FAMINES IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT, 1500 to 1767
|1620s: European visitors describe India|
|Joannes De Laet (trans. J. S. Hoyland) "The Empire of the Great Mogol" ["De Imperio Magni Mogolis"] (1631, trans. 1928) [A summary of reports from staff of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, intended to teach merchants what to expect when they go to do business in India]|
|p88: The condition of the common people in India is very miserable. In the first place the artisans, who are very numerous, can rarely rise to a higher station, for fathers generally teach their children the same handicraft which they themselves practise: nor is one piece of work done by a single worker, as with us, but by a number. Their daily pay is very small, perhaps 5 or 6 Taccas, i.e. 4 or 5 Dutch stuferi. The whole family eats together of one dish, which they call Kitsery [Khichri]. It is made of peas and a little rice, which are mixed with water and cooked till the vegetables and grains have absorbed all the water: they eat this dish hot, generally in the evening with a little melted butter poured over it. During the day they chew these same peas or some other kind of grain. Their huts are low, built generally of mud or turf, and thatched. They have very little furniture, only a few earthen vessels; there are two beds, one for the man, the other for the woman [the translator here omits "nam conjuges unum lectum hic occupare insuetum; mares ubi eos libido incesterit, foeminas advocant"- "for couples are not in the habit of occupying one bed; when the men are polluted by libido, they call the women to them"]; their bedding is scanty and thin, suitable enough in the great heat, but of little use when the weather is bitterly cold: however they try to combat the cold by building a fire in front of the house, of dried cow-dung, which occasions a horrible smell and intolerable smoke in their towns and villages: they never light a fire inside their houses.|
... There are huge numbers of servants and slaves, for there is no one of any account who does not keep several of them. These servants are well trained to their work whether indoor or out-of-doors. They stick so closely to their own task that they think it sacrilege to touch the work of another servant even with one of their fingers. They are distinguished by their names as well as their duties. [examples given] The diligence of these servants is useful to their masters, but often results in ruining their character through laziness. This is specially so in the case of governors of provinces and towns: for if they are detected in laziness with regard to announcing what is going on in their districts, they lose the king's favor and are degraded and deprived of their posts. It would be tedious to enumerate all the other kinds of servants. Their pay is small, for they receive only 3 or 4 rupees a month. The total earnings of some are slightly larger, for they buy scarcely anything for the use of their masters without demanding a little for themselves from the seller. ...
The merchant-class is a little better-off, except that if they have amassed any wealth, they must keep the fact quiet, otherwise they are in great danger from informers, who bring charges, either false or true, against them before the nobles, so that the wretched merchants are squeezed like a sponge, not without danger to life itself.
... The nobles live in indescribable luxury and extravagance, caring only to indulge themselves whilst they can, in every kind of pleasure. Their greatest magnificence is in their women's quarters (or Mahal), for they marry three or four wives or sometimes more ... [details given of the typical homes and customs of the nobility]
|Francisco Pelsart [chief of Dutch factory at Agra] "Jahangir's India: The Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert" (translated from the Dutch text of 1626 by W.H. Moreland, 1925) [main source for De Laet's compilation above]|
|pp60-64: The manner of life of the rich in their great superfluity and absolute power, and the utter subjection and poverty of the common people, poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling-place of bitter woe. Nevertheless, the people endure patiently, professing that they do not deserve anything better; and scarcely anyone will make an effort, for a ladder by which to climb higher is hard to find, because a workman's children can follow no occupation other than that of their father, nor can they inter-marry with any other caste.|
There are three classes of the people who are indeed nominally free, but whose status differs very little from voluntary slavery: workmen, peons or servants, and shopkeepers. For the workman there are two scourges, the first of which is low wages. Goldsmiths, painters, embroiderers, carpet-makers, cotton or silk-weavers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, tailors, masons, builders, stone-cutters, a hundred crafts in all, for a job which one man would do in Holland here passes through four men's hands before it is finished, any of these by working from morning to night can earn only 5 or 6 tackas, that is, 4 or 5 stivers in wages. The second [scourge] is [the oppression of] the Governor, the nobles, the Diwan, the Kotwal, the Bakhshi, and other royal officers. If any of these wants a workman, the man is not asked if he is willing to come, but is seized in the house or in the street, well beaten if he should dare to raise any objection, and in the evening paid half his wages, or nothing at all. From these facts the nature of their food can be easily inferred. They know little of the taste of meat. For their monotonous daily food they have nothing but a little khichri, made of 'green pulse' mixed with rice, which is cooked with water over a little fire until the moisture has evaporated, and eaten hot with butter in the evening; in the day time they munch a little parched pulse or other grain, which they say suffices for their lean stomachs.
