Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 10
The Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”.
- Jane Austen in Mansfield Park (1814) 1
“Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?”
- Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey (1818) 2
“Between 1769 and 1770 a third of the population of Bengal died of famine.”
- Winston Churchill (1965) 3
“Nonsense, isn’t it! Millions starving, then and now, I hear you protesting. And Jane Austen! What are you going on about? All I can answer is, plaintively, man, and especially woman, does not live by bread alone: he has to have books.”
- Fay Weldon in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (1984) 4
Bengal immediately after Clive's departure
There is a copious literature dealing with the period of British conquest and consolidation in Bengal that culminated in the disastrous Bengal Famine of 1769-1770 and we will draw upon the more detailed histories that deal with this catastrophe. 5 However, as we have already seen in Chapter 9, there are substantial differences in how one of the greatest disasters of humanity has been treated by historians.
With the departure of Robert Clive from Bengal in 1767, the Governorship of Bengal fell to Harry Verelst. Mohammed Reza Khan had to deal with Francis Sykes who was the Company's resident at Murshidabad.. Sykes was of course insistent on maximizing tax receipts and was involved in all kinds of trading. Sykes was replaced by Richard Becher. While Becher would send his gumashtahs (agents) into the country to conduct private trade, he was not obsessed with the ruthless wealth generation imperative of Sykes and other such Company men. Mohammed Reza Khan found a more sympathetic person in Becher and could more readily put a case to the Governor and Council in Calcutta in relation to limitations on how much could be squeezed out of a suffering land. The impositions on the Bengalis included the massive and often violently secured overtaxing of farmers and other abuse of the people, whether weavers, merchants, ryots or zamindars, through trade restrictions, monopolies, enforced acquisition of goods at the purchaser's price and the brutality of gumashtahs (the agents of the Company men).
The British Government, impressed with the potential for wealth to be made from Bengal, demanded 400,000 pounds per annum for the British Treasury. This in turn provided greater pressure for revenue raising in Bengal. In 1769 Hyder Ali of Mysore invaded the Carnatic and the defense of the region by British forces represented another major drain on Company resources. The Council in Calcutta wanted to introduce a system of Supervisors involving Europeans in directly overseeing revenue collections and reporting on conditions. This system began early in 1770 as famine was beginning to take a grip on Bengal.
Verelst left Bengal at the end of 1769 and was replaced as Governor by John Cartier. The puppet Nawab Saif-ud-daulah died early in 1770 and was replaced by Mir Jafar's fifth son Mubarak-ud-daulah. The latter's mother was Babbu Begum but the mother of the preceding two Nawabs, Munni (little) Begum, had originally been a slave girl of Babbu Begum's mother and from this had risen to a position of great power at court. She disliked Mohammed Reza Khan, despite his best endeavours, and a delicate problem of Begum precedence arose on the accession of Mubarak-ud-daulah. Mohammed Reza Khan's solution was that the new Nawab's mother should have real authority at court but as a matter of etiquette should regard Munni Begum as her superior. Munni Begum felt her loss keenly and translated her animosity into action when Warren Hastings arrived in 1772.
Basic biological survival realities in Bengal
Before considering the disastrous consequences of the British invasion and irresponsible exploitation of Bengal, it is useful to consider the agrarian bottom-line underlying the "nabobs, mohrs and palanquins" perceived by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. 6 Rice is the basic food staple of the Bengalis and there are three significant rice harvests per year in the highly productive, silt-enriched paddy fields of Lower Bengal, namely the spring paddy (boro), summer paddy (aus) and the winter paddy (aman) harvests with typical relative total yields of about 1, 7 and 21, respectively. The actual yields per acre of these crops are actually rather similar but the differences in aggregate amount derive from the different types of locations in which they are grown, for there are agriculturally important differences in terrain even in this real-life "Flatland".
The spring rice (boro) is harvested in February to May. The seed is broadcast in November to January into low lying wetlands that retain moisture such as drying river beds and swamps. It can grow and survive without additional rain and inundation but obviously additional water will assist the yield. The summer rice (aus) is harvested in late July to September. It is planted in late March and April on relatively high land at the same sort of level as housing or protective levees and benefits from the longer hours of summer sunshine and is crucially dependent on rain. The winter paddy (aman) is the most important rice crop and is harvested from late October to February. It can be planted by either simply broadcasting seed or by transplanting from nurseries, in both cases into prepared fields that will be flooded as a result of monsoonal rain . The rice plants grow well in such flooded conditions and the rice stalks can be extremely long. The rice roots can survive low oxygen concentrations and even if roots are detached from the substratum, adventitious roots can supply nutrient. 7
The consumption of rice by Bengalis is typically very substantial. Thus average annual rice consumption by Bengalis in the straightened circumstances of the early 1940s was about 90 kilograms per person for a bare-subsistence family. This basic staple is nutritionally expanded with pulses (used to make a legume porridge or dahl), vegetables such as spinach (palungshagh) or eggplant (baygun) and fruit. In hindsight, from a biochemical perspective, the pulses provide a better complement of amino acids and green vegetables provide essential minerals and vitamins. This diet is further complemented (as can be afforded) with varying amounts of salt, sugar, spices, fruit, milk and milk products such as clarified butter (ghee), meat, shrimps (chinlri march) and fish. 8 From this we can see the modest requirements for human survival in Bengal in 1770.
