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How the British Empire Starved Millions of Indians - And Why It Is Still Important Today

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Nov 25, 2009 at 21:05:15 PM PST

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I recently met up with one of the masterminds of the Green Revolution - a man who was mentored by Norman Borlaug himself for decades. He told me that when the Green Revolutionaries first got to India, they found that the Indians were growing all of the wrong crops and crop varieties in all of the wrong places. Oh, those stupid Indians! You have to wonder how an ancient civilization managed to make it to present day without starving into oblivion if it can't feed itself.

As it turns out, once upon a time, India could feed itself. The book Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis tells the story of how the British robbed the Indians of their wealth, wrecked their agricultural system (in order to serve the needs of industrial Britain), and then watched as millions of Indian people starved. The book also covers other countries - mainly China and Brazil, but also African nations, and the Philippines. Each nation has a similar story to tell, but for this diary I am going to focus on India.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was a series of abnormally strong El Nino cycles. Famine erupted around the world, in each of the places I named above. Some of the disaster is due to El Nino, but the magnitude of the disaster - the difference between a drought and a famine - is manmade.

This story is very relevant now, sadly. Except now it's the U.S. (on behalf of multinational corporations) who is plundering the developing world.

Jill Richardson :: How the British Empire Starved Millions of Indians - And Why It Is Still Important Today
Famine in Pre-British India
An 1878 study published in the Journal of the Statistical Society found that there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17 famines in 2000 years of Indian rule. And that doesn't even count two more major famines, in 1888 and in the late 1890s. How can this be?

Prior to British rule, Indians kept larger village-level grain reserves and they were generally free of grain price speculation.

According to the book, Mogul rulers saw protecting peasants as their obligation, and used 4 methods for relief:

  • Embargoes on grain exports
  • Anti-speculative price regulation
  • Tax relief
  • Distribution of free food without a forced labor component

A very important component of Mogul famine-prevention was their investment in well construction via generous tax breaks for anyone who built a well. In another example, under Maratha rule, between 1170 and 1820 only three bad seasons hit Maratha lands. The rulers dealt with it by forcing local elites to feed the poor. Furthermore, Indian rulers tied taxation rates to actual harvest. While this may sound similar to our idea of an income tax today (you are only taxed on what you earn), the British drastically changed the system of taxation, to the detriment of the Indian people.

Shares of World GDP (percent)

From p. 293

Setting the Stage for Disaster
So what did the British do, leading up to the eve of the first famine in 1877? Step one was an enormous capital drain out of India to England.

Robbing the Indian People Blind
First of all, they forced Indians, and the Indian government in particular, to buy British-made goods.

India, of course, was the greatest captive market in world history, rising from first to third place among consumers of British exports in the quarter century after 1870. "British rulers, writers Marcello de Cecco in his study of the Victorian gold standard system, "deliberately prevented Indians from becoming skilled mechanics, refused contracts to Indian firms which produced materials that could be got from England, and generally hindered the formation of an autonomous industrial structure in India." p. 298

By 1910, India purchased 40% of the UK's finished cotton goods and 60% of its exports of electrical products, railway equipment, books, and pharmaceuticals.

Add to that massive exports FROM India, even during the middle of famines when millions of Indians were starving. The opening of the Suez canal improved the economics of exporting goods from India to the UK, and exports from India increased eightfold between 1840 and 1886. In addition to opium, India exported indigo, cotton wheat, and rice. These crops were grown in monocultures, supplanting acres upon acres of subsistence grains.

Between 1987 and 1900, years that included the worst famines in Indian history, annual grain exports increased from 3 million to 10 million tons: a quantity that, as Romesh Dutt pointed out, was equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25 million people. By the turn of the century, India was supplying nearly a fifth of Britian's wheat consumption as well as allowing London grain merchants to speculate during shortages on the Continent. - p. 299

What must be considered in addition to that is the role the Gold Standard played in the bankrupting of India. Britain itself adopted the Gold Standard in 1821 and at that time, the rest of the world used silver or both silver and gold. In 1871, Germany shifted to the Gold Standard and the US soon followed. So did the rest of Europe and Japan. England insisted that India remain on its silver backed currency until 1893, when it began to move to gold. The result of this shift was an immense depreciation of silver. That meant that the British were able to buy low and sell high to the Indians... and the Indians suffered from the reverse situation.

