The 1899-1900 Famine in India

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Victims of the Famine in Colonial India

Victims of the 1899-1900 famine in colonial India
Famine victims in colonial India, starving during the 1899-1900 famine. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1899, the monsoon rains failed in central India. Drought parched crops over an area of at least 1,230,000 square kilometers (474,906 square miles), impacting almost 60 million people. Food crops and livestock died as the drought stretched into a second year, and soon people began to starve. The Indian Famine of 1899-1900 killed millions of people - perhaps as many as 9 million in all.

Many of the famine victims lived in British-administered sections of colonial India. The British Viceroy of India, Lord George Curzon, Baron of Kedleston, was concerned with his budget and feared that aid to the starving would cause them to become dependent on hand-outs, so British aid was seriously inadequate, at best. Despite the fact that Great Britain had been profiting greatly from its holdings in India for more than a century, the British stood aside and allowed millions of people in the British Raj to starve to death. This event was one of several that inspired calls for Indian independence, calls that would increase in volume over the first half of the twentieth century.

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Causes and Effects of the 1899 Famine

Indian famine victims drawn by Barbant.
Drawing of Indian famine victims by Barbant. Print Collector / Getty Images

One reason that the monsoons failed in 1899 was a strong El Nino - the southern temperature oscillation in the Pacific Ocean that can impact weather around the world. Unfortunately for the victims of this famine, El Nino years also tend to bring outbreaks of disease in India.  In the summer of 1900, people already weakened by hunger were hit with an epidemic of cholera, a very nasty water-borne disease, which tends to bloom during El Nino conditions.

Almost as soon as the cholera epidemic had run its course, a killer outbreak of malaria ravaged the same drought-stricken parts of India.  (Unfortunately, mosquitoes need very little water in which to breed, so they survive drought better than crops or livestock do.)  The malaria epidemic was so severe that the Bombay Presidency issued a report calling it "unprecedented," and noting that it was afflicting even relatively wealthy and well-fed people in Bombay.

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Western Women Pose with a Famine Victim, India, c. 1900

This India Famine photo is from an album titled Members of the American Colony Jerusalem
An American tourist and an unidentified western woman pose with a famine victim, India, 1900. John D. Whiting Collection / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Miss Neil, pictured here with an unidentified famine victim and another western woman, was a member of the American Colony in Jerusalem, a communal religious organization founded in the Old City of Jerusalem by Presbyterians from Chicago. The group carried out philanthropic missions, but were considered odd and suspect by other Americans in the Holy City.

Whether Miss Neil went to India specifically to provide aid to people starving in the 1899 famine, or was simply traveling at that time, is not clear from the information provided with the photograph. Since the invention of photography, such pictures have prompted outpourings of aid money from viewers, but can also raise justified charges of voyeurism and profitting from other people's misery.

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Editorial Cartoon Mocking Western Famine Tourists in India, 1899-1900

The tourist woman records the Indian famine victims' misery with her camera, c. 1900
Western tourists gawk at Indian famine victims, 1899-1900. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A French editorial cartoon lampoons western tourists who went to India to gawk at the victims of the 1899-1900 famine. Well-fed and complacent, the westerners stand back and take a photo of skeletal Indians.

Steamships, railroad lines, and other advances in transportation technology made it easier for people to travel the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The invention of highly portable box cameras allowed tourists to record the sights, as well. When these advances intersected with a tragedy such as the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, many tourists came across as vulture-like thrill seekers, who exploited others' misery.

Striking photographs of disasters also tend to stick in the minds of people in other countries, coloring their perceptions of particular place. Photos of the starving millions in India fueled paternalistic claims by some in the UK that the Indians could not take care of themselves - though in fact, the British had been bleeding India dry for more than a century.