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 10 million people, reducing the population to thirty million in Bengal, which included Bihar and parts of Odisha. The Bengali names derives from its origins in the Bengali calendar year 1176. ("Chhiattōr"- "76"; "monnōntór"- "famine" in Bengali).
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, 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 then-English East India Company had been given a grant of the town of Calcutta by the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja. 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 regions in which the famine occurred included especially the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, but the famine also extended into Odisha 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.
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 of persons had died; so that there were not people enough left to bury the dead.
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. About ten million people, approximately one-third of the population of the affected area, are estimated to have died in the famine.
As a result of the famine large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated en masse 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
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. 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. As the famine approached its height in April 1770, the Company announced that the land tax for the following year was to be increased by a further 10%.
Sushil Chaudhury writes that the destruction of food crops in Bengal to make way for opium poppy cultivation for export reduced food availability and contributed to the famine. The company is also criticised for ordering the farmers to plant indigo instead of rice, as well as 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.
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. 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. Globally, the profit of the company increased from fifteen million rupees in 1765 to thirty million in 1777. Nevertheless, the company continued to suffer financially, and influenced Parliament to pass the Tea Act in 1773 to increase import duties on tea shipped to the American colonies, which contributed to the American War of Independence in April 1775.
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