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Between 1876 and 1902 somewhere between 12 and 29 million people starved to death in India. As a succession of devastating famines swept through the country, British colonial rule came under attack for its role in the management of food resources and grain exports.

In response, some British experts offered astronomy as the solution. They argued that by using Indian observatories to scrutinise sun-spot patterns, monsoon failures could be understood as natural, predictable consequences of solar variation.

Indian observatories and ‘pure’ science

Repeating circle, by James Troughton, London, c. 1810
Image 1: Repeating circle, by James Troughton, London, c. 1810 (Wh.1266)

British administrators and men of science supported the construction of several large and lavishly equipped observatories in India during the 19th Century.

Fine instruments like this repeating circle for measuring star positions (Image 1) were shipped in from London, as were astronomers and British research programmes.

The aim was both to “establish [observatories] upon a liberal scale worthy of the wealth and importance of the Government,” and “for the diffusion of [astronomy’s] principles amongst the inhabitants of India.”(1)

British scholars argued that Indians who studied astronomy could “scarcely fail of relieving themselves from a load of prejudices and superstition,” and would thus become “better men and better subjects.”(2) These ideas of astronomy as ‘pure’, rational, and uplifting would be challenged in the last decades of the 19th Century during projects to use Indian observatories to explain and predict famines.

Famine and daily photographs of the sun

Between 1876 and 1878 at least five million Indians starved to death under British Crown rule.

Crop failure had been greatly exacerbated by the British export of grain during the famine, in line with the free market principles of senior colonial administrators. When faced with mounting criticism of the Raj’s response, Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, stated bluntly that:

“[High prices] are the natural saviour of the situation … there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of the Government with the object of reducing the price of food … Let the British public foot the bill for its ‘cheap sentiment,’ if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India.”(3)

One area that the British were willing to spend money was on astronomy.

A rare set of volumes that survive in the archives of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy record a long-forgotten project begun in 1878 to monitor sun-spot activity daily from Dehra Dun and later Kodaikanal observatories.

This project was exported to India from Britain by the powerful editor of the journal Nature, J. Norman Lockyer, who believed that a causal link had been found between sun-spot activity and large-scale weather patterns on earth. “A well-marked coincidence exists between the eleven years’ cycle of sun-spots and the rainfall at Bombay,”(4) he wrote in 1877.

This connection supported the assertion of colonial administrators that famines were due to the periodic failure of monsoon rains.

Critics, however, noted Britain’s massive export of grain from India even during food shortages. Sun-spot cycles offered a conveniently natural cause for mass starvation, as well as the chance for British science to show its rational might.

Poor nature

Dadabhai Naoroji in 1889
Image 3: Dadabhai Naoroji in 1889. Naoroji served as a Liberal Party MP between 1892 and 1895.

As late as 1900, Lockyer remained bullish about the progress of his project, writing to the Prime Minister:

“You may remember that in 1877 your kind and sympathetic action on a memorandum … resulted in Solar Physics work being started in India.

"Owing to that work … the riddle of the probable times of occurrence of Indian Famines has now been read, and they can be for the future accurately predicted … We may therefore hope that help is … in sight in relation to the droughts in our Colonies.”(5)

But Lockyer’s supposed correlation proved unfounded. India endured its most devastating famine between 1896 and 1902. “How strange it is,” noted the Indian scholar Dadabhai Naoroji (Image 3) in 1901,

“that the British rulers do not see that after all they themselves are the main cause of the destruction that ensues from droughts; that is the drain of India’s wealth by them that lays at their own door the dreadful results of misery, starvation, and deaths of millions … 

"Why blame poor Nature when the fault lies at your own door?”(6)

References

1.     James Paton to James Prinsep, 8 Sep. 1831, as quoted in John McAleer, ‘“Stargazers at the World’s End”: Telescopes, Observatories and ‘Views’ of Empire in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire’, British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 46 (Sep. 2013), 389–413, on p.409.

2.     Raj engineer S. Goodfellow, as quoted in: Zaheer Baber, The Science of Empire: Scientific Knowledge, Civilization, and Colonial Rule in India (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), p.248.

3.     Lytton, as quoted in: Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), p.31.

4.     J. Norman Lockyer and W. W. Hunter, ‘Sun-Spots and Famines’, The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2, no. 9 (Nov. 1877), 583–602, on pp.598–99.

5.     J. Norman Lockyer to Lord Salisbury, 23 Oct. 1900, as quoted in: A. J. Meadows, Science and Controversy: A Biography of Sir Norman Lockyer (London: Macmillan, 2008), on p.283.

6.     Dadabhai Naoroji, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1901), p.212 and p.216.

 Joshua Nall

 Joshua Nall, ‘Famine and Astronomy’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2020.

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