If you had a pound's worth of Indian rupees in 1873, by 1895, they were only worth 64 pence. This devaluation of the rupee cost Indians an extra 105 million pounds between 1874 and 1894. Unfortunately for Indian peasants, who stored their savings in silver ornaments, the Gold Standard store 25% of the value of their savings. During this time, the price of Indian grains remained stable for the British while increasing rapidly for the Indians. The inflation was instrumental in helping the Brits convince Indian peasants to grow export crops.

As Sir William Wederburn pointed out: "Indian peasants in general had three safeguards against famine: (a) domestic hoards of grain; (b) family ornaments; and (c) credit with the village moneylender, who was also the grain dealer. But towards the close of the nineteenth century all were lost by the peasants." - p. 303-304

Put quite literally, the British taxed the Indian people to death. The reason for much of the taxation was England's military adventures around the developing world. India, instead of the British people, paid the cost of these expensive campaigns. During British rule, India never spent less than 25% of its annual budget on the British army.

The most significant change between Indian rules and British rule was the way in which taxes were assessed. Under the British, taxes were set based on your land's average expected harvest. The colonial budget, mostly financed by taxes on farm land, gave less than 2% to agriculture and education and barely 4% to public works of all kinds. A third went to army and police. By making taxes high and by fixing them to average production without regard for changes in weather, they made sure that a certain number of taxpayers would lose their land every year. A farmer would have his grain impounded upon harvest and then had to borrow money to pay taxes in order to eat from his own harvest.

In one of the top wheat-growing districts that I will discuss later, Narmada, the government reassessed land values in 1887 when the area was at the height of a wheat boom. Land values were sky high, so taxes and rents went up as well. This worked well for a few years, as moneylenders gave the landowners more credit. Then, in 1891-92, the British suddenly switched to wheat from Argentina and elsewhere in India. When the rains stopped in the mid-1890's, Narmada's wheat growers had huge debts, high taxes, and no market for their wheat.

the revenue collectors' inflexible claims on a high "average" harvest "compelled the peasants to cultivate marginal lands, and also forced them to 'mine' their land in a situation where most of them had few investible resources left to improve its productivity. - p.307

Victorian Enclosures
Prior to British rule, Indians augmented their crops with free things they could gather - grass to feed animals and make rope, wood and dung for fuel, leaves and forest debris for fertilizer, clay for plastering houses, and clean water. These were most important to the poorest households, where they were often literally the difference between life and death. The British transferred these resources from the village community to the state.

In 1870, India's forests were enclosed by "armed agents of the state." The Brits needed the forests for shipbuilding, urban construction, railroads, and fuel.

The British also dissolved an important relationship ("ecological interdependence") between nomadic pastoralists and farmers. In the dry western interior of India, large areas of uncultivated grassland separated settled communities of farmers and bands of nomads. After 1857, the British began a "relentless campaign" against nomads, who they labeled "criminal tribes." Although the agroecology of this area was dependent on the symbiosis of peasant and nomad, valley agriculture and hillslope pastoralism, the Brits' voracious appetite for taxe revenue generated irresistible pressure on the peasants to convert "waste" into taxable agriculture. (p. 328-329)

Traditionally, farmers practiced extensive crop rotation and long fallow periods. This required large farms and lots of manure, which was impossible to maintain with more people on the land (living on smaller farms) and fewer cattle. The expert nomad cattlebreeders were "deliberately squeezed out of the economy." (p. 329)

Between 1843-1873, estimated cattle population fell by 5 million. Numbers fell more during the droughts, and by 1896-97, women were pulling ploughs. Fewer cattle meant less manure. The soil converted from pasture could only produce 1/3 as much millet as the soil traditionally used for crops and ultimately became so degraded it was useless for agriculture or even grazing.

Cotton depletes soil nutrients very rapidly and must be rotated with nitrogen fixing legumes. However, crop rotation became impossible due to taxes and debt, forcing people to maximize short term income at the expense of long term soil fertility.

The British also upset traditional Indian water management, by enforcing British common law, which said that the landowner also owns water rights. The result was water scarcity for those who didn't own land.

