Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 3, May 16-31, 2023

Weather, droughts, and famines in Madras City and Presidency – mid-17th — early-20th Centuries

-- by Anantanarayanan Raman (

Climate change is a hot topic presently. Everyone today attributes losses – economic and otherwise – to the unpredictable behaviour of climate. However, the current thinking that climate change is a recent-time geophysical phenomenon is incorrect. What we speak of as climate change today was scientifically explained first in 1861 by Irish physicist John Tyndall (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 151, 1–36). By the late-19th century, we understood that human-induced gaseous emissions, e.g., carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide (collectively termed: ‘greenhouse gases’) alter the earth’s energy balance; eventually the climate. Therefore, what is correct is that we – humans – have hastened the rate of change of the momentum of climate in the last century, because of vigorous industrialisation. Alternate theories explaining climate change exist; one is the ‘solar-variability theory’ advanced by Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958) of Dalj on the Danube (Austro-Hungarian Empire, modern Croatia) in 1911. Milankovitch related climate to the seasonal and latitudinal variations of solar radiation on the earth. Our interest in better understanding climate change and its negative impacts on the human society has quadrupled from the 1990s, although in actuality, we never want to concede that ‘we – humans’ are the primary cause for the accelerated rate of changes in climate and its patterns, especially from the mid-20th century.

Anyhow, long before what I have said above, the climate – long-term perception of average weather patterns of a landscape – was identified as an adjunct of forest health in India. In the Tamil-speaking landscape of India, changes in climate were recognised as droughts – long spells of dryness – and famines – extreme scarcity of food grains –, although we need to acknowledge that both are interconnected. A 7th-century famine is indicated in Periapuranam by Chekkizhar (c. 12th century). Eleventh-century copper-plate inscriptions (Chola period) indicate famines in Aalangudi near Kumbakonam and Koviladi near Tiruchirapalli (Frederick Ricketts Hemingway, 1906, Tanjore [volume I], The Madras District Gazetteers, Government Press, Madras, p. 309). Both these examples point to anomalous climate. In Sentamizh, more than a dozen words exist implying storms and thunderstorms: e.g., puyal, payal, sooravali, caduvali, peruvali exemplifying the familiarity and recognition of subtle variations in storms and thunderstorms by the people of ancient tamizhagam and the richness of Tamil vocabulary.

Before I go into weather, recognized as storms and thunderstorms in the Coromandel, I need to alert the readers of Cornelius Walford’s Famines of the World: Past and Present (1879, Edward Stanford, London, pages 104), a chronologically arranged catalogue of world famines up to the second half of the 19th century. Walford, a barrister-at-law and specialist on insurance trade, in this book, identifies rain and drought as key reasons for famines. English, French, Dutch, and Danish administrators of yesteryear peninsular India have recorded storms and thunderstorms in Madras: 1640-1695, 1717-1752, 1773-1797, 1811-1874, Tranquebar: 1710-1794, Kadalur: 1745-1761, Pondicherry: 1681 and 1687, Karaikal: 1754, 1811-1871.

