Lonesome deaths (or the inconvenience of dearth)

Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears’
The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, Bob Dylan

Across the world between 1876 and 1879 drought induced famine led to the deaths of millions of people. The global grain market, a new phenomenon, led to big price rises. The price a merchant in Liverpool paid for wheat meant that people in India couldn’t afford locally grown wheat. During the famine in India exports of wheat to Britain increased. ‘In former times small local stores had been held aganst harvest failure, but these had now been discontinued or swept away into the big market.’ The safeguards inherent in tradtional local communities had been demolished.

In 1876 Lord Lytton, the viceroy of India, put on a great show to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India; it included a week-long feast for 68,000 people. William Digby, a radical journalist estimated that during the course of the durbar 100,000 people died in Madra and Mysore. Queen Vctoria sent a message saying that the aim of the Empire was ‘the happiness, prosperity and welfare’ of the Indian people.

Lytton was keen – ‘burning with anxiety’, according to Lord Salisbury, the Foreign Secretary – to invade Afghanistan, as part of the Great Game against the Russians. And it was Indian and not British taxpayers who had to foot the bill, which increased dramatically as a result of the devaluation of the rupee. There was no cash for handouts.

The viceroy was a free trade fanatic. He believed that, as Adam Smith asserted a century earlier , ‘famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of dearth.’ He anounced that there was to be no interference on the part of the government with the price of food. And he believed that the people who were starving were idle, criminal and too numerous. His judgment was supported by the report of the Famine Commission of 1878-80: ‘the doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief …. would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief… ‘

There were enough reports by journalists, agitation by a few radical MP’s, protests by officials with consciences – by Florence Nightingale even – to lead Lytton to set up famine relief camps, slave labour camps in effect. A Doctor Cornish, a medical officer, estimated that the annual death rate in the camps was 94%. The calorific value of the daily ration was less than that at Buchenwald. Lytton came back from a holiday in the Himalayas and announced after a brief visit to a camp that it was a ‘popular picnic’, people were ‘bursting with fat’ and doing no work.

Lytton’s zealous lieutenant, a man named Temple, criticised Cornish for elevating ‘public health above public finance’. And he imposed the ‘Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which prohibited at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market-fixing of grain prices.’

That, rather than reports of dogs eating dead babies, or peasants feeding their thatched roofs to their dying cattle, or men killing their own families rather than watch them slowly die and then killing themselves, or people in cities dropping dead beside well-guarded grain stores, was my Hattie Carroll moment.


The famines in India in 1876-9 and 1896-1902 are estimated to have killed between 16 and 30 million people.

Eventually a famine relief fund was set up, mostly paid for by taxing the poor. Some of the money though went towards the costs of the invasion of Afghanistan, which took place on Lytton’s insistence soon after the end of the famine.

I agree whole heartedly with those Tories who say our children should study more British history, but it’s probably too upsetting for kids under the age of, say, fourteen, and the schools might have to provide counselling.

I got all this in Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis.

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2 Responses to Lonesome deaths (or the inconvenience of dearth)

  1. Terrific post Jonathan x

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. janeandallan says:

    Thanks for this Jonny. Such a lot to think about. May I forward it to friends.

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