Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800: Connected Cultural Histories of Food Security

Project research questions

  1. What were the practices, discourses, and literary modes through which the selected past societies in early modern India and Britain articulated concerns about long-term availability and distribution of food?
  2. In the context of pre-colonial interaction, how can digital technologies help to recover and organise a wide range of multi-lingual, geographically scattered sources on famine and dearth to enable scholars to make transnational or cross-cultural comparisons?
  3. What effect have transitions from pre- to post-colonial environments had on the way Britain and India have understood, imagined, and acted upon concerns about food security?
  4. How do comparisons of cultural responses to famine and dearth in early modern contexts, presented within a Digital Humanities framework, facilitate useful perspectives on modern issues of food security?
  5. How would the project’s interdisciplinary and cross-cultural hermeneutic extend the practical and philosophical efficacy of Digital Humanities itself?

By deepening our understanding of early modern constructions of famine, in comparative perspective, this project provides a new frame of reference for contemporary debates. The unpredictability and urgency of modern ecological crises have turned technological responses to famine, such as increasing agricultural output or addressing food distribution, into coping mechanisms rather than solutions. We are thus forced back into a pre-modern position. To address this issue, we need to considerably widen our cultural and chronological perspectives. Food, famine, and dearth are not issues that are, or have been, problematic for the "Third World" alone. The Western world itself has a long history of coping with famines and periods of dearth. The project, despite its primary focus on the Indian context, ensures that this aspect of the temporally inflected lens through which we view famine and dearth does not get obscured.


Emperor Jahangir Triumphing Over Poverty ("Dalidra"), circa 1620-1625. Attributed to Abu'l Hasan.

Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)