A brief recap of the ­pursuit of astronomy in the Coromandel from the 17th century would be pertinent. Jean Richaud (1633-1690), a Bordeaux-born Jesuit, in Pondichery (Neelamraju Kameswara Rao, Alladi Vagiswari, and Christina Louis, 1984, Bulletin of the ­Astronomical Society of India, 12, 81-85) and Henning Munch Engelhart, a pastor at the Zion Church in Tranquebar (Ramanujam, P. S., 2018, Physics Today, physicstoday/Online/31517/An-over looked-18th-century-Danish-astronomer, accessed 20 April 2023) are two names that appear prominently in this context. Unfortunately, no records indicate whether either Richaud or Engelhart or their Coromandel contemporaries documented any weather data. In 1786, William Petrie, starting his life in Madras as a writer with the English East-India Company established a rudimentary observatory in Egmore. Highly likely, Petrie also maintained meteorological records. Because Petrie returned to England due to ill-health, after a short stint as Governor at Fort. St. George in 1807, his rudimentary observatory and the instruments therein were handed to Michael Topping (1747–1796), who was appointed the first superintendent of the newly established Madras Observatory (MO), at its present location in Nungambakkam. John Goldingham (1769-1849) – Topping’s successor – at MO collected rainfall data. Goldingham established the practice of recording weather data of Madras – presently referred as the Madras Meteorological Register (MMR). Goldingham maintained MMR from 1793 to 1825. The MO has archived weather data up to 1843. I found in published literature that Goldingham published two articles relevant to the present context, entitled (1) Tables containing the results of the meteorological observations taken at the Madras Observatory in 1826 and (2) Meteorological register kept at the Honourable British East India Company’s Observatory at Madras for the years 1822-1843 in 1844, the second co-published with Thomas Glanville Taylor, who succeeded Goldingham as the Madras astronomer. Unfortunately I could not access the original files, so my above citation is of secondary source. Robert Allan, Christopher Reason, Penny Carroll, and Philip Jones have reconstructed the mean sea-level pressure of the Coromandel using MMR records of 1793-1845 in 2002 (Allan, R. et al., 2002, International Journal of Climatology, 22, 1119-1142).

Between 1750 and 1880, the Madras presidency experienced several moderate to severe famines. Especially in 1769–1770 and 1781–1783, these events resulted in severe food-grain shortage. In 1808 the Monegar Choultry in North Madras was used as a facility to distribute raw materials gratis for making Kanji for the poor. The present readers should know how the Monegar Choultry evolved as the Kanji Thotthi hospital and subsequently as the Royapuram Medical School, and the Stanley Medical College & Hospital from 1938. The famines of 1812-1814 and 1824-1825 were due to monsoon failure, but were moderate compared with the 1833–1835 famine – referred as the Guntur famine – costing c. 200,000 human lives. The above list vouches for the anomalies in climate, monsoon failure, over either short or long spells of time, inflicting moderate to severe shortages of food grains.

The Europeans who came into India in the mid-17th century linked climate and its anomalies to breakout of diseases of unknown ætiology of that time, in addition to famines. What is indicated as ‘of unknown ætiology’ means rapidly spreading, airborne microbes-induced diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, chickenpox, common cold). Consequently, the European missionaries and medical doctors living in the 18th-century Madras recorded weather.

Cover page of the hand-written diary captioned Wind und Wetter Observationen maintained by Johann Ernst Geister (his signature at the bottom) in Madras from 20 October 1732.

Johann Ernst Geister (sometimes said as Geisler) – an Evangelical-Lutheran Missionary, living in San Thomé (Mylapore) — maintained weather records pertaining to every day, monthly, and seasonal wind movements and rainfall from October 1732 to July 1737, using rudimentary devices such as a vane (Anantanarayanan Raman, chennai/2009/aug/24/chronicler-of-madras-climate-in-1730s-80002.html, accessed 27 April 2023). Geister’s diaries include weather information offering insights into details of weather in 1737, presently identified as El Niño. Geister’s diaries titled, Wind und Wetter Observationen (Observations on Wind and Weather, [WWO], Fig. 1), are archived at the University of Freiburg, Germany. The WWO includes every day observations of wind movement and preliminary notes on cloud patterns and rainfall. References to wind strength, storms, and temperature, an annual climate overview with summary remarks on grain harvests, food prices, and everyday social events are also available in Geister’s diaries (Rory Walsh, Rüdiger Glaser, & Stefan Militzer, 1999, International Journal of Climatology, 19, 1025–1047).

