878 by W.W. Hooper, a Colonel in British army who took many photographs of Madras famine.

The apathy and greed of Colonial rulers had a hand (directly or through inaction) in many famines. With that introduction let me pass you over to George Monbiot's reveiw the book Late Victorian Holocausts at Guardian where he points out the amnesia that surrounds the Empire's massacres, especially the famines in India in late 1800s.

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of famines that killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy. When an El Niño drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4m hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited "at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices". The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. In the labour camps, the workers were given less food than inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

As millions died, the imperial government launched "a militarised campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought". The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places that had produced a crop surplus, the government's export policies, like Stalin's in Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the north-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceeding three years, at least 1.25m died.

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We did exactly the same thing to Ireland too. And many people see the economic liberalism of the time as some sort of Golden Age to which we should all wish to return... What's that old saying about people who don't learn from history?

Of course, the great irony is that this doctrine arose in reaction to the Corn Laws (which were a protectionist measure designed to fix a minimum price for grain in Britain) which also caused massive suffering and hardship. For some reason, the idea that economics should be used to improve the lives of ordinary people (or even just keep ordinary people alive), rather than pad the wallets of land-owners and mercantilists, never even got considered.

Unfortunately the commenter above (Dunc) entirely missed the thrust of Mike Davis's work - the famines were not a result of free market policies, but rather a free market excuse was employed to justify what was a facist (taking the harvest of Indians to feed Britons) genocide (led to the death of millions) under cover of a drought induced famine. Davis argues cogently that the British policies were anything but free market policies, including bans on famine relief efforts, hard labor death camps, death marches, 'famine taxes', extreme internal duties, prohibition of indigenous industry which competed with Englands industries, and on and on...

Its also important to note, though beyond the scope of Davis's book, that it was this exploitation that made England rich. It is no coincidence that the Europeans gained total control of Indian ports (also much of southeast asian and china trade), at the point of a cannon barrel, in the decades before the Enlightenment, and that the plunder of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, (which wholely caused the worlds worst famine: 10 million dead - one third the population, in a region that contained cities more prosperous than London, per the British imperialist Robert Clive) immediataly preceeded the Industrial Revolution.