- The Imperial Politics of Famine:The 1873-74 Bengal Famine and Irish Parliamentary Nationalism
As historians have begun to re-imagine and re-conceptualize the British Empire, moving beyond the traditional model of core and periphery, they have placed additional emphasis on the similarities and links existing between nineteenth-century Ireland and India. One potential area for comparative study that is under-explored is famine. Peter Gray has pointed out that "Ireland and India were the two regions of the British empire most severely visited by famine in the nineteenth century."1 However, scholars have seemingly hesitated to apply an Indian-Irish approach to the study of famine. This essay examines the potential connections between nineteenth-century India and Ireland, to assess the use of famine as a tool in imperial politics. More specifically, I propose to examine the role of the 1873–74 Bengal famine in the development of nineteenth-century Irish nationalism.
The 1873–74 Bengal famine differed from other nineteenth-century Indian famines in its low level of mortality. The apparent ability of the government of India to avert a famine when it put its mind to it provoked political comment and raised significant questions regarding the responsibility and appropriate role of the imperial [End Page 132] administration in times of crisis. Occurring less than thirty years after Ireland had suffered its own tragic famine, the Bengal famine had a particular impact on the small group of Irish nationalist MPs at Westminster. Events in India had important repercussions for Irish politics, and the Bengal famine and the official response to it contributed to the development of an anti-imperial critique within Irish nationalist political ideology. The first section of this essay provides an overview of the Bengal famine of 1873–74, emphasizing the ways in which the event was politically mediated at the time. The closing section discusses how home rule parliamentarians deployed the Bengal famine specifically, and Indian famines generally, in Irish nationalist discourse.
Early scholarship on connections between nineteenth-century Ireland and India either has emphasized the Irish contribution to British rule in Asia or has stressed the Irish influence on the development of Indian nationalist movements.2 S.B. Cook's 1993 work, Imperial Affinities: Nineteenth Century Analogies and Exchanges between India and Ireland, represented an important addition to this scholarship by shifting the focus from how the Irish experience influenced India to a consideration of how developments in both [End Page 133] regions mutually affected each other in a wider imperial context.3 Cook's comparative approach opened the door for subsequent academic work, which has examined relations between Ireland and India in terms of a two-way traffic mediated through distinct but analogous experiences of British rule.4
Little scholarly work has been devoted to exploring the shared famine experiences of India and Ireland, beyond recognizing that similarities existed.5 In 1997, Patrick O'Sullivan and Richard Lucking compared the two regions in their article, "The Famine world wide: the Irish Famine and the development of famine policy and famine theory." Their work argues that the experience of famine in Ireland during the 1840s influenced the development of policy in India during the 1860s and 1870s and the later efforts of the Famine Commission.6 Although recognizing the value of the O'Sullivan and Lucking study as a catalyst for academic thought on the subject, Peter Gray argues that the essay fails to develop any lines of critical inquiry in depth.7 In his own article, Gray uses the career of James Caird as a means to study the "juxtaposition of Irish-Indian famines" and to explore the role that Indian-Irish comparisons played in molding British thinking on famine at the close of the nineteenth century.8 [End Page 134]
Both articles illustrate the potential for an Indian-Irish approach to the study of famine. During the nineteenth century, the tragedy of famine provided an opportunity for the Irish and the Indians to identify with each other. Whereas the 1845–51 Irish famine had permitted the Irish to question British rule in Ireland, the frequency of famine on the Indian subcontinent allowed Irish nationalists to question British...