Late Victorian Holocausts
El Niρo Famines and the Making of the Third World

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Victoria's Ghosts

The more one hears about this famine, the more one feels that such a hideous record of human suffering and destruction the world has never seen before.
—Florence Nightingale, 1877

"Here's the northeast monsoon at last," said Hon. Robert Ellis, C.B., junior member of the Governor's Council, Madras, as a heavy shower of rain fell at Coonoor, on a day towards the end of October 1876, when the members of the Madras Government were returning from their summer sojourn on the hills.

    "I am afraid that is not the monsoon," said the gentleman to whom the remark was made.

    "Not the monsoon?" rejoined Mr. Ellis. "Good God! It must be the monsoon. If it is not, and if the monsoon does not come, there will be an awful famine."

The British rulers of Madras had every reason to be apprehensive. The life-giving southwest monsoon had already failed much of southern and central India the previous summer. The Madras Observatory would record only 6.3 inches of precipitation for all of 1876 in contrast to the annual average of 27.6 inches during the previous decade. The fate of millions now hung on the timely arrival of generous winter rains. Despite Ellis's warning, the governor of Madras, Richard Grenville, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who was a greenhorn to India and its discontents, sailed away on a leisurely tour of the Andaman Islands, Burma and Ceylon. When he finally reached Colombo, he found urgent cables detailing the grain riots sweeping the so-called Ceded Districts of Kurnool, Cuddapah and Bellary in the wake of another monsoon failure. Popular outbursts against impossibly high prices were likewise occurring in the Deccan districts of the neighboring Bombay Presidency, especially in Ahmednagar and Sholapur. Having tried to survive on roots while awaiting the rains, multitudes of peasants and laborers were now on the move, fleeing a slowly dying countryside.

    As the old-hands at Fort St. George undoubtedly realized, the semi-arid interior of India was primed for disaster. The worsening depression in world trade had been spreading misery and igniting discontent throughout cotton-exporting districts of the Deccan, where in any case forest enclosures and the displacement of gram by cotton had greatly reduced local food security. The traditional system of household and village grain reserves regulated by complex networks of patrimonial obligation had been largely supplanted since the Mutiny by merchant inventories and the cash nexus. Although rice and wheat production in the rest of India (which now included bonanzas of coarse rice from the recently conquered Irrawaddy delta) had been above average for the past three years, much of the surplus had been exported to England. Londoners were in effect eating India's bread. "It seems an anomaly," wrote a troubled observer, "that, with her famines on hand, India is able to supply food for other parts of the world."

    There were other "anomalies." The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends. Moreover, British antipathy to price control invited anyone who had the money to join in the frenzy of grain speculation. "Besides regular traders," a British official reported from Meerut in late 1876, "men of all sorts embarked in it who had or could raise any capital; jewelers and cloth dealers pledging their stocks, even their wives' jewels, to engage in business and import grain." Buckingham, not a free-trade fundamentalist, was appalled by the speed with which modern markets accelerated rather than relieved the famine:

The rise [of prices] was so extraordinary, and the available supply, as compared with well-known requirements, so scanty that merchants and dealers, hopeful of enormous future gains, appeared determined to hold their stocks for some indefinite time and not to part with the article which was becoming of such unwonted value. It was apparent to the Government that facilities for moving grain by the rail were rapidly raising prices everywhere, and that the activity of apparent importation and railway transit, did not indicate any addition to the food stocks of the Presidency ... retail trade up-country was almost at standstill. Either prices were asked which were beyond the means of the multitude to pay, or shops remained entirely closed.

