Colonial hunger

Words: Joseph Manock


As the global coronavirus death toll glides past 1 million, the word ‘famine’ is likely to be absent from your quarantine comfort reading list: famines are grisly, and thinking about them in the midst of a pandemic feels like a sick party for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But they’re also a central tenet of British colonial history, and one that must be remembered and considered as we turn our collective attention to the horrors of any kind of mass crisis.

Between 1870 and 1902, no less than 30 million people died as a result of famine. (That’s a modest estimate: some say 50 million isn’t unrealistic.) The chief architect in this deadly succession of hunger was the British Empire, and while the writings of past historians and commentators have referred to famines as ‘inevitable’ or ‘natural’, they must be understood as both political and preventable. 

Colonial famines were not the direct result of food scarcity. Amartya Sen’s 1981 study showed that famines occurred when food was available, but inaccessible for certain groups. Grain supplies remained plentiful during colonial famines: it’s just that the poor – which usually meant those of certain racial and ethnic demographics – were unable to buy food at skyrocketing prices. Primarily, famine was sparked by the forced incorporation of peasant societies into the imperial global market. In fact the disappearance of peacetime famine in Western Europe coincided with the dramatic increase of famines in the colonies.

Colonial administrators revered two men with questionable assumptions about famine: Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Smith predictably believed that famine was caused by market intervention and that the only way to prevent them was to give supply and demand free rein; Malthus argued that famines were a form of god-sanctioned depopulation, destined to align the populace with food availability. Both these men were held up as sacred prophets; their ideas guided the actions of the British Empire and cost the lives of millions. The role of ideology in colonial famines shows that the spark which lights the tinderbox of famine is always political. 

The 1943 Bengal Famine, for example, took the lives of 3 million people. Britain’s scorched earth policy saw the systematic destruction of Bengali boats and food to prevent a Japanese invasion, after which the war cabinet chose not to supply the area with the necessary relief. Churchill, instrumental to these policy decisions, regarded the famine as the fault of the Bengali people themselves – specifically, of their habit of ‘breeding like rabbits’. (Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill, unsurprisingly, left the Bengali famine out.)

Today, the suffering of at least 30 million historical famine victims largely goes unmentioned. The memorialisation of famine as a well-known collective trauma – like war or a terror attack – is rare: official silence is more common. 

One explanation for this lies in the ability of events to forge emotional reaction. According to political scientist Jenny Edkins, famines are forgotten because ‘there is no possibility afterwards of survivors claiming that those who died sacrificed themselves for some greater cause.’ Death by hunger is much less glamorous than war martyrdom; the humble acts, like parents not eating for the sake of their children, are lost over time – by global history, at least, if not by Bengali families themselves.

Aid organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children evoke compelling images of hordes of skeletal people who are tragic, and weak, and elicit our sympathy specifically because their pain seems to be the result of a cruel natural world which poses an equal threat to all of us.

The result of this semi-intentional forgetting is that colonial famines do not obstruct the perception of the British Empire as a positive force. The oft-cited YouGov poll from 2014, which found that by three to one, British people think the British Empire is something to be proud of rather than ashamed of, is the direct result of our sanitized national history. It would be interesting to find out how many of those polled were familiar with the Empire’s history of hunger.

Today, famine once again looms as a threat. Famines were officially declared in 2011 in Somalia, in 2017 in South Sudan, and one is ongoing in Yemen; wars with little respect for humanitarian norms in parts of Africa and the Middle East are leading to starvation, supported and enabled by the governments of the ‘developed’ Western world. This trend represents a reversal of the shifts of the past 30 years, during which the likelihood of dying from famine diminished

The World Food Programme recently warned of a ‘hunger pandemic’ and predicted that people living with ‘acute hunger’ will rise to 265 million this year. We need to be alert to the dangers posed by a volatile global economy, fragile ecology, and rampant inequality: the world stands poised on the brink. 

But the idea of famine as a force of nature is burned into modern thinking. Famine is too often personified and endowed with characteristics, like a storm. Aid organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children evoke compelling images of hordes of skeletal people who are tragic, and weak, and elicit our sympathy specifically because their pain seems to be the result of a cruel natural world which poses an equal threat to all of us.

The Band-Aid single ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, written in response to a famine in Ethiopia, is maybe the best-known representation of faminine in pop-culture. Its paternalistic attitude encourages a reaction that consists only of last-minute emergency intervention: reflexive, reactionary aid is effectively a game of whack-a-mole, which accepts the false inevitability of famine. 

Out of all recent famines, only one – in Somalia in 2011 – was caused by climate factors, and even those are far from apolitical. Human-inflicted climate change is set to cause food shortage around the world in the next century, but particularly, in its poorest regions: so long as people are seen as barriers to profitable ends and, as a result, are excluded from the political community, famines will remain. 

learn more

  • BOOK: Late Victorian Holocausts – Mike Davis
  • DOCUMENTARY: Bengal Shadows – Joy Banerjee and Partho Bhattacharya
  • PODCAST: Revisionist History, season 2, ep. 5: ‘The Prime Minister and the Prof’

Joe Manock is a History postgrad at the University of Manchester. He’s working on a podcast called ‘Empire Museum’ which explores the history and legacy of colonialism. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.