Madras Famine 1877: Man Guarding His Family From Cannibals

In 1876-78, a drought hit the south & southwestern part of India, that is even remembered today for its severity. The Madras Famine of 1877 caused at least 5.6 million fatalities with numbers going as high as 9.6 million deaths.

India, at time came under the rule of British Crown, with Lord Robert Bulwer-Lytton as its Viceroy. The famine affected large parts of India, but the provinces of Bombay, Hyderabad & Madras were the worst hit.

What were the reasons for Madras Famine of 1877?

The reasons cited for the famine were droughts in Deccan Plateau in preceding years. The droughts in India were part of global droughts, occurring across several countries due to geological reasons. The droughts were responsible for 19 million to 50 million deaths overall.

Who was responsible for Madras Famine?

Along with natural calamities, the British colonial government is also blamed in part for the Madras Famine. This is due to the fact that, despite droughts, the colonial government continue to export grains from India.

During the Famine, the British exported 320,000 tonnes of wheat to England, under the viceroyship of Lord Robert Bulwer-Lytton.

Another reason cited is the commodification of grains with focus on cash crops cultivation. This was also among the most important reasons for the Madras Famine.

What was the government’s reaction?

Richard Temple, the Famine commissioner of India at that time had handled the Bihar Famine of 1873 very well by importing rice from Burma. But, he was criticised for excessive expenditure on welfare.

In 1877, temple reduced daily wages to 450 grams grain and one anna for a day. But, this decision was also widely criticised and as a result he raised the wages to 570 grams grain and 43 grams pulses.

But, most of the people in the administration were OK with paying the minimum sum to avoid dependency among the famine-afflicted population.

In 1878, Temple proclaimed that he had put Famine under control, while people argued that, “a famine cannot be said to be controlled which kills one-fourth of the people”.


Already malnutritioned, the Indian population suffered another outbreak of Malaria, which killed a lot of barely surviving people.

The British government’s expenditure per capita was less than one-fifth of what was spent during much smaller Bihar Famine.

After the famine, a large number of handloom workers in South India went to work as indentured laborers in other British colonies. The high number of deaths in Southern provinces neutralized the population growth rate for almost a decade.

The British reaction to the Famine caused a rift between some of the administrators inside the British government. Among them were, A.O Hume & William Wedderburn, who went on to found Indian National Congress.