At the time of the 1770 Bengal famine, the British East India Company was governing the region and the Company has to bear some of the blame for the indescribable suffering in one of the worst famines in the history of Bengal. When a partial crop failure in 1768 led to food shortages in 1769, the Company had little sympathy for the peasants’ plight. It rigorously enforced land taxes, even raising the levy by ten per cent. Bengalis are a resourceful, uncomplaining people; they made no protest, and the Company blithely assumed all was well when in fact most of the population had started to suffer from lack of proper nutrition.
The autumn rains of 1769 didn’t come, and the rice crop that was expected to reverse everyone’s ill-fortune failed. By early 1770 malnutrition had become starvation proper, and by the middle of that year people were dying like flies. Whole villages starved to death, having first sold their livestock and then their children. People were reduced to eating leaves and grass, and finally the bodies of their dead. Cultivated land soon reverted to jungle as people downed tools and poured into the towns in search of sustenance. The streets were strewn with corpses that couldn’t be buried quickly enough; and where starvation had been, disease epidemics soon followed.
The autumn monsoon came with a vengeance that year. It did nothing to alleviate suffering: torrential rain flattened the crops, overflowed the rivers and flooded the fields. Middlemen made exorbitant profits out of what little produce there was, while any remaining struggling farmers were still financially crippled by impossibly high taxes. For the next three years, the harvests were unusually abundant, but it was too late. In a few short months the entire economy of Bengal had collapsed and millions had died.
When was the Bengal Famine: 1770
Where was the Bengal Famine: Bengal, India (now Bangladesh and West Bengal)
What was the Bengal Famine death toll: Around ten million, or one in three people. A disproportionate number of these were children, which led to de-population of the countryside for the next 15 years. Roving gangs of thugs and dacoits terrorized the villages, and were joined by many a hitherto honest villager with nothing left to lose.
You should know: It is generally agreed that the severity of the Bengal famine was caused not only by lack of rain but also by the bungling ignorance of the British administration. Instead of making provision for the foreseeable consequences of the poor rainfall, they forbade hoarding and increased the land tax that farmers had to pay, thus adding an extra burden to farmers already on the edge of extremity.