Tuesday, September 2, 2014

India and Austen

Much attention in the Austen world has been lavished on the West Indian slave plantations that financed wealthy families like the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. Less attention has been paid to Jane Austen's proximity, via close relatives, to the ruthless exploitation of native peoples in India.

In The Austen Papers, Austen's uncle, Tysoe Hancock, mentions the Bengal famine of 1770 in a letter of 7 March 1770 to his wife Philadelphia, Jane Austen's aunt:

"The diseases which have been and continue to be very fatal here are chiefly owing to putrefaction occasioned by the prodigious number of dead bodies lying in the streets and all places adjacent. This mortality is the effect of a most terrible famine which had half depopulated Bengal."

The Bengal famine, probably caused by British East India Company policies.

Hancock is too focused on his own not inconsiderable woes, including a long bout of sickness amid the stench of rotting corpses, ceaseless financial worries, and fear he would be "perpetually banished" to India to put the famine in context--and he probably knew little of the context.

The Bengal famine killed 10 million Indians and caused vast sections of Bengal to go back to jungle because of depopulation. The British East India Company's policies of forcing farmers to plant indigo rather than food crops, raising rents fivefold, which forced farmers to plant opium poppies rather than food, and forbidding the "hoarding" of rice largely caused or exacerbated the famine. The company did little to respond to the crisis. 

During the famine, Warren Hastings was the first governor-general of British India, a powerful position. He probably fathered Eliza, Jane Austen's first cousin and friend. Philadelphia,  Eliza's mother, was Jane's father's sister.

Warren Hastings. We wish he had been kinder to the Indian people. 

Hastings treated Philadelphia and Eliza generously, at one point bestowing 10,000 pounds on them, roughly a million dollars in today's money. He also, among other acts of generosity, provided Hancock with diamonds he could send to Philadelphia to sell to offset expenses. 

Eliza Hancock

Hancock wasn't the only Englishman who arrived in India at great risk to seek a fortune. The pressures on Hastings to provide not just sustenance but wealth for this English population must have been intense.

Yet at what cost to the Indian people, who were starved en masse in the process? 

If Hastings is a hero in the Austen family drama, not so much in India. There, Hastings engaged "violent" tax collecting after 1771. This resulted in revenues earned by the East India Company that were higher in 1771 than in 1768. 

It is chilling to think how Hastings got the money he bestowed on Philadelphia and Eliza--and in what close proximity Eliza was to Jane Austen. None of this was their fault. We live in the world we are given, and Austen was born into a privileged place in a world of systemic injustice. And yet living on the peripheries of a glittering society in which vast wealth poured into a few laps from all over the globe, Jane often felt her relative poverty. Ironies pile upon ironies. 

Maybe one less crystal chandelier and instead some rice for the starving Indians?

One thinks of the line from Great Expectations that "some must live rough that other might live fine." One wishes that the English upper classes of Austen's time could have lived less lavishly so that many others might have lived. 


  1. Obviously all good points about over-looked texts. Cynically I wonder if not just these Austen papers (with Austen's great-grandmother's heroic struggle as a housekeeper determined to educate her sons) but a number of the novels ought to be as much in the foreground of post-colonialist thought as MP: Catherine or the Bower, Wentworth the great hero -- why was there such money to be (in effect) stolen?, slavery in Emma ... I now have a list of decent secondary sources to share. Chris A. Bayly, __The New Cambridge History of India: Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (1988) and sections of the slightly later __The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947__ (1990), and Marshall's introductory essay and extensive bibliography in P.J. Marshall, ed.,__The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution?__ (2003).

  2. Ellen,

    Thank you very much for the references

  3. Hancock was not too focussed on himself to care about the famine victims. In his diary of the time Count von Imhoff wrote that Hancock tried to feed as many of the victims as he could but had to give up when he became besieged in his house by all the starving people.

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