In imperial practices. “Since the famine hit Bengal, it

In this essay, I will be critically
assessing whether famines are produced by imperial practices. I will put
forward that even though famines were not directly caused by British imperial
practices, the effects of the famine were exacerbated by imperial practices and
policy. I will be using the Bengal famine (1943) as well as the Irish potato
famine (1842) to support this claim. Peter Gray highlighted that “Ireland and
India were the two regions of the British Empire most severely visited by
famine in the 19th Century” (Peter Gray in The Imperial Politics of
Famine: The 1873-74 Bengal Famine and Irish Parliamentary Nationalism, Jill
Bender, 2007 P.1)

 

Famines were not uncommon in India
due to the nature of the wet and dry season in India. The Bengal Famine from
1873 to 1874 began similarly to other food shortage crisis in the area. Throughout
the 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 started
in 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 in
the winter rice crop (a crop that made up a substantial percentage of the
annual Bengali food source) suffering extensive damage throughout the region. The
autumn and winter crops of 1942 were quite a lot less than expected, mainly due
to a cyclone in October followed by torrential rain in parts of Bengal and
subsequently a fungal disease damaging crops. This food shortage was also
worsened by the Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 which meant that essential
rice imports to India from Burma were cut off. The Famine Inquiry Commission in
1945 would suggest that the famine was produced by natural causes rather than
imperial practices. “Since the famine hit Bengal, it is quite natural in view
of the cyclone, flooding, fungus diseases, the disruption of the war and the
loss of Burma’s rice that the famine’s primary cause should be seen in the
serious shortage of total supply normally available” (Famine Inquiry Commission,
India, 1945a, P.77).

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I would, however, put forward
Amartya Sen’s argument, that the issue with famine is not how much food there
is to eat, but the distribution of food. Therefore, the agency with power and
control over the distribution of food would certainly have effect of worsening
or bettering the famine. (Sen, 1983) I will go onto look at the imperial
practices during the Bengal famine which I would put forward exacerbated the
effects of the famine.

 

In order to look at imperial
practices and famine, one must look at the understanding of what famine
actually means. Amartya Sen, 1982, argues that famines are generally understood
in terms of people not having enough food to eat. This is often referred to as
the Food Availability Decline thesis (FAD), when the amount of food available declines
which causes famine. However, Sen highlights that not having enough food to eat
is rarely the issue. One needs to consider the relationship between people and
food and, in particular, issues of ownership of food in the broadest sense.
Therefore, the issue surrounding famine is more about the ownership and
distribution, rather than the lack of food. This is a shift in thought from FAD
to the “Entitlement Approach”.

A key question raised when assessing
this question is why are famines produced under imperial conditions but not
under democratic rule? The distinction between democracy and imperialism is who
the government feels they have a responsibility towards in terms of ensuring that
their basic needs for subsistence are met. Under colonial rule, all subjects of
the empire are deemed to be equally subjects of the empire. However, there is a
sense of who the government owes responsibility to not allow them to die from
starvation and whose lives are deemed to be expendable. In both contexts of the
Irish famine and Bengal famine, the British government in Westminster had
ultimate responsibility for the lives of these populations but deemed their
lives to be expendable due to other priorities.

 

While the famine was not directly
caused by British imperial practices, Amartya Sen highlights that policy failures
had a key role in the famine. The refusal of the British Government to allow
more food imports into India through reallocation of shipping as an emergency
measure to tackle the famine was heavily criticised. Lord Wavell who became the
new Viceroy during the last stage of the famine stated: “the vital problems of
India are being treated by His Majesty’s government with neglect, even
sometimes with hostility and contempt” (Letter to Winston Churchill, dated 24
Oct 1944, quoted in Wavell (1973) p.95, in Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An
Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1983). The Famine became a focal point of
nationalist criticism of British Imperial policy in India. However, the Indian and
Bengal 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 made
the effects of the famine in Bengal worse, the national government also had a
role to play in policy failure. Another contributing factor to consider was the
scorched earth policy used by the British. Due to fear of invasion from the
Japanese, 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 the
rice more than the peasants growing the rice. London also refused requests from
New Delhi to import grains to India. These imperial policies certainly prolonged
the length of the famine and more than likely meant that more people died as a
result of imperial policy. Under British rule there was estimated to be over 20
million famine deaths (Gough, 1947)

Between 1857 and 1947 India was
ruled by the British state and the East India company took on the responsibility
of tax collection. During this period of colonial rule taxes charged were used
to fund imperial wars and government expenses. The majority of the money was
sent back to Britain to invest in factories and the setting up of the
industrial revolution in Britain. Even though famines were caused by physical
causes, the inaction of colonial officials who refused to lower taxes despite massive
crop failure created the conditions where approximately one in three of the
population of Bengal and surrounding areas died. (Chakraborty, 2015)

 

In the 19th century
Ireland was one of the poorest European countries. Potatoes and milk were the
basic diet of much of the population and for about half of the population at
the time, potatoes were the sole source of food for them. In late 1845, between
a third and half of Ireland’s fields were wiped out due to potato blight. Few people
died this year, however, the crop failed the following year and at this point
the first deaths, due to starvation, were reported by press. By 1847 food riots
began in response to deaths caused by starvation.

 

Initially the British set up a ‘works’
programme in response. The programme consisted of employing Irish citizens and
with that money earnt, they would be able to buy food. However, the programme
was deemed to be overly costly, inefficient and did not halt the rise in
starvation deaths. The works scheme was then replaced by the Destitute Poor Act
between March and September 1847. This meant that the British took on
responsibility for providing soup to the starving population. By September 1847,
the responsibility for looking after the impoverished was shifted to the Irish
colonial government in the form of the Irish Poor Law. The British government
decided that the responsibility of feeding the starving should shift to the Irish
tax 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 meant
that people were unable to pay tax as there was no work available, and therefore
there was no money to implement the poor law. These policy changes implemented
by the British government did not directly cause the famine, however they certainly
exacerbated the situation. However, it is worth keeping in mind the attitude at
the times of these famines. British colonial administrators understood the
Irish famine as an event brought on by God as a way of clearing the land of redundant
people, and so the British government deemed that they did not have a responsibility
to these peasants starving.

 

In conclusion, it is clear from
both the Bengal, famine and the Irish potato famine that imperial practices
certainly worsened the effects of the famines. I would however, put forward that
imperial practices did not directly produce famine. Imperialism often means
that 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 argument
for the implementation of western agricultural practices, increasing crop
yield, arguable this only occurs recently, not all the time and certainly not
during the height of the colonial push.

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