Great Bengal famine of 1770

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Great Bengal Famine of 1770
৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর (Chhiattōrer monnōntór)
Total deaths~10 million
ObservationsPolicy failure
ReliefNone provided
Impact on demographicsPopulation of Bengal declined by a third
ConsequencesThe revenues of British East India Company dropped to £174,300 due to the famine. Tax collection was carried out violently to make up for losses.[1]

The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 (Bengali: ৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর, Chhiattōrer monnōntór; lit The Famine of '76) was a famine between 1769 and 1773 (1176 to 1180 in the Bengali calendar) that affected the lower Gangetic plain of India from Bihar to the Bengal region. The famine is estimated to have caused the deaths of about 10 million people.[2] Warren Hastings's 1772 report estimated that a third of the population in the affected region starved to death.[3]

The famine is one of the many famines and famine-triggered epidemics that devastated the Indian subcontinent during the 18th and 19th century.[4][5][6] It is usually attributed to a combination of weather and the policies of the British East India Company. The start of the famine has been attributed to a failed monsoon in 1769 that caused widespread drought and two consecutive failed rice crops.[3] The poor infrastructure investments in pre-British period, devastation from war, and exploitative tax revenue maximisation policies of the British East India Company after 1765 crippled the economic resources of the rural population.[3][7] Nobel prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen describes it as a man-made famine, noting that no previous famine had occurred in Bengal that century.[8]

The Bengali name "Chhiattōrer monnōntór" is derived from Bengali calendar year 1176 and the word for famine ("Chhiattōr"- "76"; "monnōntór"- "famine" in Bengali).[9]


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 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 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.

That time Nawab of Bengal were Najabat Ali Khan, Ashraf Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan Nawab of Bengal.

The decade previous to the famine was noted for the looting raids conducted by the Maratha bargis (bargir) mostly from Nagpur. They looted whatever they could and laid waste the rest. The looting were mainly in those areas which were later most hard-hit by the famine.


Print by Henry Singleton and Charles Knight entitled Scarcity in India, 1794, depicting a two sailors bargaining with an Indian woman, offering a mirror and watch in exchange for fruit

The regions in which the famine occurred affected the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal in particular, 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 much more severe conditions. By September 1769 after the failure of the annual South-East monsoon there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural distress. These were, however, largely 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 people had died; so that there were not enough people left to bury the dead.[10]

In 1770, a great epidemic of small pox raged in Murshidabad and killing 63,000 of its inhabitants, one of them being Nawab Nazim Saif ud-Daulah Najabat Ali Khan Bahadur, himself. He died on 10 March 1770. He was succeeded by his brother Ashraf Ali Khan, who also died from small pox two weeks after his coronation.

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. Up to ten million people,[11][12] 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 in search of food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned—much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards. From 1772 onwards, bands of bandits and Thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and were only brought under control by punitive actions in the 1790s.

British East India Company responsibilities[edit]

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. It has been suggested[by whom?] that the Company increased tax rates from 10 percent to up to 50 percent of the value of the agricultural produce, citing the pioneering work of R.C. Dutt, but in reality he makes no such claim.[12] 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.[13][fn 1] 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 percent.

The historian William Dalrymple has called Robert Clive an "unstable sociopath" due to these harmful policies and actions that resulted in famines and atrocities towards local native Indians and peasants. Changes caused by Clive to the revenue system and existing agricultural practices to maximize profits for the company partially led to the famine of 1770.[15]

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.[16] The company is also criticised for forbidding the "hoarding" of rice.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[17] Hastings became Governor of Bengal at the end of April 1772, and in November reported to the Company the preliminary result of his investigations into the revenue:[18]

It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity; that it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard. To ascertain all the means by which this was effected will not be easy; it is difficult to trace the progress of the collections through all its intricate channels, or even to comprehend all the articles which compose the revenue in its first operations. One tax, however, we will endeavour to describe, as it may serve to account for the equality which has been preserved in the past collections, and to which it has principally contributed. It is called najay, and is an assessment upon the actual inhabitant of every inferior division of the lands to make up for the loss sustained in the rents of their neighbours who are either dead or have fled the country. This tax, though equally impolitic in its institution and oppressive in the mode of exacting it, was authorised by the antient and general usage of the country. It had not the sanction of Government, but took place as a matter of course. ... The tax not being levied by any fixed rate or standard fell heaviest upon the wretched survivors of those villages which had suffered the greatest depopulation, and were of course the most entitled to the lenity of Government. It had also this additional evil attending it in common with every other variation from the regular practice: that it afforded an opportunity to the farmers and shicdars, to levy other contributions on the people under color of it, and even to encrease this to whatever magnitude they pleased, since they were in course the judges of the loss sustained and of the proportion which the inhabitants were to pay to replace it.

