The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

Forgetting the Famines (talk by Amardeep Singh)

(The following notes by Amardeep Singh come from a talk delivered at Michigan State University in March 2017.)

Famines in British India

(Sources: Cambridge Economic History of India Volume 2. (1983). Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2001))

Famines are a repeated refrain in the history of British rule in India, but until recently were not considered an especially important part of that history by colonial historians or literary critics, at least by comparison to other signature events such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The Mutiny triggered a fundamental change in the structure of the British administration, forcing the government to do away with a policy of indirect rule wherein the entire Indian subcontinent was ruled essentially by a corporate entity—the East India Company. Moreover, the Mutiny loomed large as a figure in the literature of the British Empire, spawning a whole mini-genre of Mutiny novels in the immediate aftermath of the event, and inspiring fiction by writers like Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Flora Annie Steele, who would still be publishing Mutiny-themed fiction decades later.

By contrast, a series of Famines through the late 18th and mid-19th centuries transpired in India largely without attracting great notice from canonical literary figures. No major policy changes were implemented to address the loss of life for the first several events shown on these slides. However, it seems accurate to say that a significant shift in policy did occur after the horrific Madras famine of 1876-1878. This famine was closely and carefully documented by journalists; the victims were also photographed, and ghastly etchings of starving Indian bodies were printed in many British magazines and newspapers. Scholars have recently foregrounded the impact of Willoughby Wallace Hooper’s photographs in particular [show slide]; these were widely circulated amongst the British reading public. (Hooper’s photographs are controversial. For one thing, his methods seem ethically dubious; it was generally understood that he didn’t consider it his role to help the starving subjects figured in his photographs. And as critic Zahid Chaudhry recently noted in his chapter on Hooper’s work in Afterimage of Empire, the attempt to generate sympathy through what we might today call “famine porn” was often used to consolidate British power in India, rather than to challenge it.)
Another key figure involved in documenting the famine was the pioneering nurse and public health activist Florence Nightingale, who took up the cause in a blistering critique of British governmental inaction in response to the famine.

We do not care for the people of India. This is a heavy indictment: but how else account for the facts about to be given? Do we even care enough to know about their daily lives of lingering death from causes which we could so well remove? We have taken their lands and their rule and their rulers into our charge for State reasons of our own. […] But for them themselves—these patient, silent, toiling millions of India, […] for their daily lives and deaths, we do not as a nation practically care. (Florence Nightingale, “The People of India”)

As Louise Penner has recently noted in her book about Florence Nightingale, Nightingale’s desired aim was to raise awareness about the failures of the government’s response to the famine. Her efforts, along with those of journalists like William Digby, turned out to be successful. Two years later, the government would convene a Famine Commission to study the problems in the official response to the Madras Famine, and implement new measures like the “Famine Codes” to ensure a timely humanitarian response to famines as they emerged. It’s not clear how effective these policies were. We do know that after 1878 no major new famine occurred in India until 1896; we also know that response to famines continued to be an issue throughout the remaining years of British rule in India. One of the worst famines in the history of the British Empire was also the last – the Bengal famine of 1943.

One reason for the British public essentially forgetting earlier famines was the implicit understanding among government officials that these were natural phenomena endemic to the Indian subcontinent. And this might have been true to some extent of the earliest famines that took place under British rule.

But by the mid-19th century famines were not caused just by natural disasters like drought. Mike Davis has written quite powerfully about the perfect storm of factors, some man-made and some natural in origin, that produced the Madras famine of 1876-8. The primary impact of British colonialism on Indian farmers was exposure to the global marketplace for goods. By the 1870s, that marketplace was affecting what Indian farmers were growing and how they distributed their produce in profound ways:

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. (Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 26)

We need to underline that while the drought was undeniably a factor in producing the Madras famine in 1876, the shift to cash crops in central India and an export-driven market for Indian grains meant that the famine was profoundly worsened by these market-created factors. Moreover, the advent of modern technology such as the telegraph and railroads – often described by Tory historians like Niall Ferguson as the British Empire’s gift to India -- may have actually intensified the problem. Davis writes:

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. (Davis, 26)

But by far the biggest factor in the death toll from the Madras Famine was British government policy. The Viceroy at the time, Edward Lytton, was among many other things an absolutist with respect to free markets and government austerity. Despite the fact that skyrocketing grain prices were making even available food supplies impossible for starving people to access, Lytton issued 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.”

Under the influence of free-market absolutist thinking, British famine relief in the 1870s was structured around not free and rapid distribution of food to those in the greatest need, but on creating paid work for destitute farmers in the form of “hard coolie labor.” In order to be eligible for relief through work camp labor, starving Indian peasants had to transport themselves at least 10 miles from home. Even if a work camp was located in a nearby town, the British disallowed laborers from working there, fearing they might be swamped by starving peasants demanding work. The distance test, the inadequate pay, and the miserly ration allotments disbursed at the work camps led even desperate Indians in the midst of acute starvation to stay home and suffer rather than receive "charity" on these terms. 

