Famine in British India
Astronomical Dating of Events
& Select Vignettes from Indian History
Edited and compiled by
Excerpts from forthcoming book titled Astronomical Dating of Events
& Select Vignettes from Indian History
Edited and compiled by
Figure 4 The picture of famine 1877
India is a land laced with numerous rivers and noted for its agricultural bounty, famine was a rare occurrence in India till late into the medieval era, and was usually the consequence of a major natural or manmade catastrophies. All that changed after the British conquered the territories of the sub continent . The frequency of famine was especially high in areas directly administered by the British. There were many great famines where millions died, and famine occurred with dreadful regularity after the British crown took assumed the overlordship of the subcontinent . The present picture of India as a land bedeviled with extreme poverty is a direct legacy of the massive incompetence of the British in their stewardship of the subcontinent. The British destroyed the dignity of the vast portions of the population and reduced them to a undernourished and poverty stricken populace, where almost 90% of the population was under the grim levels of poverty. The pathetic story of the inhumanity of the colonial overlord is chronicled by Davis . The estimate of total killed in all the famines during British rule is approximately 50 million. When coupled with the 70 million killed during the era of Islamic domination of the subcontinent, one wonders how the Hindu survived at all.
Table Incidence of Famines in India
1770: territory ruled by the British East India Company experienced the first Bengal famine of 1770. An estimated 10 million people died.
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)
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.
Figure 5 The famine in India - the sufferers at Bellary, Madras Presidency. October 20, 1877.
10 million died in this famine in India. This is the same region of India where once the famed and opulent Vijayanagara Empire ruled a vast area of South India for over 200 years.
Some British citizens such as William Digby agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. Reacting against calls for relief during the 1877-79 famine, Lytton replied, "Let the British public foot the bill for its 'cheap sentiment,' if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India," substantively ordering "there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food," and instructing district officers to "discourage relief works in every possible way.... Mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work." (quoted in Davis 2001:31, 52)
It is rare to see any censure of Lord Lytton, the Viceroy by traditional British historians like Sir Penderel Moon, but clearly his callousness towards the extinction of human life by slow starvation especially if it was Indian ,even on such a massive scale, bordered on the bestial.
The Famine Commission of 1880 observed that each province in British India, including Burma, had a surplus of foodgrains, and the annual surplus amounted to 5.16 million tons (Bhatia, 1970). At that time, annual export of rice and other grains from India was approximately one million tons. At about the same time the British devised the first ever famine scales and engaged themselves in a series of canal building and irrigation improvements. The results were that the mortality rate decreased rapidly. There was the threat of famine but after 1902 there was no major famine in India until 1943. In 1907 and in 1874 the response from the British was better: in both cases rice was imported from abroad and famine was averted.
Figure 6 The Famine of 1877 People dying of starvation. Altogether around 26 million people died between 1876 and 1906 during the ‘benign’ colonialism of the British
Figure 7 Famine in Madras province, 1877
Figure 8 The Great Uprising of 1857
This was an uncoordinated spontaneous uprising against the tyranny of the British rule in India. There is no question that the British would have been overwhelmed had there been a coordinated attack by the Indians. But that was not to be. Significant sectors of the population remained apathetic to the uprising. The result was that there was a terrible reprisal of Indian lives by the British , when they went on a rampage killing thousands of Indians. The underlying premise behind the British actions and their reprisal was ‘how dare they rebel against our rule’.
“The discovery unleashed an “all but national cry for unmitigated vengeance” (Ball 2:168); the “retributive impulses of our people,” as the historian Sir John Kaye calls them (2:170), were given even freer rein than before. One primary instrument of these impulses was the sternly pious Colonel (subsequently Brigadier General) James Neill, who already had made a name for himself for the ferocious retribution he had inflicted elsewhere upon mutineers and their suspected sympathizers. Left in command at Cawnpore as Havelock moved on to attempt the relief of Lucknow, Neill invented a form of extra punishment for condemned men thought to have been implicated in the massacre. Before being taken out to the gallows, each was forced to clean up with his own hands or to lick up a small square of dried blood from the courtyard pavement where the prisoners had been slaughtered—an appalling pollution for a high-caste Hindu, as most of the sepoys were. Neill proudly expressed his conviction that God was at work in the “strange law” that he had instituted (Ball 2:400). This was only one of the best publicized of many instances of merciless reprisals visited by British authorities, often on the flimsiest legal pretexts, upon Indian combatants and civilians in the course of the fierce campaign to restore British supremacy in India.”
