What was the impact of 1824 famine over the life of the people of South India?


The 1824 famine was unusually severe during the course of whch serious grain riots took place in the town of Madras (now Chennai) and the service of army had to be called for to restore order. The Personal Narrative of Elijah Hoole graphically draws out the extreme privations suffered by the masses. The Guntur famine of 1833- 34 was more destructive in its effects than any one of the previous year or of 1876- 78.

Walter Compbell, who was an eye witness, describes the horrors of the famine in Masulipatam in the centre of the Krishan delta. He writes : “The description in “the siege of Corinth” of dogs gnawing human skulls is mild as compared with the scenes of horror we are daily forced to witness in our morning and evening rides…It is dreadful to see what revolting food human beings may be driven to partake of. Dead dogs and horses are greedily devoured by these starving wretches; and the other day an unfortunate donkey having strayed from the fort, they fell upon him like a pack of wolves, tore him limb from limb and devoured him on the spot.”

This famine had taken a toll of lives of one half of the total population of Guntur. The reports of the Collectors of Cuddapah, Bellary, Godavari, Nellore, Guntur, etc., show the deplorable condition of peasantry under the British rule. Godavari district, the gar­den of Madras Presidency, the report of the Collector says, was on the verge of ruin. The population which in 1830 had been 695016 had decreased in 1840 to 533,836.


Notwithstanding a series of bad harvests, prices of grain continuously declined owing to the competition of cheap rice from Arrakan. The Government left the ryots to languish in poverty and oppression of the Zamindars. Sir Henry Montgomery writes on the condition of these ryots thus: “The system of management was formed on the sole principle of extracting from the ryots the utmost possible amount of present revenue.

In adverse seasons all that could be taken of the ryots was claimed on the part or the Zamindar whose demand purposely exceeded the means of the ryots in ordinary seasons. In years of abundant produce, the deficiency of bad seasons was made good, so that in either case the ryot was left but the barest means of subsis­tence.” Sir Walter Elliot writes that the famine of 1833 and the following epidemic had prostrated Guntur district and that “a man in perfect health was hardly to be seen anywhere”.

As regards North Arcot, the Collector Bourdillon reported, “The ryots are in worse condition than they were at the beginning of the century. However this may be, their present condition is indubitably bad and must be improved. The great bodies of them are certainly poor; their food is deficient in quantity as well as coarse; their clothing is scanty and poor and their dwellings extremely mean; all this com­bined with gross ignorance.”

As a result of British import of manufactured goods, the old manufacturing industries of the country suffered badly. Foreign competition had especially paralyred the spinning and weaving trades, the former as a separate profession having been disappeared except “in fine thread for cloths of superior texture and extreme tenuity such as could not be produced by machinery.


Even in cloths of superior texture, change of fashion among richer sections, produced a fall in demand, as they increasingly took to English board clothing. Demand for coarse cloths among the agricultural population sustained weavers of those low quality thick cloths. In general the weaver stood helpless before the gigantic array of machines and machine made cloths of mighty Manchester.

The free-trade principle applied to India brought about the complete ruin of this class of industry in South India. The native industrial arts, which were held in high esteem and got every encouragement at the hands of ruling Indian princes, had generally declined.

Even in the case of native products a large portion of the production cost went as profit of the foreigners. The condition of the weaving industry of Madura is graphically explained in a Note submitted by Rajagopalachari, District Registrar of Madura which brings home the large scale exploitation of the native industries by the foreign merchants and capitalists.

The Note says, “The introduction of cotton twist from England, of lace from France, as well as of even the dyeing stuff form Bombay (now Mumbai) has considerably affected the value of the cloths made in the town and necessarily the wages to the coolies and the profits to merchants. The total value of cloths made in the town in a month may be fixed at Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 60,000.


To get an impression of how much of this sum of Rs. 60,000 actually benefits the townsmen and how much goes to other countries and places, what the component parts of a Madura cloth are, must be examined. Let me take for illustration an ordinary white cloth which is sold in the town for Rs 10. The different items which go to make this sum of Rs. 10 may be described as follows:

Thus the great portion of the value of a cloth goes for the lace which is manufactured in France. Then by the cotton twists used, it is the English merchants who are benefited. The dye is also prepared abroad and the greater portion of Rs. 1120 spent for dyeing goes also to other hands. The portion of Rs. 1280, which actually circulates among the townsmen, may be taken at the highest to be from Rs. 4 to Rs. 5 or one-third of the value of the cloth.

