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The Global Famine of 1877 and 1899

How did Great Britain's free market policies have a disastrous effect during a worldwide famine?

September 6, 2006

How did Great Britain's free market policies have a disastrous effect during a worldwide famine?

Richard Temple had been castigated for a relief effort a few years earlier when he'd authorized the import of grain to stave off famine and clearly being out of step with the program of other Victorian officials, dispensed a ration that would actually sustain life.

Now, in 1877, he was hell-bent on showing that he too was a true believer in the omnipotence of a free market unencumbered by doles and safety nets.

As the drought gathered intensity, Temple decided to criminalize the urge to help one's fellow man, by making it illegal in the state of Madras to give relief donations that might interfere with the price of grain on the markets.

His contribution to history, however, was the Temple wage, a supposedly scientifically derived ration that would sustain men doing heavy labor. That wage, one pound of rice per day, was half what felons received in Indian prisons.

Unsupplemented by meat or vegetables, it provided 1,627 calories a day, which, Davis offers, is only 127 calories more than an adult consumes each day while in a coma, 123 calories less than the starvation rations of the Nazi death camp Buchenwald and more than 2,200 calories less than the approved diet for an Indian male doing heavy labor today.

The inmates of these camps were not only supposed to survive on these rations, but also build railroads and canals. The results were predictable. Grown men shrank to 60 pounds. By one calculation, the deaths each month in the camps annualized to a rate of 94%.

Things were little better outside the camps. The areas served by railroads and granaries — areas integrated into the free market — fared worse than the boondocks. Perhaps discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that at the height of the famine, grain exports surged.

In 1877, a poor crop in England raised prices, and India exported double the amount of wheat in 1877 that it had in 1876. The government also refused to suspend ruinous taxes. Corruption and greed also played a role.

Grove and Chappell, citing a study of the period, argue that "the famine was aggravated by grain dealers who used the new railway system to concentrate grain in areas where it fetched the highest prices, so that those least able to afford it starved even more rapidly than in pre-railway droughts."

The British government estimated that 5.5 million died, but neglected to include in their calculation entire states that suffered through the droughts. Other estimates range upward from seven million.

India was but one of the nations hit by famine that year. Great swaths of China suffered drought and crop failures during the El Niño. Desperate parents sold, and sometimes killed and ate, their children.

Chinese deaths added 10 to 20 million to the toll, with some prefectures suffering 95% mortality. Millions more died in Brazil, Indonesia, Africa and other places affected by the most powerful El Niño in 500 years.

The horrors of these famines got back to England thanks to the reporting of crusading journalists like William Digby and Robert Knight, letters to the London Times of Florence Nightingale and others sent back by missionaries and travelers.

Many English both in India and (once made aware) at home were roused by the horrible reports and tried to help with contributions. Moreover, the disaster occasioned a good deal of introspection, and a royal commission, charged to leave no stone unturned.

One would think then that the next time drought threatened famine in India during Victoria's reign the government would be prepared. One would be wrong.

But if 1877 was the driest year in Indian history as far as could be known, 1899 ranked second. While the 1877 drought desiccated half of India's land, the premillennial drought left more than two-thirds unusable.

Now it was Lord Curzon's time to play the role of dogmatic viceroy so ably acted out by Lytton and Elgin. The British public was distracted by the dramas of the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion (itself to some degree a product of El Niño famine in China).

With only a muted outcry at home, Curzon was able to reduce rations for the poor and declare millions ineligible for any relief at all.

The overseers of relief camps set their workload targets according to the standard of a well-fed adult male doing heavy labor, according to Davis, and then cut rations proportionate to the degree the workers fell short.

In one sense, Curzon went Lytton and the Nazi masters of Buchenwald one better, since the minimum allotment was actually less than the Temple wage that had starved so many people twenty years earlier.

Once again, speculators exported grains to England from areas still blessed with rain as millions starved. The body count for 1899-1900 ranges from 3 million to 10 million.

As was the case in 1877-78, India's misery was replicated throughout the El Niño drought belt in. China, East and southern Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines. Estimates of the death toll from the El Niños of the 1870s and 1890s are about 50 million people.

Partly as a result, population growth in many parts of the tropical world stagnated and even dropped in districts of India and China between 1870 and 1910. Countless millions who survived the famines lost their lands, their livelihoods, and their traditional way of life.

Adapted from the book “The Winds of Change” by Eugene Linden, copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Simon and Schuster.