Famines and Free Markets

From 1876 to 1902, anywhere between 12 and 30 million Indians died in a series of famines. Although these deaths are often seen as effects of natural causes, nothing could be further from the truth. They were the result of very specific economic policies put into place by the British empire. In Late Victorian Holocausts, historian Mike Davis agrees with economist Amartya Sen’s assessment that “Famine is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat” (20). In his book, Davis defends the following central claim:

“Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system,’ but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” (9)

Although this applies to India, China, Brazil and Ethiopia, I will focus on one particular case here: the Great Madras Famine of 1876-78. It began in the south and later spread to central India, with conservative estimates putting the death toll at 5.5 million (although the actual numbers were almost certainly higher).

It is essential to note that India was no stranger to devastating famines in pre-colonial times. However, none of them were on the scale of those that swept through the lands under British rule. Although this is partly the result of specific geographical conditions (the drought in 1876 was particularly bad), the economic policies of the British empire were nothing short of catastrophic. The traditional Indian agrarian economy had systems in place to mitigate the effects of famines. There were stockpiles and reserves that held grain, which was then distributed by agents of the local government. Moreover, reports of the East India Company from the 17th and 18th century record Mughal and Maratha rulers “opening their treasuries” to the poor during times of famine and starvation (286).

The British saw these measures as violations of the principles of free market economics, and systematically dismantled them, leading directly, as we shall see, to the deaths of millions. Of course, none of what I have said is to be construed as a moral defense of India’s traditional feudal society. Rather, it serves to highlight the absurdity of colonial propaganda, which often justified Britain’s policies by portraying them as valiant attempts to liberate Indian peasants and laborers from the despotism of their rulers.

Free Market Fundamentalism 

When famine struck in 1876, the British government in India was led by the Viceroy Lord Lytton, who was a fanatical believer in laissez-faire economics. He was convinced by Adam Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations, that state intervention during famines was to be avoided at all costs because it would only make conditions worse. Market forces were to be trusted to restore the balance. Lytton vehemently opposed any programs of relief or aid, insisting that the market sort itself out.

The market did nothing of the sort. Prices of food and grain skyrocketed, bringing hunger and starvation even to places where rainfall had not been particularly scarce. Railroads, which were expected to help with the flow of supplies, “were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters).” Telegraphs were used to coordinate price hikes in different cities (26). In fact, the exorbitant taxes that had been imposed on farmers and workers to construct the railroads and telegraph lines actually made it harder for them to buy food and only exacerbated the levels of starvation (27).

In 1877-78, as millions of peasants died for lack of food, 700 million pounds of wheat were exported from the Indian subcontinent to Europe.  While the famine still raged, Lytton organized the “Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India” (28). An elaborate week-long feast was prepared for the Queen, her officers, maharajas, and wealthy landlords. Davis characterizes it as “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history” (28). More than 100,000 people died in Madras during the time of Queen Victoria’s visit to India.

While this might seem like genocidal callousness, it was not all that surprising, given the views Lytton actually held. His insistence on laissez-faire economics was combined with his adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Malthus. Malthusianism was the view that the unchecked growth of a region’s population would lead to widespread poverty, and natural disasters like famines were necessary to curb excessive increases in population. Lytton concurred, claiming that the Indian population “has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil” (32).

The result of all this was a scene that could quite reasonably be described as apocalyptic. Journalists and Christian missionaries described sights of men, women and children by the hundreds dying of hunger on the streets. There were reports of dogs feeding on the corpses of children. There were even some recorded instances of cannibalism. Several British officials deliberately refused to report these events, stating that they were caused by diseases like cholera and dysentery instead (34).

Relief / Concentration Camps 

When it was finally decided that something must be done to aid the starving population, relief camps were set up by the administration under Lord Lytton’s lieutenant, Richard Temple. However, to call them relief camps would be an abuse of language. During an earlier famine (1873-74), Temple had been severely criticized by British officials for setting up systems of aid. He decided to take a different approach in 1877.

“Relief” was organized, but only for those who were willing to engage in hard labor, with the compensation being food rations of almost negligible quantity. Most people were far too weak to participate in hard labor by this time, but they were left with no choice. Moreover, since all relief was seen as an interference in the free market, Temple’s task was “to make relief as repugnant and ineffective as possible” to discourage its use (37). Laborers were deliberately forced to travel long distances outside their area of residence to work. Temple intentionally made rations as minimal as possible as part of what he described as an “experiment.” In fact, most laborers were given fewer rations than prisoners.