    As a result, food prices soared out of the reach of outcaste labourers, displaced weavers, sharecroppers and poor peasants. "The dearth," as The Nineteenth Century pointed out a few months later, "was one of money and of labour rather than of food." The earlier optimism of mid-Victorian observers — Karl Marx as well as Lord Salisbury — about the velocity of economic transformation in India, especially the railroad revolution, had failed to adequately discount for the fiscal impact of such "modernization." The taxes that financed the railroads had also crushed the ryots. Their inability to purchase subsistence was further compounded by the depreciation of the rupee due to the new international Gold Standard (which India had not adopted), which steeply raised the cost of imports. Thanks to the price explosion, the poor began to starve to death even in well-watered districts like Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, "reputed to be immune to food shortages." Sepoys meanwhile encountered increasing difficulty in enforcing order in the panic-stricken bazaars and villages as famine engulfed the vast Deccan plateau. Roadblocks were hastily established to stem the flood of stick-thin country people into Bombay and Poona, while in Madras the police forcibly expelled some 25,000 famine refugees.

India's Nero

The central government under the leadership of Queen Victoria's favorite poet, Lord Lytton, vehemently opposed efforts by Buckingham and some of his district officers to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the autumn of 1876, while the vital kharif crop was withering in the fields of southern India, Lytton had been absorbed in organizing the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India (Kaiser-i-Hind). As The Times's special correspondent described it, "The Viceroy seemed to have made the tales of Arabian fiction true ... nothing was too rich, nothing too costly." "Lytton put on a spectacle," adds a biographer of Lord Salisbury (the secretary of state for India), "which achieved the two criteria Salisbury had set him six months earlier, of being `gaudy enough to impress the orientals' ... and furthermore a pageant which hid `the nakedness of the sword on which we really rely.'" Its "climacteric ceremonial" included a week-long feast for 68,000 officials, satraps and maharajas: the most colossal and expensive meal in world history. An English journalist later estimated that 100,000 of the Queen-Empress's subjects starved to death in Madras and Mysore in the course of Lytton's spectacular durbar. Indians in future generations justifiably would remember him as their Nero.

    Following this triumph, the viceroy seemed to regard the growing famine as a tiresome distraction from the Great Game of preempting Russia in Central Asia by fomenting war with the blameless Sher Ali, the Emir of Afghanistan. Lytton, according to Salisbury, was "burning with anxiety to distinguish himself in a great war." Serendipitously for him, the Czar was on a collision course with Turkey in the Balkans, and Disraeli and Salisbury were eager to show the Union Jack on the Khyber Pass. Lytton's warrant, as he was constantly reminded by his chief budgetary adviser, Sir John Strachey, was to ensure that Indian, not English, taxpayers paid the costs of what Radical critics later denounced as "a war of deliberately planned aggression." The depreciation of the rupee made strict parsimony in the non-military budget even more urgent.

    The 44-year-old Lytton, the former minister to Lisbon, had replaced the Earl of Northbrook after the latter had honorably refused to acquiesce in Disraeli's machiavellian "forward" policy on the northwest frontier. He was a strange and troubling choice (actually, only fourth on Salisbury's short list) to exercise paramount authority over a starving subcontinent of 250 million people. A writer, seemingly admired only by Victoria, who wrote "vast, stale poems" and ponderous novels under the nom de plume of Owen Meredith, he had been accused of plagiarism by both Swinburne and his own father, Bulwer-Lytton (author of The Last Days of Pompeii). Moreover, it was widely suspected that the new viceroy's judgement was addled by opium and incipient insanity. Since a nervous breakdown in 1868, Lytton had repeatedly exhibited wild swings between megalomania and self-lacerating despair.

    Although his possible psychosis ("Lytton's mind tends violently to exaggeration" complained Salisbury to Disraeli) was allowed free rein over famine policy, it became a cabinet scandal after he denounced his own government in October 1877 for "allegedly attempting to create an Anglo-Franco-Russian coalition against Germany." As one of Salisbury's biographers has emphasized, this was "about as absurd a contention as it was possible to make at the time, even from the distance of Simla," and it produced an explosion inside Whitehall. "Salisbury explained the Viceroy's ravings by admitting that he was `a little mad'. It was known that both Lytton and his father had used opium, and when Derby read the `inconceivable' memorandum, he concluded that Lytton was dangerous and should resign: `When a man inherits insanity from one parent, and limitless conceit from the other, he has a ready-made excuse for almost any extravagance which he may commit.'"

