Who are We?
What do we do?
Famine in India
and the colonial world
reality about 30 million perished in the famines of
India under British rule . The so
called late Victorian holocaust second only to the
holocaust of 70 million over the six centuries of
Islamic domination of the Indian subcontinent. The great
famine of 1877 was the seventeenth famine since the
beginning of virtual British colonial rule in the
1750's.This not to say there were no famines before the
British came, just that they occurred extremely rarely,
perhaps in the order of 1 every 2 centuries
Location of famine areas
Bihar. Bengal, and Punjab
Northwest Frontier province
Northwest and Oudh
Northwest and lower Doab
Northwest and lower Doab
Bengal and Bihar
Bombay and Madras - affected 138,911 square miles and 26,897,971
territory ruled by the British East India Company experienced
Bengal famine of 1770. An estimated 10 million people died.
Throughout the entire course of recorded European history,
from the remote times of which the Homeric poems preserve
the dim tradition down to the present moment, there has
occurred no calamity at once so sudden and of such appalling
magnitude as the famine which in the spring and summer of
1770 nearly exterminated the ancient civilization of Bengal.
It presents that aspect of preternatural vastness which
characterizes the continent of Asia and all that concerns
it. The Black Death of the fourteenth century was, perhaps,
the most fearful visitation which has ever afflicted the
Western world. But in the concentrated misery which it
occasioned the Bengal famine surpassed it, even as the
Himalayas dwarf by comparison the highest peaks of
Switzerland. It is, moreover, the key to the history of
Bengal during the next forty years; and as such, merits,
from an economical point of view, closer attention than it
has hitherto received.
gathers in three harvests each year; in the spring, in the
early autumn, and in December, the last being the great
rice-crop, the harvest on which the sustenance of the people
depends. Through the year 1769 there was great scarcity,
owing to the partial failure of the crops of 1768, but the
spring rains appeared to promise relief, and in spite of the
warning appeals of provincial officers, the government was
slow to take alarm, and continued rigorously to enforce the
land-tax. But in September the rains suddenly ceased.
Throughout the autumn there ruled a parching drought; and
the rice-fields, according to the description of a native
superintendent of Bishenpore, “became like fields of dried
straw.” Nevertheless, the government at Calcutta made—with
one lamentable exception, hereafter to be noticed—no
legislative attempt to meet the consequences of this
dangerous condition of things.
through the stifling summer of 1770 the people went on
dying. The husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their
implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed-grain;
they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer
of children could be found; they ate the leaves of trees and
the grass of the field; and in June, 1770, the Resident at
the Durbar affirmed that the living were feeding on the
dead. Day and night a torrent of famished and
disease-stricken wretches poured into the great cities. At
an early period of the year pestilence had broken out. In
March we find small-pox at Moorshedabad, where it glided
through the vice-regal mutes, and cut off the Prince Syfut
in his palace. The streets were blocked up with promiscuous
heaps of the dying and dead. Interment could not do its work
quick enough; even the dogs and jackals, the public
scavengers of the East, became unable to accomplish their
revolting work, and the multitude of mangled and festering
corpses at length threatened the existence of the
Fiske, American philosopher in The Unseen World, Chapter IX,
THE FAMINE OF 1770 IN BENGAL.
. see also The
Annals of Rural Bengal. By W. W. Hunter. Vol. I. The
Ethnical Frontier of Lower Bengal, with the Ancient
Principalities of Beerbhoom and Bishenpore. Second Edition.
New York: Leypoldt and Holt. 1868. 8vo., pp. xvi., 475.
1780-1790s: millions died
of famine in Bengal, Benares, Jammu, Bombay and Madras.
1800-1825: 1 million
Indians died of famine
1850-1875: 5 millions died
of famine in Bengal, Orissa, Rajastan and Bihar
1875-1902: 26 million
Indians died of famine (1876-1878: 10 millions).
For example, between 1875 and 1900, during
which period most of the severest famines in the entire Indian
history occurred,annual grain exports from India increasedfrom 3
to 10 million tons, a quantity that is equivalent to the annual
nutrition of about 20 million people4. I should reemphasize here
that this haemorrhage (‘As India must be bled . . .’) occurred
while the best lands were increasingly being used for non-food
crops. During the famine of 1899–1900, when around 143,500
Beharis died directly from starvation, the province exported not
only tens of thousands of bales of cotton, but an incredible
747,000 bushels of grain5.
1905-1906: famine raged in
areas with the population of 3,3 million.
1906-1907: famine captured
areas with the population of 13 million
1907-1908: famine captured
areas populated by 49,6 million Indians.
India experienced the second
Bengal famine of 1943. Over 3 million people died.
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino, Famines and the
Making of the Third World
Verso Books 2000, pb £20, pp 464 + viii, illus, bib,
Ten years ago, people began to discuss a pattern of
unusual ecological disturbances, including includes
droughts, forest fires and freak storms, that ranged
from South America through sub-Saharan Africa, to Asia
and even Australia. The phrase El Nino caught on; the
most common explanation being that the strange weather
has its roots in the changing temperature of the Pacific
Ocean - El Nino means literally the Christ Child,
referring to hot Christmas seas off Ecuador and Peru.
People discuss the phenomenon as if it was something new
that can, perhaps, be explained in terms of global
warning. Yet the most spectacular El Nino events took
place between 125 and 100 years ago.
China, India, Brazil and across the Southern Hemisphere,
the years between 1876 and 1902 witnessed a
near-permanent cycle of droughts, bad harvests and
subsequent famine. Davis' book is studded with reports
sent home by missionaries, many describing disasters of
biblical proportions. One cleric became so traumatised
that he thought that he was living in the last days, as
foretold in the book of Revelation. Between 1876 and
1878 alone, seven million people were killed as a result
of droughts in India, and by 1896 to 1897, catastrophic
harvests affected every tropical country in the world.
In total, somewhere between thirty million and sixty
million people died.
message of Davis' book is the connectedness of things.
It is no accident that these famines, probably the most
terrible in recorded human history, took place at the
end of the railway age, as the new industrial system
spread across the world. Free trade and military
adventures combined to bring the people of Africa and
Asia to the brink of famine; between 1850 and 1900 the
per capita income of the average Indian fell by 50
victims in the South blamed demons or capricious gods.
The sober economists of Victorian Britain blamed
sunspots for the disasters. But the crisis of the third
world was about both bad climate, and a bad economic
system. Now that the real meterological origins of El
Nino are known, can we be sure that the same disasters
will not be allowed to happen again?
A fascinating, sobering historical investigation