Last Weapons: Hunger Strikes and Fasts in the British Empire, 1890-1948

Last Weapons: Hunger Strikes and Fasts in the British Empire, 1890-1948

by Kevin Grant

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Last Weapons explains how the use of hunger strikes and fasts in political protest became a global phenomenon. Exploring the proliferation of hunger as a form of protest between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, Kevin Grant traces this radical tactic as it spread through trans-imperial networks among revolutionaries and civil-rights activists from Russia to Britain to Ireland to India and beyond. He shows how the significance of hunger strikes and fasts refracted across political and cultural boundaries, and how prisoners experienced and understood their own starvation, which was then poorly explained by medical research. Prison staff and political officials struggled to manage this challenge not only to their authority, but to society’s faith in the justice of liberal governance. Whether starving for the vote or national liberation, prisoners embodied proof of their own assertions that the rule of law enforced injustices that required redress and reform. Drawing upon deep archival research, the author offers a highly original examination of the role of hunger in contesting an imperial world, a tactic that still resonates today.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520301016
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Series: Berkeley Series in British Studies , #16
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kevin Grant is the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History at Hamilton College.

Read an Excerpt


Knowing Starvation

Science and Strange Stories

Mohandas Gandhi would, if necessary, "fast unto death." So he declared before beginning what came to be known as his "epic fast" on 20 September 1932 in the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, in the Bombay Presidency of British India, now in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. He fasted against the British government's decision to reserve seats in provincial Indian legislatures for dalits, then known to the general public as "untouchables," to the government as the "depressed classes," and to Gandhi as harijans (children of God). Having previously divided Indian electorates between Hindu and Muslim voting blocs, the government intended to carve out a so-called communal awardfor dalits from the Hindu bloc. Gandhi charged that the government would use this measure to advance its traditional strategy of divide and rule, this time at Hindus' particular expense. The measure had the full support of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the dalits' political leader, who looked skeptically on imperialists and nationalists alike, finding that neither had a principled interest or practical stake in relieving the degradation of dalits in Indian society. To his mind, the communal award was the only way for his people to insure their own civil rights and welfare through direct political representation. Multiparty talks aimed at resolving Gandhi's and Ambedkar's differences reached an impasse. Gandhi chose to fast until either the impasse or his body broke.

Gandhi's secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar, recalled, "Great anxiety was felt when Gandhiji commenced his fast whether he would be able to stand the physical strain of it for any length of time." Gandhi was sixty-three years old. Nayyar had worried, "He was not the same man as he was when he undertook his twenty-one days' fast at Delhi in 1924 [when he was 55, fasting for Hindu-Muslim unity]." The doctors in attendance watched Gandhi with increasing anxiety. There had been few physiological studies of voluntary starvation, and there were no consistent clinical protocols or diagnostic measures for starvation in India or elsewhere. Even as the use of hunger in protest proliferated between the wars, medical knowledge lagged far behind, and most medical professionals treated starvation with poorly founded guesswork. Gandhi's doctors placed their diagnostic faith in analyses of urine samples, looking specifically for increases in acetone and urea. What troubled them most was not the measurable physiological process of starvation, however, but a prospective moment in time. It was the moment at which the patient would suddenly take a turn for the worse, the seemingly unpredictable point at which the patient entered the so-called danger zone, where death became imminent.

On the sixth day of Gandhi's fast, levels of both acetone and urea in his urine increased. The doctors reported ominously, "We are definitely of opinion that this portends entry into the danger zone." News of Gandhi's failing health alarmed not only his supporters, but also leading British officials and Indian legislators who worried about the political turmoil that his death would bring. Reference to the danger zone stoked their worry into fear. In response to a legislator's inquiry, Dr. M.D. Gilder explained, "The words 'Danger Zone' ... we have used in this sense that Mahatmaji [Gandhi] had not got much fat reserve, he has used that up; and now he is living really on his muscles and apart from an accident like a sudden collapse or a stroke of paralysis that may intervene at any time, we are of the opinion that he has now entered into that stage of his illness where every day increases the danger and where, even if the fast is broken, some danger will still remain." That same evening, all parties agreed to the terms of a compromise of which Gandhi approved. He broke his fast with a sip of citrus juice.

Before the Second World War, starvation was mysterious. The dread of starvation as an inscrutable, fickle killer was shared by all, whether one hungered by accident or design, or whether one cared for the hungry as a humanitarian, missionary, an agent of government, or even as a physician. People in Great Britain, Ireland, and India perceived starvation in ways little different from those of their distant ancestors. Meanwhile, after the early twentieth century, nutritional science developed rapidly and won the confidence of governments, which incorporated it into domestic, foreign, and imperial policies, especially during and after the First World War. Nutritional scientists initially conceived of nutrition as a thermodynamic process. This understanding then gave way after the 1920s to a conception of nutrition based on biochemistry and vitamins, prompting both researchers and policy makers to advocate not only the energy value of food, but also dietary balance — the now familiar "square meal."

