Bengal famine of 1770

Bengal famine of 1770

The Bengal famine of 1770 (Bengali: ৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর, "Chhiattōrer monnōntór"; lit "The Famine of '76") was a catastrophic famine between 1769 and 1773 (1176 to 1180 in the Bengali calendar) that affected the lower Gangetic plain of India. The famine is estimated to have caused the deaths of 15 million people (one out of three, reducing the population to thirty million in Bengal, which included Bihar and most of Orissa). The Bengali names derives from its origins in the Bengali calendar year 1176. ("Chhiattōr"- "76"; "monnōntór"- "famine" in Bengali). [Mazumdar, Kedarnath, "Moymonshingher Itihash O Moymonsingher Biboron", 2005, Bn icon, pp. 46-53, Anandadhara, 34/8 Banglabazar, Dhaka. ISBN 984 802 05 X]


The famine occurred in the territory which was called Bengal, then ruled by the British East India Company. This territory included modern West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand. It was originally a province of the Mughal empire from the 16th century and was ruled by a "Nawab", or governor. The Nawab had become effectively independent by the beginning of the 18th century, though in theory was still a tributary power of the Great Mughal in Delhi.

In the 17th century the British East India Company had been given a grant on the town of Calcutta by the Mughal emperor Akbar. At this time the Company was effectively another tributary power of the Mughal. During the following century the company obtained sole trading rights for the province, and went on to become the dominant power in Bengal. In 1757, at the battle of Plassey, the British defeated the-then Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah and plundered the Bengali treasury. In 1764 their military control was reaffirmed at Buxar. The subsequent treaty gained them the "Diwani", that is, taxation rights: the Company thereby became the de facto ruler of Bengal.

The famine

About ten million people, approximately one-third of the population of the affected area, are estimated to have died in the famine. The regions in which the famine occurred included especially the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, 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 more severe conditions. By September 1769 there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural distress. These were, however, ignored by company officers.

By early 1770 there was starvation, and by mid-1770 deaths from starvation were occurring on a large scale. There were also reports of the living feeding on the bodies of the dead in the middle of that year. Smallpox and other diseases further took their toll of the population. 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.

As a result of the famine large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated in mass in a search for food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned—much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards. From 1772 on, bands of bandits and thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and were only brought under control by punitive actions in the 1780s.

East India Company responsibilities

Fault for the famine is now often ascribed to the British East India Company's policies in Bengal. According to others, however, the famine was not a direct fault of the British regime, but was only exacerbated by its policies (Simon Schama, "A History of Britain", Volume II, page 504).

As a trading body, the first remit of the company was to maximise its profits and with taxation rights the profits to be obtained from Bengal came from land tax as well as trade tariffs. As lands came under company control, the land tax was typically raised fivefold what it had been – from 10% to up to 50% of the value of the agricultural produce.Fact|date=May 2008 In the first years of the rule of the British East India Company, the total land tax income was doubled and most of this revenue flowed out of the country. [Romesh Dutt The Economic History of India under early British Rule (1906)] As the famine approached its height in April of 1770, the Company announced that the land tax for the following year was to be increased by a further 10%.

It is claimed that the destruction of food crops in Bengal to make way for poppy cultivation for export reduced food availability and contributed to the famine. [Chaudhury, "From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal"] However, the charge that intensive poppy cultivation led to famine has been disputed on the grounds that the total area under poppy cultivation in the Bengal region constituted less than two percent of all the land.

The company is also criticised for forbidding the "hoarding" of rice. This prevented traders and dealers from laying in reserves that in other times would have tided the population over lean periods, as well as ordering the farmers to plant indigo instead of rice.

By the time of the famine, monopolies in grain trading had been established by the company and its agents. 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 (Kumkum Chatterjee). According to McLane, the first governor-general of British India, Warren Hastings, acknowledged "violent" tax collecting after 1771: revenues earned by the Company were higher in 1771 than in 1768. [ [ BANGLAPEDIA: Famine ] ] Globally, the profit of the company increased from fifteen million rupees in 1765 to thirty million in 1777.

See also

*List of famines


*Brooks Adams, "The Laws of Civilizations and Decay. An Essays on History", New York, 1898
*Kumkum Chatterjee, "Merchants, Politics and Society in Early Modern India: Bihar: 1733-1820", Brill, 1996, ISBN 90-04-10303-1
*Sushil Chaudhury, "From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal", Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1999, ISBN 978-8173042973
*Romesh Chunder Dutt, "The Economic History of India under early British Rule", Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-24493-5
*John R. McLane, "Land and Local Kingship in 18th century Bengal", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-52654-X


External links

* [ Section VII] from Dharampal, "India Before British Rule and the Basis for India's Resurgence", 1998.
* [ Chapter IX. The famine of 1770 in Bengal] in John Fiske, "The Unseen World, and other essays"
* [ History of West Bengal & Calcutta]
* [ First World Hegemony and Mass Mortality - from Bengal to Afghanistan and Iraq]
*R.C. Dutt, [ The Economic History of India.]

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