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HOW THE FAMINE CAME TO BURMA.
Although here in Burma we out into dry undulating uplands, cannot do things on the extensive where the sun shines for ever. scale they do in India, although The whole world is changed around we do not estimate the distressed you. The rice, which cannot exist area by tens of thousands of square except in water, has given way to miles and our suffering popula- sessamum, and cotton, and jowar tion by millions, nevertheless the crops, which abhor damp. The famine of 1896-97 is a very real grass, which grows 15 feet high in thing to us.
the uncultivated land below, is Its effects are entirely confined changed into a thin meagre herbto the upper province, the country age which barely covers the ground. that was annexed in 1885, when The jungle has deteriorated into Mandalay was taken and King thorn-bushes and cutch-trees. And Thibaw deposed.
this extends with but little alteraIn Lower Burma there is no tion for 400 miles, until, north of scarcity at all, but, on the con- Shwebo, you come to the hill countrary, a bumper crop of rice, the try again, where rain is ample. largest on record. In the seaward On both sides, this tract is provinces of Arracan and Tenas- bounded by
mountain serim, and in the delta of Irra- ranges; on the east by the Shan waddy, which together form the plateau, and on the west by the lower province, the rains never Chin hills, and through it north fail. Out of the endless ocean to and south flows the Irrawaddy the south-west the wind comes up river. It is this stretch of counpunctually in May, and from then try that is really the home of the until September rain is almost in- Burman. Within it lie all the cessant there. The rivers, too, rise old Burman capitals—Pagan and and flood their banks, and the Sagain, Ava and Amarapura and country is turned into one vast Shwebo, and many another. swamp. In this rich wet land the Lower Burma has been but rice is grown, and when the rains recently Burmanised. The popuhave ceased and the rivers gone lation is really Talaing, and in down it is reaped. There are of 1825, when the first Burmese war course good seasons and bad sea- occurred, we found the Burmese sons, but anything approaching to in Pegu as conquerors. Now it a scarcity is unknown. There is would be hard to find in Lower always a surplus, - this year it Burma, except in remote places, amounts to over one and three any one calling himself Talaing. quarters of a million tons of rice. There has been a large emigration
But about 150 miles north of from the upper country to the Rangoon, near the line dividing delta, and the superior race has the two provinces, all this is absorbed the inferior. This emi. altered. The rain suddenly ceases. gration has been caused in part, As you come up by train or by no doubt, by the increasing scarcity river, the change is extraordinary. of rain in the upper province. In a few miles you leave the dense Whereas in Lower Burma the soaking mists and flat alluvial land annual rainfall averages from 100 of the lower country, and come to 200 inches, in the centre of Upper Burma, the tract that I of clay land stiff enough to retain am writing of, it is only from 18 water, you will find it levelled and to 30 inches, and even this scanty embanked into rice-fields. In late fall is not well distributed. It years they have never been worked; comes not in days of mild soaking but if you ask the villagers about rain, but in sudden heavy showers, them they will say: "Yes—these that last for an hour or two, fill are good fields when there is rain ; all the ravines with torrents and but only twice or thrice in our drain away in a few days, leaving lifetime have we been able to reap the country as arid as before. them. In our fathers' days crops There is, I think, considerable would be obtained every second evidence that this failure of the year or so, and our grandfathers rain is a matter of this century, worked them every year.” They even of the latter part of the cen- are fields beyond any possibility tury, and that in former years of irrigation. So clearly this was Upper Burma was much more rain. The villagers will also tell fruitful than it is now.
you that, except the great famine In what is now the very driest of 1856-57, it was not until King part of the dry tract there are the Thibaw's time that rain began to remains of the old city of Pagan. fail. In his father King Mindoon's Six hundred years ago this was reign there was no scarcity. “That the capital of a little kingdom, was because he was a religious and to judge by the remains of man,” they say. “ He convened innumerable pagodas in the neigh- the great Synod, and he was very bourhood, it must have been of just and honourable, a protector some considerable size. Now, of wisdom. But King Thibaw was cities are not built in deserts. weak. The kingdom fell into bad Above all necessities for a large hands. Religion was forgotten, city are a copious and well-dis- and in consequence the country tributed water-supply, and a fer- suffered.” That is the explanatile surrounding country. Large tion. cities require water for domestic Curiously enough, the first few consumption, and for gardens and years of the British conquest were orchards, and numerous purposes. good years. But the country was Moreover it must not be necessary so distressed, so disturbed, that to go far for it. Now, in the fields were not ploughed, seed was Pagan of to-day the only water is not sown. Fields were not cultithe Irrawaddy river, which flows vated from fear of us, from fear of near, and the country around is dacoits, from ignorance of what barren and unfertile. Supplies for was about to happen, and so a large number of people could the cultivators had but little in not be obtained on the spot, but hand wherewith to combat the bad would have to be brought from a times which began in 1890. The very considerable distance. With- rainfall in the early part of that out a doubt, the country round year was scanty in many places, Pagan must in those days have and though the later rains were been fertile and well watered by a fairly good, yet there was a defisufficient rainfall.