William Roxburgh (1751-1815, better known as a botanist, (Timothy Robinson, 2008, William Roxburgh: The Founding Father of Indian Botany, Philimore Book Publishing, London, pages 256) – a medical doctor attached to the English East-­India Company in Madras – is an unforgettable name in ­Madras’s weather records. During Roxburgh’s time, the miasma theory (miasm – repugnant, contaminated air) connected human health to weather and its changes (Fig. 2). The miasma theory explained the cause and spread of infectious diseases. This was one key reason, why climate patterns were explored in Madras, as was in the then Europe. Roxburgh gathered weather data from the time he arrived in Madras in the 1770s. While stationed at Nagapattinam and Samulcottah, he measured weather three times a day using the then popular NairneTM thermometer and RamsdenTM barometer (Roxburgh, W., 1778, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 68, 180–190). Based on weather measurements made over several consecutive years, he forecasted the drought that materialized in 1789. Roxburgh also speaks of a ‘cyclic pattern’ in droughts in peninsular India. That the southern-Indians had recognized a cyclic pattern in the incidence of famines as early as the 14th and 15th Centuries – long before Roxburgh arrived in Madras – and referred to it as ‘12-year famine cycle’ is well known. Alexander Beatson (1758–1830), Governor of Saint Helena (a British colony in South-Atlantic Ocean) between 1808 and 1813 clarified that the drought years 1789–1794 in India were of global consequences; according to Beatson the 1791 drought was a ‘connected phenomenon’, since it concurrently manifested in India, Saint Helena, and Montserrat (the Caribbean). Beatson’s ‘connected phenomenon’ explanation was based on Roxburgh’s weather records made in Samarlakota.

James Capper (1743–1825), an army officer of the English-East India Company, at the rank of Colonel, holding the title ‘Comptroller General of the Army and Fortification Accompts on the Coast of Coromandel’ was an astronomer and a meteorologist. In the book Observations on the Winds and Monsoons, Illustrated with a Chart, and Accompanied with Notes, Geographical and Meteorological (C. Whittingham, London, 1801, 234 pages), he includes weather details of Madras recorded in 1777-1778 in pages 170-173. Importantly Capper argued that hurricanes were a type of the circular storms, otherwise referred as ‘whirlwinds’.

By the end of the late 18th Century, Europeans living in the Coromandel prioritized forests as the key for sound economic performance. Scientific management of natural forests along Malabar and South Canara, Madras Presidency, was planned. And surveys were launched. Documentation of the famines of 1769-1770, 1876-1878, 1896-1897, and 1899-1902 resulting in the death of millions of humans and cattle, and the influencing patterns of monsoons, and those of climate were made by British administrators. In that context, the climate-related comments by Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) and Edward Balfour (1813-1889) during their stays in the Coromandel are notable.

Francis Buchanan (later ‘Francis Buchanan Hamilton’) – a Scottish medical doctor of the Bengal-Medical Establishment – was appointed by Edward Clive (Governor in Fort St. George, 1798-1803) to survey agriculture, minerals, and the manufacturing activity in the recently acquired Mysore after the fall of Tippu Sultan, which, in effect, was to include the entire presidency of Madras. Buchanan recorded weather patterns, seasons, and forests in this survey, made in 1800-01. Buchanan’s A Journey from Madras Through the Countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar (1807, volume 1 – 424 pages; 2 – 566; 3 – 602, T. Cadell & W. Davies, London) includes several remarks on the weather of the Coromandel, further to that of inland plateau.

‘Notes on the influence exercised by trees on the climate of a country’ is a brilliant article by Edward Green Balfour (1849, The Madras Journal of Literature & Science, 15, 402–448), who was the Surgeon-General in Madras in the 1870s. In this article, Balfour speaks on the role of trees in retaining atmospheric moisture. Balfour relates to water as a finite material and its valuable role in water cycle in this 1849 article. Balfour was logical and expedient to deal with the problems concerning natural forests as a public-health issue. He recognizes the finiteness of water in the biosphere and was deeply interested in exploring the role played by forests in recycling water. Balfour considered ‘forest problem’ as a public-health issue, which according to him demanded an interventionist solution. Balfour’s water- and forest-related studies were steeped in reason via statistical measurements and analyses. Balfour’s scientific acumen and temperament are positively reflected in his 1849 essay on the connections between water and forest cover, in which he articulates the links between famine and deforestation. The English East-India Company took note of Balfour’s precautionary remarks and launched forest-conservation schemes in the 1840s.

Another Madras medical doctor Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn’s (1820–1895) role as a pioneering scientific forester and his notes on the weather and climate of the 19th-century are documented in detail by Henry Noltie of Edinburgh (2016, Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie, The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, pages 336.).