    But in adopting a strict laissez-faire approach to famine, Lytton, demented or not, could claim to be extravagance's greatest enemy. He clearly conceived himself to be standing on the shoulders of giants, or, at least, the sacerdotal authority of Adam Smith, who a century earlier in The Wealth of Nations had asserted (vis-ΰ-vis the terrible Bengal drought-famine of 1770) that "famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of dearth." Smith's injunction against state attempts to regulate the price of grain during famine had been taught for years in the East India Company's famous college at Haileybury. Thus the viceroy was only repeating orthodox curriculum when he lectured Buckingham that high prices, by stimulating imports and limiting consumption, were the "natural saviours of the situation." He issued strict, "semi-theological" orders that "there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food," and "in his letters home to the India Office and to politicians of both parties, he denounced `humanitarian hysterics'." "Let the British public foot the bill for its `cheap sentiment,' if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India." By official dictate, India like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory where millions of lives were wagered against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets overcoming the "inconvenience of dearth." Grain merchants, in fact, preferred to export a record 6.4 million cwt. of wheat to Europe in 1877-78 rather than relieve starvation in India.

    Lytton, to be fair, probably believed that he was in any case balancing budgets against lives that were already doomed or devalued of any civilized human quality. The grim doctrines of Thomas Malthus, former Chair of Political Economy at Haileybury, still held great sway over the white rajas. Although it was bad manners to openly air such opinions in front of the natives in Calcutta, Malthusian principles, updated by Social Darwinism, were regularly invoked to legitimize Indian famine policy at home in England. Lytton, who justified his stringencies to the Legislative Council in 1877 by arguing that the Indian population "has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil," most likely subscribed to the melancholy viewpoint expressed by Sir Evelyn Baring (afterwards Lord Cromer), the finance minister, in a later debate on the government's conduct during the 1876-79 catastrophe. "[E]very benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation." In the same vein, an 1881 report "concluded that 80% of the famine mortality were drawn from the poorest 20% of the population, and if such deaths were prevented this stratum of the population would still be unable to adopt prudential restraint. Thus, if the government spent more of its revenue on famine relief, an even larger proportion of the population would become penurious." As in Ireland thirty years before, those with the power to relieve famine convinced themselves that overly heroic exertions against implacable natural laws, whether of market prices or population growth, were worse than no effort at all.

    His recent biographers claim that Salisbury, the gray eminence of Indian policy, was privately tormented by these Malthusian calculations. A decade earlier, during his first stint as secretary of state for India, he had followed the advice of the Council in Calcutta and refused to intervene in the early stages of a deadly famine in Orissa. "I did nothing for two months," he later confessed. "Before that time the monsoon had closed the ports of Orissa — help was impossible — and — it is said — a million people died. The Governments of India and Bengal had taken in effect no precautions whatever.... I never could feel that I was free from all blame for the result." Accordingly, he harbored a lifelong distrust of officials who "worshipped political economy as a sort of `fetish'" as well as Englishmen in India who accepted "famine as a salutary cure for over-population." Yet, whatever his private misgivings, Salisbury had urged appointment of the laissez-faire fanatic Lytton and publicly congratulated Disraeli for repudiating "the growing idea that England ought to pay tribute to India for having conquered her." Indeed, when his own advisers later protested the repeal of cotton duties in the face of the fiscal emergency of the famine, Salisbury denounced as a "species of International Communism" the idea "that a rich Britain should consent to penalize her trade for the sake of a poor India."

    Like other architects of the Victorian Raj, Salisbury was terrified of setting any precedent for the permanent maintenance of the Indian poor. As the Calcutta Review pointed out in 1877, "In India there is no legal provision made for the poor, either in British territory, or in the native states; [although] the need for it is said by medical men and others, to be exceedingly great." Both Calcutta and London feared that "enthusiastic prodigality" like Buckingham's would become a trojan horse for an Indian Poor Law. In its final report, the Famine Commission of 1878-80 approvingly underscored Lord Lytton's skinflint reasoning: "The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief ... would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief, which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension...." None of the principal players on either side of the House of Commons disagreed with the supreme principle that India was to be governed as a revenue plantation, not an almshouse.

