With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (and Great Reward): British Approaches to Famine Relief in Bengal and Asia Minor, 1873-75.

By Emma Wordsworth

Food, despite being both a biological necessity and a symbolic cultural touchstone, has only recently been recognised as a major historical force. As historian David Arnold persuasively argued in 1988, “food was, and continues to be, power in a most basic, tangible, and inescapable form”.[1] Certainly, in the early 1870s, the issue of international food security was intimately connected to Britain’s immense political, economic, military, and cultural power. More importantly, instances of famine abroad forced Victorians to rethink their responsibilities towards suffering communities both within and beyond the British Empire. Indeed, during the Bengali and Anatolian famines of 1873-75, British discourses around famine relief struck at the heart of Victorians’ anxieties about political legitimacy, Christian duty, civilisational development, and global order.[2]

Between late 1873 and early 1874, a prolonged drought and heavy snows precipitated two major famines in the Indian province of Bengal and the Ottoman province of Asia Minor, respectively. The subsequent crop failures fatally undermined peasants’ means of subsistence which were already massively compromised by high taxes and the demands of an export-oriented market economy.[3] Upon learning of both famines’ severity, British state and non-state actors launched vocal public appeals for charitable donations to assist famine victims. Despite this clear desire to alleviate human suffering, Victorian responses to the Bengali and Anatolian famines embodied a complex mixture of altruism and self-interest.

Victorian famine relief in Bengal and Asia Minor between 1873-75 represented a significant, albeit short-lived, turning point in Victorian famine policy: namely, it shifted away from non-intervention in favour of saving famine victims’ lives by any means necessary.[4] In light of major public backlash against the Crown’s disgraceful conduct during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the preventable deaths of one million people in the Orissa famine of 1866, Britain needed to demonstrate that it took its responsibilities as an imperial and global power seriously.[5] Hence, by 1873, many Victorians believed that Britain could justify its astounding wealth and influence by extending its benevolence and heartfelt sympathy to suffering communities overseas.

Despite the ascendance of a humanitarian sentiment in famine policy in the early 1870s, Victorian famine relief responses in Bengal and Asia Minor also need to be understood within their ideological and geopolitical contexts. Indeed, we cannot fully appreciate why Britons’ motives for providing relief were so ambivalent without first examining the competing discourses and policy considerations that informed their understandings of the Bengali and Anatolian famines. However well-intended, Britons’ humanitarian sentiments emerged from developmental and racist discourses that posited the supremacy of Western civilisation over “backward” or “heathen” societies.[6] As Edward Said suggests, these binary oppositions between East and West implied that the “Orient” and its inhabitants were “problems to be solved or confined or […] taken over” by Western agency.[7] Certainly, in Bengal and Asia Minor Victorian Britons perceived famine as a dramatic symptom of the so-called inherent “backwardness” of non-Western societies. In this sense, Victorian discourses prescribing infrastructural development, Christian conversion, and political economy as “solutions” to famine dovetailed with Britain’s global “civilising mission”: to save lives, souls, and societies by bringing suffering peoples into step with European norms, technologies, and institutions.[8]

Such civilisational rhetoric corresponded with British geostrategic interests in Bengal and Asia Minor. With Anglo-Russian tensions continuing to smoulder after the Crimean War, Britain viewed Asia Minor as a crucial bulwark against Russian encroachment into its treasured Indian colony.[9] However, the Bengali and Anatolian famines imperilled the carefully-mediated European concert system that had facilitated Britain’s maritime and commercial dominance since 1815.[10] Most significantly, the Anatolian famine threatened to undermine the debt-ridden Ottoman Empire’s economic viability, and hence, its ability to maintain its territorial integrity – a vital ingredient in securing Europe’s balance of powers.[11] Subsequently, Britons used famine relief to leverage their own visions of order upon India and Asia Minor. Most notably, the famines provided a pretext for Britons to coerce Indian and Anatolian communities into accepting extensive railway infrastructure. In both cases, Britons envisioned that these invaluable “iron arteries” would yield two main benefits.[12] Firstly, they believed that railways would avert future famines by facilitating the movement of foodstuffs to areas of dearth. Secondly, abundant railways would empower British troops to suppress potential anti-imperial resistance in India as well as any Russian incursions into Asia Minor.[13]