The main British official appointed by the Viceroy to oversee Famine relief in the 1876 famine was Sir Richard Temple. Temple had earlier been the chief administrator in Bengal when the 1873 famine had struck. Then, he had spent liberally and imported half a million tons of rice from Burma, and distributed that rice effectively to famine-affected areas. Very few people died in that famine as a result, but Temple was widely castigated by his peers for being too charitable. In 1876, he took the exact opposite approach. On his tour through the famine-affected areas in the south during the second famine, Temple and his staff disputed whether or not Indians were in fact starving, and put forward creative math to argue that the minimum caloric intake for survival of famine-affected Indians should be reduced. A Madras-based journalist critical of Temple’s policies, William Digby, later wrote, 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.” Digby’s account strongly suggests that the worst effects of the famine might have been prevented if Richard Temple and Viceroy Lytton hadn’t manipulated the evidence front of them with the general aim of trying to save a few shillings. In effect, the famine was a consequence of government officials presenting “alternative facts” to evade taking responsibility for human suffering on a massive scale. (Sound familiar?)

The kind of willful blindness Digby ascribes to Richard Temple might also apply in some ways to the Kiplings. While both Lockwood and Rudyard Kipling published regular columns in the newspapers with which they were affiliated (the Allahabad Pioneer for Lockwood; Rudyard Kipling wrote for the Civil and Military Gazette), references to the famines occurring in India were few and far between in their works.  Quite to my surprise, I have found no references at all in Lockwood Kipling’s columns to the terrible Madras famine (1876-1878) in his columns in the Pioneer from those years collected in the University of Sussex Scrapbooks. Admittedly, the absence of famine-related writing in 1876-1878 might be contextual. Lockwood and Alice MacDonald Kipling lived in Bombay until 1875, and in Lahore thereafter. The 1876-1878 famine most heavily impacted Indians in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies. While there was still drought in Punjab, famine conditions were not prevalent there. So Lockwood Kipling may not have witnessed a famine first-hand in his time in India. That said, it’s still quite remarkable that a catastrophic event occurring in one part of India might be effectively invisible to a journalist living in another area. [The omission raises serious questions for us to consider: is it simply symptomatic of the kind of journalist Lockwood Kipling was, or was it common in India at that time for one region to be completely blind to what was happening in another?]

As for Lockwood’s son Rudyard Kipling, the record of covering the famines of late Victorian India isn’t much better. I haven’t seen mention of the famine in any of Rudyard’s signed Indian journalism, though it’s important to note that he wasn’t in India in the 1870s at all. Rudyard is of course best-known today for his fiction chronicling Anglo-Indian life – he had a particularly prolific year in 1888, publishing no less than five collections of short stories in that year. None of those collections make substantial reference to the famines.   

The only substantial account of a famine in any of the India-related fiction by any of the Kiplings is Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “William the Conqueror.” This story was published in a collection called The Day's Work, 1898, several years after he had left India. The famine depicted in this story is set in Madras – though it’s not the 1876 famine – the time period indicated is clearly after the Famine Codes were enacted in 1883. Kipling may have based his account on the 1896-7 famine, which was widespread throughout central India. The focus in Kipling's account is nearly entirely on British civil servants and government workers, who experience great hardships to try and save as many Indians affected by the famine as possible. Some government missteps are acknowledged; at one point the government attempts to distribute grains that are not commonly eaten in Southern India instead of rice. However, it's worth noting that while fever threatens the health of the British government officers depicted in the story, none of the English characters are threatened by the famine itself. 

So even this substantial treatment of famine is somewhat one-sided. By contrast, one might turn to the moving first-person account of surviving a famine by the great Indian writer Pandita Ramabai. She and her brother survived the terrible Madras famine of 1876-1878 – but they lost their father, mother, and sister along the way and suffered terribly for months.

As I’ve done research on this topic I’ve wanted to find ways to use my work to educate readers about the late Victorian famines – both with respect to the Kiplings and looking beyond them. For that reason, I’ve incorporated digital editions of texts by writers like Florence Nightingale, William Digby, Pandita Ramabai and Dadabhai Naoroji into a “Famine” themed “Path” in my Scalar project. The curated collection of texts, with an introduction to the theme, is accessible from a top-menu on the site. Through Scalar’s flexible path structures, I hope to allow readers who are interested in the Kiplings to find what they are looking for; however, users who are interested in learning about (or teaching about ) the Great Indian famine, have a clear pathway for doing that as well. In Scalar, multiple paths can independently point to the same textual and media artifacts, meaning the same archive can do different kinds of work. 

This page has paths: