Famines in India and China

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The 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 famines in India and China were some of the worst famines the world had ever seen up until that point in time (Rouse Lecture). In China and India from 1876-1882, the estimated mortality was between 31 and 61 million (Davis 2001: 7). If the British and the Chinese governments had made simple changes in their policies regarding India and China, the results of the famine would not have been so catastrophic. In this paper I will analyze, Davis’ argument that “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…” (Davis 2001: 9). Almost contrary to that he argues that “many were murdered”, emphasizing that “‘millions die’ was ultimately a political choice” and that “imperial policies towards starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.” (Davis 2001: 22). I will aim to analyze these relating to British dealings with India, Western dealings with China, the broader development of imperialism and industrial capitalism from the late eighteenth century to the early years of the twentieth century, and also Marks’ claim that there is never such a thing as a purely “natural” disaster? In 1876, a disastrous famine hit India, starting with an El Niño-induced drought that¬¬¬¬ halted crop production. However, the situation rapidly got worse: due to the inadequacy, there was a major surge in food prices. The vast amounts of Indian grain exports to Great Britain prompted grain speculation, which further raised the price of grain. As prices crept up, the poor could not afford to buy grain, a dietary staple. Furthermore, in 1865, wheat exports to Britain numbered 308,000 quarters. Climate also played an important role in the 1876 famine: El Niño pacific currents brought heavy rains and flooding to some parts of India, but severe drought to others (Rouse Lecture). In fall 1877, the arrival of heavy rains, instead of alleviating the drought, brought malaria-carrying mosquitoes that killed thousands (Davis 2001: 49). There were many responses to the growing famine.

The British followed Malthusianism: land does not have a natural carrying capacity. Furthermore, in the few instances when the British distributed aid, they refused it to those unable to work (Davis 2001: 36). In 1896, another famine began due to a failed monsoon and the lack of a substantial 1896 crop (Davis 2001: 142). Grain prices rose again; there was no stored grain to rely on: the excess shipped to England to make up for shipping deficits. People hated the poorhouses: the food they provided was dry flour, salt, and dirt; moreover, as soon as rains fell, the British pushed the poor out of the relief camps (Davis 2001: 147, 158). The British downplayed the famine; overseas, they created stories and paintings that depicted the British as saviors (Davis 2001: 155-56). Finally, by the late 1890s, the British focused their attention on South Africa and India was left to deal with her own problems (Davis 2001: 165). While the famine was happening there were certain British policies that intensified famine in India. The newly constructed railroads, portrayed as agents that could bring relief to the famine were used by the British to build up the inventories for export goods. (Davis 2001: 26). In legislation methods, by the Vernacular press Act, there was see a denial and hiding of deaths saying they’re other diseases, than the famine and also the approval of Anti Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prevented the upper class Indians from helping. (Davis 2001: 34 & 39). Also relief efforts turned away people who could not perform hard labor(Davis 2001: 25 - 36). Seeing that millions had died the British did try to “prevent” famine again by setting up famine relief and insurance...
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