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
Colonial perceptions of hunger
RULERS, universally, create beliefs to justify their
rule. The British, certainly, were convinced that the
lazy, hungry Indians were incapable of ruling them-
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|
|1803||Northwest Provinces, Bombay Presidency|
|1832||Northwest Provences, Madras Presidency|
|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|
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