Peering between the curtains of his viceregal railway carriage, Lord Curzon saw so few emaciated corpses that he reckoned reports of famine in India must be greatly exaggerated. Yet, decorously outside his range of vision, perhaps as many as sixteen million Indians starved to death in the late 19th century. An empire’s most basic obligation is to try to keep unrebellious subjects alive for a reasonable span. Few succeed in doing that.
Britain’s record on confronting famines is poor by some comparisons – with the ancient Romans, say, or the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. Most of the time, episodes of starvation occurred despite the benignity of governments in London. Sometimes it was a result of natural phenomena, such