FAMINES IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT, 1500 to 1767
|Why do people report disasters?|
In the 21st century, that may seem an odd question; reporting disasters is one of the basic functions of newspapers and broadcasters. However, printed newspapers only came into being, in western Europe, in the 17th century: the need for information to guide investments in risky commercial ventures such as trans-oceanic trade being one reason for their existence.
A broad answer to the question might therefore be, "Because an individual has a personal reason to make such a report- to justify an action, to explain a failure, to celebrate a success, to court the powerful …" The survival of such reports depends, of course, on the policies of those for whom the reports were made. Indian records of famines tend, therefore, to exist only when someone noteworthy did something praiseworthy (or the enemy of someone noteworthy did something blameworthy). There was some very useful historical writing during the great years of the Mughal Empire, but after the reign of Aurangzeb it seems to have been considered an unwanted luxury. Also, although block printing has been used for a very long time to create designs on fabric in India, printing techniques were not adopted locally to create multiple copies of textual information (except by foreign settlers); hence much history has been lost with the decay of its single manuscript copy.
Europeans, though, may have provided too much information. The Portuguese seized control of Goa in 1510 and clung to it almost continuously until 1961 despite its lack of sufficient land to grow all the food it needed, so sometimes a famine reported from Goa is a purely local outcome of diplomatic problems with their neighbours. The Portuguese, and later the French, also brought Christian missionaries, who used famines for publicity and fundraising purposes. All the European trading concerns in India made regular reports back to their home countries, and tried to keep detailed local records for long-term reference (particularly vital in India, where knowledge was power, and was traditionally hoarded like precious metal). One useful Indian tradition, though, is the naming of serious famines after the year in which they occurred, which greatly increases the accuracy of oral transmission of information over multiple generations.
Another thing we know about traditional Indian culture is that, if the inhabitants of a place found their living conditions becoming unbearable (not just from famine or disease, but also, for example, because of extortion and cruelty by local officials), they would migrate- it is even possible that the caste system evolved specifically to accommodate this. Migration has various implications for the study of famines. On the one hand, it means that if the population of a community is reduced from 1,000 to 200, you cannot assume that 800 people have died. On the other hand, if people in a community are dying from hunger in large numbers, you probably can assume that they have considered and rejected the option of migration- and the most likely reason for rejecting the option is that they don't know anywhere within reach where conditions are better. It is particularly important to bear this in mind when considering reports from Europeans; after the nightmare of 1630-1632 they reduced their inland bases and preferred to trade by boat along the coast and navigable rivers. A European report of famine in a port is quite likely to imply famine over the whole area inland from that port, for multiple days' journey in all directions, unless the port is under siege.
For this resource, I have ignored the many, many cases of famine being used as a weapon in sieges, except when specific reference is made to the removal of edible materials from large areas of countryside. However, it might well be worthwhile to make a separate study of these, because fortified towns were very common in India, so urban populations rather than just castle garrisons would be directly involved in a siege.
More generally, armies are another factor given limited consideration in historical sources. If a source tells of a siege failing because the besieging army is unable to feed itself, we probably need to assume that a large area around the siege site has been stripped of all food, and that any of the civilian population who could not migrate away have also starved. Similarly, if we are told that an army on the march feeds itself from the produce of the territory through which it is passing, the farmers who grew the food may or may not be getting recompense. For the most part, the sources do not concern themselves with such questions. Or more generally, as Dr Anjali Chatterjee noted in his introduction to the source materials he used for "Bengal in the Reign of Aurangzib 1658-1707" (1967):
"The contemporary Muslim chronicles form the most important sources of our information and are very valuable in many respects, but they suffer from some serious drawbacks. Their vision seldom extended beyond the court, capital, the rulers and aristocracy and they hardly even noticed the people at large or gave any information about their lives, activities, social manners, customs and economic condition."
That is particularly relevant to this project, not just in terms of under-recording of famine incidence, but in the lack of analysis. It is notable that all the estimates of megafamine mortality from the period covered by this database come from Europeans. It may be even more significant that the figure was the same in two cases: 2 million from both Peter Mundy in 1630-2 and Niccolao Manucci in 1702-4. It seems likely that both travellers described the mortality by taking the largest number-word which would make sense to Europeans- a million- and doubling it (or in Mundy's case, allocating 1 million to the famine, and "as much more" to the consequent epidemic).
The Portuguese estimate for Jan-Oct 1631 was more sophisticated (and significantly higher), but the really interesting exception is the Dutch traveller who reported from Surat in 1631 that the toll was "74 hondert duysent" which sounds a lot like a translation of 74 lakhs; the only possible hint that any Indian source made an estimate.
Note also that we have there estimates from all three major European merchant bodies established in the subcontinent in 1630, but the only subsequent attempt is given by an Italian visitor. After 1632, the European trading companies sometimes estimated the numbers of dead in their own settlements, but otherwise came to accept famines as a simple fact of Indian life, noting only their effects on business. By 1769, however, all of Bengal and Bihar were, in effect, a settlement of the British East India Company, and for the very first time in Indian history we see the beginnings of a methodology for analysing mass deaths over wide areas.