Since rice represents the major component of this diet we can attempt to put a price on human survival at that time and hence the "value" put on the lives of each of the 10 million who were to perish. Later in this disquisition we can attempt similar estimates of the "values" of the lives of some victims of genocide in World War 2: a starving Hindu Bengali pandit, a Muslim Bengali mother driven to sexual submission or a Hungarian Jewish professional man sent to Auschwitz. While the Great Famine of Bengal in 1769-1770 derived from drought and hence a major food deficit, it must be appreciated that the administration that ferociously taxed the Bengali peasant (or ryot), ruled the waves and exported Bengali opium to China and Bengali muslin, silk, saltpetre and indigo to Britain would have had the resources to address its obligations to its starving subjects. 9
The price of rice in Calcutta in 1770 was Rs 0.77 per maund.10 Taking a 1770 exchange rate of about 0.11 pound per Rupee, 11 1 maund = 37.4 kilogram and 90 kilograms as the annual average per capita rice consumption, 12 we can use such assumptions to estimate the Calcutta market cost of feeding one Bengali at the time for 1 year at about 0.2 pounds. If we adopt the bottom-line estimate of annual per capita famine relief to actual recipients in Bengal in 1944 at 30 kilogram of grain 13 we can divide the above estimate by three to get a rock-bottom estimate of the per annum cost of a Bergen-Belsen type of survival at 0.07 pounds, or about one shilling and sixpence per person. The total annual cost of bare subsistence for those 10 million who perished would thus on this account have been 700,000 pounds, similar in magnitude to the additional 400,000 pounds demanded of the Company by the British Government in 1769. 14
Considerations such as this make one realise that it would indeed have been very cheap for Marianne's mother to have hired an additional servant to care for Willoughby's gift of a horse. The above figures are revealing in comparison with the annual incomes of other good people of Sense and Sensibility (admittedly several decades later) such as Mrs. Dashwood (500 pounds), Colonel Brandon (2,000 pounds) and Edward Ferrars (1,000 pounds if he marries Miss Morton). 15 In comparison, in the early 1770s (one third of the rural population having died), Fort William coolies were paid Rs.4 per month (i.e. about 5 pounds per annum). 16 With these estimates in mind, let us now examine the genesis and course of the Great Bengal Famine.
The beginning of the famine
The most detailed account of the genesis, course and consequences of the Great Bengal Famine is that of Hunter (1871) 17 but a number of additional corroborative accounts have also been given. 18 In 1768 there had been a partial failure of the rice crop but this had not affected the rent-wracking returns to the administration of the "Dual Government" of Mohammed Reza Khan and the Company. This however led to increased prices in early 1769 (the price rose by about 10% in Calcutta). Although tax receipts continued as usual, rain was deficient in northern Bengal and some local officers expressed some concern at this stage. In September 1769 the summer aus harvest was sufficiently good initially to enable the promise of substantial exports to Madras. However the September rains ceased unexpectedly and large crop losses ensued with fields of rice reduced to paddocks of dried straw. Despite mounting concerns from local officials, Governor Verelst gave no warning to his superiors, although such advice (signed by his successor John Cartier before his accession) was sent to London. Verelst left office at the end of the year and was replaced by John Cartier.
By February 1770 it was clear to Cartier that famine was abroad and he informed the Court of Directors, assuring them that revenue was unaffected although temporary remissions could be entertained in particular cases of difficulty. The spring boro crop also failed its previous promise but the Council actually increased the land-tax for the next year by 10%, acting on the advice of Mohammed Reza Khan. The sanguinity of the Council in Calcutta is surprising, especially since the "native" tax collectors had every incentive, humanity aside, to maximize any difficulties encountered in meeting the merciless demands of the Company. By the middle of the year famine was an obvious and established reality throughout Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
The awfulness of the catastrophe
In the absence of any significant prior attempts at mitigation, a catastrophe consumed Bengal - city, town, village and countryside alike. In the absence of grain for food the ryot could progressively sell off his cattle and implements in order to buy food. Seed grain was consumed and ultimately all that was left were the leaves of trees and grass. Children were sold into bondage. The nightmare led to the living feeding on the dead. Fields were strewn with the dead and dying. No doubt other horrors recorded 60 years ago in Bengal 19 also obtained in Bengal in 1770, such as vultures, jackals and dogs eating those so weakened with hunger that they could not move or resist.