An estimated 28,000 Indians were hanged or otherwise massacred by the British.
“A skillful retelling of a celebrated Victorian military engagement: the rebel siege of the north Indian city of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. When Indian soldiers rose up and slaughtered their own officers, the British public was stunned at their treachery. Astonishment turned to horror as rebels killed European civilians and Indian Christians who had taken refuge in North Indian cities. The slaughter of European women and children led to a far more brutal and indiscriminate British retaliation. Readers in Victorian England had an insatiable appetite for harrowing tales of the mutiny, and European survivors of these events published dozens of histories and memoirs. Journalist Ward follows them closely in his story of the shocking events at Cawnpore, where European soldiers were massacred after being guaranteed safe passage by the local ruler, Nana Sahib, and his treacherous adviser, Azimullah. After harsh imprisonment, the surviving women and children were hacked to pieces and their bodies stuffed into a well. Enraged at the discovery of what had been done, and inflamed by false accusations of rape, British soldiers forced defeated Indian rebels to lick up the blood of European victims, then executed thousands of them. Some were strapped to cannons and blown to bits. For decades after the mutiny, any publication presenting the Indian point of view was banned by the British ruler of India. Ward (whose 1985 novel, Blood Seed, dealt with the aftermath of the mutiny) recognizes the British bias of his sources and tries to read between the lines in search of an Indian point of view. But it is perhaps inevitable that the passion of his book comes from its European sources. Ward's gripping account of heroism and cruelty falls short in its attempt to be fair to Indian as well as British victims. (40 illustrations, not seen). -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. “
Figure 9 Interior of Fort Taku immediately after capture in 1860
Figure 10 Secundra Bagh after the Great Indian Uprising 1857
“British public opinion seemed to concur. Many people agreed that the East India Company had made its bed and was now lying in it. Company officers were blamed for excessive conversion efforts among their Hindu and Muslim sepoys as "one cause of the outbreak." Blackwood's Magazine, a respected journal with clear connections to an imperially-minded audience, suggested in addition that "our leaders were unequal to their duty" in the crisis. So great was the general contempt for the perceived blunders of the East India Company that the Anglo-Indian Delhi Gazette Extra was forced to concede, "[t]he British public remain utterly impassive and indifferent, and become impatient when the subject is broached in conversation. They have made up their mind that it was entirely owing to the insolence and incompetency of the Regimental Officers, and seem rather glad that they have suffered for their supposed dereliction of duty."
But when news of the Kanpur massacre began to filter into Britain by the late summer of 1857, the mood of the British public shifted abruptly away from its previous critical mode. In the wake of the murders, the Rebellion metamorphosed from a military conflict on the imperial periphery to a popular national struggle in which even ordinary Britons felt invested. The specter of British women and children being murdered by colonial men proved to be a catalyst by which ideologies of gender and race became both inseparable and central to the British ‘cause’ in India.
Coverage of the event was widespread and sensational in national, provincial, and local papers all over Britain. The London Times alone carried one hundred eight stories on the massacre between August 15, 1857 and February 3, 1860. All of the largest national newspapers, regardless of political affiliation, featured intensive coverage of the murders—including Reynolds’s, Lloyd’s, and News of the World. In addition to selling newspapers, these ‘horrors’ also inspired unprecedented local action, by prompting packed meetings to pledge money for the victims of the Rebellion.
The depth of public reaction to the murders was due in large part to the lurid nature of the published accounts. Though papers frequently argued that the ‘vile tortures’ practised upon British women and children should "be remembered, not told," all of them did in fact ‘tell’ of rape and torture in graphic detail. Letters and telegraphs flooded the papers with accounts of women being raped in front of their children before being killed, of matted blood, gory remains of children’s limbs, and of the suffocation of living children among their dead mothers when the victims were thrown into a well.
