Session 9A: Health, Illness and Disease in Historical Perspective
Chair: Antje Kampf
Engaging the British Victorian Public: Florence Nightingale and the Madras Famine of 1876
Anna Louise Penner
Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA
Recent historical work by Mike Davis (Late Victorian Holocausts) and David Arnold (Colonizing the Body), among others, has identified the political, economic and social factors that necessarily contributed to the drought and the subsequent famine and disease that afflicted mid- and late-Victorian India. Davis’s understanding of famine as something that is never entirely the result of entirely “natural” and/or meteorological factors (unless a community is entirely isolated geographically, economically, and otherwise—something extremely rare in the nineteenth century) encourages us to look further at the Victorian political, social, and economic experts, such as Florence Nightingale and Robert Ellis, who tried to draw British subjects’ attention to the developing crisis in India– particularly in the Madras region in the years preceding and immediately following the famine of 1876.
I am particularly interested in Florence Nightingale’s writings on the Indian famine as they try to stir up public concern for the Indian people. Published in The Nineteenth Century and by the East India Association and the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Nightingale’s essays clearly reflect her hope to galvanize her readership into pressuring their representatives in the House of Commons and House of Lords to act in the service of the Indian people at risk of famine. As we might expect, her understanding of the factors contributing to the famine and disease differs from ours, informed as ours is by hindsight and historical scholarship such as Davis’s and Arnold’s; but what particularly interests me is the ways that Nightingale’s rhetorical strategies in her essays on the Indian Famine seem to harken back to the implied arguments of earlier nineteenth-century “condition of England” novelists who encouraged middle class readers to be become aware of and active in trying to alleviate the material conditions of working class peoples’ lives.
Nightingale’s annotations of Benjamin Jowett’s translations of Plato’s dialogues show her recognition of the power of novelists to affect public opinion in negative ways. I connect her clear recognition of the social power of fiction to the ways that her rhetorical strategies in her essays on the Indian famine seem clearly to borrow from the mostly implied arguments of Condition of England novelists, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, who managed to focus their readers’ attention on particular aspects of the material conditions of the poor and away from others in order to make the working classes more sympathetic to middle class readers. Gaskell, for example, makes almost no reference to the alleged vices and “moral contagion” her contemporaries such as James Kay Shuttleworth associated with the working-class Irish in her harrowing portrait of the poorest of the Manchester working classes in the first volume of Mary Barton (1848); instead readers follow traces of other material realities, such as the efforts of old Aunt Alice to whitewash her walls, or Mary Barton’s efforts to hang on to the objects, such as japanned tea trays, that once identified the middle class aspirations of the Barton family. These descriptions are continually interspersed with Gaskell’s direct addresses to the reader insisting that the reader CARE about the conditions under which the working classes live.
Similarly, Nightingale conspicuously avoids reference to the Sepoy rebellion of 1857 which caused British people’s fear, rage, and in some cases feelings of betrayal to be reflected in British newspapers. Instead, she puts the blame for the British government’s contribution to the conditions that have produced famine on to the public’s ignorance of the material realities of Indian people’s lives. Rather than focusing on the Indian people’s history of and potential for rebellion, Nightingale focuses on the material realities of their lives, a subject which was much more likely to appeal to the British middle-class subject. For example, of the Madras people, she writes:
Without cattle, without seed corn to plough and sow their now desolated lands, implements wanting, bullocks dead, everything gone; branches to be used instead of ploughs; instead of cattle, men; paupers, unwilling paupers for years. And this the most industrious, the most frugal, the most thrifty, one might almost say the most heroic, peasantry on the face of the earth.
The historical moment of the Madras famine and Nightingale’s greater fame and connection to prominent political, medical, and literary figures may well explain why the rhetorical strategies Nightingale uses to highlight British influence on the material conditions of Indian lives during and in the period leading up to the Madras famine differ quite strikingly from Nightingale’s rhetorical strategies in her more frequently read and interpreted works that address hospital administrators and middle- and laboring class housewives. Rather than inspiring in her reader fear of the other, the sometimes invisible intruder, as she does in her writings about household and hospital contaminants, in her Indian writings she follows the lead of “condition of England” writers in focusing on the material realities of famine and disease.
Negotiating Hygiene on the Borders of Empires: The 1917 Sanitary ‘Crisis’ in the Manchurian Town of Andong
Department of History and Classics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada
No abstract is presently available