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The Great Bengal Famine (1) : The Governor of Bengal accused the East India Company of turning a crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe.
The Great Bengal Famine
Part one

The terrible famine which struck Bengal from 1769 was partly a freak of nature, but Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal, blamed a culture of corruption and negligence in the East India Company for making the effects far worse than they needed to be, and was not prepared to turn a blind eye.

IN 1769, farming in Bengal was already in a weakened state after years of harassment by Maratha raiding parties,* burning crops and destroying villages. Then heavy monsoon rains and a subsequent drought caused two rice harvests to fail.

Governor John Cartier, who managed Bengal on behalf of the British East India Company, could have done little about that. But in 1772, his successor Warren Hastings conducted an inquiry, and concluded that the Company had nonetheless gravely exacerbated the crisis.

Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the Company had been granted the right to collect tax revenue in Bengal.* Taxing the labour of others is much easier than labouring yourself, and Edmund Burke later complained that despite their favoured position and handsome profits the Company had “built no bridges, made no high roads, cut no navigations, dug out no reservoirs”. They had, however, taken the policy decision to turn grain fields over to poppies for the lucrative export of opium.*

* The Maratha (Mahratta) were tribes of Hindu warriors spread across central India, chiefly in Maharashtra, forming a loosely confederated empire in the middle of the eighteenth century. They harassed neighbouring Indian states and caused the British considerable trouble too, until victory in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) left most of India under the control of the British East India Company.

* Control of Bengal had been briefly wrested from the East India Company after they ousted the Nawab, Mir Jafar (whom they had installed) and replaced him with his son-in-law Mir Kasim. Jafar was restored in 1764, and the Company’s authority grew to that of a civil service with executive powers, with the Nawab as a ceremonial figurehead. The Governor, Robert Clive, was a brilliant military commander and respected on all sides in Bengal, but he left politics to his subordinates, and retired home to England in 1767 having made only a handful of reforms to the Company’s culture of corruption.

* Governments are still making the same disastrous policy decisions today. “It doesn't get madder than this” wrote George Monbiot in The Guardian back in 2007. “Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava.”

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Picture: © Abhijit Kar Gupta, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. View original
Paddy fields in Ruppur, Nadia District, West Bengal. In the 1760s, much agricultural land in Bengal was held and taxed by hereditary landowners, zamindars, who paid a fee to their ruling prince and then collected as much tax as they wanted from their tenants. The East India Company fitted itself into this system fairly uncritically, and British officials were soon dealing as unscrupulously as their Indian counterparts. Warren Hastings’s attempts at reform largely failed and with the British loth to tamper with such a venerable system, it was not abolished in India until 1951.

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