Their houses are built of mud with thatched roofs. Furniture there is little or none, except some earthenware pots to hold water and for cooking, and two beds, one for the man, the other for his wife; for here man and wife do not sleep together, but the man calls his wife when he wants her in the night, and when he has finished she goes back to her own place or bed. Their bedclothes are scanty, merely a sheet, or perhaps two, serving both as under- and over-sheet; this is sufficient in the hot weather, but the bitter cold nights are miserable indeed, and they try to keep warm over little cowdung fires which are lit outside the doors, because the houses have no fire-places or chimneys; the smoke from these fires all over the city is so great that the eyes run, and the throat seems to be choked.
Peons or servants are exceedingly numerous in this country, for everyone be he mounted soldier, merchant, or king's official keeps as many as his position and circumstances permit. Outside the house, they serve for display, running continually before their master's horse; inside, they do the work of the house, each knowing his own duties. ... [examples of servant types given] ... in the houses of the great lords each servant confines himself strictly to his own duties …
... the wages are paid by the Moguls only after large deductions, for most of the great lords reckon 40 days to the month, and pay from 3 to 4 rupees for that period; while wages are often left several months in arrears, and then paid in worn-out clothes or other things. If, however, the master holds office or power, the servants are arrogant, oppressing the innocent, and sinning on the strength of their master's greatness. Very few of them serve their master honestly; they steal whatever they can; if they buy only a pice-worth of food, they will take their share or dasturi [commission]. The masters sometimes know this very well, but they suppose it is paid by the poor, and not out of their pockets; in this, however, they are mistaken, because the commission is always taken into account in the sale. Otherwise it would be impossible for the servants to feed themselves and their families on such low wages; and accordingly their position and manner of life differs very little from that of the workman in the wealth of their poverty [Footnote: "... apparently a fanciful phrase"].
Whatever he may deal in spices, drugs, fruit, cotton goods, cloth, or anything else the shopkeeper is held in greater respect than the workman, and some of them are even well-to-do; but they must not let the fact be seen, or they will be the victims of a trumped-up charge, and whatever they have will be confiscated in legal form, because informers swarm like flies round the governors, and make no difference between friends and enemies, perjuring themselves when necessary in order to remain in favour. Further, they are subject to a rule that if the King's nobles, or governors, should require any of their goods, they must sell for very little less than half price; for to begin with, they must give great weight for small coins, the difference being 20 per cent; then 9 per cent is deducted for dasturi [commission]; then clerks, overseers, cashiers, and others all know very well how to get their share; so that in such circumstances the unfortunate shopkeeper may be robbed in a single hour of the profits of a whole month, although they bear the general cost.
Now we shall write a little of the manner of life of the great and rich ...
Their mahals are adorned internally with lascivious sensuality, wanton and reckless festivity, superfluous pomp, inflated pride, and ornamental daintiness, while the servants of the lords may justly be described as a generation of iniquity, greed and oppression, for, like their masters, they make hay while the sun shines. Sometimes while they [the nobles] think they are exalted to a seat in heaven, an envious report to the King may cast them down to the depths of woe. Very few of them, however, think of the future, but they enjoy themselves to the uttermost while they can. As a rule they have three or four wives, the daughters of worthy men, but the senior wife commands most respect. All live together in the enclosure surrounded by high walls, which is called the mahal, having tanks and gardens inside. Each wife has separate apartments for herself and her slaves …"
|William Methold [or Methwold], "Relations of the Kingdome of Golchonda …" (in "Purchas his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the world ..." 1626) [An English merchants' guide, focusing on southern India]|
|p995: "… in July, August, September, and October, the raines are predominant, which with their frequent, violent, and long continuing showres, cooles the Earth, and revives the partcht Roots of the Sun burnt Plants of the Earth, sometimes rayning so long together, and with such fiercenesse, that Houses loose their foundations in their currants, and fall to the ground: from whence also followes great Land-flouds, to this Countrey no lesse commodious, then the inundation of Nilus to the Egyptians, by receiving the Flouds into their Rice grounds, and there retayning it until the Earth drinking it in, becomes the better enabled to endure an eighth moneths abstinence; for in eight monthes it never rayneth. November, December, January, and February, they account their cooler times, and are so indeed compared to the former, yet as hote as it is here in England in May.|
From which constant heate, all Trees are heere continually greene, and their Fruites ripe in their severall Seasons. The Earth in some places affoords two Croppes of Rice in a yeere, rarely three Croppes, and in most places but one, yet there with very great increase: they sowe other sorts of Pulse, different from ours, and farre up into the Country they have good Wheate, but not much,for it is little eaten of the Gentiles: Rootes they have of most sorts which we have heere, and good store of Potatoes, yet but few Hearbs or Flowres, which defect they supply in their Betele, whose frequent use amongst them, many have already discoursed. In briefe, it is a very fruitfull Countrey, and occasioned by many of the Inhabitants abstinence from any thing that hath life: all kind of victuall are very cheape and plentifull, as eight Hens for twelve pence, a Goate or Sheepe for ten pence, and for eighteene pence or two shillings a very good Hogge, the like of fish, and all other provisions in the Towne, but in the Countrey much better cheape."