Refugees flooded into the cities and disease complicated the tragedy. Dogs, jackals, birds of prey and even tigers would cleanse Bengali communities of dead bodies in those days. However the death toll was so great that bodies accumulated in the streets with consequent disease. A smallpox epidemic had commenced at the beginning of 1770 in Murshidabad and even the great were not safe: the young Nawab Saif-ud-daulah died of the disease in March 1770. The awfulness of the carnage was such that words were inadequate: the observers were evidently in the same sort of dulled perceptional state as the first soldiers and journalists to enter concentration camps towards the end of World War 2. 20 A letter from the Calcutta Council to the Court of Directors of the Company in London on 12th December 1770 states: "It is scarcely possible that any description could be an exaggeration". 21 To repeat the words of eye-witness John Shore (later Lord Teignmouth):
“Still fresh in memory’s eye the scene I view,
The shrivelled limbs, sunk eyes, and lifeless hue;
Still hear the mother’s shrieks and infants moans,
Cries of despair and agonizing moans.” 22
Charles Grant was also an eye-witness and graphically described the "lingering multitudes" feeding off the leaves and bark of trees; fields, streets and passages strewn with bodies; people constantly removing bodies and floating them downriver on rafts; the impossibility of avoiding the frantic cries; the offensive smell of rotting bodies; the violation of eating taboos and even children eating their dead mothers and mothers feeding on their dead children. 23 In all of this remember that in such cataclysms the children represent the largest group of victims. The rains came in mid-1770 and a good summer aus harvest was obtained. However it came too late for huge numbers of people. No doubt many died of starvation or disease in sight of the ripening abundant harvest. The rains also brought disease to a population weakened by starvation.
Counting the cost
It was estimated by Warren Hastings after his return to India that the famine had swept away at least one third of the population. 24 In mid-1770 it was estimated that 3 eighths of the population had perished and that a half of the farmers and their families would perish. Grant provides a very conservative estimate of 3 million deaths but Hunter estimates 10 million. The country took literally 4 decades to recover from the disaster. In the immediate aftermath there were insufficient people to farm the land and large tracts of land were left uncultivated. The famine had a disastrous impact upon industrial activity, notably upon the major weaving trade. 25
The observations of a relation visiting Jane Austen’s uncle in Bengal
A chillingly brief eye-witness account of this depopulation is given by Philip Dormer Stanhope in his Genuine Memoirs of Asiaticus. This Stanhope is not the same as the Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who died in 1773. Stanhope arrived in Calcutta in 1774 and was presented to Warren Hastings by Jane Austen's uncle, Tysoe Hancock, with whom Stanhope was staying because of prior acquaintance and because Stanhope was related to Philadelphia Hancock (née Austen). In Stanhope’s own words, “You know I went out particularly recommended to Mr. Hancock, whom I previously knew in England, and whose lady is my near relation.” Stanhope was received well by Hastings, a very good friend and business partner of Hancock, and learned from the latter that Hastings would try to obtain a position for him with the "Nabob of Oude". In the event Stanhope was advised to return to Madras where he had hopes of gaining a post on the recommendation of Hastings. However he was shipwrecked off the Bengal coast at the beginning of 1775 but made it to shore. A village of Indians was persuaded by a lascar (seaman) to take them to Calcutta, which they reached after various adventures. Thus various members of their party disappeared and the chief mate (notorious for his violence and for the murder of lascars) was seized and carried off by a tiger (noting that the tigers of that part of Bengal could be as big as small cows). In the middle of this account he describes the desolation of Bengal (now, and indeed before the Great Famine, the most densely populated part of the planet), five years after the holocaust:
"We proceeded, by easy marches, through a country beautiful, by nature, but utterly destitute of cultivation;" 26
Stanhope returned to the hospitable Hancock in Calcutta. He ultimately saw service with Mohammed Ali, the Nawab of Arcot, and returned to England in 1778. 27
The desolate country
Stanhope's chilling observation is confirmed by the observations of the remorseless British tax-collectors over the next few years: one third of the country had reverted to waste land. Even 19 years after the famine, Lord Cornwallis (Governor-General 1786-1793) concluded that one third of Bengal was jungle. For one and a half decades after the famine the population continued to decrease because of the differential mortality of children during the famine. Renewed population growth awaited the growth to sexual maturity of children born after the famine. The population 20 years after the famine was estimated to be about 27 million, about what it had been in 1769. 28 We will see later that there was a similar huge demographic "deficit" after the 1943/44 famine of about 11 million people about 7 years after the end of the famine. 29
A major consequence of the famine was a dramatic change in the social strata. Two thirds of the zamindars, the landowners, were ruined because the British remorselessly insisted upon the payment of the land taxes despite the fact that the human basis for wealth generation had been so severely damaged. The demands were extracted with violence where necessary, as indeed had happened in pre-famine times. Zamindars unable to meet their "debts" to the British blood-suckers had to surrender their property and in some cases their liberty as well. In the district of Beerbohm the local prison was filled with "revenue prisoners" nearly 2 decades after the disaster. It should be appreciated that the British insisted in general on payment of the taxes regardless of the famine and indeed the demand proposed for 1770/71 (1,524,567 pounds) was 10% higher than in the previous year. Arrears had to be paid and were remorselessly exacted. Remissions were rare: thus of 1,380,269 pounds demanded in 1769/70, only 65,355 pounds was mercifully remitted. In comparison, the receipts in the "good" period of 1768/69 were only slightly higher at 1,525,485 pounds.
