Theodore Morison.

The economic transition in India online

. (page 6 of 14)
Online LibraryTheodore MorisonThe economic transition in India → online text (page 6 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to show any reader familiar with the Indian
literature on the subject, how identical the
French disette or dearth was in all respects
with an Indian famine. The document which
follows is a translation of a letter written in
1662 by the Mother Superior of the Carmelite

1 S. P. Dom. Elizabeth, vol. 188, No. 47.


Convent in Blois to a lady in Paris ; the
original may be found in the life of Colbert. 1

" We know truly that the present dearth has
reduced so many people to poverty that there
are estimated to be 3,000 in the town and the
suburbs. All the streets echo with there piti-
able cries ; their lamentations pierce our walls
and their sufferings our hearts in pity thereat.

" Wheat, by Paris weight, has been sold here
at 200 crowns 2 the muid (412 gallons) and
every day it grows dearer.

" The poor in the fields seem like corpses dug
up from their graves ; the carrion upon which
wolves feed is now the meat of Christians ; for
when they light upon dead horses, donkeys or
other beasts, they glut themselves with this
putrid flesh which more often makes them die
than live.

"The poor of the town feed like pigs upon
a little bran soaked in cold water, and would
think themselves happy to have their fill of
it. They pick up in the gutters and in the
mud slices of half - rotten cabbage ; in order
to cook the same with their bran they ask

1 "Histoire de la Vie et de I' Administration de Colbert/' par
Pierre Clement, Paris, 1846, chap. iii. p. 118.

2 200 crowns = 650 livres, the muid = 18 hectolitres 73 litres. I
estimate the price to have been between 8 and 4 annas the seer,
between -4 and 5 seers the rupee.



importunately for the brine in which cod is
pickled, but it is refused them.

" Many honourable families hunger and are
ashamed to tell it. Two young ladies whose
wants were not known were found eating bran
soaked in milk ; the person who found them
was so much moved thereat that she fell
weeping with them.

" Consider, I pray you, some of the sad results
of this poverty which may be said to be general.
A man after having been several days without
eating met a charitable labourer who gave him
to eat ; but as his stomach was very weak, he
died suddenly.

" Another man stabbed himself yesterday with
a knife in despair because he was dying of hunger.

"A woman was found starved to death with
her child at her breast ; the child was sucking
after the mother was dead and died also three
hours afterwards.

"A miserable man, three of whose children
asked him for bread with tears in their eyes,
killed them all three and afterwards killed
himself. The judges ordered his body to be
dragged on a hurdle.

" Another, whose wife had taken from him
a little bread which he was saving for himself,
struck her six times with an axe and killed her
where she stood, and then fled.


"In short, not a day passes but some wretches
are found dead of hunger in their houses, in the
streets, and in the fields ; our miller has just met
one who was being buried by the wayside.

" In brief, wretchedness and dearth are
become so universal that we are assured that
in the neighbouring country half the peasants
are reduced to eating grass, and that there are
few roads which are not fringed with dead

" The missionary who for ten years has
ministered to the poor of the distressed frontier
tracts, on his way from Sedan, has passed
Donchery, Mezieres, Charleville, Rocroy, and
Maubert, whence he writes that he has never
seen poverty such as that of those places and
of the villages in the neighbourhood. This is
the news he sends us : —

" ' I have found everywhere a large number of
poor families who are dying of hunger. If a
few of them eat once a day a little bran bread,
others go for three or four days without eating
a single morsel. They have sold even their
clothes and are lying on a little straw without
a blanket. They are the best people in the
world, and so ashamed of their pitiable state
that they hide their faces when one goes to see

" ' I found a family at Charleville composed
of eight persons who passed four days without


eating. The poor woman tried to sell her
husband's last shirt and was not able to get
five sous for it. All the town knows it. My
God, what agony !

" * I have found other families of six persons
who only eat one sou's worth of bread. Think
of it, one small loaf divided into six parts.
Must not these people die ?

" ' The most part are ill, withered and stricken
down by famine and affliction ; those who are
less resigned to the Will of God almost lose
their senses in despair. If they go forth to
beg, they find the other villages as poor as
themselves. The labourers have not even oats
to feed themselves or other grain to sow, and
whichever way they turn, all of them see
nothing but desolation and death.'" 1

It might be thought that in making an appeal
for charity the Mother Superior painted the
distress about her in unduly sombre colours ;
but there is no justification for this opinion ;

1 " Histoire de la Vie et de 1' Administration de Colbert/' par
Pierre Clement, Paris, 1846, chap. iii. p. 118.

