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Famine in British Colonial India

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Famine in India and the colonial world



In 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

Year Location of famine areas

1770 Bengal

1783 Bihar. Bengal, and Punjab



1803 Northwest Frontier province


1819 Northwest and Oudh


1832 Lower Madras

1837 Northwest and lower Doab

1853 Higher  Madras

1861 Northwest and lower Doab

1868 Rajputana

1874 Bengal and Bihar

1877 Bombay and Madras - affected 138,911 square miles and 26,897,971 souls





  • 0: territory ruled by the British East India Company experienced the first 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.

    Lower Bengal 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.

    “All 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 citizens.....


    John Fiske, American philosopher in The Unseen World, Chapter IX, THE FAMINE OF 1770 IN BENGAL.[30] . 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.
  • In 1943, 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

    Mike Davis
    Verso Books 2000, pb £20, pp 464 + viii, illus, bib, refs, index
    ISBN 1-85984-739-0

    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.

    In 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.

    One 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 percent.

    The 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?

    David Renton

    A fascinating, sobering historical investigation

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