A major rural reality after the famine was an excess of land and a shortage of people to till it. This had a number of consequences for landowners and for the peasants (ryots). The ryot was in demand by zamindars and this then generated 2 classes of farmer: those who continued on their traditional patch and those that came from elsewhere. The Company, concerned by the potential losses of revenue, encouraged migration of peasants from neighbouring Oudh. Zamindars competed with each other for ryots, offering lower rents and protection.30
The destitution and reversion of so much countryside to wilderness created further problems for the peasants. Tigers represented a great menace - they could be extremely large. There is a horrible account of firewood collectors being attacked by a tiger and scattering in haste with one of their number being seized and eaten. The survivors then return, confident that the tiger's appetite has been satisfied. Another account describes a person escaping to the water only to be seized when the tiger swims out. 31 Elephants also posed a major threat and the diminished community resources decreased the ability of the peasants to defend themselves against elephants.
Bandits (banditti) represented a major threat to the depleted and impoverished peasantry, spreading rape, murder and pillage across the countryside. Such bands of violent men could be former soldiers, people from the hill country, displaced peasants and religious sanyasis or faquirs who could couple religious devotion with violent robbery. Huge bands of thousands of displaced and impoverished peasants afflicted the countryside. In addition there were "traditional" robbers belonging to the robber castes, namely the dacoits and thugs. The traditional ryot and zamindar relationship obliged the latter to provide some measure of protection in return for the rent, but the British imposition and the famine disrupted this social compact. This violence spread to the cities and was most dramatically associated with incendiarism. Thus a huge fire in Calcutta in 1780 destroyed 15,000 homes and killed several hundred people.32
Responsibility for the famine
Responsibility for disasters of this kind must lie heavily with the administering power. Those who would rule others are responsible for their welfare. “No governance without responsibility” applies as much to those ruling the starving millions of colonial Bengal in 1770 as to successive Australian governments and the disastrous, “Third World” health problems of “outback” tribal Aborigines in “post-colonial” Australia approaching the year 2000. The British did not respond effectively to the growing reports of famine, first in the north and then throughout the whole of Bengal and adjoining regions. Bengal was a huge, lucrative place in which the peasants were being "farmed" for revenue and one senses that (within certain constraints) famine would have been regarded as a natural phenomenon affecting Bengalis in much the same way that drought might affect livestock numbers in outback Australia. The same callousness was to repeat itself over the subsequent centuries in Australia, other parts of India, Ireland and repeatedly in Bengal. 33
Relief was offered in Calcutta and Murshidabad but was woefully inadequate. Hunter (1871) gives an estimate of 9,000 pounds provided for relief by the Company for a starving population of 30 million (as compared to the taxation receipts of over 1.3 million pounds for 1769/70). This relief amounted to 0.07 of a penny for each Bengali and was about a thousand times lower than the cost of rice for a normal Bengali diet.34
The issue of hoarding and constraint on trade is complicated. As Adam Smith (1776) has argued in relation to famines in general and to the Great Bengal Famine in particular, it is important for food prices to be de-regulated to allow food to reach its most urgent destination naturally, to allow the market to inform people unambiguously of impending shortages and to impose timely economies on the consumers. Bengal was a tightly regulated milch-cow for the Company and its employees, with considerable profits to be made from grain in an economy regulated for the benefit of a miniscule number of Europeans. Hunter (1871) has argued cogently that in the Bengal famine of 1865-1866 deregulation of private trade had a very positive effect and that such a deregulated rice market would have helped in the Great Bengal Famine. However there was widespread belief that European traders exploited the elevated price of rice for their benefit in this disastrous situation. Further, Europeans were in a position to force starving peasants to grow crops for products other than food and controlled grain shipments. The outrageous financial exactions on the peasantry (demands actually increased in this period) was an effective sentence of death for millions. According to Ballhatchet (1965):
“But in spite of the Bengal famine of 1770, which was thought to have carried off one-third of the population, the revenue was, in the government’s words “violently kept up to its former standard”.” According to Roberts (1909b):
“While its servants accumulated vast fortunes, the finances of the Company were far from prosperous, and Bengal itself, already plundered by corrupt native officials, was scourged by a terrible famine in 1769-70. A sinister commentary upon the administration of this time is afforded by the fact that though a third of the inhabitants of Bengal are said to have perished, the revenue collections of 1771 exceeded those of 1768, the year preceding the famine.”
