Academic journal article CLIO

Coding Famine: Famine Relief and the British Raj in Rudyard Kipling's "William the Conqueror"

Academic journal article CLIO

Coding Famine: Famine Relief and the British Raj in Rudyard Kipling's "William the Conqueror"

Article excerpt

When you have to keep connection unbroken between a restless mother of kids and a baby who is at the point of death, you suffer in all your system. (1)

Certainly the Code must have saved many lives in the great droughts which occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century. The British were firmly in control and Pax Britannica reigned from Kashmir to Cape Cormarin. Strong, disciplined subordinate services, manned by Indians, were available to carry out the orders of the authorities. The people trusted the government to save them from starvation. (2)

It is now widely recognized that "Englishness" developed in the nineteenth century as a response to the shock of radical changes in culture brought about by industrialism and by growing engagements with colonial cultures and contexts. As Linda Colley puts it, "Englishness" was not a given but "was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and in response to conflict with the Other." (3) The nineteenth-century project of constructing a cohesive national identity of "Englishness" thus depended on the consolidation of the colonial native as a figure whose absolute otherness would allow internal differences to be subsumed. (4) However, this project was threatened by the issue of hunger, which remained an intractable problem in Britain despite Poor Law reforms, and which took the devastating form of famines in various colonies (notably in Ireland and in India) notwithstanding systematic British rule. Linked in nineteenth-century ethnography and popular imagination with cannibalism, hunger marked the imagined boundary between civilization and wilderness, between the civilized human and the savage Other. Hunger at home and in the colonies (where famine buttressed support for a growing nationalist challenge to British rule) pointed to a failure of Victorian administration, and hence generated deep anxieties about British identity and destiny. (5)

As an Anglo-Indian writer deeply imbued with Victorian ideologies of empire and simultaneously deeply ambivalent about those ideologies, Rudyard Kipling attempts to allay these anxieties in "William the Conqueror" (1898), a short story centered on the experiences of two Anglo-Indian relief workers during a famine in British India. Kipling projects hunger and the bureaucratic social response to it as the pivotal element of the dynamic between the Victorian center and its colonial periphery. Although the story was ignored by literary critics, it was rescued from critical oblivion by Wallace Ruddell Aykroyd, who was one of the commissioners appointed by the British government to form the Board of Inquiry into the Bengal famine of 1943-45. Aykroyd was later attached to the United Nations, where he was affiliated with the Food and Agriculture Organization (a prime concern of which is the prevention of famine) and served as Director of the Nutrition Division. In a book on the history of famines and twentieth-century famine relief--optimistically entitled The Conquest of Famine (1974)--Aykroyd devotes an entire chapter to an analysis of Kipling's story. This chapter, sandwiched between a chapter on Indian famines from 300 AD to the 1940s and another chapter on the Bengal famine, stands as a literary inscription of the earlier history of the same administrative structure of which Aykroyd was himself a part at its penultimate moment. (6)

Aykroyd's use of Kipling's story as a historiographical resource not only conflates literature and history, but also carries forward into the post-Raj reality of the 1970s Kipling's own conflation of imperialist and humanitarian missions. British India for both Aykroyd and Kipling comes about as the conquest of hunger rather than as the acquisition of colonial lands and peoples. Yet, as the titles of both Aykroyd's book and Kipling's story--both emphasizing "conquest"--show, the attempted representation of an imperialist and colonialist agenda as a humanitarian one remains largely unsuccessful. …

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