Globally, the profit of the company increased from fifteen million rupees in 1765 to thirty million in 1777.[citation needed] Nevertheless, the company continued to suffer financially, and influenced Parliament to pass the Tea Act in 1773 to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. This led to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, and ultimately the American War of Independence.[citation needed].

Mike Davies argues that colonised territories, such as India and Ireland, were used as experiments to understand the impacts of free market economics . The results were famine and devastation for the people.[19]

Little is known about death tolls in the many earlier Indian famines, but the great Bengal famine of 1770 was the first of a series in India under British colonial rule.[20]

See also[edit]


  • Bowen, H.V (2002), Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics 1757–1773, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-89081-6
  • James, Lawrence (2000), Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-312-26382-9
  • Heaven, Will (28 July 2010). "The history of British India will serve David Cameron well – as long as he doesn't go on about it". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  • 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 978-81-7304-297-3
  • 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


  1. ^ The Company was widely regarded as a pack of bloodsuckers, the Whig leader Lord Rockingham, calling them guilty of "rapine and oppression" in Bengal.[14]


  1. ^ Bowen 2002, p. 104.
  2. ^ Amartya Sen (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-19-828463-5.
  3. ^ a b c Fredrik Albritton Jonsson (18 June 2013). Enlightenment's Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism. Yale University Press. pp. 167–170. ISBN 978-0-300-16374-2.
  4. ^ Mike Davis (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso. pp. 5–7. ISBN 978-1-85984-739-8.
  5. ^ Murton Brian (2001). Kenneth F. Kiple (ed.). The Cambridge world history of food. 2. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1411–1427. ISBN 978-0-521-40215-6.
  6. ^ Amartya Sen (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–212. ISBN 978-0-19-828463-5.
  7. ^ Dalrymple, William (4 March 2015). "The East India Company: The original corporate raiders". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 June 2015., Quote: "Before long the province, already devastated by war, was struck down by the famine of 1769, then further ruined by high taxation. Company tax collectors were guilty of what today would be described as human rights violations. A senior official of the old Mughal regime in Bengal [or in other sources, an anonymous contemporary pamphleteer] wrote in his diaries: "Indians were tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns and villages ransacked; jaghires and provinces purloined: these were the ‘delights’ and ‘religions’ of the directors and their servants."
  8. ^ "Imperial Illusions". The New Republic. 31 December 2007.
  9. ^ Mazumdar, Kedarnath, Moymonshingher Itihash O Moymonsingher Biboron, 2005, (in Bengali), pp. 46–53, Anandadhara, 34/8 Banglabazar, Dhaka.
  10. ^ "London March 22". Oxford Journal. 23 March 1771. Retrieved 29 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  11. ^ Fiske, John (1942). The Unseen World and other essays. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 978-0-7661-0424-2.
  12. ^ a b Dutt, Romesh Chunder (1908). The economic history of India under early British rule. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
  13. ^ Romesh Dutt The Economic History of India under early British Rule (1906)
  14. ^ James 2000, pp. 51.
  15. ^ Dalrymple, William (4 March 2015). "The East India Company: The original corporate raiders". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  16. ^ Chaudhury, Sushil (1999). From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal. Manohar Publishers and Distributors.
  17. ^ Rahman, Atiur (2012). "Famine". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  18. ^ East India Company (1960). Fort William -India House Correspondence (1770-1772). Government of India. p. 418.
  19. ^ Damodaran, Vinita (12 October 2016). "Famine in Bengal: A Comparison of the 1770 Famine in Bengal and the 1897 Famine in Chotanagpur". The Medieval History Journal. 10 (1–2): 143–181. doi:10.1177/097194580701000206.
  20. ^ Davies, Mike (2000). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Second ed.). Verso.

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