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Inaccurate Conceptions: Disputed Measures of Nutritional Needs and Famine Deaths in Colonial India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2008

School of Politics and International Studies, Leeds University Email:


From the 1870s onwards, debates about famine policy were central to both colonial and nationalist conceptions of the role, effectiveness and legitimacy of the state in India. Although opinions on how best to relieve famines varied, ideological opposition to a narrow laissez-faire paradigm was given short shrift in the years preceding the formulation of the Indian Famine Codes. However, specific empirical critiques of the making and implementing of famine policy were more effective. This article explores the ways in which such challenges put scientific and statistical experts within the colonial edifice at odds with those at the top of the political hierarchy, focusing on disputes over relief wages and famine mortality calculations between Sir Richard Temple and Surgeon-Major W. R. Cornish. It further examines how proto-nationalist groups and newspapers seized on the value given to statistics by the state to hold it to account for its failure to relieve famine.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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14 See Famine Commission Report, 1880 (London, 1880–85) (henceforth FCR 1880), Appendix II (Proceedings and Selected Evidence), Evidence of Sir R. Temple, p. 57.

15 W. R. Cornish, Observations, p. 23.

16 W. R. Cornish to D. F. Carmichael, 6 April 1877.

17 Ibid.

18 Among many examples, on 30 April 1877 the Anglo–Marathi newspaper Dnyan Prakash praised Cornish for publishing his opinions, which would be ‘sure to create a sensation in England’ by validating otherwise unprovable charges of inadequate state relief. See Compilations of Native Newspaper Reports, BLIOR (henceforth NNR).

19 Compilation of Madras Replies, Vol. II, p. 119.

20 FCR 1880, Dissent on Certain Points from the Report of the Indian Famine Commission’, by H. E. Sullivan and J. Caird, Part I (Famine Relief), pp. 64–69, and Part II (Measures of Protection and Prevention), pp. 183–185.

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27 R. Temple, ‘The Famine’, pp. 94–95.

28 Ibid., p. 107 and Temple Minutes, Vol. 2, ‘Mortality from the Famine of 1877 in the Bombay Presidency’, p. 91.

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32 Compilation of Madras Replies, Vol. I, p. 23.

33 FCR 1880, Appendix II, Evidence of W. R. Cornish, p. 80.

34 NNR, Jame Jamsed, 18 October 1876.

35 FCR 1880, Part I, p. 28.

36 FCR 1880, Part I, Dissent by H. E. Sullivan and J. Caird, p. 64.

37 FCR 1880, Appendix I, Section V, p. 110.

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45 Digby, W., The Famine Campaign in South India (Longman, Green, London, UK, 1878), 2 volsGoogle Scholar. See Brennan, L., ‘The development of the Indian Famine Code’ in Currey, B. and Hugo, G. (eds.), Famine as a Geographical Phenomenon (Reidel, Dordrecht, the Netherlands, 1984), pp. 91111Google Scholar, for an account of the process of composition of the Famine Commission.

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50 FCR 1880, Part III, p. 208.

51 Bombay Government Resolution No. 208, 20 January 1871, in Maharashtra State Archives, General Department, Vol. 23, No. 70 of 1871. For a discussion of restrictions on relief spending in Bombay in 1876–1878, see D. Hall-Matthews, Peasants, pp. 174–179.

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58 See Famine Commission Report 1901, Part I (Preliminary), p. 2.

59 R. Temple to Salisbury, 22 March 1877.

60 Compilation of Madras Replies and Information and Evidence Collected in Bombay Presidency to Answer the Questions Issued by the Famine Commission, Chapter 3, Question 6.

61 Norman of Poona, for example, was chastised by the press for denying the seriousness of the famine without having ventured from his bungalow. NNR, Kalpataru, 26 November 1876.

62 NNR, Dnyan Prakash, 13 August 1877.

63 See W. Digby, Famine, Vol. I, pp. 245–366.

64 NNR, Indu Prakash, 13 November 1876.

65 NNR, Shubha Suchak, 2 February 1877.

66 NNR, Arunodaya, 11 February 1877.

67 NNR, Rast Goftar, 6 May 1877.

68 NNR, Native Opinion, 1 July 1877.

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73 R. Temple to Salisbury, 30 March and 6 April 1877.

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75 Cited in W. Digby, Famine, Vol II, p. 175.

76 NNR, Dnyan Prakash, 9 July 1877.

77 W. R. Cornish, 1871 Madras Census, p. 365.

78 W. R. Cornish, Observations, p. 31.

79 W. R. Cornish, Observations, pp. 30–31.

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83 See, for example, J. Strachey, India, p. 230.

84 A. P. MacDonnell, Report on the Food-Grain Supply and Statistical Review of the Relief Operations in the Distressed Districts of Behar and Bengal During the Famine of 1873–4 (Calcutta, India, 1876).

85 Ibid., p. xiv.

86 Gazette of India, Extra Supplement, 1877, Part 4, p. 2.

87 R. Temple, India, p. 333.

88 R. Temple to Salisbury, 1 January 1874.

89 A. P. MacDonnell, Report, p. xii.

90 R. Temple to Salisbury, 22 May 1874.

91 FCR 1880, Appendix II, Evidence of Temple, p. 29.

92 Temple Minutes, Vol. 1, No. 23, ‘Check and Supervision over Gratuitous Relief in Distressed Districts’, 17 September 1877, p. 50.

93 Temple Minutes, Vol. 1, ‘The Famine’, pp. 100–101.

94 Ibid., p. 108. Emphasis added.

95 Temple Minutes, Vol. 1, No. 20, ‘Relief Inspection at and near Sholapur’, 10 September 1877, p. 46. Emphasis added.

96 Temple Minutes, Vol. 1, ‘The Famine’, p. 95. Emphasis added.

97 See D. Hall-Matthews, ‘Historical roots’, pp. 221–223.

98 W. R. Cornish, Observations, pp. 67–70.

99 W. R. Cornish to D. F. Carmichael, 6 April 1877.

100 M. Davis, Late Victorian, and D. Hall-Matthews, Peasants, have started to redress the balance.

101 D. Hall-Matthews, ‘Historical roots’.