|Great Bengal Famine of 1769|
৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর (Chhiattōrer monnōntór)
|Country||Company rule in India|
|Total deaths||2 or 10 million|
|Observations||Policy failure and drought|
|Relief||Attempts to stop exportation and hoarding or monopolising grain; ￡15,000 expended in importation of grains.|
|Impact on demographics||Population of Bengal declined by 7% or 33%|
|Consequences||The revenues of East India Company dropped to £174,300 due to the famine.|
The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 (Bengali: ৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর, romanized: Chiẏāttôrer mônnôntôr, lit. 'The Famine of ’76') was a famine between 1769 and 1773 (1176 to 1180 in the Bengali calendar) that affected the lower Gangetic plain of India from Bihar to the Bengal region. The famine is estimated to have caused the deaths of about 10 million people, and Warren Hastings’s 1772 report estimated that a third of the population in the affected region starved to death. Rajat Datta estimates a much lower revised number, in the range of around 2 million dead within 6–7 months.
The famine is one of the many famines and famine-triggered epidemics that devastated the Indian subcontinent during the 18th and 19th century. It is usually attributed to a combination of weather and the policies of the East India Company. The start of the famine has been attributed to a failed monsoon in 1769 that caused widespread drought and two consecutive failed rice crops. The devastation from war, combined with exploitative tax revenue policies of the East India Company after 1765 crippled the economic resources of the rural population.
Nobel prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen describes it as a man-made famine, noting that no previous famine had occurred in Bengal that century, and the region under the Muslim rule was one of the world's major economic power and signalled the advent of proto-industrialisation. Historian William Dalrymple held that the deindustrialisation of Bengal and the policies of the East India Company were the reasons for the mass famine and widespread chaos.
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The famine occurred in Bengal, then ruled by the East India Company. Their territory included modern West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam, Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand. It was earlier a province of the Mughal empire from the 16th century and was ruled by a nawab, or governor. In early 18th century, as the Mughal empire started collapsing, the nawab became effectively independent of the Mughal rule.
In the 17th century, the English East India Company was granted the town of Calcutta by the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja. During the following century, the company obtained sole trading rights for the province and became the dominant power in Bengal. In 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company defeated the nawab Siraj Ud Daulah, annexing large portions of Bengal afterwards. In 1764 their military control was reaffirmed at Buxar. The subsequent treaty gave them taxation rights, known as dewan; the Company thereby became the de facto ruler of Bengal.
Raids conducted by the Maratha bargis (bargir) mostly from the Nagpur region in the 1760s led to widespread looting and destruction and presumably reduced the region's ability to deal with the ensuing shortages.
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The regions in which the famine occurred affected the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal in particular, but the famine also extended into Orissa and Jharkhand as well as modern Bangladesh. Among the worst affected areas were Birbhum and Murshidabad in Bengal, and Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar.
A partial shortfall in crops, considered nothing out of the ordinary, occurred in 1768 and was followed in late 1769 by much more severe conditions. By September 1769 after the failure of the annual South-East monsoon there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural distress. These were, however, largely ignored by company officers.
By early 1770 there was starvation, and by mid-1770 deaths from starvation were occurring on a large scale.
This morning the purser of the Lapwing Packet, (late) Capt. Gardner, came to the East India House, with the news of the above packet being safe arrived at Falmouth from Bengal. She brings an account of the terrible famine which has made dreadful ravages amongst the natives of Bengal; and that about two million people had died; so that there were not enough people left to bury the dead.
In 1770, a great epidemic of smallpox raged in Murshidabad and killing 63,000 of its inhabitants, including Nawab Najabat Ali Khan. He was succeeded by his brother Ashraf Ali Khan, who also died from smallpox two weeks after his coronation.
Later in 1770 good rainfall resulted in a good harvest and the famine abated. However, other shortfalls occurred in the following years, raising the total death toll. The famine killed an estimated ten million Indians in Bihar and Bengal, approximately one-third of the population of the Bengal presidency. Rajat Datta estimates a toll of 2 million dead within 6–7 months, claiming that the 10 million figure carries "little conviction" and is "a largely inflated number"; this would be closer to 7% of the population during that period.
As a result of the famine, large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated in search of food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned—much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards. From 1772 onwards, bands of bandits and Thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and were only brought under control by the authorities in the 1790s.
Responsibility of the East India Company
In addition to its profits from trade, the company had been given rights of taxation in 1764. In Bengal, these profits came from both land tax and trade tariffs. Within the first few years of its ability to tax, the Company doubled the total land tax; most of this revenue flowed back to EIC investors. As the famine approached its height in April 1770, the Company faced declining profits. Acting upon the advice of Mahomed Reza Khan, the Naib, the Council added 10% to the land tax of the ensuing year.
The company had no plan for dealing with the grain shortage, and actions were only taken insofar as they affected the mercantile and trading classes. Land revenue decreased by 14% during the affected year, but recovered rapidly. According to McLane, the first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, acknowledged that tax collecting had become "violent" after 1771: revenues earned by the company were higher in 1771 than in they were 1768. Hastings became Governor of Bengal at the end of April 1772, and in November reported to the company the preliminary result of his investigations into the revenue:
It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity; that it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard. To ascertain all the means by which this was effected will not be easy; it is difficult to trace the progress of the collections through all its intricate channels, or even to comprehend all the articles which compose the revenue in its first operations. One tax, however, we will endeavour to describe, as it may serve to account for the equality which has been preserved in the past collections, and to which it has principally contributed. It is called najay, and is an assessment upon the actual inhabitant of every inferior division of the lands to make up for the loss sustained in the rents of their neighbours who are either dead or have fled the country. This tax, though equally impolitic in its institution and oppressive in the mode of exacting it, was authorised by the antient and general usage of the country. It had not the sanction of Government, but took place as a matter of course. ... The tax not being levied by any fixed rate or standard fell heaviest upon the wretched survivors of those villages which had suffered the greatest depopulation, and were of course the most entitled to the lenity of Government. It had also this additional evil attending it in common with every other variation from the regular practice: that it afforded an opportunity to the farmers and shicdars, to levy other contributions on the people under color of it, and even to encrease this to whatever magnitude they pleased, since they were in course the judges of the loss sustained and of the proportion which the inhabitants were to pay to replace it.
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