The `Temple Wage'

Over the next year, the gathering horror of the drought-famine spread from the Madras Presidency through Mysore, the Bombay Deccan and eventually into the North Western Provinces. The crop losses in many districts of the Deccan plateau and Tamilnad plains (see Table 1.2) were nothing short of catastrophic. Ryots in district after district sold their "bullocks, field implements, the thatch of the roofs, the frames of their doors and windows" to survive the terrible first year of the drought. Without essential means of production, however, they were unable to take advantage of the little rain that fell in April-May 1877 to sow emergency crops of rape and cumboo. As a result they died in their myriads in August and September.

    Millions more had reached the stage of acute malnutrition, characterized by hunger edema and anemia, that modern health workers call skeletonization. Village officers wrote to their superiors from Nellore and other ravaged districts of the Madras Deccan that the only well-fed part of the local population were the pariah dogs, "fat as sheep," that feasted on the bodies of dead children:

[A]fter a couple of minutes' search, I came upon two dogs worrying over the body of a girl about eight years old. They had newly attacked it, and had only torn one of the legs a little, but the corpse was so enormously bloated that it was only from the total length of the figure one could tell it was a child's. The sight and smell of the locality were so revolting, and the dogs so dangerous, that I did not stay to look for a second body; but I saw two skulls and a backbone which had been freshly picked.

Officials, however, were not eager to share such horrors with the English or educated Indian publics, and the vernacular press charged that starvation deaths were being deliberately misreported as cholera or dysentery mortality in order to disguise the true magnitude of the famine.

    Conditions were equally desperate across the linguistic and administrative boundary in the Bombay Deccan. Almost two-thirds of the harvest was lost in nine Maharashtran districts affecting 8 million people, with virtually no crop at all in Sholapur and Kaladgi. The disaster befell a peasantry already ground down by exorbitant taxation and extortionate debt. In the Ahmednagar region officials reported that no less than three-fifths of the peasantry was "hopelessly indebted," while in Sholapur the district officer had warned his superiors in May 1875: "I see no reason to doubt the fact stated to me by many apparently trustworthy witnesses and which my own personal observation confirms, that in many cases the assessments are only paid by selling ornaments or cattle." (As Jairus Banaji comments, "A household without cattle was a household on the verge of extinction.") Ahmednagar with Poona had been the center of the famous Deccan Riots in May-June 1875, when ryots beat up moneylenders and destroyed debt records.

    While British procrastination was sacrificing charity to their savage god, the Invisible Hand, tens of thousands of these destitute villagers were voting with their feet and fleeing to Hyderabad, where the Nazim was providing assistance to famine victims. A large part of Sholapur was depopulated before British officials managed to organize relief works. Then, as a horrified British journalist discovered, they turned away anyone who was too starved to undertake hard coolie labor. But even "the labour test imposed upon the able-bodied," the correspondent noted, "is found to be too heavy for their famished frames; the wages paid are inadequately low; in many districts all who are willing to work do not find employment.... No arrangements have been made to preserve the cattle by providing fodder or pasture lands. No grain stores have been collected or charity houses opened for the infirm and the aged." The only recourse for the young, the infirm and the aged was therefore to attempt the long trek to Hyderabad — an ordeal that reportedly killed most of them.

    Widespread unemployment and the high price of grain, meanwhile, brought the spectre of hunger even into districts where rainfall had been adequate. As a result, several million emaciated laborers and poor peasants overwhelmed the relief works belatedly authorized by the Bombay and Madras governments. At the beginning of February, the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, Sir Richard Temple, was sent south as plenipotentiary Famine Delegate by Lytton to clamp down on the "out of control" expenditures that threatened the financing of the planned invasion of Afghanistan. Although the viceroy had also skirmished bitterly with Sir Philip Wodehouse, the governor of Bombay, over Calcutta's refusal to subsidize large-scale relief works during the fall of 1876, his greatest indignation was directed at Buckingham for making "public charity indiscriminate" in Bellary, Cuddapah and Kurnool, where one-quarter of the population was employed breaking stone or digging canals.

