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An Avoidable Tragedy : Adam Smith argued that the Bengal Famine of 1769 would have been much less of a tragedy under a free trade policy.
An Avoidable Tragedy

The Bengal Famine of 1769 was a humanitarian catastrophe and an ugly blot on Britain’s colonial record. Scottish economist Adam Smith, a severe critic of colonial greed and the East India Company, believed that it would have been no more than a manageable food-shortage had the Company pursued a policy of free trade.

IN rice countries, where the crop not only requires a very moist soil, but where, in a certain period of its growing, it must be laid under water, the effects of a drought are much more dismal. Even in such countries, however, the drought is, perhaps, scarce ever so universal as necessarily to occasion a famine, if the government would allow a free trade.

The drought in Bengal, a few years ago, might probably have occasioned a very great dearth. Some improper regulations, some injudicious restraints, imposed by the servants of the East India Company upon the rice trade, contributed, perhaps, to turn that dearth into a famine.

When the government, in order to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth, orders all the dealers to sell their corn at what it supposes a reasonable price, it either hinders them from bringing it to market, which may sometimes produce a famine even in the beginning of the season; or, if they bring it thither, it enables the people, and thereby encourages them to consume it so fast as must necessarily produce a famine before the end of the season.

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Picture: Via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
A view of Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1754, the headquarters of the East India Company in Bengal, in the days when the Company chiefly contented itself with trade and trying to get its own man in as Nawab. Ten years later, victory at the Battle of Buxar won them the right to tax land and set agricultural policy. One or two modern historians have suggested parallels between the Bengal famine and the ideologically-driven atrocities of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China, for which there is really no justification at all. A comparison with the bureaucratic meddling, cronyism and patronising elitism of the EU would be fairer.

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