A Social History of Capitalism: Food and Famine in Late Colonial South Asia

AHA Session 249
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 7
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Douglas Haynes, Dartmouth College
Douglas Haynes, Dartmouth College

Session Abstract

This panel studies the social and cultural lives of food and famine in late colonial South Asia to understand the particular paths of capitalism and the colonial conditions that shaped it. The panelists specifically use the lenses of agricultural modernization, food and nutrition, and women’s labor and lived experiences to investigate economic lives of colonial subjects and agents. Colonial projects as varied as engineering of agricultural implements and design of powdered milk were insinuated in processes of colonial capitalist modernity, while women’s entitlement to food under famine conditions were realized and understood within patriarchal relations. At the same time, the scalar politics of these projects makes evident the spatial-political dynamics of food in the late days of empire: whether it was hungered after, ordered by science, regulated by the state, or improved upon, food unravels the cultural history of capitalism in a non-Eurocentric framework. Moreover, food history illustrates both the dominance of colonial power and its limits in molding capitalism’s specific moorings in the colony.  Janam Mukherjee shows that the depiction of women’s victimhood during the Bengal famine through gestures to prostitution was partly a colonial construction. This construct highlighted women’s position as independent economic agents while neglecting the fact that women were physically more prepared to survive food shortages than men on account of prior experiences of dietary deprivation within the household. Rachel Berger explores the new science of nutrition juxtaposed against the economic innovations of the interwar period through attempts to introduce New Zealand-made powdered milk to the Indian market. Based on a perception of “need” concocted through a variety of surveys within colonial enclaves like orphanages, experiments on malnutrition in 1920s Madras led to the birth of preventative healthcare. Prakash Kumar compares agricultural engineering practices to argue that the American Presbyterian project of creating Christian subjects was not any different from the colonial state’s project in terms of advancing capitalist relations in India’s countryside. The Presbyterians’ efforts to design and mass-produce improved implements that could be purchased and owned by average farmers reflected a re-imagination of colonial subjects as individual capitalist agents. The economic logic was intrinsic to colonial logic in all three cases. By pursuing that economic logic the panelists illuminate a history of capitalism through a focus on the South Asian colonial site as against the frequently considered Euro-American arena.
See more of: AHA Sessions