    Temple was a shrewd choice as Lytton's enforcer. Earlier, in 1873-74, he had followed Salisbury's urgings and dealt aggressively with a drought that severely damaged the harvest throughout most of Bengal and Bihar. Importing half a million tons of rice from Burma, he provided life-saving subsistence, both through relief works and a "gratuitous dole," which forestalled mass mortality. Indeed, the official record claimed only twenty-three starvation deaths. It was the only truly successful British relief effort in the nineteenth century and might have been celebrated as a template for dealing with future emergencies. Instead, Temple came under withering fire from London for the "extravagance" of allowing "the scale of wages paid at relief works to be determined by the daily food needs of the labourer and the prevailing food prices in the market rather than by the amount that the Government could afford to spend for the purpose." In public, he was lambasted by The Economist for encouraging indolent Indians to believe that "it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive." Senior civil servants, convinced (according to Lord Salisbury) that it was "a mistake to spend so much money to save a lot of black fellows," denounced the relief campaign as "pure Fourierism." Temple's career was almost ruined.

    In 1877 the thoroughly chastened lieutenant-governor, "burning to retrieve his reputation for extravagance in the last famine," had become the implacable instrument of Lytton's frugality. The viceroy boasted to the India Office that he could not have found "a man more likely, or better able to help us save money in famine management." Indeed, The Times was soon marveling at the "pliability" of his character: "Sir Richard Temple, whether rightly or wrongly, has the reputation of having a mind so plastic and principles so facile that he can in a moment change front and adopt most contradictory lines of policy. His course in the famine districts certainly seems to bear this out, for he is even more strict than the Supreme Government in enforcing a policy which differs in every respect from that which he himself practised in Behar three years ago."

    Although Victoria in her message to the Imperial Assemblage had reassured Indians that their "happiness, prosperity and welfare" were the "present aims and objects of Our Empire," Temple's brief from the Council of India left no ambiguity about the government's true priorities: "The task of saving life irrespective of cost, is one which it is beyond our power to undertake. The embarrassment of debt and weight of taxation consequent on the expense thereby involved would soon become more fatal than the famine itself." Likewise, the viceroy insisted that Temple everywhere in Madras "tighten the reins." The famine campaign in Lytton's conception was a semi-military demonstration of Britain's necessary guardianship over a people unable to help themselves, not an opportunity for Indian initiative or self-organization. If, as a modern authority on famine emphasizes, "emergency relief, like development aid, is only truly effective if the recipients have the power to determine what it is and how it is used," Temple's perverse task was to make relief as repugnant and ineffective as possible. In zealously following his instructions to the letter, he became to Indian history what Charles Edward Trevelyan — permanent secretary to the Treasury during the Great Hunger (and, later, governor of Madras) — had become to Irish history: the personification of free market economics as a mask for colonial genocide.

    In a lightning tour of the famished countryside of the eastern Deccan, Temple purged a half million people from relief work and forced Madras to follow Bombay's precedent of requiring starving applicants to travel to dormitory camps outside their locality for coolie labor on railroad and canal projects. The deliberately cruel "distance test" refused work to able-bodied adults and older children within a ten-mile radius of their homes. Famished laborers were also prohibited from seeking relief until "it was certified that they had become indigent, destitute and capable of only a modicum of labour." Digby later observed that Temple "went to Madras with the preconceived idea that the calamity had been exaggerated, that it was being inadequately met, and that, therefore, facts were, unconsciously may be, squared with this theory.... He expected to see a certain state of things, and he saw that — that and none other."