When the British did finance irrigation projects, they were concentrated in areas important for export crops like cotton, opium, sugar cane, and wheat. By 1921, only 11% of cropped areas were irrigated. Not to mention that the irrigation projects done by the Brits were ecological disasters.

They might have produced short-term bonanzas in wheat and cane, but at huge, unforeseen social costs. Without proper underground drainage, for example, the capillary action of irrigation brought toxic alkali salts ot the surface, leading to such extensive saline efflorescence... that the superindented of the Geological Survey warned in 1877 that once-fertile plains were on the verge of becoming a "howling wilderness." Indeed, fifteen years later it was estimated that somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 square miles of farmland - an immense area - was blighted by salinity "with 'valuable' crops isolated in clumps upon its surface." - p. 333

Where the new irrigation went alongside the old, traditional system, the new system undermined the old. This led to well collapsing or water tables falling and wells becoming brackish and unpotable. Canals also blocked natural drainage, leading to breeding grounds for mosquitoes and high rates of malaria. Also, taxes were so high on irrigated land, making it impossible to use it for anything but cash crops (if you use it at all). Villagers often abandoned irrigated fields for lower-taxed unirrigated fields. Also, peasants who built their own wells were taxed on them. Modern studies of industrial vs. indigenous irrigation in India found that indigenous irrigation systems avoided the problems of salinization and mosquito borne disease. Indigenous systems are more efficient and supply more stable yields over the long term. However, these indigenous irrigation systems were neglected and fell into decay in the years leading up to the famines.

Switching Indian Farmers From Subsistence to Export Crops
In this section, I'll give you two case studies, cotton and wheat.

The Cotton Supply Assocation (arm of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce) selected Berar and Nagpore for cotton monoculture. In Berar, the Association dismantled the traditional administrative system of the area, purging "disloyal" leading families who would not cooperate. Then the Brits spent 17 years (1861-1877) reorganizing the peasants of Berar's 7000 villages and 10.5 million acres of cultivable land into a system that was easy to tax.

In reality the government became the supreme landlord with peasant tenure, unlike Tudor England, strictly conditional upon punctual payment of revenue. - p.313

An important new class cropped up - moneylenders who also served as grain merchants. One important contribution of the Brits to India was the railway system, making it possible to export India's grain easily and also making grain price speculation possible.

The railways put traditional porters and carters out of work, turning them into propertyless laborers. Also put out of work were artisans, ruined by taxes on local woven goods and a "flood" of cheap English imports.

What's important to remember about cotton is that the world market was impacted by the American Civil War. American cotton exports ground to a halt and other countries increased production to take their place. When American cotton came back on the scene, the other cotton producing countries were often decimated.

Perhaps the British foresaw this, as they got Berar to grow cotton in the first place to create a buffer to the supply of premium American cotton and to keep prices stable. In 1867, Berar exported as much cotton to Manchester as all of Egypt.

As mentioned before, a new class of moneylenders cropped up. So did another group who split their land into smaller parcels and rented them out to "bhaginders" who paid exorbitantly high rents. By the 1890s, at least 70% of the population were bhagindars or landless laborers.

Although massive sums of capital were sunk into the Association's export infrastructure, including railroad spurs, cotton yards, and metalled feeder roads, none of it percolated to the village level where degraded sanitary conditions, especially contamination of drinking water by human waste, spread cholera and gastrointestinal disease as well as tuberculosis. - p. 315

During the famine of 1899-1900, when 143,000 Beraris died direction from starvation, the province exported not only tens of thousands of bales of cotton but an incredible 747,000 bushels of grain. Despite heavy labor immigration into Berar in the 1890s the population fell by 5 percent and the "life expectation at birth" twice dipped into the 15 year range before finally falling to less than 10 years during the "extremely bad year" of 1900. - p. 315

Without irrigation, Indian families needed more land than they had to grow grain (to eat) plus cotton and pay their taxes. Many opted to just grow cotton and then buy grain, even as cotton prices went down. One reason for this was that cotton was more responsive than grain (millet) to additional labor, provided for free by their families. In the end, the cotton-growing Beraris went naked.