In another work ("La Police sous Louis XIV.") the same author
has given some details of the famines of 1684, 1693-94, and 1709
in France, and of the disastrous measures then taken by the
Government against dealers in grain. " Le fan tome des accapareurs
se dressait de nouveau et troublait toutes les tetes. Depuis le
commencement de l'annee (1693) de nombreux arrets avaient e'te
rendus contre les marchands de bles, moyen infaillible pour
empecher que le commerce vint en aide aux populations." (Chap.
x., Les Dinettes.)


the official accounts of famines at this period
present the same characteristics. The Governor
of the Province of the Dauphine, in an official
letter to Colbert in 1G75, wrote as follows: —

" Sir, — I can no longer delay in letting you
know the poverty to which I see this province
reduced ; commerce here is absolutely at a
standstill, and from all quarters people come
to me to let the king know how impossible it
is for them to pay the taxes. It is asserted —
and I speak to you because I am well informed
thereon — that the greater part of the peasants
of the said province have lived during the
winter only upon bread made from acorns and
roots, and that at the present time they may be
seen eating the grass of the fields and the bark
of the trees. I feel myself constrained to tell
you the actual state of things, that such orders
may afterwards be passed as it shall please
His Majesty to give, and I take advantage of
this opportunity to assure you that nobody in
the world is more truly than I, sir, your very
humble and very obedient servant,

" The Due de Lesdiguieres.

"Grenoble, 29 May 1675."

The famine of 1662, which occurred at the

beginning of his administration, made a deep



impression upon Colbert, and is said to have
been the cause of the disastrous measures
which he took to regulate the trade in corn ;
in fourteen years he issued no fewer than
twenty-nine edicts on this subject, regulating,
limiting, and, in eight edicts, absolutely pro-
hibiting the export of grain to foreign countries.
He succeeded, indeed, in keeping the price of
corn low, but with the ruinous result of so dis-
couraging the French farmers that the cultiva-
tion of corn was much reduced and famine
became chronic ; his biographer, after a detailed
examination of this policy, is compelled to admit

"he brought matters to such a pass that in a
country which can support nearly 40,000,000
inhabitants, a portion of the 20,000,000 or
22,000,000 which then peopled it were compelled
every third year to live on grass, roots, and the
bark of trees, or to die of hunger." 1

1 u Histoire de la Vie et de 1* Administration de Colbert/' p. 274.
Colbert's edicts are a very laboratory for those who desire a practical
demonstration of the effect of regulating and prohibiting foreign
trade in corn. It is sometimes suggested at the present day in India
that the Government should prohibit the export of food grains. The
reason for not adopting that policy is that grain is grown in the assur-
ance that the price will be kept up by the foreign demand. If ex-
port were forbidden the price would fall, growers of grain would be
disappointed, and would in future put their land under other crops ;


An unfailing symptom of the conditions which
produce famine may be found in differences in the
price of bread or food grains at places not far
remote from each other; this symptom may be
observed in France throughout the seventeenth
century. The Vicomte d'Avenel records some
striking discrepancies of price in Louis XIV.'s
reign. Wheat was sold, in 1670, 31 francs at
Paris and 7 francs at Orleans ; in 1686 it fell
to the merely nominal price of 2 francs at
Rouen, whereas it remained at 17 francs at
Uzes. Under Louis XV. the differences were
not so great ; the value in one city was not
more than threefold that in another, and several
times under Fleury's excellent administration
prices were uniform all over the kingdom.
With the development of the roads under
Louis XVI. the tendency towards uniformity

in times of dearth the quantity available to feed the people Mould
be much diminished. A variant of this proposal is to prohibit
export only when the Indian harvests fail. This is unnecessary,
as export stops automatically when prices rise in India, and the
surplus which is normally grown for export becomes available to
feed the people of India. Colbert tried this and many other variants
of the policy of restriction of exports, and the plight to which he
brought France is faithfully rendered by his biographer. The
conclusion of the whole matter to which one is irresistibly driven
by a study of Colbert's administration is this : any enactment
which artificially lowers the price reduces the quantity of grain
raised iu the country.


became more marked ; the greatest difference
of price recorded was not more than 100
per cent. 1

The reason why France continued to suffer
from famine for almost two centuries later than
England was pointed out by Charles d'Avenant
in words which cannot be bettered and which
might have been applied, mutatis mutandis,
with even greater force to India.