p996: [The King (Cotubsha) and his subjects] "His Revenewes are reported to bee five and twenty Lackes of Pagodes, a Lacke beeing an 100000 and a Pagode equall in weight and alloy to a French Crowne, and worth there seven shillings six pence sterling: which huge Treasure ariseth from the large extent of his Dominions, his Subjects being all his Tenants, and at a rackt Rent: for this King as all others in India, is the onley Free-holder of the whole Countrey, which being devided into great governments, as our Shires; those againe into lesser ones as our Hundreds; and those into Villages: the Government is farmed immediately from the King by some eminent man, who to other inferiours farmeth out the lesser ones, and they againe to the Countrey people, at such excessive rates, that it is most lamentable to consider, what toyle and miserie the wretched soules endure: For if they fall short of any part of their Rent, what their Estates cannot satisfie, their bodies must, so it sometimes happens, they are beaten to death, or absenting themselves, their Wives, Children, fathers, Brothers, and all their Kindred are engaged in the debt, and must satisfie or suffer. And sometimes it happeneth, that the Principall fayling with the King, receives form him the like punishment, as it befell to one Basbell Raw (Governour at Musulipatnam, since the English Traded thither) who (for defect of full payment) was beaten with Canes upon the backe, feet, and belly, until hee dyed. Yet hold they not these their Governments by Lease; for yeerely in Iuly all are exposed in sale unto him that bids most: from whence it happeneth, that every Governour (during his time) exacts by Tolles taken in the way, and other Oppressions, whatsoever they can possibly extort from the poorer Inhabitants, using what violence within their governments they shall thinke fit: for in them (during their time) they raigne as petty Kings, not much unlike the Bashawes under the Turkish Monarchy."
p997: [The word "Hinduism" was not used at this time; for reasons which will become apparent in the first quotation here, when discussing religion the majority of the population were simply labelled with the catch-all term "Gentiles"] "The Gentiles in the Fundamental points of their little Religion, doe hold the same principles which their Learned Clergie the Bramenes, have from great Antiquitie, and doe yet maintayne, but with an Implicite faith, not able to give an account of it, or any their customes, onely that it was the custome of their Ancestors." ...
"They hold the Immortalitie of the Soule, and the transmigration of it from one body to another, according to the good or bad quarter it kept in the last mansion, from whence followeth much abstinence from killing or eating any thing that had life." ...
"Their moralitie appears best in their conversation; murder, and violent theft, are strangers amongst them, & seldome happen, but for coozenage in bargaining, caveat emptor." ...
"They are divided into divers Tribes or Linages (they say fortie foure) all which according to their degrees, are knowne each to other, and take place accordingly, wealth in this point being no prerogative, for the poorest Bramene will precede the richest Committy, and so the rest in their severall Orders." ...
[Details of the major "Casts" follow]
p1001: "All Mechanicke persons (whereof the multitude consisteth) worke in their severall Trades, for the same salary, or little difference. The Black-smith and Gold-smith, makes Iron nailes, and chaines of Gold, for three pence a day, finding themselves, and is great wages to a master workman, their servants are paid with one penny, and some lesse, the like of all other Trades and persons, for wee are served faithfully and officiously in our huses for a Riall of eight a moneth, without allowance of diet, and the Porters which carry the Palamkeene have no more, yet out of this all pay somewhat to the Governour where they live, or doe his worke gratis, from whence it is little wonder they live so poorely, yet the plenty of this Country, and their contented courser diet, affords them a living …"