Narmada Valley,in Central Provicnes (today part of Madhya Pradesh), had a wheat boom from 1861-1890. Local handicrafts were ruined by cheap imports that flooded central India after the construction of the railroad. Brits aggressively pushed landowners into commercial production of cotton & especially wheat. Farmers were told to save themselves by growing soft wheat preferred in Britain instead of millet and gram. In main export districts, wheat displaced 2/3 of acreage once used for subsistence grains.

However, the high tax demands drained the money from the area, and small landholders defaulted on debt to moneylenders, losing their land to the moneylenders. By 1889, this had happened to more than half of the land in the Central Provinces. Absentee landowners did not reinvest money into irrigation or cattle.

Even more than in the cotton districts, the Narmada wheat boom was built upon precarious climatic and ecological foundations. - p. 319

High demand for wheat in 1880s pushed people into inferior soil (traditionally used for hardy millets) where harvests only succeeded due to unusually good monsoons from 1884-1894. Railroads used up the lumber in the forests, and wheat used up pasture lands that traditionally fed cattle. This made bulls too expensive to keep, leading to a manure shortage (which was made worse by the high price of coal and the subsequent use of manure as fuel) that increased the rate at which the soil was depleted. The government also did not do any irrigation projects in the area. Remember also that just as Narmada's exports boomed, the British changed their preferred source of wheat to Argentina and elsewhere in India. The people of Narmada were left without a market. Just as the people of Berar went naked, the people of Narmada lived on imported millet and rice at the beginning of the 20th century.

Wheat Exports from the Central Provinces (Millions of Rupees)


The Famines
Between 1876 and 1879, an estimated 6.1-10.3 million people died. A second (smaller) famine occurred in 1888-1891. A third famine hit India from 1896-1902, killing an estimated 6.1-19.0 million people.

The descriptions of the famine are simply unspeakable. At this point the stories told in India, China, and Brazil have blurred together in my mind. Stories of mothers swapping their children because neither could bear to eat their own. Stories of wild animals eating weakened, starving people in the streets. Stories of pigeons eating spilled grains from railroad cars guarded by armed guards as starving people looked on. In some places, people literally ate their homes and their beds so that when cold weather came, they had no protection nor any food leftover. In these famines, often epidemic disease (cholera, typhoid, malaria) accompanied starvation.

And all the while, India was producing and exporting plenty of food. In areas that were not affected by shortages and drought, often grain prices went up due to speculation, pricing out the poor so that a famine occurred all the same. During the first famine, 1876-1878, India's wheat exports to the UK increased from 308 (1000s of Quarters) in 1875 to 757 in 1876 to 1409 in 1877. Only in 1878 did exports decrease to 420.

A century earlier, Adam Smith said (during a terrible Bengal famine in 1770), "famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of death." In this frame of mind, the viceroy of India ordered "there is to be no intererence of any kind on the part of the Government with the object of reducing the price of food." (p. 31) Quoting other great minds of the time like Thomas Malthus and ideologies like social Darwinism, the viceroy made the case that aid to the Indian people would practically hurt them more than it helped. He and others frequently parroted talking points we in modern day America have heard too many times, saying that the lazy Indians did not know how to work hard and if they were given aid in times of drought and famine, they would expect a free handout during the good times as well. The difference between now and then is that then there were tens of millions of people dying as the government made these proclamations.

The aid that was given by the British was done in a way that makes life in a Nazi concentration camp look good. To make sure that people would not show up to work and slack off, the British imposed "distance tests" by forcing people to walk at least 10 miles from their homes to reach work camps. At the work camps, they could perform heavy labor and receive food. However, in some cases, the amount of food provided by at the work camps was literally fewer calories per day than was provided to prisoners at Nazi concentration camps.

This is the calamity that set the stage for the modern day "Third World." Today there are an estimated 1 billion people going hungry, more than ever before. We must ask ourselves whether or not we are making human misery worse and then standing helplessly by as we watch people suffer, as the British did a century ago.

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Good article (4.00 / 3)
I read and watch lots of programs about history. The only thing that's surprising to me is that it's like my dad used to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same".