The shortage of cash to buy food was compounded by the rises in the price of rice. Thus Bose (1993) comments that there was actually a shortage of labour prior to the famine (and hence the disaster was not “Malthusian”) and that lack of bullion and artificially elevated prices was the problem: “The “violent upswing” in prices was much greater than the shortfall in production would have “nominally justified”.” 35
Bengal is in general a waterway-rich country and this would have provided an avenue for grain importation that was not realised in reality. Hunter compares the situation in Bengal in 1770 with that in Orissa in 1866 in which a rice-exporting province was struck by famine at a time of low food stocks, limited landward access and harbors unusable in the monsoon season. These factors combined to devastate Orissa while the remainder of the region with adequate access to external food escaped a catastrophe. Hunter has argued that the Great Bengal Famine derived from want of effective transportation as well as from deterrence of private trade and lack of money to buy grain if available. 36
Ultimately in any famine the real determinant of life or death is access to food and money to purchase food. Amartya Sen has used the notion of "entitlement" to describe a type of social share that if too small results in famine and death. 37 Food deficit situations that are emotionally and superficially perceived as due to drought can in many cases be seen to simply derive from an inability to purchase. In Bengal in 1770 the British exercised tight control over a "human farm", declined significant amelioration and had sucked the society dry of the resources needed to purchase grain from elsewhere. There was indeed a dearth of cash in a society milked to support Madras and for remittances to England. This deficiency is expressed simply by Gardner (1971):
“The country had been swept by one of the most terrible famines it had ever known. There was a shortage of currency owing to the export of gold and silver to China to purchase tea.” 38
The historical record
A variety of eye-witness accounts of the famine exist, including letters from people intimately involved such as Company men, notably Supervisors, and from Indian dignitaries such as Mohammed Reza Khan. Officials such Charles Grant and John Shore recalled and recorded these dreadful times. We have seen that even chance travellers such as Stanhope were touched by these events several years after their occurrence. 39 A detailed account of Bengal (and Company finances) is given by Warren Hastings and his colleagues in a letter to the Court of Directors in London in 1772 in which they estimate the loss of one third of the whole population. 40 Other details are provided by the communications from the Company men to the Directors but we have already noted that there was no advice about the famine actually signed by Governor Verelst who departed at the end of 1769. 41
Some variously detailed accounts of the famine have been written. 42 The most detailed and
sympathetic account of the famine is given by Sir William Hunter (1871) in The Annals of Rural Bengal. This humane history records eye-witness accounts and details the genesis, actuality, consequences and causes of the famine and of related events in India. 43 Perhaps the best known writer who commented in various ways on the famine was Adam Smith (1776) in his An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations. It is a sad testament to the unresponsiveness of the world that one of the earliest and most widely read works on economics that dealt with these matters in an incisive and deeply humane way should have over several centuries still failed to move the world to rational action.44 [It is of interest to note that my lawyer-economist great-grandfather Jakab Polya translated Adam Smith’s classic into Hungarian but public access to this translation of a “capitalist” work was apparently restricted in post-war Communist Hungary.] From these texts we go to a large number of excellent texts (mostly dealing specifically with Indian history) that, while not going into elaborate detail, nevertheless deal concisely with the actual occurrence and dimensions of the tragedy. 45 From these we then descend to works that dismiss this extraordinary event in a few words and, in particular, those in which the paucity of treatment is stark contrast to the depth of treatment given to vastly less significant matters in an “Indian” or other “colonial” context. 46
Kaye (1853) in detailing changes to revenue collection in 1772 admits that: “The country was at this time in an impoverished condition, for there had been a mighty famine in the land...” [20 words for 10 million victims. ] 47
Sir Alfred Lyall P.C., K.C.B., D.C.L. came close to the mark in condemning British abuses in Bengal in the most trenchant terms but evidently did not get quite close enough: “By investing themselves with political attributes without discarding their commercial character, they produced an almost unprecedented conjunction which engendered intolerable abuses and confusion in Bengal. This is the only period of Anglo-Indian history which throws grave and unpardonable discredit on the English name. During the six years from 1760 to 1765, Clive’s absence from the country left the Company’s affairs in the hands of incapable and inexperienced chiefs, just at the moment when vigorous and statesmanlike management was needed.” After his history re-enters a time zone of creditable English behaviour, Lyall (1916) devotes 9 words to a famine that consumed 10 million: “The Madras Presidency drifted into that ruinous war with Hyder Ali that has already been described; and in 1770 a terrible famine had desolated Bengal.” 48 Lyall (1907) was similarly economical in his biography Warren Hastings: “and in 1771 a wasting famine had visited Bengal”. 49
Wilbur (1945) takes this diminution even further. Chapter 18 (Clive, Pondicherry , and Plassey) concludes with the suicide of Clive : “In February, 1767, he left the shores of India for the last time ... Ill and discouraged over the attitude of the public, the hostility and treachery of men in high places, on November 22, 1774, he took his life at his home in Berkeley Square.” (pp 272-273). Verelst, Cartier and the Great Bengal Famine are erased from history and Chapter 19 commences: “In 1772 there was appointed to the governorship of Bengal ... Warren Hastings.” Wilbur (1945) nevertheless
actually alludes to some kind of difficulty on p278: “Widespread famine, sickness, and poverty among Bengal workers impaired the returns from the farms.” [14 words]. 50
Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples provides a zenith for this coyness about the period 1765-1772. Churchill deals with this period in a similar fashion and with similar verbal economy. Thus on pp 225-226: “A few years later he [Clive] died by his own hand. * * * Clive was soon followed in India by ... Warren Hastings... The Mahrattas seized Delhi and menaced Oudh. Madras was threatened, and even Bombay, hitherto so peaceful, was involved in the civil wars. Between 1769 and 1770 a third of the population of Bengal died of famine. Throughout these ordeals Warren Hastings held fast to an austere way of life.” 51