None of this helped Gandhi's doctors, however. Nutritional science had little to say about starvation, a fact that Francis Benedict, director of the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory in Boston, had attributed "to the difficulty of securing willing human subjects." Dr. Gilder and his colleagues therefore had little confidence in their clinical understanding of Gandhi's starvation. The "danger zone" was a fearful measure of their ignorance. It lay somewhere between life and death, a space willingly occupied only by those with transcendent courage or holy foolishness. This certainly played to the advantage of Gandhi, the Mahatma, the "great soul."

In recounting the science and strange stories of starvation in the first half of the twentieth century, this chapter offers perspective on why prison officials responded in the ways that they did to hunger strikes and fasts, and what starving prisoners believed was happening to their bodies. Prison medical officers, those primarily responsible for prisoners' health, constituted an official transimperial network, operating with common, if wanting, medical knowledge. This network was overlaid by the informal network of prisoners who did their best to twist and skew prison regulations and the medical arts toward their goals. Both parties knew where starvation would ultimately end, but neither knew precisely when, or even how, they would arrive on the far side of the danger zone. It seemed always close, perhaps only days beyond the last meal, despite much anecdotal evidence to the contrary. This evidence was to be found in city slums, fields of famine, the so-called life reform movement, as well as prison cells. There was apparently no assurance that the weeks- or months-long endurance of one starving person provided a useful measure of the potential endurance of others who followed, particularly if those others came from more polite society. As medicine afforded no certainties about starvation, acts of hunger in protest were commonly understood as much more than physiological experiences and acts of resistance; they were spiritual trials and testimonies of faith, mordants that fixed cultures of sacrifice in the fabric of the nation.


Research on the effects of starvation on metabolism began in 1825 with a study of the urea output of an insane patient who fasted for eighteen days. Chemists and physiologists then conducted intermittent studies on fasting humans and numerous studies of starving animals until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a series of studies examined the metabolisms and physiologies of individual "hunger artists" who performed public fasts for profit and fame. The most significant of these studies employed calorimetric technologies and monitored subjects in controlled laboratory environments. The Italian hunger artist Giovanni Succi participated in seven such experiments, including a landmark study in Florence, Italy, in 1890. Yet at the outset of the twentieth century, no studies of any consequence had examined subjects of involuntary starvation, despite the opportunities presented by desperate poverty in the United Kingdom and famines in Ireland and India. There had been influential dietary studies of the British poor, and of prisoners and soldiers in the United Kingdom and India, but these mainly addressed the effects of undernutrition on labor productivity and socioeconomic stability. The recognition of undernutrition as a measure of general poverty, not just as an obstacle to economic development, was established by Seebohm Rowntree in his study of the working class in York, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, published in 1901. Following the revelation that many British men were physically unfit for service in the second South African War (1899–1902), undernutrition became a matter of national security. The British government established the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which issued a report in 1904 that laid the groundwork for new public health programs, including free school meals to improve the nutrition of British children. None of these governmental projects, however, addressed the metabolic or physiological processes, or the clinical symptoms, of starvation.

Nutritional scientists in the early twentieth century regarded protein as the most important nutrient. They accordingly treated starvation as fundamentally a protein deficiency. They believed that the body more efficiently digested animal proteins than proteins from grains (gluten) and green vegetables (albumen). Researchers over the next twenty years came to understand that there was no distinction to be drawn between animal and vegetable proteins, but they, and physicians generally, maintained a strong preference for animal protein in feeding starving people. They recognized that carbohydrates and fats were mainly responsible for the body's production of heat and energy, but they believed that only protein could restore tissue lost in starvation. They understood, furthermore, that in the long run even a protein-rich diet had to be replaced by a properly proportioned "mixed diet" that included the other three recognized groups of essential nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and minerals. Vitamins and amino acids had not yet been recognized as essential nutrients, though research on both was well under way. Between 1910 and 1941, scientists would isolate the thirteen vitamins that we know today, and in the 1930s they would determine the nine amino acids essential to human health. In 1907, however, Carl von Noorden, a German physician and professor of medicine at the University of Vienna, could observe that there were still no studies that explained exactly why a "mixed diet" was critical to health, but, he noted, "simple clinical experience forms a sufficient guide."

The most widely acknowledged tenets of early nutritional science are found in Robert Hutchison's Food and the Principles of Dietetics, which, after its publication in 1900, went through ten editions and was reprinted twenty times with periodic revisions by 1950. Hutchison, a physician at the London Hospital, compared the body to a steam engine: "The building material of food corresponds to the metal of which the engine is constructed, the energy-producers to the fuel which is used to heat the boiler. Where the body differs from the engine is that it is able to use part of the material of its construction (proteid) [protein] for fuel also." He divided nutrients into two categories: organic and inorganic. In the former category, he placed nitrogenous nutrients, proteins and albuminoids, and non-nitrogenous nutrients, carbohydrates and fats. In the latter category, he placed minerals and water. Tissue formation depended on the combination of proteins, "mineral matters," and water. "Work and heat" were produced by proteins, albuminoids, carbohydrates, fats, and "maybe" mineral matters and water. As proteins could fulfill both functions of food, Hutchison hailed their "physiological omnipotence."

