FAMINE AND COLONIAL RULE: 1860 - 1901 by Roderick Matthews


During the last forty years of the nineteenth century India experienced a series of devastating famines, of a frequency and a severity previously unknown. As many as fifteen million people may have died either from starvation or as a result of disease exacerbated by prolonged malnutrition. To what degree responsibility for this total must be borne by the British colonial administration is open to question. Certainly the British reaction was often slow, misinformed and inflexible, though over time experience did lead to the development of greater vigilance and a less economically doctrinaire approach to famine relief. At the time, opponents and critics of British rule, in both India and Great Britain, did not hesitate to associate the evils of famine with the self-interested nature of colonialism, and a standard list of causes of famine emerged, such as excessive taxation and the ‘drain’ of Indian wealth from the country to pay for a bloated and overpaid administration. Nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and R. C. Dutt were prominent among these critics, but there were many others, including William Digby (1849-1904) and the Rev. J. T. Sunderland (1842-1936), both English but writing respectively in India and North America. The British Government of India defended itself and held numerous Commissions to enquire into the causes of famines and ways to relieve their worst effects. Nevertheless a substantial body of polemical literature grew up on the subject, and has continued to swell ever since. At its worst this debate simply polarises into either an attack on the inhumanity of the British or on the laziness and improvidence of Indian peasants. Fortunately, the selective and partisan nature of these discussions has been remedied by later writers such as A. Loveday (The History and Economics of Indian Famines, 1914) and more recently B. M. Bhatia (Famines In India, 1963) allowing us to look back on these desperate decades of hunger with a more nuanced understanding of what was actually going on. The British Raj still stands indicted on several charges of incompetence, and occasionally indifference, but the overall picture of events, and with it our understanding of the complex interlocking causes of the long series of late Victorian famines, is now very much more complete.

This paper examines the years 1860 to 1901 with reference to five great famines, and examines what caused them, how the British responded, and why the series was eventually halted and did not return.

Roderick Matthews, Historian, Obtained a First from Balliol College, Oxford in Modern History. Studied Medieval History under Maurice Keen. Studied Tudor and Stuart History under Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College. Studied European History under Colin Lucas, later Master of Balliol College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Studied Imperial History under Professor Paul Longford, Rector of Lincoln College


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