Edwardes (1967) discusses famine in India and while mentioning that “Before 1858, there had been frequent famines in India” fails to deal with the 1770 famine, presumably because his book is confined to the period 1772-1947. However Edwardes (1961) in his history of India yields ten words for 10 million: “Oppression and exploitation were aggravated, in 1770, by a disastrous famine.” 52
Gardner (1971) continues this historiographical tradition with an almost famine-free Clive Chapter 5 and Hastings Chapter 6 interfacing. However in writing about Hasting’s accession in 1772 he does admit that: “The country had been swept by one of the most terrible famines it had ever known.” 53
Carey (1882) is similarly inexplicit: “One [famine] which extended over 1770 and 1771 was the most terrible in its consequences, but others of shorter duration occasioned unspeakable suffering.” 54
Dunbar (1951) alludes to oppression of the peasantry at this time that incidentally affects revenue: “Unfortunately it was soon obvious that the collection of revenue was being accompanied by widespread extortion and injustice, evasion by the victimised peasantry, and, incidentally, considerable loss to the government. This cried out for reform, and the first act of Warren Hastings, when he became governor at Fort William in 1772, was to set up an English board of revenue under himself.” 55
Feiling (1966) briefly refers to the “great famine”: “As he went on tour this summer, he [Warren Hastings] tells Aldersey “it is an exhausted country and has been much oppressed.” For everywhere he saw marks of the great famine, when dogs and vultures had fed on the million dead, and whole villages had gone back to jungle.” 56
Hunter, while the author of the most detailed and impassioned description of the famine, namely Hunter (1871), Annals of Rural Bengal, 57 is less fullsome 20 years later in Hunter (1890): “Lord Clive quitted India for the third and last time in 1767. Between that date and the governorship of Warren Hastings in 1772, little of importance occurred in Bengal beyond the terrible famine of 1770, which is officially reported to have swept away one third of the inhabitants. The dual system of government, established in 1765 by Clive, had proved a failure.” 58
Gleig (1841) in his monumental 3 volume work on Warren Hastings has a few words to spare for the 10 million: “while, as if to sum up the measure of evil, first war and then famine came like a scourge upon the provinces. It was in Bengal that the famine raged with such a fury as to cut off in the course of one year full one third of the inhabitants.” 59
Finally we should recognize that there is a large body of books dealing with British history, including British colonial history, that do not specifically refer at all to the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770, one of the most devastating events in human history prior to the 20th century. 60 Thus Porter (1983), The Lions’s Share. A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-1983, is even less explicit. The problem of famine in India is mentioned in general and indeed specifically: “British India was in quite a lot of trouble in 1877-1878. As well as the Afghan War, a famine which killed 5 million, and what The Times called “an ominous restlessness” among the natives ...” There is no mention of the (pre-1850) Great Bengal Famine nor of the (pre-1983) Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. 61
The remarkable near-total deletion of the Great Bengal Famine from Dodwell (1963a) The Cambridge History of India Volumes 1-6 is alleviated by several very brief non-quantitative references to the 1770 event in the contributions of Lovett (1963a,b) in the 19th century section of the opus. In contrast, the one volume Oxford History of India by Spear (1975) deals with both events. Fortunately for Cambridge, various volumes of The New Cambridge History of India, specifically those written by Bayly (1988), Bose (1993) and Marshall (1987), resurrect the 1770 Famine. Roberts and Ballhatchet (both of Oxford) also rescue Cambridge by briefly mentioning the 1770 famine in their contributions, namely Roberts (1909b) and Bullhatchet (1965) in The Cambridge Modern History and The New Cambridge Modern History, respectively. However we will see in Chapters 14 and 15 that Cambridge also appears to suffer from a strange forgetfulness in relation to the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. 62
In terms of human death toll and destruction wreaked on a sophisticated human society, the Great Bengal Famine must rank with “well-known” pre-20th century events as catastrophic as the medieval European Black Death and the Mongolian conquests under Genghis Khan, 63 the decimation of the population of Mexico 64 and the carnage of the African slave trade 65 while being smaller in magnitude than the total carnage associated with the Tai Ping rebellion in 19th century China. Nevertheless this massive disaster is scrupulously avoided by a large number of histories. Several of these Austenizing works bear specific mention because they are “classic” historical texts, namely H.G.Wells' The Outline of History 66 and the History of England by G.M. Trevelyan, O.M., Master of Trinity College 1940-1951 and formerly Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. 67 Wells (1956) and Trevelyan (1952) manage to delete all mention of famine in British India from their works. G.M. Treveleyan was the grandson of Charles Trevelyan who performed a similar bureaucratic job in relation to starving Ireland and starving India of Imperial Britain of the 19th century as Albert Speer did for the Nazi German empire in Europe during World War 2. 68
We have already seen that the Black Hole of Calcutta has a highly arguable reality and that, if it occurred at all, 69 the outrage ranges from the “standard version” of 23 survivors out of 146 imprisoned 70 to perhaps as few as 9-20 imprisoned of whom 2 died. 71 It is remarkable that of a list of 27 works not mentioning the Great Bengal Famine but expected to do so (listed in footnote 60), 11 nevertheless mention the Black Hole “outrage”. 72 One is reminded of the aphorism from that monster of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, that “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” 73 and more recently, that of Ben Elton (1996) through his Police Chief Cornell in Popcorn : “There’s two results to every event, what actually happened and what people think happened. That’s a fact, pal, and if you believe you can ignore it, then you don’t have no election to face come the spring.” 74 The conclusion of Iris Macfarlane (1975) is germane to our disquisition at this stage:
“So there it was, the Black Hole of Calcutta, a nothingness...The legend grew and grew as the sweaty agonies of those men and women were required to set against oversights of humanity of the white man now in charge: the famine of 1770 for instance, when ten million Bengalis died while the revenue continued to be collected.” 75
Postscript - merciless, remorseless rapacity
The following considered and “expert” observations of this disaster provide a chilling sequence and conveys the remorselessness of the “farming” of Bengali peasants and workers that was to continue for nearly 2 centuries. It is also provided for the benefit of the English readers who, at one end of a likely spectrum of disapprobation, may consider me “unsound” and at the other, “an Aussie slagging off the Poms”.
