Remembering the Bengal Famine: When Indians died to feed the British greed

Fareeha Arshad

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” — Winston Churchill

When the British East Company found their way to the Indian Subcontinent in 1608, little did the Indians know that the traders would colonize their lands in the following centuries. They first came as traders to the Indian land and gradually extended their power into their Indian administrative and military forces.

What started as a company slowly became an empire: the terms British Raj or British India are synonymous with the supreme power the colonizers held on the Indian land.

The economic power

When it came to making profits, the British Raj had a ruthless approach: they never empathized with the natives who fed their colonizer’s greed and underwent several famines.

The worst famines of all were the ones in Bengal. The chain of famines started in 1770 and extended up to 1944. One thing to note is that famines were not uncommon before the British arrival in India. Although the famines had hit severely even before, the monstrous consequences were always averted by the local rulers — the most critically affected areas were given the maximum attention.

The worsening conditions
Distribution of relief packages during the Madras famine of 1877Wikimedia Commons

After the British took over the Indian economy, the famines became more rampant than ever. Rainfall levels lowered to a rare minimum owing to agricultural practices being converted into cash crops. Unrestrained and ruthless exploitation of unpaid labourers and natural resources became a norm.

In other words, the sole goal of the British was to maximize their profit from tea, indigo, optimum, and other crops using any means possible. Their actions wreaked unimaginable consequences for the poor farmers and their dependents. The only thing that bothered those who were in power was the nuances in taxes that the expected famines brought.

The Bengal famine
Few victims of the great famine of 1876–1878 in British IndiaWikipedia

The first famine of Bengal happened in 1770 and lasted until 1773. It killed ten million people — that is, four million more than the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The native rulers in India, like the Mughals, charged a meagre amount of ten to fifteen per cent from the farmers as ‘tribute’ — that went into the national treasury. After the East India Company started meddling into the national affairs, the responsibility of the tribute collection was handed over to them via the Treaty of Allahabad, signed in 1765. This happened under the rulership of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. After the British were given this power, they increased the amount to fifty per cent. Unaware of these changes, the peasants were forced to pay the amount by giving away their surplus produce.

Devoid of their surplus stock, the growth of the crops was significantly less in 1768. The following year, the first signs of drought were seen: there were no signs of rain that year. The northeastern part of the country was severely affected. Bengal was hit the worst. In the hope of finding some relief and some way to feed their bellies, thousands of people migrated only to meet a dead end. Thousands of people died of starvation, while the rest perished in their own lands.

In 1771, the number of deaths increased. This meant lower land revenue for the company. To compensate for the decrease in tax revenue, the colonial rulers increased the ‘tribute’ to sixty per cent. The farmers who had not been afflicted with the unfortunate famine situation yet were forced to pay higher taxes to the British so that the royal treasury didn’t suffer because of the loss of a common man.

The unending hardship

The increase in taxes was not a solution. Not much later, an order was issued to cultivate cash crops like poppy and indigo that had a high market price. The surviving farmers were already devoid of any food crops. Growing cash crops meant no access to any edible crops. Ironically, the East India company made more profit during the drought in 1771 than they did before the drought in 1768.

Nobody raised a voice against the atrocities being inflicted on the humans of eastern India. Years after years, they were exploited only to feed the British greed. Even the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, did not pay any heed while the famine was eating the Bengalis alive. He even diverted any aid that came towards India or the people.

Bengal now

Today, two and a half centuries after the first famine of 1771, the Indian population has increased exponentially and is the second-largest in the world. The country has managed to eliminate famines and related deaths due to the significant improvements observed in their agricultural practices and better food distribution and welfare practices.

What are some of the other such famines in history that could have been easily avoided had there been a better government for the nation? Do let us know in the comments section.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

Texas State

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