Hutchison's description of the body as a potentially self-consuming engine and his description of its nutritional fuel informed the limited scientific understandings of the metabolism and physiology of starvation through the 1930s. Researchers understood that the catabolism — that is, destructive metabolism — of carbohydrates or glycogen precedes the catabolism of protein in the absence of ingested food and that the store of carbohydrates or glycogen is generally sufficient for one to two weeks, after which the body continues to burn fat and protein as necessary. They had observed that the breakdown of fat produces acetone bodies, which are excreted in measurable quantities by the kidneys and detectable in the smell of a fasting person's breath. They understood that the breakdown of protein increases the excretion of nitrogen, and particularly urea, through the kidneys. Studies further suggested that the human body could regulate its metabolism in response to either prolonged undernutrition or starvation. The body presumably increased protein catabolism only after its fat stores were exhausted, but there were no long-term studies of humans to confirm this. Researchers recognized that advanced starvation placed excessive strain upon the heart, leading them to conclude that the most common, immediate cause of death by starvation was heart failure. They understood that the heart lost mass in response to strain and deprivation as starvation progressed, and they became concerned when variable pulse rates revealed "irritability of the heart." This explains, in part, why prison medical officers worried intensely after 1909 that British and Irish suffragette hunger strikers might suffer heart attacks in only a matter of days.

Medical research did not justify this fear of the rapid demise of starving women. Prior to the 1920s, there were only two studies of the effects of long-term fasting on women; the subject of each study was a hunger artist. The first of these fasts, in June 1905, lasted fourteen days; the second, in March 1906, fifteen days. Both studies focused on the analysis of urine samples, especially nitrogen levels. These studies did not indicate that fasting would precipitate heart attacks. The researchers observed that women lost 20 to 30 percent less nitrogen than men during the early stages of starvation, probably due to their greater percentage of fat, but they did not then speculate that women were likely to endure starvation longer than men. Despite the dangers of fasting, researchers generally agreed that after prolonged fasts under controlled circumstances their subjects, whether women or men, experienced no long-term problems. Starving subjects could look forward to returning to normal health, if they did not first die of heart failure.

Researchers recognized that the clinical symptoms of starvation developed in stages. In the first week, there were stomach pains, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Also, the tongue became furred, which they regarded as a general sign of declining health. Throughout the process of starvation, the subject would lose weight, but more quickly in the beginning than later, due to the initial loss of water and fat. After the second week, the subject experienced further fatigue and was prone to fainting spells. The skin became waxen and blotchy, and the blood pressure tended to drop. The subject's temperature also tended to drop, which researchers attributed to the body exhausting its fat. Starving people commonly complained of cold, increasingly after the second week, and it was clear that a cold environment worsened their condition. In the third and fourth week, while the symptoms above intensified, subjects began to lose motor control, muscles began to atrophy, and eyesight began to deteriorate. Although prior to the Second World War researchers had not run controlled experiments of more than about a month in duration, they knew that after the fourth week a starving subject would develop scurvy, if the subject had not done so already, unless he or she drank citrus juice, a prophylactic proven in practice long before the isolation of vitamin C and the discovery of its effects after 1928. All researchers recognized that starving people were likely to suffer psychological difficulties, most commonly depression. They observed that the starving human body did everything in its power to avoid compromising the brain and nervous system. Indeed, some hunger strikers remained lucid for several weeks. Even after more than seventy days on hunger strike in a British prison in 1920, the Irish republican Terence MacSwiney could reject offers of food as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Finally, researchers recognized that the process of breaking a long-term fast could be fraught with physical and psychological difficulties. At the conclusion of a study at the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory in 1912, Agostino Levanzin broke a thirty-one-day fast in high spirits and apparent sound health, under the attentive care of Benedict and his staff, and with an initial diet of lemons, oranges, honey, and grape juice. Soon, however, he experienced severe colic and vomiting and "appeared to be utterly wretched and weak." His digestive problems continued for four days, aggravated by depressed and "mentally unbalanced" behavior, according to Benedict.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Knowing Starvation: Science and Strange Stories
2. British Suff ragettes and the Russian Method of Hunger
Strike, 1890–1914
3. A Shared Sacrifice: Hunger Strikes by Irish Women and
Men, 1912–1946
4. Building the Nation’s Temple: Hunger Strikes and Fasts
by Nationalists in India, 1912–1948
5. The Rule of Exceptions: Hunger Strikes and Political Prisoner
Status in Britain, Ireland, and India, 1909–1946


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