“When the Bengal famine of 1770 occurred, believed to have swept away one-third of the population, little attempt at relief was made, though this, with Bengal’s network of waterways was practicable. The cruel severity with which the revenue continued to be collected at this time delayed recovery for many years.”
- Encyclopaedia Britannica (1977, 1979). 76
“In 1770, some months after the introduction of the new [Supervisor] system, there was a dreadful famine which killed one-third of the population of Bengal, but the famine, instead of melting the hearts of the Englishmen concerned, whetted their hunger for money... the ryots were compelled to sell their rice to the monopolizing Europeans...to sell even the seed requisite for the next harvest.”
- Gopal (1963a). 77
“In 1770 Nature added to the ruin done by man. A famine carried off some millions, perhaps one third, of the inhabitants. The survivors lived on roots or leaves, and sold their children; the dead lay heaped in the streets of Calcutta, and epidemic followed famine. Both Englishmen and Indian ministers were accused of profiting by the shortage of food.”
- Feiling (1966). 78
“In 1770 there was a terrible famine in Bengal. One-third of the population died. Yet it was reported in England that the Company’s servants were making fortunes out of the sufferings of the starving population by speculating in foodstuffs. And, while the Company’s servants gained wealth, the Company itself, despite all its conquests, was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1769 the adventurer Hyder Ali, of Mysore, invaded the Carnatic, devastating and plundering; and the cost of sending armies from Bengal to resist completed the Company’s undoing. Instead of paying 400,000 pounds to the British Treasury, they had to borrow money from Government.”
- Muir (1929). 79
“It has been registered as truth in the pages of history, has been the public subject of religious lamentations, has been examined in verse, and still remains such a foul stain upon British character as the annals of any people can hardly parallel.”
- Grant (1792), while disputing the validity of the accusation of British entrepreneurs profiting from the food shortage. 80
“it is enough that various estimates put the losses at between one-third and one-fifth of all the people of Bengal, and that this famine was over long before Leadenhall Street were made aware of it by falling off in revenue.”
- Woodruff (1965). 81
“The Great Famine of Bengal kills 10 million Indians wiping out one-third of the population in the worst famine thus far in world history. Britain’s East India Company increases its demands on Bengal’s remaining 20 million people to insure a “reasonable profit”.”
- Trager (1979).82
“It was to be the first famine-experience of the English, and they had made no provision for it. The misery was terrible... In summing up, 2 years later, the effects of the famine on the population, the Governor-General in Council declared that in some places one-half, and, on the whole, one-third of the inhabitants had been destroyed. It need scarcely be added that this terrible calamity affected the proprietors of East India in a manner to them the most vital: - it destroyed their prospect of large dividends.”
- Malleson (1985). 83
“The ravages caused by the famine of 1770, it is true, contributed a great deal to their failure to secure the promotion of agriculture and improvement in the state of administration. But until 1772, that failure proceeded most from the fundamental defect of policy which had kept power divorced from responsibility.”
- Misra (1959). 84
“Even among those that were not altogether abandoned many square miles of the richest country lay untilled, and one set of revenue agents after another failed to wring the land-tax out of the people. In 1772, the old farmers having thrown up their task in despair were superseded and dragged down to the debtors’ prison in Calcutta for arrears... When the British undertook the direct management of the district, nearly twenty years after the famine, they found the jail filled with revenue prisoners, not one of whom had any prospect of regaining his liberty... while the country every year became a more total waste, the English Government constantly demanded an increased land-tax.”
- Hunter (1871). 85
“A terrible famine in Bengal in 1770 created such havoc and desolation that even in 1789 Cornwallis wrote: “I have no hesitation in declaring that one-third of the territories in Bengal under the Company’s administration is now reduced to a jungle inhabited by beasts.” Yet the total amount of revenue fixed by Cornwallis as the basis of the Permanent Settlement was much higher than the annual revenue realised during the preceding 28 years.”
- Majumbar (1976).86
“What is called trade between one country and another to the mutual advantage of both, was, in the case of India, its exploitation by Britain ... The world had not known a trade of this kind: it had to be kept going even in the years of famines when millions died of starvation; the economy had been so manouvered that the income the British made in India was not affected by economic distress in the country.”
- Gopal (1963a). 87
“We have outdone the Spaniards in Peru. They were at least butchers on a religious principle, however diabolical their zeal. We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped - nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal in which three millions perished being caused by a monopoly of the servants of the East India Company?”
- Horace Walpole. 88
“Bengal on which the Company had become accustomed to draw for meeting deficits elsewhere, was afflicted in 1770 by an appalling famine in the course of which, so the Governor and Council later informed the Director, one-third of the population is believed to have died.”
