Thomas Keneally, Starving for Evidence

Thomas Keneally—best known as the author of Schindler’s Ark (1982), the inspiration for the movie Schindler’s List—has written a book blaming Britain for two of what he calls “the three most devastating food shortages in modern history”. His publisher boasts that it is written with “compelling prose and a cast of villainous characters”. You’d be forgiven if this makes the book sound like a work of fiction, and—because of its tendentious arguments and ahistorical assumptions—it might as well be.

His three famines—the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–51, the Bengal Famine of 1943–44 and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and 1980s—are not “the three most devastating food shortages in modern history”. Those were the collectivisation-induced famines in the Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s; the Nazi-induced famine in Russia during the Second World War; and China’s vast famines of the 1960s and 1970s. The tens of millions of deaths these famines caused were the result of deliberate decision-making by fascists and communists.

Mr Keneally’s primary goal, it seems, is to put Robert Peel, British prime minister in the 1840s, and Winston Churchill in the dock alongside Stalin, Hitler and Mao. He appears to have included the Ethiopian famines only so that he could link Mengistu Haile Mariam, the thug who presided over them, with Tory premiers. The book’s famines, we’re told, are “siblings to each other”.

Mr Keneally accuses British authorities in Ireland and Bengal of “choosing to feed the famine instead of the starving”, a slur that he fails to support with evidence. Even direct accusations, such as that British officers raped female Indian demonstrators in Delhi during the Second World War, are supported with not a name, place or footnote. No one denies that tardiness, incompetence and occasional negligence were shown in some British imperial famine responses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—failings that have been rightly castigated in scores of history books before now—yet the idea that people like Winston Churchill deliberately adopted policies to make the situation worse is ludicrous.

The perilous military situation in India in late 1942—with the Japanese at the gates and Bengal about to be on the front line should the Japanese invade—meant that Churchill was forced to put strategic considerations first when deciding where ships, aircraft and resources went, often to the starving Bengalis’ detriment. In the end, the British managed to defend India on its north-east border, and the Japanese were forced back after the hard-fought battles of Imphal and Kohima.

Mr Keneally argues that military pressures “made it easier for those in authority to make choices that failed to meet, indeed worsened, the Bengali crisis”. The British, in other words, would have denied the ships and aircraft anyhow and preferred the Bengalis to starve, yet were able to blame everything on the war. In the absence of evidence to support this view (for none exists), Mr Keneally resorts to insinuations and half-truths. Writing of the request by Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India, to President Roosevelt for US shipping to bring grain to India in 1944, Mr Keneally writes: “To Churchill, this was nearly as bad as collaborating with an enemy.” Yet later on the same page he is forced to admit that Churchill himself requested exactly the same thing that same year.

On Ireland, his contradictions reinforce each other. Mr Keneally quotes approvingly the writer Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who stated that “there was no famine in the land” and that, as Mr Keneally puts it, “food was taken out of Ireland to feed domestic needs on the British mainland”. Yet Mr Keneally also argues that the British “ignored the existence of the food crisis” and goes into great detail about the failure of Ireland’s staple crop, the potato, on which three-quarters of the population relied for sustenance. But if Britain ignored the famine, why did Queen Victoria make a special visit there and donate £2000, a vast sum in those days, to a famine relief fund? Mr Keneally doesn’t say, because he doesn’t mention the Queen’s visit. Of course there was a famine and for the reason Mr Keneally cites: potato blight.

“Many in the British Government approved,” Mr Keneally says, “of the sad but providential scythe that reduced the Irish population to a desirable level.” He then fails to quote anyone at all—in Peel’s government or its Whig successor under Lord John Russell—who said or wrote such a despicable thing.

There were plenty of people at the time who criticised the high Irish birth-rates and the country’s over-dependence on a single crop, especially when there had been warning blights in the years before 1845. And among the British there were plenty of social scientists who warned against lowering tariffs even in a famine—a move that Peel sought, hoping to increase grain imports. But those warnings are a far cry from ministers approving of the starvation of three million British citizens. 

In India a century later, there had already been a drought between June and November 1942 before several major cyclones hit Bengal and then a devastating tidal wave flooded the Ganges Delta, killing 15,000 people. “The tsunami rolled far inland,” Mr Keneally writes, “across the low farmlands and rice fields,” spreading salt and poisoning crops. It’s one of the few disasters to hit Bengal that Mr Keneally does not blame on Winston Churchill. Horrific scenes of cholera, malaria and cannibalism ensued as three million people perished.

Shipping that was being used for military purposes in the fight against Japan was not diverted for humanitarian relief, as Mr Keneally judges it ought to have been. Those involved in making such decisions are named in a chapter titled “Villains”, a chapter that does not discuss the true villain—Japan’s Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who cut off the Burmese rice supply to India.

With the RAF and Royal Navy fully stretched trying to head off a threatened Japanese invasion of India in late 1942, there was simply nothing left to take part in large-scale food movements. To govern is to choose, and the Churchill ministry chose victory before famine relief. Given Japan’s genocidal ways of dealing with subjugated peoples, a weakened British military response might have added wholesale slaughter to the miseries of Bengal.

In today’s politically correct world—and it must be admitted that many of Churchill’s remarks about Indians were deeply politically incorrect—the hunger for victory is perhaps not given the precedence over humanitarianism that it was given in the 1940s. But even if Churchill might not have liked individual Indians much, he believed that Britain bore a sacred responsibility to protect the Subcontinent. This he carried out.

Mr Keneally makes little mention of a crucial factor in the Bengal Famine: the Bengali grain merchants and black marketeers who hoarded comestibles, expecting—rightly—that famine would spike food prices profitably. He does admit that Hindus were loath to donate food to mostly Muslim areas, but he does not address the central fact that Britain did not make all the decisions about famine relief, since Bengal had an elected provincial council. “Bengal’s Muslim majority government did nothing,” the historian Arthur Herman has written of the famine, “while many of its Hindu members were making huge profits trading in rice during the shortage.” Other Indian-run provincial governments exacerbated the crisis by imposing price controls on local foodstuffs, curtailing supply as famine spread. The idea that Britons must still take the blame for everything after the 1935 Indian self-government act is illogical, unless one believes, as Mr Keneally professes to, that the devolution of power was merely “a device to divert Indian political passion into local elections”.

There has been a good deal of ridiculous hyperbole about the Bengal Famine in recent years. Last winter, Joseph Lelyveld—reviewing Churchill’s Secret War in the New York Review of Books—called British responsibility for the Bengal Famine “a horror that deserves to rank with the bombings of Dresden and Nagasaki”. Now the Bengal section of Three Famines joins the chorus.

In 1997, Mr Keneally was designated one of Australia’s “100 Living Treasures” by the National Trust of Australia. He doesn’t treasure some of his fellow Aussies: the ones who want to retain their monarchy, he once wrote, are “white supremacists of Empire clinging to a loyalty more grotesque by the year”. The seventy-five-year-old Mr Keneally must now be starting to suspect that he will not live to see the Australian republic for which he has campaigned so vigorously. The vicious, yet historically absurd, blood libels that he pours on the Mother Country might well be seen as a cry of impotent rage.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2011, and is reprinted with permission. Andrew Roberts is an English historian whose latest book is The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.

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