Climate variability and human livelihoods in western India: 1780-1860

  • George Adamson

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis presents a unique exploration of societal vulnerability to climate variability through an analysis of the historical climatology of colonial western India between 1780 and 1860. It utilises a range of historical documentary sources, most notably English language newspapers alongside materials written by officials of the British East India Company and British and American missionaries. Information from these sources is used to reconstruct past rainfall variability, with the resulting climatic chronology used as a backdrop against which to examine societal responses to climate. The study adopts a content analysis methodology to reconstruct monsoon intensity from 1780-1860. This is calibrated against the instrumental rainfall record for western India, which extends back to 1847. The reconstruction therefore represents a 67-year extension of the monsoon record for western India. The extended chronology is compared with existing reconstructions of climatic forcings related to monsoon rainfall, including the strength of the Somali jet and indices of El Nino Southern Oscillation. These suggest a stationarity in the relationship between these forcings and monsoon rainfall during and after the study period, indicating that the reconstruction methodology is robust. The analysis of societal vulnerability to climate focuses upon severe drought episodes identified through the rainfall reconstruction. Eight such episodes are identified, all occurring where drought was widespread across the study area. Of these, five drought episodes occurred after previous years of deficient monsoon rainfall. Vulnerability at the local level appears to have been driven predominantly by indebtedness and a lack of government accountability, coupled with limited markets. Institutional adaptation policy changed significantly with the shift from Maratha to British rule in 1818 through the adoption of laissez faire drought remediation. Evidence suggests that this did not affect vulnerability significantly during the duration of the study period, as the widespread acceptance of the doctrine amongst the colonial community avoided institutional inertia. However, this may have served to increase vulnerability to droughts in the later part of the nineteenth century.
Date of Award2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton

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