    In a self-proclaimed Benthamite "experiment" that eerily prefigured later Nazi research on minimal human subsistence diets in concentration camps, Temple cut rations for male coolies, whom he compared to "a school full of refractory children," down to one pound of rice per diem despite medical testimony that the ryots — once "strapping fine fellows" — were now "little more than animated skeletons ... utterly unfit for any work." (Noting that felons traditionally received two pounds of rice per day, one district official suggested that "it would be better to shoot down the wretches than to prolong their misery in the way proposed.") The same reduced ration had been introduced previously by General Kennedy (another acerbic personality, "not personally popular even in his own department") in the Bombay Deccan, and Madras's sanitary commissioner, Dr. Cornish, was "of the opinion that `experiment' in that case [meant] only slow, but certain starvation." Apart from its sheer deficiency in energy, Cornish pointed out that the exclusive rice ration without the daily addition of protein-rich pulses (dal), fish or meat would lead to rapid degeneration. Indeed, as the lieutenant-governor was undoubtedly aware, the Indian government had previously fixed the minimum shipboard diet of emigrant coolies "living in a state of quietude" at twenty ounces of rice plus one pound of dal, mutton, vegetables and condiment. In the event, the "Temple wage," as it became known, provided less sustenance for hard labor than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp and less than half of the modern caloric standard recommended for adult males by the Indian government.

    Temple, who three years earlier had fixed the minimum ration during the Bengal famine at one and one-half pounds of rice plus dal, now publicly disdained the protests of Cornish and other medical officers. They erroneously, and "irresponsibly" in his view, elevated public health above public finance. "Everything," he lectured, "must be subordinated ... to the financial consideration of disbursing the smallest sum of money consistent with the preservation of human life." He completed his cost-saving expedition to Madras by imposing the Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which prohibited at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market-fixing of grain prices. He also stopped Buckingham from remitting onerous land taxes in the famine districts. In May, after Temple had reported back, the viceroy censured Madras officials for their "exaggerated impressions" of misery and "uncalled for relief." Temple meanwhile proclaimed that he had put "the famine under control." (Digby sourly responded that "a famine can scarcely be said to be adequately controlled which leaves one-fourth of the people dead.")

    The militarization of relief, followed by the failure of the southwest monsoon and another doubling of grain prices in the six months from the middle of 1877, punctually produced lethal results. Exactly as medical officials had warned, the "Temple wage" combined with heavy physical labor and dreadful sanitation turned the work camps into extermination camps. By the end of May horrified relief officials in Madras were reporting that more than half of the inmates were too weakened to carry out any physical labor whatsoever. Most of them were dead by the beginning of the terrible summer of 1877. As Temple's most dogged critic, Dr. Cornish, pointed out, monthly mortality was now equivalent to an annual death rate of 94 percent. Post-mortem examinations, moreover, showed that the chief cause of death — "extreme wasting of tissue and destruction of the lining membrane of the lower bowel" — was textbook starvation, with full-grown men reduced to under sixty pounds in weight. Mortality was similar in camps throughout the Bombay Deccan, where cholera, spread by polluted water and filth, accelerated the decimation. One official wrote that one relief road project "bore the appearance of a battlefield, its sides being strewn with the dead, the dying and those recently attacked."

    Jails ironically were the only exception to this institutional mortality pattern, and they were generally preferred by the poor to the disease-ridden relief camps. An American missionary described how a group of weavers begged him to have them arrested for nonfulfillment of a contract. "We are very sorry, sir, but we have eaten up all the money you gave us, and we have made no clothes. We are in a starving condition, and if you will only send us to jail we shall get something to eat." It was an eminently sensible request. "Prisoners were the best fed poor people in the country," and, accordingly, "the jails were filled to overflowing."

    During the Irish famine, Trevelyan had protested that the country's "greatest evil" was not hunger, but "the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people." Similarly, Temple's ferocious response to reports of mass mortality in the camps was to blame the victims: "The infatuation of these poor people in respect to eating the bread of idleness; their dread of marching on command to any distance from home; their preference often for extreme privation rather than submission to even simple and reasonable orders, can be fully believed only by those who have seen or personally known these things." Moreover, he claimed that the majority of the famine dead were not the cultivating yeomanry, "the bone and sinew of the country," but parasitic mendicants who essentially had committed suicide: "Nor will many be inclined to grieve much for the fate which they brought upon themselves, and which terminated lives of idleness and too often of crime."


(C) 2001 Mike Davis All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-85984-739-0

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