Colonial perceptions of hunger

Perceptions of famines are as important for historians to study as the famines themselves, says a British historian. The British created famines in India. But the vision of starving people only reinforced their belief in their superiority and right to rule

Published: Sunday 31 May 1992

Colonial perceptions of hunger

-- (Credit: Zunal Abedin)RULERS, universally, create beliefs to justify their rule. The British, certainly, were convinced that the lazy, hungry Indians were incapable of ruling them- selves.

In this book, Famines, David Arnold, a British historian working at the London School of Oriental and African studies, has placed the subject of famines on its head. He argues that it was the West which created famines but simultaneously used them to justify its rule and perpetuate the myth of the racial superiority of white people. Arnold has not studied famines as such, but the way images and perceptions of famines were transformed and used to justify the domination of the rulers over the ruled.

The popular western image of a famine is that of a disaster of "a particularly horrific kind, replete with human misery" , but something that always happens in Biafra or Bihar. This perception has been assiduously cultivated over the years by scholars, academics, administrators and even the clergy.

The most pernicious perception of the cause of 50 famine came from the equation given by the 19th century British Anglican cleric, T R Malthus: "Too many mouths + too little food = famine". Says Arnold, "After climate, the most popular explanation of famine. has surely been overpopulation. "

Sixteen centuries before Malthus, Tertullitin, the North African Christian writer, lamented the destiny of human beings on earth in the following words: "in truth, plague, famine, wars and earthquakes must be regarded as a blessing to civilisation, since they prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race."

Of late, the overpopulation theory has been further elaborated by coupling it with a concern for environmental degradation. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," declared environmentalist Paul Ehrlich in the Population Bomb in 1968. "The famines of the 1970s are upon us - and hundreds of millions of peo- ple are going to starve to death before this decade is out," William and Paul Paddock put it succinctly in their influential book, Famine - 1975: "The stork has passed the plough."

in the early centuries of western expansionism, the world bevond Europe's shores represented big wealth, Hung'r ,y and disease-stricken Europeans, lured by wondrous accounts of merchant travellers like Marco Polo, sailed the seas in search of the fabled wealth of the East. This period was later characterised as the "Age of Discovery" in Europe, but it heralded the beginning of global colonisation elsewhere.

The fabled riches of the East more than met the hopes and dreams of the European navigators and adventurers. But almost everywhere in the wider world, Europe announced its arrival with -famine and disease. Mexico, by the late 19th century, had become USA's poor neighbour. India, under British rule, experienced famine after famine. China, which for Marco Polo had epitomised the miraculous East, had by the end of the 19th century become a byword for poverty.

The persistence and proliferation of famine in other parts of the world, "at a time when western Europe seemed to have successfully freed itself from hunger, profoundly influenced Europe's outlook on the rest of the world, nurturing a belief in its innate superiority over those countries and races which still remained subject to famine. By the end of the 19th century, with growing technological powers at their command, rapidly expanding material resources and a More assured food supply than previous generations had ever known, Europeans now felt they had conquered the threat of famine.

In the colonies, however, European rule had a different impact. Identifying a link between deforestation and declining rainfall, government forest departments were set up in India to conserve woodlands, But, as history shows, these departments only facilitated the exploitation of forests and pauperisation of local communities.

Severe famines in colonial India
1770 Bengal Presidency
1803 Northwest Provinces, Bombay Presidency
1812 Bombay Presidency
1832 Northwest Provences, Madras Presidency
1853 Madras
1865-66 Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Madras Presidency
1868-70 Northwest Provinces, Punjab, Rajputana
1873-74 Bengal, Bihar, Orissa
1876-78 Madras Presidency, Mysore, Hyderabad, Deccan, Northwest Provences
1896-97 Bundelkhand, Bihar, Bengal, Deccan, Madras, Presidency, Northwest Provinces, Oudh, Central Provinces, Punjab
1899-1900 Central province, Berar, Bombay, Ajmer, Merwara, Rajputna
1943 Bengal

The railways, Arnold points out, "discouraged the traditional practice of keeping reserves of grain as protection against harvest failures, and hhey ri@ado peasants perilously dependent upon the, vagaries of a capricious international commodity market.... In itself grow- ing rich, Europe had an unwholesome knack of making others poor and hungry."

But Europeans looking at their own success in Europe no longer believed that famine was God's will. Famine was now humankind's work, a challenge to be overcome through human industry and Inge tv. They overlooked the possibility that they, I ves, might have caused or contributed to othei Isiess and hunger.

"In coastal Orissa, for example, the salt works around Chilka Lake were closed shortly before the famine of 1866 in order to further the interests of Britain's salt producers and salt traders," says Arnold. "Villages hitherto reliant upon salt manufacture for their exployment and income were among those most rapidly and adversely affected by the food shortages and famine that followed the failure of the monsoons." Failure of monsoon is not uncommon in India. Multiple occupations usually provide an economic hedge against them. But British rule affected numerous semi-traditional survival strategies.

Europeans steadily came to perceive the famines encountered in distant parts of the world as a sign of the inferiority of the local inhabitants. As trade and technology became the twin panaceas of the Victorian age, hunger became an imperial stereotype of nonEuropean peoples. Hence, China came to be branded "the land of famine". It was indeed ironical that Europe which, "between 1821 a:nd 1914 shed some 44 million people, people it could no longer feed or find room for", as Arnold puts it, began to talk of feeding the poor hungry masses of the East.

The famines in Asia of the 1860s and 1870s "seem to have marked the first substantial efforts to organise famine relief", says Arnold.' But these relief funds and the activities which they helped finance had more than a humanitarian purpose.... In May 1861, the Lord Mayor of London, William Cubit, hoped, while sending furnis for famine relief to India, that they would "lead to a consolidation of our power". He wanted it to lead to an "improvement in the religious aspect of the country and, by the extension of the Christian religion, to the eternal happiness of the people".

Even in recent years, international agencies have projected a Dne-dimensional image of famine "victims" while appealing to western donors. Arnold argues that this has further reinforced the apparent contrast between European dynamism and native apathy already created during the imperial period and the sense of western power and superiority that famine in the Third World had increasingly come to signify.

Poet-administrator Rudyard Kipling was only reflecting the western mind when he talked of the White Man's Burden to "fill full the mouth of famine" . It probably has not changed much. However, the worst result of colonisation has been the creation of elites which have been so educated that they have no knowledge of their roots, their own culture and history, and greatly share western perceptions of their own societies.

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