In this essay, I will be criticallyassessing whether famines are produced by imperial practices. I will putforward that even though famines were not directly caused by British imperialpractices, the effects of the famine were exacerbated by imperial practices andpolicy. I will be using the Bengal famine (1943) as well as the Irish potatofamine (1842) to support this claim.
Peter Gray highlighted that “Ireland andIndia were the two regions of the British Empire most severely visited byfamine in the 19th Century” (Peter Gray in The Imperial Politics ofFamine: The 1873-74 Bengal Famine and Irish Parliamentary Nationalism, JillBender, 2007 P.1) Famines were not uncommon in Indiadue to the nature of the wet and dry season in India. The Bengal Famine from1873 to 1874 began similarly to other food shortage crisis in the area. Throughoutthe 1873 wet season, the rains came late and if they did come, they were inconsistent.George Campbell noted in Memoirs of My Indian Career; that the real problems startedin September and October when the vital autumn rains failed completely and abruptly,something the country had not seen in the present century. This then resulted inthe winter rice crop (a crop that made up a substantial percentage of theannual Bengali food source) suffering extensive damage throughout the region. Theautumn and winter crops of 1942 were quite a lot less than expected, mainly dueto a cyclone in October followed by torrential rain in parts of Bengal andsubsequently a fungal disease damaging crops.
This food shortage was alsoworsened by the Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 which meant that essentialrice imports to India from Burma were cut off. The Famine Inquiry Commission in1945 would suggest that the famine was produced by natural causes rather thanimperial practices. “Since the famine hit Bengal, it is quite natural in viewof the cyclone, flooding, fungus diseases, the disruption of the war and theloss of Burma’s rice that the famine’s primary cause should be seen in theserious shortage of total supply normally available” (Famine Inquiry Commission,India, 1945a, P.77).
I would, however, put forwardAmartya Sen’s argument, that the issue with famine is not how much food thereis to eat, but the distribution of food. Therefore, the agency with power andcontrol over the distribution of food would certainly have effect of worseningor bettering the famine. (Sen, 1983) I will go onto look at the imperialpractices during the Bengal famine which I would put forward exacerbated theeffects of the famine. In order to look at imperialpractices and famine, one must look at the understanding of what famineactually means. Amartya Sen, 1982, argues that famines are generally understoodin terms of people not having enough food to eat. This is often referred to asthe Food Availability Decline thesis (FAD), when the amount of food available declineswhich causes famine. However, Sen highlights that not having enough food to eatis rarely the issue.
One needs to consider the relationship between people andfood and, in particular, issues of ownership of food in the broadest sense.Therefore, the issue surrounding famine is more about the ownership anddistribution, rather than the lack of food. This is a shift in thought from FADto the “Entitlement Approach”. A key question raised when assessingthis question is why are famines produced under imperial conditions but notunder democratic rule? The distinction between democracy and imperialism is whothe government feels they have a responsibility towards in terms of ensuring thattheir basic needs for subsistence are met. Under colonial rule, all subjects ofthe empire are deemed to be equally subjects of the empire.
However, there is asense of who the government owes responsibility to not allow them to die fromstarvation and whose lives are deemed to be expendable. In both contexts of theIrish famine and Bengal famine, the British government in Westminster hadultimate responsibility for the lives of these populations but deemed theirlives to be expendable due to other priorities. While the famine was not directlycaused by British imperial practices, Amartya Sen highlights that policy failureshad a key role in the famine. The refusal of the British Government to allowmore food imports into India through reallocation of shipping as an emergencymeasure to tackle the famine was heavily criticised.
Lord Wavell who became thenew Viceroy during the last stage of the famine stated: “the vital problems ofIndia are being treated by His Majesty’s government with neglect, evensometimes with hostility and contempt” (Letter to Winston Churchill, dated 24Oct 1944, quoted in Wavell (1973) p.95, in Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: AnEssay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1983). The Famine became a focal point ofnationalist criticism of British Imperial policy in India. However, the Indian andBengal government were also criticised in the Famine Inquiry Commission (1945)due to the inadequacy of official policy in tackling the Bengal famine. Therefore,while I would argue that British imperial policy and practices certainly madethe effects of the famine in Bengal worse, the national government also had arole to play in policy failure.
Another contributing factor to consider was thescorched earth policy used by the British. Due to fear of invasion from theJapanese, military destroyed crops that might have been useful to enemy forces.This alongside the redistribution of rice grown in India to other parts of the empire,such as Australia, as it was decided by the British, that troops needed therice more than the peasants growing the rice. London also refused requests fromNew Delhi to import grains to India. These imperial policies certainly prolongedthe length of the famine and more than likely meant that more people died as aresult of imperial policy.
Under British rule there was estimated to be over 20million famine deaths (Gough, 1947)Between 1857 and 1947 India wasruled by the British state and the East India company took on the responsibilityof tax collection. During this period of colonial rule taxes charged were usedto fund imperial wars and government expenses. The majority of the money wassent back to Britain to invest in factories and the setting up of theindustrial revolution in Britain. Even though famines were caused by physicalcauses, the inaction of colonial officials who refused to lower taxes despite massivecrop failure created the conditions where approximately one in three of thepopulation of Bengal and surrounding areas died. (Chakraborty, 2015) In the 19th centuryIreland was one of the poorest European countries.
Potatoes and milk were thebasic diet of much of the population and for about half of the population atthe time, potatoes were the sole source of food for them. In late 1845, betweena third and half of Ireland’s fields were wiped out due to potato blight. Few peopledied this year, however, the crop failed the following year and at this pointthe first deaths, due to starvation, were reported by press.
By 1847 food riotsbegan in response to deaths caused by starvation. Initially the British set up a ‘works’programme in response. The programme consisted of employing Irish citizens andwith that money earnt, they would be able to buy food. However, the programmewas deemed to be overly costly, inefficient and did not halt the rise instarvation deaths. The works scheme was then replaced by the Destitute Poor Actbetween March and September 1847. This meant that the British took onresponsibility for providing soup to the starving population. By September 1847,the responsibility for looking after the impoverished was shifted to the Irishcolonial government in the form of the Irish Poor Law. The British governmentdecided that the responsibility of feeding the starving should shift to the Irishtax payer.
This was partly due to the financial crisis in Britain at the time.However, the issue with this shift, was that high unemployment in Ireland meantthat people were unable to pay tax as there was no work available, and thereforethere was no money to implement the poor law. These policy changes implementedby the British government did not directly cause the famine, however they certainlyexacerbated the situation. However, it is worth keeping in mind the attitude atthe times of these famines. British colonial administrators understood theIrish famine as an event brought on by God as a way of clearing the land of redundantpeople, and so the British government deemed that they did not have a responsibilityto these peasants starving.
In conclusion, it is clear fromboth the Bengal, famine and the Irish potato famine that imperial practicescertainly worsened the effects of the famines. I would however, put forward thatimperial practices did not directly produce famine. Imperialism often meansthat supplies from the country (the periphery) get transported back to the centre,resulting in a deficit to the home county, and although there is an argumentfor the implementation of western agricultural practices, increasing cropyield, arguable this only occurs recently, not all the time and certainly notduring the height of the colonial push.