- Moon (1989). 89
“Such gross expropriation of the country’s wealth and the total neglect of its economy led to chronic want. Eventually it burst forth in a virulent famine in 1770 with a seasonal failure of rain and the manipulation of grain stocks by the profit-hunting English officials and the Indian agents.”
- Mukherjee (1958). 90
“the jobbery and peculation that played havoc both with the trade and revenue of Bengal ... In 1770, the year when Cartier succeeded Verelst, broke out the terrible famine which slew more than a third of the people in Bengal, and turned large tracts of the country into tiger-haunted jungle.”
- Trotter (1890). 91
“At last the dreadful famine of 1770-71 desolated and depopulated the whole country. Terrible reports reached England that the Company’s servants had leagued with the native officials to buy up all the grain and sell it at famine prices.”
- Wheeler (1860). 92
“While the servants of the Company were thus wrangling over fine points of jurisdiction, one of the worst tragedies of human history befell Bengal. This was the Bengal famine of 1770 in which nearly a third of the population is said to have been swept away. The absence of a government, properly speaking, and the action of self-seeking men in cornering grains, intensified the severity of the famine.”
- Majumdar & Dighe (1977). 93
The Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770 and its genesis and aftermath clearly involved the family and connections of Jane Austen. The famine occurred just prior to her birth and it would take about 40 years - the span of Jane Austen’s life - to recover from the disaster.. We have no record in Jane Austen’s writing about the matter. We should finally recall the words of the great Thomas Babington Macaulay, describing the Great Bengal Famine in his essay on Lord Clive:
“Every servant of a British factor was armed with all the powers of his master; and his master was armed with all the power of the Company. Enormous fortunes were thus rapidly accumulated at Calcutta, while thirty millions of human beings were reduced to the extremity of wretchedness ... In the meantime, the impulse which Clive had given to the administration of Bengal was constantly becoming fainter and fainter. His policy was to a great extent abandoned; the abuses which he had suppressed began to revive; and at length the evils which a bad government had engendered were aggravated by one of those fearful visitations which the best government cannot avert. In the summer of 1770, the rains failed; the earth was parched up; the tanks were empty; the rivers shrank within their beds; and a famine, such as is known only in countries where every household depends for support on its own little patch of cultivation, filled the whole valley of the Ganges with misery and death. Tender and delicate women, whose veils had never been lifted before the public gaze, came forth from the inner chambers in which Eastern jealousy had kept watch over their beauty, threw themselves upon the earth before the passers-by, and, with loud wailings, implored a handful of rice for their children. The Hooghly every day rolled down thousands of corpses close to the porticos and gardens of the English conquerors. The very streets of Calcutta were blocked up by the dying and the dead. The lean and feeble survivors had not energy enough to bear the bodies of their kindred to the funeral pile or to the holy river, or even to scare away the jackals and vultures, who fed on human remains in the face of day. The extent of mortality was never ascertained; but it was popularly reckoned by millions ... and indignation soon began to mingle itself with pity. For it was rumoured that the Company’s servants had created the famine by engrossing all the rice of the country; that they had sold the grain for eight, ten, twelve times the price at which they had bought it; that one English functionary who, the year before, was not worth a hundred guineas, had, during that season of misery, remitted sixty thousand pounds to London. These charges we believe to be unfounded.” 94
This “coloured” but nevertheless powerful prose of Macaulay would certainly have been known to his grandson, G.M. Trevelyan, who would exclude any mention of Indian famine, whether of 1770 or 1943, from his History of England (1952). 95 Winston Churchill certainly read Macaulay, would have read this account of the Great Bengal Famine and indeed made slight reference to this disaster in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1965). 96 Bengal would suffer nearly 2 more centuries of rapacious exploitation but before this 2 century Holocaust ended, the same ruthless inhumanity would visit another famine of gigantic proportions upon the people of the most prolific food producing area of the planet. Sir Winston Churchill, evidently unmoved by the passion of the great Macaulay over the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1779, would preside over the latter day Bengal Famine of 1943-45 which would consume as many as 5 million people. 97
The Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770 is described in Schama’s A History of Britain (2002) but unaccountably the 1943-1945 Bengal Famine (6-7 million victims in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam) is missing from this otherwise excellent 3-volume history. 98 In contrast, in my huge pharmacological text Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds. A Pharmacological Guide to Sites of Action and Biological Effects (2003) I had occasion to mention the 1769-1770 Bengal Famine in the contexts of Table entries pertaining to morphine (from opium) and rice α-amylase inhibitor protein. 99 This extraordinary holocaust-ignoring in relation to the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770 is to be found in some further recent histories. 100
As discussed in the Preface to the Second Edition and elsewhere in this book, this extraordinary holocaust-ignoring is de rigeur in the Western Murdochracies. Thus I recently published an article entitled “Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Biofuel and Climate Genocide – silence kills and silence is complicity” in the Maine, US magazine Liberalati but the average citizen, while aware of the Jewish Holocaust (6 million victims), would be unaware of what I was talking about since none of these other holocausts and genocides are even mentioned by the Western Mainstream media, even though they are current and continuing. 101