The most remarkable thing about the British Empire's behavior and treatment of the Indian people is that it's ultimately no different than any other colonizing/conquering country/culture. The British, French, Portugese, Romans, Spanish, they all do/did the same. Conquest and colonization is ultimately never about 'saving' indigenous or native peoples. It's always about enriching a foreign government and that contry's business enterprises. China's essentially doing the same to us here in this country. They're using economics instead of physically conquering us, but it's the same anyway. And they're doing it with US companies', the US government's and the US consumers' encouragement and support. We welcome them in with open arms and a pat on the back.

That's why I don't trust this "We've got to feed the world" line that we keep hearing from the international aid industry, agribusiness, etc. If they really were that concerned about the world being able to feed itself, they'd concentrate more on enabling people in various parts of the world to feed themselve, instead of us feeding them. It's all about making money. That's the bottom line.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

very true (4.00 / 2)
At the same time, McKinley was saying in the US that we were in the Philippines to help "our little brown brothers." The book says:

The Americans, moreover, exceeded event he cruelest Spanish precedents in manipulating disease and hunger as weapons against an insurgent but weakened population. Beginning with the outbreak of war in February 1899, military authorities closed all the ports, disrupting the vital inter-island trade in foodstuffs and preventing the migration of hungry laborers to food-surplus areas. Then, as drought began to turn into famine in 1900, they authorized the systematic destruction of rice stores and livestock in areas that continued to support guerilla resistance... That plan would have caused hardship for the people even had it been implemented as intended, since guerillas and civilians often depended on the same rice stockpiles, but the food-denial program got out of hand. Increasingly unsure who was enemy and who was friend American soldiers on patrol did not agonize over such distinctions...

As peasants began to die of hunger in the fall of 1900, American officers openly acknowledged in corespondence that starvation had become official military strategy. - p. 198-199

Makes ya wonder what we're up to in Iraq and Afghanistan, huh?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I think there are a lot of people up to a lot of different things in those countries (4.00 / 1)
some good, some bad....

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

[ Parent ]
If this is the basis of your new book (4.00 / 2)
I would love to read your new book!  If not for your favorable status at DKos it might not be too appealing to some of the more moderate people there... but to me, that makes it all the better!

Great post - I read about a quarter of it and wish I had time to read all of it.  I also wish I had time to read your book.  I'll probably get to that this summer.

Vote for yourself at!

The samething happened/happens in Africa, too. (4.00 / 3)
It's truly sad, and organizations that are trying to encourage societies to go back to their original food crops fight an uphill battle because they have their own ideas of what "food" is, usually corn, which isn't drought resistant.  

Enclosure (4.00 / 2)
The Brits had a long history with the practice of Enclosure, and knew full well what to expect when it was transplanted to India. Regarding the Tudor period,

Sir Thomas More, in his 1516 work Utopia suggests that the practice of enclosure is responsible for some of the social problems affecting England at the time, specifically theft.

But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar to England.' 'What is that?' said the Cardinal: 'The increase of pasture,' said I, 'by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.

The loss of agricultural labour also hurt others like millers whose livelihood relied on agricultural produce. Fynes Moryson reported on these problems in An Itinerary (1617):

England abounds with corn [wheat and other grains], which they may transport, when a quarter (in some places containing six, in others eight bushels) is sold for twenty shillings, or under; and this corn not only serves England, but also served the English army in the civil wars of Ireland, at which time they also exported great quantity thereof into foreign parts, and by God's mercy England scarce once in ten years needs a supply of foreign corn, which want commonly proceeds of the covetousness of private men, exporting or hiding it. Yet I must confess, that daily this plenty of corn decreaseth, by reason that private men, finding greater commodity in feeding of sheep and cattle than in the plow, requiring the hands of many servants, can by no law be restrained from turning cornfields into enclosed pastures, especially since great men are the first to break these laws.

By some accounts, 3/4ths to 9/10ths of the tenant farmers on some estates were evicted in the late medieval period. Other economic historians argue that forced evictions were probably rare. Landlords would turn to enclosure as an option when lands went unused.

Same thing (4.00 / 2)
The same thing probably will ensue from the leasing boom that Jill highlighted in Africa, Asia, and South Amerivca.

A person might ask if we write history only to ignore it. A person might equally well note that history is important because it teaches the powerful how to use their power for their own ends.

[ Parent ]
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