Such graphic tales of rape and murder inflamed public sentiments calling for vengeance on a massive scale. The Illustrated London News voiced its indignation in tandem with most other national, provincial, and local papers when it claimed that "every British heart, from the highest to the humblest of the land, glows with honest wrath, and demands justice, prompt and unsparing, on the bloodyminded instruments of the Rebellion." Leading national and provincial papers went so far as to advocate the ‘extermination’ of Muslim and Hindu rebels. In India, the Delhi Gazette also proclaimed that "the paramount duty of the British Government is now retribution—a duty to the dead and living."
This vengeance was imagined against perpetrators who had come to represent a potent mixture of masculine, racial, and religious depravity. Sepoys were represented in the press not as men, but as "demons" and "fiends," led by their "passions" to "faithlessness, rebellion, and crimes at which the heart sickens." Their apparent thirst for innocent blood—and their reported lust for forbidden women—had unmanned them, and placed them outside the boundaries of masculine honor. Moreover, their decision to operate outside these rules of conduct absolved the British from addressing their grievances or from showing them mercy. A poem in the Anglo-Indian Delhi Gazette put it plainly when it cried, "No mercy's shown to men whose hands/ With women's blood yet reek!"
That rebel sepoys would commit such unspeakable crimes against women was attributed both to racial characteristics and to religion. In India, the conflict had hardened racial hatreds among British officers long before Kanpur. Correspondence reveals widespread use of the word ‘nigger’ and other racially antagonistic language when referring to natives, and officers writing home frequently echoed the contention that "[t]he race of men in India are certainly the most abominable, degraded lot of brutes that you can imagine, they don't seem to have a single good quality." In the British and Anglo-Indian media, such language received almost unqualified sanction in the wake of Kanpur. Despite the fact that a majority of high-caste Bengal army sepoys were traditionally recruited for their tall physiques and light skin, British sources depicted "gangs of black satyrs" raping and dismembering British women, and called rebel Indians "that venom race," "in heart as black as face."
These ‘black’ villains were also believed to be depraved because of their religion, whether Hindu or Muslim, for in both cases religion was presumed to have encouraged the rape and murder of British women. Rumors circulated that some of the women at Kanpur were raped, kidnapped, and forced to convert to Islam. High-caste Brahmins were said to be slaves to the requirements of caste, which supposedly included debased notions of masculine honor. Shortly after Kanpur, the Delhi Gazette bellowed:
We shall never again occupy a high ground in India until we have put a yoke upon the Brahmins. We have conceded too much to the insolence of caste. Not one high caste man should henceforward be entrusted with a sword.... He has been trusted with power, and how has he betrayed it? The graves of 100 English women and children—worse, the unburied bones of those poor victims—are the monuments of high bred sepoy chivalry.
By their crimes at Kanpur, then, both Hindu and Muslim sepoys had given up all claims to manliness, to honor, to bravery, and to chivalry. Moreover, both their ‘race’ and their religion were increasingly called upon to explain the loss of those claims.
The effects of such narrative constructions were not merely textual—instead, they had real effects in the material world. Perhaps most importantly, they legitimated acts of appalling vengeance by British forces. At the same time, however, British control over these narratives either glossed or completely ignored the extent of British acts of brutality against Indian soldiers and civilians. As one of the conflict’s most influential historians put it in 1864, the Rebellion had been fought by "English heroes" who, in the end, "marched triumphantly to victory."
More recently, a growing number of historians have acknowledged that these "English heroes" were responsible for savage acts of retribution in India. Once it was clear that the Rebellion might induce any number of Bengal army regiments to mutiny, for example, many British officers lost no time making examples of the mutineers through execution. Punishment was sometimes general, involving the slaughter of whole, or nearly whole, regiments. This was the fate of the 51st and 26th regiments, who both fell victim to the "unceasing vigilance" of John Lawrence in his proactive efforts to stem the Rebellion in the Punjab. Of the 26th, Lawrence noted in August 1857 that, "we have killed and drowned 500 out of the 600 men of the… regiment."
