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Just Shoot Me

Bala, 28, Gordon Gekko in the making, pseudo-intellectual, cynic, bibliophile, obsessive compulsive ranter...

Error Propagation !

October 13, 2009

The Anti Charitable Contributions Act 1877 / Anti Humanitarian Act of 1877 is a satire. It was not a real act

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The "Anti-Charitable Contributions act of 1877" is a Myth. It is not true. The entire act was made up as a satire about famine relief policies adopted by Viceroy Lord Lytton toward the Madras famine of 1876-78.

If you search the internet for this act (also known as anti humanitarian act of 1877), you will find many articles, op-eds, blog posts (like this one of mine from feb 2008) referring to the act as if it were a true act passed by the Madras Presidency. I myself believed it to be an actual law till today. This error was first made by historian Mike Davis and it has caught on and propagated by various columnists and bloggers like me.

The error first occurred when Davis mentioned the act in his book, Late Victorian Holocausts. First published in 2000, this book contains the following sentence ".. by imposing the Anti Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which prohibited at the pain of imprisonment private charitable donations that potentially interfered with market fixing of grain prices...". (pages 39-40, Paperback edition). Davis' foot notes show that this was taken from a book Called "Famine Campaign in Southern India, Vol 2" by William Digby published in 1878. This book has been long out of print and available only in libraries, so it hasn't been available quickly to recheck.

The second step in the error propagation occurred when George Monbiot, quoted Davis' book and mentioned the act in an Guardian article titled The Turks haven't learned the British way of denying past atrocities in December 2005. From then on, Monbiot's quotes (and by extension Davis') have been appearing in a lot of articles/blogs condemning the free marketers. I for my part dug up the original book in google books and compiled a partial text of the said "Act". Since for some reason google doesnt even have a partial preview for that book, i did not get the fact that it was a satire and not a real piece of legislation. That post of mine is still among the top 5 google results for "Anti Charitable Contributions Act of 1877" and i still get a steady stream of hits to that blog post (It also got linked in a couple of popular Indian blogs). Then in oct 2008, in an unrelated discussion this act came up in Comment is Free and several free market supporters questioned the veracity of this Act. I waded into the argument ("professional" pride ;-)) and defended its existence.

Now a year after it happened, i started to write an entry in wikipedia for this act and i find that the book is now present in the Internet Archive . And when i read the full text, i found that the entire thing was a satire!!!!. Here is what William Digby had to say about this:

"...In many ways the feeling of annoyance and vexation which had been engendered found expression, and amongst other instances may be quoted the following "skit" in which the practice of Government of India of publishing draft bills in the Government Gazette has been Satirised"

Thats right SATIRISED!!!!!. THE WHOLE THING WAS A SKIT!. To cap it all, the Secretary to the Govt has signed it in "Inhumanville" on August 6 1877.

Let me say, i am not disagreeing with anything else William Digby or Mike Davis have written. I still subscribe to their conclusions and like their excellent books. But it is a good case for error propagation when a error made by one authority(Mike Davis), when picked up by another authority figure(George Monbiot), and repeated by amateur readers(like your sorry assed blogger) becomes fact into the times of Google. And it has made it another book called Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics (page 208) by William Bonner and Lila Rajiva.

What shall i do now?. To repent for my sins, i shall first write to Professor Davis and inform him (i guess he already knows, but no new edition of the book has been published since, so no chance for a correction so far). Then i shall hope google's bots do their work and this post comes up always when people search for "Anti Charitable Contributions Act of 1877". (Psst:It is a satire). And a humble apology to all free marketers - the next time i call you names, i will make sure i have got the right evidence.

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Update : I emailed Prof.Davis and he has acknowledged the error. So hopefully any future edition of the book will not have it.

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posted by Bala, 5:54 PM

3 Comments:

This is a very old post, but thanks for unearthing this. I spent a while online trying to find more about this "Act" until I found your post and read the passage myself via your link.

I've found references to it in all sorts of places, including academic papers. I don't like free marketeers, but I was nervous, because various things seemed kinda odd, particularly the way that all the references to it seemed to go back to a single book - Digby - and not the actual text of the Act itself.
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 2:00 AM  
Well thank you for pointing that out, I'm reading Davis's Book right now, and I find it very interesting.

This bill may be a satire but the famine and the "anti-charity" attitude of Lytton were unfortunately very real.

Thanks again.
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 11:09 PM  
Thank you for clarifying the source of this story.

A reference to this 'act' also appears in Simon Schama's A History of Britain: The fate of empire 1776-2000 (on about page 269) - with his comment that it should "modify our assumptions of the the ubiquitous philanthropy of Victorians). https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fURpfdsy_y0C&lpg=PA269&ots=IyJVdK3hQF&dq=Anti-Charitable%20Contributions%20act%20simon%20schama&pg=PA269#v=onepage&q=Anti-Charitable%20Contributions%20act%20simon%20schama&f=false

George Monbiot continues to cite it as a real act (as recently as 7 July 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/07/greece-financial-elite-democracy-liassez-faire-neoliberalism#comment-55237467.

Why spoil a good story with the truth.
commented by Blogger Huw Sayer, 7:02 PM  

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