The relief camps began to look more and more like concentration camps. Most laborers died in these camps, with records from 1877 putting the mortality rate at 94%. Temple blamed the situation on the victims, chastising them for being lazy and stubborn. He didn’t see the enormous loss of life as particularly tragic either. “Nor will many be inclined,” he is recorded as saying, “to grieve much for the fate which they brought upon themselves, and which terminated lives of idleness and too often of crime” (41). Several peaceful demonstrations were organized by peasants and relief camp laborers to protest the policies of the British government, all of which were dismissed with contempt. Temple described the men in relief camps as “a school full of refractory children” (38).

There was one organized armed rebellion under a Maratha chieftain, but it did not amount to much and was crushed with relative ease. Davis suspects that the lack of violent uprisings could be attributed in part to the fact that only 20 years had passed since the Great Revolt of 1857, which was put down with some of the worst brutality in colonial history. The images of mass hangings and captured rebel soldiers being strapped to the ends of cannons and blown to bits were probably still fresh in the minds of the people.

Imperial Hypocrisy 

While millions of laborers and landless peasants died under policies of free market economics, something quite different was happening in Britain. For all of Lytton’s free market fetishism in India, when it came to trade between the colony and the ruling empire, what existed was the very opposite of free trade. The British state played a crucial role in regulating the flow of goods. In the early 18th century, India had a thriving textile industry that was one of the largest exporters of high quality finished products to Britain. However, this was not to last. The government intervened to ensure that the British textile industry would not collapse due to being outcompeted by Indian textiles. High tariffs, and in some cases, outright bans, were placed on Indian exports to ensure the continued existence of the British industry. After the Industrial Revolution, Indian markets were flooded with cheap machine-spun cloth, transforming India from an exporter to the largest importer of British goods. Indian weavers were left with no chance of competing in a market that had been deliberately and artificially stacked against them.

The enormity of this change can be seen in the numbers. In 1750, India’s share in the world manufacturing output was 23.1%, compared to the UK’s 1.9%. By 1860, Britain had 19.9% of the world’s manufacturing output, while India had only 8.6%. The textile industry that had flourished in Bengal, Punjab and Madras was more or less completely dismantled. The weavers were reduced to poverty and beggary (294). Clearly, the idea that economic superpowers attained their wealth and status through free unregulated trade is a myth. An accurate reading of history informs us that the centers of industrial capitalism grew wealthy not because of “free markets” but through a combination of protectionism and violent imperialism.

Ranking Evils 

Terms like “genocide” and “holocaust” are obviously provocative and ought to be used with great care. The holocaust under Nazi Germany, with the systematic torture and annihilation of entire groups of people, is certainly unique in its brutality. Given this, is Davis’s use of the term for the title in his book appropriate? Does it make sense to compare and rank evils in this manner?

I do not intend to answer these questions here. All I ask is this: if millions of people are dying specifically because of your decisions, and despite having the ability to save these people, you deliberately let them die – indeed, explicitly state that it is no great tragedy that they are dying – is it really all that different from killing them yourself? Mike Davis certainly thinks it is not, and argues that the term “holocaust” is appropriate. No wonder then that the preface to his book concludes by saying: “The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations, not illustrations” (22).

Note: I initially thought about including some photographs from the Great Madras Famine in the post, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. They were just too heart wrenching and disturbing. You can find many of these pictures online if you want to see them. 

Works Cited:
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. London: Verso, 2001. Print.

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3 Responses to Famines and Free Markets

  1. This was really good. It reminds me of something Chomsky has said about how the nations which became world powers did so through means we now deem to be bad economic policy.

    Whenever other nations (e.g. 3rd-world nations) attempted policies other than free-market capitalism (or else superceded the West in the market), they were routinely crushed & made to be a foundation with which to prop up our economies through resource theft & such. I’ll try to find where Chomsky talks about this tendency, as I thought it was insightful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Chomsky’s made this point a number of times. I believe Ha-Joon Chang goes over the same issues – i.e., how most world powers chose protectionism over free trade – in his book Bad Samaritans (I haven’t read it yet).


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