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Harper’s: Former Scientific American editor pens bombshell Churchill critique

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Madhusree Mukerjee distinguished herself at Scientific American for the depth of her knowledge about string and related theory as well as the elegance of her news and feature writing.

After she left, the trained physicist applied her writing prowess to a book on the Andaman Islanders and recently to Churchill’s Secret War, a scathing investigation from a raft of primary sources that revealed how direct decision-making by Winston Churchill  led to massive famine on the Indian subcontinent.

Meet Madhusree in this recent interview in Harper’s, in which she parries gracefully a series of sharp questions from interviewer Scott Horton. Harper’s labels her book a "bombshell."

So what do Churchill’s politics have to do with science?

Read this excerpt, published previously on Scientific American, which profiles a scientist/bureaucrat appointed by Churchill who brought a coldly rational approach to carrying out policies that bled the Indians.

Image Credit: Dave Freda

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  1. 1. EvolvingApe 5:32 pm 11/5/2010

    I am not sure what the plug for Mukerjee’s book on Churchill is doing in the pages of sciam, but a quick read of her interview and the book excerpt leave me questioning your definition of a "bombshell."

    On the face of it, it would appear that the war effort may have exacerbated food shortages on the subcontinent, but the main cause for the famine still seems to still be rapid population growth.

    One can just as easily claim that London caused the famine, because Western know-how reduced Indian infant and general mortality, and thus caused the rapid rise in population.

    And the suggestions that if it wasn’t for England’s political maneuvering, the Muslims would have remained a happy part of the larger Indian national family is just silly.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 1:26 am 11/6/2010

    On the other hand, it does seem that the intent of all colonial expansionism, notably by European nations, was to harvest natural resources for use by the empire nation. It’s even difficult to distinguish our policies towards the nations and peoples of the Middle East from our own national interest in petroleum…

    Great Brittan also gave little support to the Irish when they were starving as a result of the potato famine. They did continue to import food from Ireland that the Irish could not afford from the wages paid to them for working their confiscated land.

    They did allow the Irish to pay for passage to America in British ships idled by the decline of the slave trade.

    Many nations have pursued despicable national policies at various times in the past, including various forms of subjugation and slavery. Consider the United States’ treatment of native Americans. Of course, we could simply ignore these violations of the ‘so distant past’. Those who don’t learn from history…

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  3. 3. StephenSouthamptonUK 8:00 am 11/6/2010

    At the time of the Irish Famine Ireland was part of the country called the United Kingdom.

    Food was not and is not owned by the state and you correctly state that food was exported from Ireland to other places. However you have not understood that one of the precursors of the famine was the very inclement weather which meant that many food products did not ripen sufficiently for human consumption and were exported as animal feed. The term at the time for the potato blight was ‘wet rot’. It is true that food was exported as Ireland was an agricultural economy and needed to export.

    Here is an interesting article which covers the issues and unfortunately does suffer from some generalizations which are not universally true

    As experience had led the British government to assume that the famine would soon be over. The fact that starvation only takes about a month to occur if a person is without sustenance and the famine was widespread causes sudden mass deaths.

    In modern day terms the potato famine was a vast ecological disaster compounded my educational, economic and political issues.

    The statement regarding the Irish being ‘allowed’ to buy passage to the USA is strange. The other major destinations for the Irish were Glasgow, Scotland and Liverpool, England.

    The slave trade finished in the British empire in 1807.

    It is true that slavery was not abolished until 1833 but it was the former which was a sad loss to the slave ship owners. So the shipping companies had had about 40 years to get over the loss of the slave trade before the famine occurred.

    Your mention of the US treatment of native Americans could easily have also been applied to slavery.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 8:19 am 11/6/2010

    Thanks. More directly, my intended point is that "Many nations have pursued despicable national policies at various times in the past, including various forms of subjugation and slavery", and that those instances should not be ‘swept under the rug’ out of any regard for those responsible.

    Actually, we are all responsible for the policies of our governments that we do not attempt to prevent, unless the ‘I didn’t know’ and ‘I just followed orders’ arguments are now valid excuses.

    Churchill was a great leader at a critical time in history. He did a great job of helping the U.S. to defeat Nazi Germany!

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  5. 5. scientific earthling 9:40 pm 11/6/2010

    India has been subject to famines just as other countries have for thousands of years. Famine is natures way of controlling populations, its the way natural systems work. Every living thing must eventually die.

    What this author is doing is applying today’s liberal moral standards to historic events. Churchill had to defend his nation, he needed every resource including the ships that carried food to India from Australia and other British territories.

    This is why every region needs to generate its own food and not depend on transport. Population must be balanced to the local enviroments carrying capacity.

    Famine was not used as a tool of war by Churchill, as has happened in the past.

    Also consider how many people died in India after independences and how many more would have had the USA not provided food aid under the PL480 plan. Now condemned by Indians as theft.

    Link to this

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