An Officer & A Nobleman 1 – Famine of Skulls (Guntur – January 1797)

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James Brodie reined in his mount and swung down in a swift practiced motion in front of the bungalow. A lone man waiting in the veranda rushed in and bowed deeply before taking the reins. It was a hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere, abandoned long ago.

In the last ten hours his life had turned upside down. From being one of the brightest young men in the India Service, he had become a man with no future.

In the morning when he reached office, he had no inkling that he would be a man on the run, from his own people, a fugitive.

Ten hours ago…The day began like any other day…

There were hardly a few carts, less than a dozen, waiting for the doors to open to unload their contents. ‘Another failed harvest,’ he cursed. A few men women and children, if you call them so, were crouching under a tree, leafless and no shade to offer, large orbs on their shrunken faces staring hungrily at the bags of grain. He quickly turned his face away from their half-naked bodies with nothing but skin and bones to show. ‘How many?’ he asked Pantulu, a young accountant at the warehouse.

‘Thirty families Dora garu, more than a hundred mouths,’ he answered in Telugu, ‘They are from Kurnool Subah this time.’

‘That’s more than two hundred miles to the west, how did they manage?’ he wondered. No food or water, only the animal drive to survive must have kept them alive.

‘Send them to the soup kitchen and feed those creatures first,’ he said, entering the warehouse, a long shed with tiled roof mostly empty but for a few sacks of coarse grain stacked up in a corner. The stock was fast depleting.

It had been a year since he took over as the Keeper of the Garrison Store at Guntur, with six years in India Service this was his first posting outside Madras. The country was in the grip of a famine, probably the worst in recorded history. More than five million natives lost their lives due to hunger in the Madras presidency alone.

Today there were a thousand families of refugees living at the camp, set up by him, being fed on meagre rations taken out of the garrison stock, purportedly as a payment for construction labor of the new collectorate being built. But the number of mouths fed by the soup kitchens far exceeded the number of men in any physical condition to work.

What he had been doing was illegal, but human. He had no right to use company stocks to feed the hungry. Only option left to him was to put a stop to the kitchens and cut losses. But then … Where will they go? Those poor creatures will die of hunger. After all, they are human, aren’t they?  Is my career more important than a thousand lives?

He looked up at the imagined Damocles Sword hanging above him. In case of an audit now… the thought made him sweat in spite of mild weather, court martial, and dismissal from service in disgrace, was almost certain, for misappropriation of company property. Failed harvest meant there won’t be adequate inward stock to make adjustments. More, the famine relief funds allocated to the district were diverted to Lord Buckingham’s pet project, a canal from Bezwada and there was no letup in the numbers of hungry refugees arriving day after day.

His mind in turmoil, he beckoned his accountant, ‘What is the shortage of grain?’ he asked. Pantulu opened his ledger but answered without even looking at it, ‘As of today, one thousand five hundred and forty bags, sir, and we are using up two bags a day.’

Brodie made a quick math, ‘that’s around four thousand in silver rupees?’ he looked at Pantulu for confirmation.

‘Yes sir, but…’ Pantulu hesitated for a moment before giving the bad news, ‘the fixed selling rate to natives is sixty percent more than the procurement price,’ he rummaged through the files and pulled out a company order to that effect. Brodie scanned the papers with a longlist of items and their prices, an ugly scowl appeared on his normally pleasant face, ‘this is shameful,’ he banged his fist on the desk. ‘Unfair… unfair… unfair…’ he kept mumbling, ‘you can’t profit from hunger, can you?’ he asked finally looking directly at Pantulu, who remained stoically rigid.

Pantulu was in complete agreement with Brodie, but it’s not in his nature to question authority. But what he had been doing was not legal. Pantulu knew that the collector, George Andrew Ram, was tacitly aware of the goings on, but turned a blind eye. He may be sympathetic but will be of no help … especially now.

He hated to bring up the matter, a matter most urgent and the worst news at that moment. Without a word he opened the tappal box and placed the letter in front of Brodie.

It was from Edward Hargrave, Assistant to the Secretary, Military Political and Secret Departments and Clerk to the Committee of Stores, an impressive designation. Blood drained from Brodie’s face as he perused the letter, advising of his proposed visit, ‘an inspection of facilities and preparedness for an emerging military contingency’. Though the words were enigmatic, the purpose was clear as crystal to him. He was privy to the plans to upgrade Guntur to a full-fledged cantonment. So, even small discrepancies at the garrison stores would be tantamount to treason. Seven thousand silver rupees, he sighed, that’s a dreadfully large amount to replace before Hargrave arrives.

‘When is he here?’ he asked Pantulu.

‘I’ve a word from my brother at the collector’s office sir, he’s already in town, staying at the army recruitment office,’ he replied.

‘Then, what do we do?’ he panicked. Ignominy of discharge for treason and retuning home under disgrace, that’s when he had decided to run, but where to go?  ‘I’ve no time. The military police will start looking for me the moment my absence is noticed. I must go to Masula and find passage on some ship, Rangoon or Java or any godforsaken place,’ he was babbling.

Pantulu felt sorry for him. He liked Brodie very much. Today there were thousands of drought affected families in Guntur who owed their lives to his generosity of spirit. But those miserable creatures can’t spare a penny. It was that very generosity to them had landed him in problem.

Pantulu raked his brains, for someone who could save him. Yes, there is one man, equally generous and noble in spirit, his hopes rising, but even for him to do something, he would need time. How to buy time? Then a plan began taking shape in his mind.

‘Sir, I have a plan,’ he explained, ‘let me inform the collector that you are out on tour inspecting harvests to augment procurement. That will give us a week, enough for me to go to Chintapalli and back.

‘Meanwhile you may stay at a place I have in mind, where nobody can find you,’ he suggested the abandoned hunting lodge deep in the hills to the north of Guntur, but just a few hours on horseback.

But will he agree?’ Brodie was doubtful.

To be continued next week…


No other country had suffered the birth pangs of modern era than Mother India. The second half of 18th century had seen her torn by wars between feudal states and colonial armies; hunger of her children, farmers and craftsmen, looted by indiscriminate tax collectors; and poverty due to the unequal policies of the East India Company. Frequent famines were only a symptom of the rot that had torn to shreds the very economic fabric of our mother, which she once proudly wore.

By 1790s entire Andhra Pradesh as we have today had become a part of Madras Presidency. As a harbinger of the times, the country was visited by one of the worst famines ever recorded. It was called ‘Purrela Karuvu’, Famine of Skulls. People died in such numbers that they could not be buried or cremated. It is estimated that more than eleven million died in the Telugu speaking region. As in any famine the landless labor and the artisans suffered most. Out of sheer hunger and the primal urge to live those who survived migrated to the lower river basins and deltas. The nascent Company administration was indifferent and ill-equipped to handle the suffering of masses as their priorities lay elsewhere in the consolidation of its power in Carnatic and Hyderabad.

In such dire times some fair minded officers of India Service made a substantial difference. One such was James Brodie who came to India in 1789. After six years of service in Madras, he was posted to Guntur as the Keeper of the Garrison Store. His generous nature and humane spirit had made a difference between life and death to thousands of refugees in Guntur and its neighborhood. He is remembered fondly, even today, by the descendants of those who owed their lives to his kindness. But sometime during the course of his tenure at Guntur between 1796 and 1801 he had disappeared. The Madras presidency has no record of him after his appointment at Guntur.



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