" If," he wrote in 1699, " France had had as
many people as the land will feed in times of
common plenty, half of them must have perished
during their late dearths for want of bread,
because they have a vast inland country and
only the out parts upon such an emergency can
be relieved by the assistance of other places.
And we see that anciently, before there was
much trade, there were frequent famines in the
world, because one part could not help another,
for which reason the northern nations hereto-
fore when their people multiplied too fast did
disburden themselves by sending out numerous
colonies to seek out new dwellings in appre-
hension that by a scarce year they might be
destroyed at home ; but England (with any
moderate care) is not liable to such fear, though

1 " Paysans et Ouvriers depuis sept cents ans/' Vicomte G.
d'Avenel. Armaud Colin et Cie.^ Paris^ 1899.


its present numbers should even be doubled,
because we have everywhere the sea to friend,
and in such extremity our wants may be
supplied from other nations." 1

If such was the case in France, it is not
surprising that India, furnished by nature with
far fewer facilities for transport, should have
suffered from famine from time immemorial. It
is sometimes asserted that famines in the past
were less severe and less frequent than in the
present. Such an assertion proceeds from sheer
ignorance ; there is not a tittle of historical
evidence to support it. Famines are recorded
from the very dawn of India history. In the
Jataka Books they are referred to as one of
the incidents of life in those days. 2 If we hear
but little of famines in India for the first
thousand years of the Christian era, that is
because we know very little of India in those
days. Continuous history, and with it informa-
tion about famines, begins with the advent of
the Moslem chroniclers, and though, like political

1 Charles D'Avenant. An Essay upon the probable methods of
making a people gainers in the Balance of Trade Works, vol. ii.
p. 222.

2 E.g. "Now at that time there was a drought in the Kingdom of
Kalinga ; the corn grew not, there was a great famine, and men,
being unable to live, used robbery.'' — Jataka Book, xxii., No. 547.


historians all the world over, they appear to
have thought the sufferings of " the poorer
sorte of people " below the dignity of the
historic Muse, they do condescend to mention
the great cataclysmic famines which from time
to time overwhelmed India. Such a famine
occurred in the golden prime of Shahjehan and
is recorded in the Emperor's Chronicles by
Abdul Hamid Lahori ; coarse and gruesome
details are not to the taste of the courtly
historian, and rather than give us an unvarnished
picture of the misery of those days, he turns to
favours and to prettiness. This is how he de-
scribes what certainly was a terrible calamity : —

"During the past year (1629) no rain had
fallen in the territories of the Balaghat, and
the drought had been especially severe about
Daulatabad. In the present year (a.d. 1630)
also there had been a deficiency in the border-
ing countries, and a total want in the Dekhan
and Guzarat. The inhabitants of these two
countries were reduced to the direst extremity.
Life was offered for a loaf (Jane ba nane), but
none would buy ; rank was to be sold for a
cake, but none cared for it ; the ever bounteous
hand was now stretched out to beg for food,
and the feet which had always trodden the way


of contentment walked about only in search of
sustenance. For a long time dogs' flesh was
sold for goats' flesh, and the pounded bones of
the dead were mixed with flour and sold.
When this was discovered, the sellers were
brought to justice. Destitution at length
reached such a pitch that men began to devour
each other, and the flesh of a son was preferred
to his love. The numbers of the dying caused
obstructions in the roads, and every man whose
dire sufferings did not terminate in death, and
who retained the power to move, wandered off
to the towns and villages of other countries.
Those lands which had been famous for their
fertility and plenty now retained no trace of
productiveness. By order of the Emperor,
soup kitchens were established in various parts
of the kingdom, and a sum of Rs. 5,000 was
distributed every Monday. Large revenue re-
missions were also made." !

The blunt English sailor, Peter Mundy, who
travelled from Surat to Agra and back while
this famine was raging, used no art in tell-
ing of what he saw upon his way, and we
get from his narrative a more vivid, though

1 Badshdh Xuma of Abdul Hamid Lahori, from "Historical and
Descriptive Sketch of the Nizam's Dominions/' by Syed Hossaiu
BQgrami and. C. Willmott, vol. ii. pp. 16 and 17.


repulsive, picture of the horrors of famine in
the seventeenth century.


