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

The People of India (Florence Nightingale)

[Excerpt from Florence Nightingale's "The People of India," published in the August 1878 edition of The Nineteenth Century. The full text of this essay can be access from HathiTrust]

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. Nay, the hour is coming, and even now is, when for ‘State reasons’ we are annexing, or preparing to annex, or to reorganise, or to “protect'—by whatever name we call it—huge and immeasurable  territories because they lie between us and them. But for them themselves—these patient, silent, toiling millions of India, who scarcely but for suffering know their right hand from their left, and yet who are so teachable, so ready to abide by law instead of resisting ‘their enemy the law’—for their daily lives and deaths, we do not as a nation practically care.  Or should we not as a nation practically rise en masse to see that the remediable things to which good public servants have so often vainly called attention shall be remedied? Have we no voice for these voiceless millions?

What is the saddest sight to be seen in the East—nay, probably, in the world? The saddest sight to be seen is the peasant in our own Eastern Empire. But we do not look at this sight—no, not even those few who travel in India.

To speak of India is, however, much as if we were to speak of Europe, since in India there are almost as many races, languages, and climates as in Europe; almost as much difference between provinces and presidencies as between Russia, England, and Spain. The land tenures are also as different, so large an item in material life. Only debt and usury are much the same all over India. And, alas! a chronic state of semi-starvation.

“The bulk of the people of India are paupers: they can just pay their cesses in a good year, and fail altogether when the season is bad. • Remissions have to be made perhaps every third-year in most districts. There is a bad year in some one district or group of districts every year.’ Whose striking words are these ? Not those of a member of Parliament or advocate making a case, or historian or gazetteer writing in his closet. They are those of one of our great English proconsuls ruling in India over a population nearly twice as large as that of France—second only to a viceroy, and who has done perhaps more than any in raising the Indian peasant, in giving him a kind of representation, a voice to rate himself, in giving him education, roads, and a sort of independence or power to hold his own.

Let us try to take a glimpse of one or two of the various provinces in regard principally to material prosperity or rather adversity; and first of Madras, because the famine, not yet over, and the help given by England have tended to fix our eyes just half an hour more than usual upon this presidency as upon India in general. After Madras we will go to the Bombay Deccan (for other provinces this article gives no space). What we engaged to do was to prevent any from dying of famine. What have we done? In many parts one-fourth have died. In Bellary, Kurnool, Cuddapah, and Nellore, the deaths from famine in one year have been from 21 to 27 per cent. At the end of 1876, according to the estimated population, Salem had 2,129,850 souls. On the 14th of March, 1878, she had 1,559,876. More than one-fourth were gone. Here, where even yet the famine will not be over for some months, already, therefore, have died considerably over half a million out of some two million souls. In Mysore there has been a waste of life of one-fourth. We have lost in one year not less than three millions out of the twenty millions more especially under the famine scourge in Madras Presidency—a presidency of 55,000 villages, a population of 35,000,000. In southern India, that is in Mysore, Bombay, and Madras, our loss in one year's famine has not been far short of 6,000,000 souls, or rather bodies—God takes care of the souls; this has been our care of the bodies, in spite of the unflinching courage and honesty of the Government and of every official under it in trying even more than man can do to keep to its purpose of not allowing one famine death—in spite of England and the colonies vying with each other in coming to the rescue by a voluntary subscription of about 800,000 pounds, in distributing which all classes in Madras, European and native, worked hard and well and to the best purpose. 

What should we say of a war which had killed 6,000,000 in one year in a region not much more than half the size of France, or indeed in all the wars in all Europe of the greatest of conquerors? It has not entered into the imagination of man to conceive of such a destruction. One death from starvation in London fills all the newspapers with reports of the inquest upon the body. There is a machinery which costs us seven millions of money a year to prevent it. Public opinion is now holding—holding, did I say? it is not holding, it ought to hold—a gigantic inquest upon 6,000,000 bodies, dead less indeed by our fault in sparing effort, than in spite of every effort, to save them from dying of famine—to save them, not to prevent famine.

Has any effort been made not to prevent deaths from famine, but to prevent famine itself? Can we show any districts in Madras safe from this thrice fatal scourge? We can. Nay, in four districts we can show, not only that the population has not been decimated, or rather quadrated—O that we should have in our days to invent such a word to express the suffering !—as in ill-fated Salem, Bellary, Mysore, but that it has increased. In two of them indeed it has increased more than the estimated population. [Population in India is estimated to increase at the rate of 14 per cent. per annum.]

What are these favoured districts? They are those which have been saved by irrigation works: Tanjore and Kistna.

In Kistna the increase over the estimated population is 5.1 per cent, in Tanjore 1.7 per cent. In the two other districts the population of 1878 was above that of 1871 (the census year), though not quite equal to the estimated population. One of these districts was within reach of irrigated districts, though not yet thoroughly irrigated itself, and crying out for irrigation—Trichinopoly, in which a decrease of 2.9 per cent. below the estimated population was found. The other is Tinnevelly, also partially irrigated, with a decrease of 1.9 per cent."

The Bengal famine of 1873-4 is past and gone: so short are our memories. But not five years ago we were writing, talking of this, working and working hard at this. The conditions truly of Bengal are different; the land tenures are different; the race and language are different; but the sufferings are the same. Why is this? We shall have to give a separate glance at Bengal.

Between five and six millions have perished then in this Madras famine. These are figures, paper and print to us. How can we realise what the misery is of every one of those figures—a living soul, slowly starving to death? I have had photographs sent me of five or six. An infant with precocious resigned eyes of suffering--a living skeleton in its mother's skeleton arms, a dying boy, a helpless old man, a man stricken down in the prime of life. I could not bear to look at them. I hid them away, and would not publish them. But not five or six, but five or six millions lay down thus to die, slowly to die of hunger and thirst, besides the millions who were saved. And when we realise that five or six millions have so died--that we count not by fingers of one hand but by millions, every finger is a million of living, dying people--do we realise what it is to say that many more millions have so lived, been so saved, and will so live after the famine, going back to their bare and roofless homes where not a straw remains? All has been taken for famine needs. Without cattle, without seed corn to plough and sow their now desolated lands, implements wanting, bullocks dead, everything gone; branches to be used instead of ploughs; instead of cattle, men; paupers, unwilling paupers, for years. And this is the most industrious, the most frugal, the most thrifty, one might almost say the most heroic, peasantry on the face of the earth.

Let us look at one or two of these moving skeletons in the famine, not because they are uncommon but because they are common specimens, and particularly at the children; for care of the weakest things, of infant life and of diseased life, is certainly in our belief the characteristic of modern Christianity, though we must put in a plea for modern Indian Hindooism and Mohammedanism too. As certainly the sufferings of children, though no whit less patiently borne, are more severe, more agonising than those of grown-up or old people; for children cannot look forward, cannot understand, can feel nothing but the cruel suffering and weariness of dying, cannot measure the time or see the end. As a child who had fallen into a ditch for one minute said, ‘I was there for a thousand years.” 

[Essay continues]

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