ciency. In 1891 the crops were But there are evidences in much still shorter, and in 1892 there later days that the rainfall has de- was a scarcity-hardly amounting creased. Here and there all over to a famine, but still a severe this tract, wherever there is a piece scarcity-in Yamethin, in Meiktila,
and in Myingyan, the three worst inestimable value to fill the ears districts. After that, for a year of the jowar, the sessamum, and or two matters improved slightly. the rice, never came. In 1893 better crops were reaped; In addition to this want of rain in 1894 there was again a slight there another misfortune. pinch in places. In 1895, in the Between Mandalay in the north early tracts where sessamum was and Minbu on the south there is a grown, good crops were reaped, great area of land, principally on but the failure of the late rains the west of the river, that is caused the jowar and late sessa- inundated by the Irrawaddy in its mum to be scanty. Remission of floods, and wherein rice is grown, revenue had to be granted in many. fed by the flood-water. But this places, and the people were not in year the Irrawaddy never properly good heart to face another bad It was not until August year.
that there was any good rise, and Then came 1896. The early when this fell there was no other. rain failed almost completely. Much land was never planted at Whereas we usually expect show- all, and much that was planted ers in the end of March and in withered off as the river fell, April, to soften the earth for So in this year there has been a ploughing and preparing for the complication of misfortunes. Of early crops, no rain fell until the none of the staple crops of cotton, end of May. The hot weather jowar, sessamum, or beans has was thus exceptionally long and more than a third been gathered. severe, and the heat was intense. In many places the seed has hardly The ground was utterly dried up, been returned to the cultivators. wells shrank lower than they had And there was a promise of rain ever done, and it was very hard to that made the disappointment all find pasture for cattle. At the the more bitter. The rain of end of May and early in June October 14 and 15 had done we had a great deal of rain—more great good. The jowar and sessthan enough. And about the amum and beans had profited by middle of that month it ceased, it. The jowar especially was in and from then until the middle of good heart, tall and strong, with October, the whole of the south- the promise of a fair crop, enough west monsoon time, there was no at least to keep the people from rain of any consequence. The great stringency. What little rice country became baked up, as if it had been planted was looking well, were again the hot weather. The the beans were covering the ground young crops that had been sown with green tendrils, and the late and had sprouted fairly, withered sessamum was lusty and strong. up. The lower leaves of the palms It wanted but two days' or even turned yellow, the grass died. one day's good rain to give the Even the cotton, which is supposed growing crops the necessary reto revel in dryness, withered and freshment,—to start the sap into hung its head. On October 14 the ears to fill them. and 15 we had two days' heavy And in November it promised rain, and that is the last that we to come. For two or three days have had. The three days’ rain there had been heavy banks of which is usually expected at the cloud in the south, gathering end of November, and which is of every evening, shooting lightning.