To understand how Victorians reconciled their seemingly contradictory desires to save lives and consolidate British power, we need to examine the concept of “sympathy”. In the early 1870s, sympathy (what we understand as empathy today) became a powerful and flexible buzzword for mobilising British famine relief efforts in Bengal and Asia Minor. Victorians often invoked sympathy in the context of a Christian humanitarian duty or as a way to reinforce bonds of good will between Britain and the famine-affected countries. Yet, even within these two broad rationales Victorians’ motives differed widely. For example, members of the Asia Minor Famine Relief Fund believed that Britons had a religious obligation to assist Anatolian famine victims of all faiths.[14] Missionaries stationed in Bengal and Asia Minor shared the fund’s universalist convictions, yet they also saw the famine as an evangelical opportunity.[15] Additionally, some Victorians appealed to British charity’s ability to forge “mighty bond[s] of sympathy” with the Bengali and Anatolian people.[16]  Nevertheless, these bonds served a dual purpose: on the one hand, sympathy spurred charitable donations that alleviated victims’ suffering; on the other, it produced feelings of good will which were intended to strengthen Britain’s political clout in both India and the Ottoman Empire. The latter function was particularly crucial in extending the Raj’s control apparatus in India and coercing the Ottoman state to submit to British demands for religious toleration and politico-economic reform.

Much like Victorians themselves, British responses to the Bengali and Anatolian famines were multi-layered, diverse, and, often contradictory. Even today, famine relief appeals embody a paradoxical combination of altruism, self-interest, and guilt. As historically-minded global citizens, we should not shy away from such complexity. Indeed, by engaging with individuals and their experiences in all of their diversity and unfamiliarity, we may come to better understand ourselves in the process.

Author’s Bio: Emma Wordsworth is a Masters candidate in History at the University of Auckland/Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau. Her ongoing research on British famine relief in Bengal and Asia Minor in the 1870s is a culmination of her broader interests in the nineteenth century, industrial globalisation, humanitarianism, imperialism, gender, and food security.


[1] David Arnold, Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1988. p. 3.

[2] Nadja Durbach, Many Mouths : The Politics of Food in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2020. p. 3; Paul R. Greenough, ‘Comments from a South Asian Perspective: Food, Famine, and the Chinese State’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 4, August 1982, p. 792; Alexander Nützenadel and Frank Trentmann, ‘Introduction: Mapping Food and Globalisation’ in Alexander Nützenadel and Frank Trentmann, eds, Food and Globalisation: Consumption, Markets, and Politics in the Modern World. New York: Berg, 2008. p. 2; James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap. p. 3.

[3] B.M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1860-1945). Bombay: Asia Publishing House. 1963. pp. 18-21; Edgar Whitaker, as quoted in The Famine in Asia Minor: Its History, Compiled from the Pages of the “Levant Herald” with a Preface by the Editor. Constantinople. 1875.pp. vi-viii.

[4] Government of India Department of Revenue and Agriculture, Special Narratives of the Drought in Bengal and Bihar, 1873-74, together with Minutes by the Hon’ble Sir Richard Temple, K.C.S.I. Calcutta. 1874. p. 114; Sir John Strachey, as quoted in Durbach, p. 86. This policy would infamously be reversed by Lord Lytton during the Indian famine of 1876-78, to fatal effect, in the name of political economy.

[5] Durbach, pp. 84-6.

[6] Özge Ertem, ‘British Views on the Indian and Ottoman Famines: Politics, Culture, and Morality’, in Frederike Felcht and Katie Ritson, eds, The Imagination of Limits: Exploring Scarcity and Abundance, 2015, No. 2, p. 17; Luke Kelly, ‘British humanitarianism and the Russian famine, 1891-2’, Historical Research, Vol. 89, No. 246, November 2016, pp. 844-5; Edward W. Said, Orientalism. London: Penguin Books. 1978. p. 205.

[7] Said, p. 207.

[8] Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2011. p. 56.

[9] Lord Stanley of Alderley, as quoted in Report of the Public Meeting in Aid of the Asia Minor Famine Relief Fund, Held at Willis’ Rooms, Thursday, June 24th, 1875. London. 1875. p. 36

[10] Maartje Abbenhuis, The Age of Neutrals: Great Power Politics, 1815-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2014. p. 69.

[11] ibid., p. 66.

[12] Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, Empires and the Reach of the Global, 1870-1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. 2012. p. 94; J.C.A. Scott, as paraphrased in ‘The Bengal Famine’, The Times, March 12 1874, p. 8; Lord Stanley of Alderley, as quoted in Report, p. 6.

[13] Ballantyne and Burton, pp. 84-5; 92; 94.

[14] See Report of the Public Meeting in Aid of the Asia Minor Famine Relief Fund.

[15] Rev. Christopher C. Fenn, Rev. Henry Wright, Edward Hutchinson, and Major-Gen Edward Lake, C.S.I., ‘Bengal Famine Fund’, The Times, January 12 1873, p. 8; ‘The Famine in Asia Minor’, The Illustrated Missionary News, March 1 1875, pp. 31-2.

[16] Marquess of Salisbury, as quoted in ‘The Bengal Famine Relief Fund’, The Times, April 15 1874, p. 10.

Feature Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Famine_Map_India.jpg