[Rawl. MS. A. 315.]


"About the tyme of our departure (from
Surat, in Nov. 1630) for Agra, began a Famine,
the Secondary cawse thereof the want of rayne
this last Season, and much feared will prove
very grevious, poore people begininge to die
for want of Sustennance. God shewe mercie
on all men.


" 14/A November 1630. — Wee came to Kirka,
a poore towne halfe burnt upp, and almost voyd
of Inhabitants, the most part fledd, the rest
dead, lyeing in the Streets and on the Tombes.

" 16th November 1630. — In this place (Dayta)
the men and women were driven to that
extremitie for want of food, that they sold their
Children for 12d., 6d. and (?) pence a peace.

1 Peter Mundy, who has chronicled his voyages and adventures
from 1608 - 67 (see Hak. Soc. Pubns., 2nd Series, vol. xvii.),
served the East India Company from 1628-34 under the President
of Surat.


Yea, and to give them away to any that would
take them, with manye thancks, that soe they
might preserve them alive, although they were
sure never to see them againe.

" 18th November 1030. — From Baadoore wee
came to Netherbarre (12 Course), a greate place,
where wee were much troubled to finde a roome
convenient for our little Tent, by reason of the
number of dead bodyes that lay scattered in and
about the Towne. Att last wee tooke upp our
lodginge among the Tombes. . . . Heere wee
stayed all day (19th November), where Mirza
supplied himselfe with some needfull provision
for his Companye, there being to be had heere,
although att unreasonable rates. All this day
our noses were infested and our bodyes almost
infected with a most noysome smell, which, after
search, wee found to come from a great pitt,
wherein were throwne 30 or 40 persons, men,
weomen and children, old and younge confusedly
tumbled in together, without order or Coveringe,
a miserable and most undecent spectacle. Noe
lesse lamentable was it to see the poore people
scrapeinge on the dunghille for food, yea, in the
very excrements of beasts, as horses, oxen, &ca.
belonginge to Travellers, for graine that per-
chaunce might come undisgested from them,
and that with great greedienesse and strife
among themselves, generallie looking like anna-
tomies, with life, but scarse strength enough


to remove themselves from under mens feete,
many of them expireing, others newe dead.
This was their estate in every Streete and
Corner, And from Suratt to this place (in a
manner) all the high way was strowed with
dead people, Our noses never free of the Stinck
of them, especially about Townes, for they dragg
them out by the heeles starke naked, of all ages
and sexes, till they are out of the gates, and there
they are lefte, soe that the way is halfe barred
upp. Thus it was for the most part hitherto.

"23th Novcrnber 1630. — From Tanckwarro wee
came to Talnear (10 Course). . . . Wee passed
through a Towne called Firpoore, about which
all the high waies were soe full of dead bodyes,
that wee could hardly passe from them without
treadinge on or goeinge over some, and from
thence to Talnear, all the way strewed with

"2$th November 1630.— From thence (Beawly)
wee came to Navee (8 Course). . . . Heere in
the middle of the Bararee lay people now dead
and others breathing their last with the food
almost att their mouthes, yett dyed for want
of it, they not having wherewith to buy,
nor the other so much pittie to spare them
any without money. (There being no course
taken in this Country to remedie this great
evill, the rich and stronge engrossinge and
takeinge perforce all to themselves.)



" 2Mh May 1G33.— Att my arrivall heere there
were but few liveing of those I lefte heere att
my departure, the rest dead with the Mortal]
Sicknesse that immediately followed the famine.
. . . The like tyme was never seene in India,
There being scarce one Man in all Suratt-howse
able to write or sett his hand to Paper (some-
tymes). Theis were only by sicknesse, but the
Famine it selfe swept away more then a Million
of the Comon or poorer sort. After which, the
mortallitie succeedinge did as much more amongst
rich and poore. YVeomen were seene to rost
their Children, Men travelling in the way were
laid hold of to bee eaten, and haveing Cutt
away much of his flesh, hee was glad if hee
could gett away and save his life, others killed
outright and devoured. A man or woman noe
sooner dead but they were Cutt in peeces to be
eaten. Thus much by Comon report (because I
was not present), but att my returne I found the
Countrie in a manner made desolate, scarce one
left of ten, as by instance of the weavers, for
whereas formerly they had brought them 30, 40,
or 50 Corge a day, they could now scarce gett
20 or 30 peeces ; this in Baroach. Att Suratt
none att all and in Brodra noe Factorie att
present. In my opinion it will hardly recover