They came nearer and nearer, until hard to bear. But we thought it at last one morning we woke up to was a certainty, and it has failed." hear a little dropping on the roof- "Thakin," said a headman, "for rain at last! As the sun rose the the last year when we have been rain ceased, and the clouds lifted, asked about our crops we have but they did not clear off. On the said "We hope.' Now we shall bill in front the clouds hung in never say that again. We shall low long mists of vapour well into say “We fear.'” the forenoon, and the distance was The districts in which the failure full of mist. The people were de- of crops bas been most severe lighted. “We are not brother to are Yamethin, Meiktila, and Myinthe rain, and cannot be sure," gyan, covering about 10,000 square they said; “but when there are miles, with a population, according clouds upon that hill in the morn- to the census of 1891, of 370,000. ing, it is an almost certain sign of But the neighbouring districts rain within twenty-four hours." have also suffered more or less. I was at a village that morning— Parts of Magwe, of Minbu, of a village whose whole future de- Pakkoku, and of Sagain, are pended on the crops that were nearly as badly off, and the disthen bursting into ear round about tricts of Shwebo, Mandalay, and —and as I talked to the people the Lower Chindwin have had about the season they were full of great losses. No doubt there will hope. “We shall be hard up," be considerable distress in these they said, “and it will be difficult districts, and considerable remisfor us to pay taxes, but as to food sions of revenue will have to be there will be enough. It will rain made, but the "famine” will most to-night, and the ears will fill, and probably be confined to the three we shall gather enough, eked out districts first named, and the parts with jungle roots and fruits, to of other districts in immediate take us on till the early crops contact with them. The position come.”
now may be simply summarised They spoke cheerfully with that as follows: Of cotton almost onedelightful courage and hopefulness third of an average crop was of which surely no people have so reaped; of rice, except in wellmuch as they, and as I rode back irrigated places, even less. The to my camp, it seemed to me that early and late crops of sessam um the fear of the worst was over. failed in most places, and of what There would be a scarcity, but no
is the main food-crop, jowar, perYet even as I rode back, haps one-third was reaped. the sun was sucking up the mists. It will be understood that vilThe pagoda on
hill - top lages vary in the fertility of soil shadowed faintly through the and other particulars. Some vilthinning vapours, and far away lages have done better than this, the sky was clear and blue. By some have done worse. Of the the afternoon the mist was gone, palms, which are the mainstay of and when the sun set, in all the many villages, by the palm-juice great sweep of sky there was no which they yield, an average of a sign of cloud.
third of a crop may be obtained. The people were in despair. This is drawn in February and “If it had not promised us,” they March. Therefore it may be said said, "it would have been less that, roughly speaking, their fields
have yielded to them but one-third of the people, fortunately a small of what they should do in average one, on whom any shortness of years, and in some villages less crop tells at once — namely, the even than this.
agricultural labourers. The land But still it will be seen that is all of it in the hands of small this is no general and devastating peasant proprietors, who cultivate famine, like an Indian famine. it themselves with their own The area is nothing like so great, labour and that of their families. the failure of crops not so com- In fair years many of the larger of plete, and there is abundant food them will require assistance for within reach to be bought for ploughing and reaping. But in money.
The distressed districts a bad year the farmer can easily are so well served by river or rail plough and reap all his land himthat hardly any village is thirty self. There is no need to hire miles from some places where food labour. So this year there has may be obtained from Lower been no work at all for the Burma in any quantity.
Still labourers. And there has been the distress is very real. It must no place where they could obtain be remembered that this year has work. Agriculture and a little followed upon many
years of carding of cotton are the only in
It must be remem- dustries of these districts. With bered, also, that even with a series a scarcity of cheap food like jowar, of fair average years these people and the necessity of buying food would not be well off. The soil is so expensive as rice, the capacity of not fertile, and it is fully popu- the labourers for buying anything lated. The people estimate that at all has almost disappeared. in an average year it takes the And some of the smaller peasant whole of their main crops to give owners are in as bad a case. They them food and pay their taxes. have been going from bad to worse For clothes, for luxuries of every for years, and this is the final diskind, including the upkeep of their aster. monastery schools, they look to the
Some, of course,
have early crops. These are always very the lower country to reap the big small in places where a good late crops there; but it is 200 miles crop is obtained.
Therefore this and more away, and it is hard year the failure of the early crops to take old people, women, and deprived the people of every hope children there. A few that had except for a bare subsistence, and any little article left that they the failure of the late crops has re
could sell have sold it and gone duced that subsistence to hardly down by steamer. Some with enough to feed them for three or cattle have started on the long four months.
overland march, and some-surely It was foreseen early in the they must have been adventurous autumn that there would be some souls—made for themselves tiny scarcity later on. The early crops rafts out of the ruins of their having failed, even if a fair later homes and pushed out into the crop were reaped there would be great river, man and wife and a want of money, and in a popu- children, to seek better fortune in lation where a certain proportion a more fertile country. Some men of the people are habitually little have left their families behind in above poverty, it would mean more the villages, and have gone north or less distress. There is a section and west to where there are cutch