British East India Company and the Great Bengal Famine

The Great Bengal famine of 1770 is destined to become the text-book example of how the profit-motive can cause famine. For it is one of the earliest and most devastating examples of the dangers inherent in concentrating land resources for the export of cash-crops’ without first insuring the primacy of the producers’ own food sovereignty. It is moreover an apt starting point as it also marks the beginning of the integration of local food systems into a global trading network and so provides us with a concrete example of many of the issues pertinent to today’s debates on globalisation and on the current food crisis’. Now, it must be said that, largely for political reasons, historians are somewhat divided on how much culpability should be ascribed to the British East India Company but none however are so foolhardy as to suggest that the policies pursued by the company did anything but worsen the conditions met with by the peasantry once the famine began. Moreover, there are a significant number, and I now count myself among them, who blame the company directly for making the conditions of famine inevitable. John Fiske, writing in ‘The Unseen World’ in 1868 tried to make his readers appreciate the magnitude of this calamity;

“Throughout the entire course of recorded European history, from the remote times of which the Homeric poems preserve the dim tradition down to the present moment, there has occurred no calamity at once so sudden and of such appalling magnitude as the famine which in the spring and summer of 1770 nearly exterminated the ancient civilization of Bengal. It presents that aspect of preternatural vastness which characterizes the continent of Asia and all that concerns it. The Black Death of the fourteenth century was, perhaps, the most fearful visitation which has ever afflicted the Western world. But in the concentrated misery which it occasioned the Bengal famine surpassed it, even as the Himalayas dwarf by comparison the highest peaks of Switzerland.”

So, this was an unprecedented catastrophe unique in the area’s history which happened to occur a mere six years after major agrarian reforms’ were carried out by the presiding British authority. As is known, after the 1764 Battle of Buxar and the subsequent 1765 Treaty of Allahabad the East India Company took upon themselves the right to collect the diwani or peasants tribute formerly held by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II.

The enormous area in question (some 650,000; roughly eight times the size of Great Britain) and which now comprises modern day Bangladesh and the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkand prompted many in parliament to question the wisdom of placing its management under the authority of the EIC. This ‘business transaction’, which, according to one indignant Mughal official was “done and finished in less time than would have been taken up in the sale of a jackass” not only ensured for the first time British economic and military dominance in the Indian subcontinent but also entailed perhaps the most radical restructuring of taxation policy the world has ever seen.

Back in London, shares in the EIC doubled and expectations were naturally high of further handsome dividends such as those allotted when Clive several years before had plundered the Bengali treasury after the Battle of Plessey. Those in Westminster who didn’t board the gravy train naturally baulked at the transparently insane step of effectively ceding full sovereignty of such a vast area to a private company ultimately beholden to anonymous shareholders 2,000 km away and with no vested interests in the well-being of the populace. Would they not grind the peasantry into the ground through rapacious taxation? Well yes in fact, that it appears is precisely what happened.

Fortunately the records for this period have been meticulously kept by the India Office and can be viewed in the British Library. A five minute sitting there will reveal to those who have the inclination that the average tribute prior to 1764 was 10-15% of the gross agricultural produce. Under the EIC this was raised to 40-50%. It was still called a tribute as opposed to a tax for the British wished to ensure that the peasantry were not aware that it was the East India Company and not the Emperor Shah Alam who were in ultimate receipt of the inflated tax/tribute. To further this illusion of a dual power-sharing agreement they ensured that Shah Alam was kept in the luxury he was accustomed to but under virtual house arrest’ at his palace in Allahabad. The amount of caution that was taken to ensure that this state of affairs did not not become generally known can be glimpsed in a letter written by Clive to the directors of the EIC as he finally left India in 1767;

“We are sensible that, since the acquisition of the dewany, the power formerly belonging to the soubah of those provinces is totally, in fact, vested in the East India Company. Nothing remains to him but the name and shadow of authority. This name, however, this shadow, it is indispensably necessary we should seem to venerate.”

This co-option by stealth, as even the most superficial analysis would show, had the evident aim of preventing the scandal of revolution. For no-one who has been to the Victoria and Albert museum and glimpsed some of the thousands of paintings and artefacts on display can have any doubt as to the complexity of the civilisation under discussion here. Needless to say the Mughal rulers had in place from the mid 15th century a delicate and evidently successful system of tribute born of trial and error which contributed to their long and steady rule. It stood to reason that the tribute should be raised in times of plenty and reduced in times of scarcity. Under the auspices of a chartered company however there can be no such sensible forward planning. How were the directors to know when the game would be up? As I said there were already many disgruntled voices calling for a reform of the EIC charter but they were being held in check by the most powerful lobby group in Westminster. The most sensible business strategy therefore would be to opt for maximum profit realisation as quickly, as efficiently and as ruthlessly as possible. And so it was that wherever it was possible the planting of cash crops such as indigo and cotton were made compulsory. Likewise, because the raised tax had to be collected in cash and at the point of a bayonet if necessary the hoarding of rice was forbidden, and so with little option this was sold on and a thriving grain market came into being which was of course eventually monopolised by the company .

Thus it was that the peasants lifeline, the stock of surplus staples was drastically reduced and were in fact no longer available to tide them over when the partial failure of crops (itself nothing out of the ordinary) came in 1768. With the sudden cessation of the September rains in 1769 reports began to emerge of a widespread famine gripping the countryside. These were duly ignored until it was too late. Estimates vary as to the death toll. Some place it as high as 10 million and it appears that at the very least two million lives were claimed. In 1771 the company raised the land tax to 60%. Again this is perfectly logical from a business perspective as this would make good the regrettable shortfall in income occasioned by the deaths of some two million tenants.

Sadly, the promised reform came too late. Despite fierce opposition from the East 

India lobby the East India Company Act of 1773 was belatedly passed clearly establishing that the “acquisition of sovereignty by the subjects of the Crown is on behalf of the Crown and not in its own right.” If only this were a guarantor to prevent future abuse. In the same year the British poet Richard Clarke wrote;

“Historians of other nations (if not our own), will do justice to the oppressed of India and will hand down the Memory of the Oppressors to the latest Posterity”.

Unfortunately, posterity has failed us because the theory of comparative advantage so heartily advocated by the IMF and World Bank throughout the 80’s and 90’s, along with imposed austerity measures such as the retraction of subsidised agricultural inputs has once again seen the promotion of specialised cash-crops for export to the detriment of nurturing food staples. Due to these policies formerly food sovereign households and small share-croppers have been forced  into urban areas and replaced by large monoculture agribusiness, typically owned by transnational corporations. This is why in the recent Lagos Plan of Action, heads of state in developing countries have called for a type of economic growth disconnected from the vicissitudes of the world market. It is also the reason why since the 1996 World Food Summit, Via Campesina, the international farmers’ movement, has pushed for an alternative concept: ‘food sovereignty’, which it defines as “the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate for them.”


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