In addition to military executions, the British also exacted severe reprisals on civilian populations in north-central India. The notorious actions of Colonel James Neill, called to Bengal from the Madras army to help suppress the Rebellion, bear directly on the events surrounding the Kanpur massacre. After arriving in Allahabad on June 11, 1857, Neill was responsible for thousands of murders both of sepoys and suspected rebels as well as innocent men, women, and children. Describing the actions of Neill’s troops around Allahabad, one officer wrote:
Every native that appeared in sight was shot down without question, and in the morning Colonel Neill sent out parties of regiment [?]...and burned all the villages near where the ruins of our bungalows stood, and hung every native that they could catch, on the trees that lined the road. Another party of soldiers penetrated into the native city and set fire to it, whilst volley after volley of grape and canister was poured into the fugitives as they fled from their burning houses.
On June 29 1857, Neill ordered "the village of Mullagu and neighborhood to be attacked and destroyed—slaughter all the men—take no prisoners." He added, "all insurgents that fall into good hands hang at once—and shoot all you can."
Significantly, Neill’s ‘bloody assizes’ around Allahabad (as they came to be known) occurred before, not after, the massacre of British women and children at Kanpur on July 15. Some scholars have speculated that the murders were ordered in retaliation for the Indian civilians whose murders Neill personally supervised. Whether or not such a contention can be proven, it is nevertheless clear that Neill’s brutality could not have been justified by the Kanpur massacre as was so often contended, for his own excesses preceded the event.
Yet while British atrocities preceded the massacre at Kanpur, once news of the killings spread they were used to justify retaliatory murders and punishments on an astonishing scale. Neill himself, who was with the first British force to enter the city two days after the massacre, invented macabre executions for both Hindu and Muslim sepoys that were designed to ensure both intense suffering before death and eternal damnation afterwards.
British soldiers sent to India offered ample testimony to the scale of British retaliation against both military and civilian targets. Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, "three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day." The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, "if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head." McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, "he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt…Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here."
Private Alexander Robb, also of the 42nd, described the first summary hanging of an Indian civilian he witnessed during the Rebellion, adding, "that was the first man I saw dancing on nothing in India, but it was not the last, for I saw some awful sights in that line." Lieutenant Robert Bruce McEwen of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders recorded, on numerous days, routinely shooting large numbers of prisoners and in taking part in actions where between 500 and 700 rebels were killed. And when British forces finally attacked and re-took the city of Delhi in September, 1857, they were merciless in their treatment of soldiers and civilians alike.
As these stories indicate, the history of the Rebellion—like all historical subjects—is continually in the process of being revised and re-interpreted. Scholars in the post-colonial period in particular have challenged British-centered accounts of the Rebellion, emphasizing instead the widespread nature of the conflict among Indian civilians as well as soldiers, and the scale of British retribution and violence. In recent years, historians of gender and racial theory have also contributed to the re-interpretation of the Rebellion by emphasizing the important consequences of the conflict for imperial ideologies. All of these approaches have helped to deepen our understanding of this bloody, brutal, but significant conflict. For the Rebellion was both a military mutiny and a peasant rebellion; it included murders and atrocities on both the British and the Indian sides; and it was significant not just in military terms but in ideological and historiographical terms as well.
 Davis, Mike.,”Late Victorian Holocausts”, Verso, 2002
Posted by Kaushal at 11:21 AM
nice history here. The British committed tremendous atrocities in India after 1857, not just the 1 million Indians shot or hanged for the rebellion, but the 40 million people in India killed by British famines, as you show. This despite UK ruling only half of India-- the other half of India did not have these famines.
The British were much worse than Nazis and Soviets, with what they did in India and wiping out aboriginal peoples.
That history is finally coming out.
how terribly for those worked with british colonial administration...........are they still be be concluded, regarded as heroes??? ????????????
praised colonial administration is terribly and khianat acts...................is betraying her motherland..........................is terribly idiots!!!!!!!!!
no, anyone worked with colonial administartion, IS BETRAYING.......
IRREGARDLESS OF under any excuse...reason....explaination is null.....conclusion--they are khainati motherland, they are traitors.....they are bastards!!!!!!
ANYONE WORKED WITH BRITISH COLONIAL ADMINISTARTION IS TRAITOR.......THE CONCLUSION IS :TRAITOR!!!!!!!!!
ONLY ONE ANSWER:TRAITOR! BETRAYING MOTHERLAND!!!!!!!!!!!!!