One J.J. Franklin speaks of an intense thunderstorm (referred as ‘hurricane’) near Madras coast that occurred on 20-21 October and 25 November 1846. I could not determine this Franklin’s full name and affiliation. But could access his article on this storm event (Franklin, J.J., 1847, Madras Journal of Literature & Science, XIV, 146-151), wherein he remarks as follows (page 148):

‘These data appear fully to warrant the assumption that the hurricane was of the rotatory description, although not one in which the violence of the wind was exerted to any great extent. The most remarkable feature in it was the extraordinary fall of rain that took place during its duration. From sunset of the 20th to sunrise of the 21st, the Pluviometer (= rain gauge) showed an amount of 17.5 inches (= 444.5 mm) to have fallen, being a period of about 12½ (12.30) hours; a fall unprecedented in the meteorological annals of Madras. The whole quantity that fell from sunrise of the 20th to the sun-set of the 21st was 24.33 inches (= 618 mm).”

Franklin provides useful data and commentary on the cyclone that hit Madras on 25 November 1846. Franklin, unfortunately, does not spell out details of the pluviometer and barometer used by him in these measurements.

Henry Piddington (1797–1858) in Calcutta, is one name that needs to be remembered, when talking of storms and thunderstorms in India. Piddington, an ex-Captain of merchant marines, first coined the term ‘cyclone’ to refer to tropical storms (Piddington, H., 1848, The Sailor’s Horn-book for the Law of Storms: Being a Practical Exposition of the Theory of the Law of Storms, and its Uses to Mariners of all Classes in all Parts of the World, Shewn by Transparent Storm Cards and Useful Lessons, Smith, Elder & Company, London, pages 292). It is notable that Piddington was assisted by Christopher Biden, a Mercantile Mariner and Master Attendant at Madras and that a memorial tablet occurs in St. George’s Cathedral, on Cathedral Road, Chennai.

Charles Edward Faber (Chief Engineer, Fort St. George) approved the production of 180 rain gauges for installation in the courts of puisne judges throughout Madras presidency. William Wilson Hunter (Indian Civil Servant, Calcutta and the compiler of the multi-volume Imperial Gazetteer of India) speaks of rainfall records maintained in Madras between 1803 and 1887 further to the records available in Tiruchirappalli, Coimbatore, Madurai, Palayamkotta, and Cenkottai in his 9th volume of the Imperial Gazetteer of India, Madras Presidency–Multal (pages 1-102).

The impact of the famine that hit Madras region in the 1860s was reasonably well managed by Fort St. George administration. It introduced an early-form of public-distribution system managed by the Board of Revenue and employment for the able-bodied by the Public-Works Department. Because the Great-Indian Famine hit India in 1875-1878, a series of crop failures in various parts of India led to starvation and spread of epidemics, resulting in human death toll in millions in 1899–1900. A Famine Commission was constituted by George Nathaniel Curzon, Governor-General under the chairmanship of Richard Strachey (Bengal Army Engineers). Henry Stewart Cunningham (Advocate-General) and Henry E. Sullivan (Civil Servant) of the Madras Presidency were members of this Commission. This Commission produced the Report of the Indian Famine Commission (Strachey, R., Caird, J., Cunningham, H.S., Sullivan, H.E., and Peile, J. B., 1880, Report of the ­Indian Famine Commission, I: Famine Relief, II: Measures of Protection and Prevention, Government Stationary Office, London, pages 90, 185).

This narrative brings to light that change-behaviour of climate in the south-eastern segment of India has been documented in the chronicles of the Madras city and presidency between the mid-17th and early-20th centuries, although not necessarily directly, but by referring to alternate means — droughts and famines on the one hand and forest health on the other. Today we know that climate change is a reality. Unprecedented droughts, floods, and wildfires, heat waves have got more intense in the last few decades, thanks to imprudent human activity. Articulate models predict many more rigorous changes in climate, and they need to be faced with scientific intelligence and wisdom.

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