This calculated with reference to the Rs. 60,000 worth of cloth yields a total amount of Rs. 24,000 to Rs. 30,000 and this amount may roughly be fixed to be the sum earned from the industry by coolly upwards to the richest merchant.

Deducting again Rs. 5,000 or so as being the profits earned by merchants, there remains Rs. 25,000 to be distributed amongst 5,000 families, giving an average of Rs. 5 per family; the amount mentioned above, as being the average income of a family. Generally speaking, the industry is becoming day-by-day less profitable to the actual working classes.


The causes thereof are not far to seek. Prior to the importation of cotton twist, some fifty years ago, it would appear there were in the town of Madura 2,000 to 3,000 families employed in spinning out threads. This vocation has entirely ceased now.

Again prior to the importation of lace there were 500 Muslim families engaged in making lace, and in their place there are, it would appear, only 10 families employed in making country lace. The preparation of colouring materials was at least done locally till a year or two ago, but this too has been superseded by the Bombay (now Mumbai) article.

As a necessary result of the cessation of all these vaocations, the labour is now directed entirely in one direction towards weaving, and it is in consequence very cheap. What used to be paid for at Rs. 2 in former years is now remunerated by 1 rupee only.

Even as regards the merchant class the general complaint is that the trade does not pay. It may be that a larger number of cloths are now made than before, but what merchants make as profit, by reason of the cheapness of the commodity and keenness of competition seems to be considerably less than what it was in former years. A cloth which was sold for Rs. 60 is now sold for only Rs. 30.


As a curious illustration of how the importation of the English made goods has affected the local weaving industry, it may be mentioned that the weavers themselves of the town of Madura do hardly used cloths woven by them. Mulls and piece-goods have taken the place of the home-made articles and if the richer class should seek for some country cloths, it is the Conjeeveram cloths that are made use of.

Females likewise use the Thombu, and if they seek for some better country made cloths, they purchase the Koranadu cloths. Thus it happens that one or two per cent of the town-made articles are sold in the town itself and the rest are sent abroad.”

The above account of the local industry of Madura clearly indicates how the British administration had succeeded in destroying indigenous industries and arts which flour­ished in this country before their rule was formally established. This one example is illustrative of the plight of almost all the traditional industrial arts of the different districts in the Madras Presidency, and for that matter, in all places in South India where they exerted their influence.

The decadence of hand spinning and weaving industries was brought about not only by the Manchester competition but also by the growth of Indian mills. For the whole of India the total production of cotton was estimated in 1869 at 7.1 million qwt., of which 5 millions were exported and 2.1 million cwt. consumed in India -1/4 million by the Indian mills and 1.8 million by the handlooms. In 1888-89, the total production was estimated at 91/2 million qwts. of which 51/2 millions were exported to foreign countries, 3 millions were consumed by the Indian mills and 1 million by the hand-looms in India.

This shows that the hand-spun year was being rapidly superset by yarn made in the Indian mills. The rise of this Indian mill industry was again looked with disfavour by the English manu­facturers because Indian mills could produce cheaper goods with their abundant cheap labour and availability of cotton near the place of production.

A committee appointed by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to enquire into the causes of the rapid development of the mill industry in India reported that the main cause which had favoured the increase of mills and enabled them to a great extent to supply China and Japan with yarns formerly shipped from Lancashire, was their geographical position which placed them in close proximity to the cotton fields on the one hand and the consuming countries on the other. The good prospect of Indian mill industry excited the greatest alarm among the Manchester manufacturers.

The President of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce said that “the manufacturers of Lancashire should carefully watch the doings of the Indian manufactur­ers, or they will find not only that the coarse yarn trade has gone, but that the medium trade will go also” and they did try to place artificial obstacles in the way of development of this industry in India.

The land-owning classes of the Madras Presidency belonged to several categories. Out of the 90 millions of acres, 27 1/2 million or between 1/3, and 1/4 were held by 849 big and small zamindars. The next class of land owners was of the inamdars who numbered 438,659 and held between them 8.2 millions of acres or 19 acres each on an average.

The third class was of those numbering 550 who had redeemed the land-tax; third class was of those numbering 550 who had redeemed the land-tax by making a lump payment to Government. The fourth class consisted of purchasers of waste lands in hill tracts for the formation of plantations.

The fifth and most numerous classes comprised the ryotwari puttadars or peasant proprietors. The total number of estates on this tenure at the end of the 19th century was 2,850,000 and the number of owner was 4,600,000. The total area of ryotwari villages was 59.3 million acres, of which 31 million acres were un-cultureable waste and lands held on inam tenure.

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