it(s) former estate in fifteen, nay, in twenty
yeares ; I meane Guzaratt." 1

Many references to " this direfull tyme of
dearth " may be found in the letters sent from
the English factories in India at this period. 2
There is one sentence in those letters which
corroborates the testimony of both previous
witnesses, to the effect that the people were
driven to cannibalism by the awful famine of
1630. It is as follows:—

" Mesulipatam and Armagore was sorely
opprest with famine, the liveinge eating up the
dead and men scarsly durst travel in the countrey
for fear they should be killed and eaten."

These three quotations may serve to give
some idea of the severity of famines in bygone
times. The evidence for their frequency is even
stronger, but it is impossible within any reason-
able limits to give even a portion of that which
is at my disposal. I will attempt, however, to

1 I am indebted to the courtesy of Sir R. Temple for giving me
permission to publish this extract from " The Travels of Peter
Mundy in Europe and Asia, 1608-67," edited by Lieut.-Col.
Sir Richard Carnac Temple, Bart., CLE. The first volume issued
by the Hakluyt Society (Cambridge, 1907) has already appeared ;
vol. ii., from which the above extract is taken, is in preparation.

8 " The English Factories in India, 1630-33," by W. Foster.


convey some idea of the state of India in those
days by confining my attention to one portion
of India for a very limited period ; the area
chosen is the Madras and Bombay Presidencies,
and the period the fifty years from the death
of Auranzeb to the battle of Plassey (1707-57).
The bulk of the evidence comes from the
letters written by the agents of the East India
Company to their Directors in London ; having
to render an account of their expenditure
and make local investments in piece goods they
were obliged to refer to famines which put them
to unprofitable expenditure on servants, etc.,
and killed the weavers from whom they bought

1709-11. Scarcity about Fort St George. —
" The countreys about them to the South-
ward have had a famine of grain." ( " Coast
and Bay Abstracts," vol. i. p. 224.) " In-
habitants peaceable and quiet, though
have suffered by dearness and scarcity of
grain. Have run great risks to get it
in by sea and lost several laden vessels,
but don't repine because has saved many

1717-18. Fort St George.— " Trade at a full
stand as to woollen goods etc. for the in-
land countrey. The famine has almost dis-



peopled the adjacent countrey." ("Coast
and Bay Abstracts," vol. ii. pp. 201-202).
This famine extended to Ahmadabad and
Surat, where it was known as the Chowtro.
The price of bajra and mutt there was
4 annas per seer. Numbers of people
died of hunger and sickness, and children
were sold for 1 or 2 rupees each. Accord-
ing to other reports the price of bajri
rose to 2 seers per rupee. ( Vide " Report
of the Past Famines in the Bombay
Presidency," Lieut.-Col. A. T. Etheridge.)

1722. Bombay Castle. — Great drought "not
known to such a degree in the memory
of man." Supplies very scarce. Ware-
house keeper ordered to supply the
market from time to time in order to
prevent its (i.e., Batty) rising to an
immoderate price. ( " Bombay Public
Consultations Range 341," vol. v.)

1728-30. Fort St George. — "A severe
famine and the rise of cotton in the
country made it impossible to keep
strictly to the Court's Orders of Invest-
ment. The famine so severe, in some
villages where used to be 300 Weavers
now scarce 30." ( " Coast and Bay
Abstracts," vol. iii. p. 55.) Bombay. —
Drought appears to have extended over
five years, 1726-31. In Bombay general


letter dated 27th January 1730, this entry:
" The great mortality among the Weavers
detrimental to the Investment. Of 1800
Weavers about Cotata 1200 dyed."
( " Bombay Public Consultations Range
341," vol. vi. )

1731-32. Fort St George. — " Are under
apprehensions of a grievous famine. . . .
the country round about burnt for want
of rain." ( " Coast and Bay Abstracts,"
vol. hi. p. 162.)

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryTheodore MorisonThe economic transition in India → online text (page 6 of 14)