India has faced many famines and droughts, but none have been as cruel as the Great Famine of Bengal in 1770. The famine was a result of the failure of monsoon and the ignorant, selfish policies of the East India Company which had become the de facto ruler of the Gangetic plains covering West Bengal, present-day Bangladesh, Bihar, Orissa, and parts of Jharkhand. According to an estimate, as many as 10 million people died due to starvation. Along with the famine, the epidemic of smallpox also contributed to taking away lives in Bengal.
The East India Company, one of the first joint-stock companies in England, planned to make a fortune by trading in spices, textiles, and other exotic things that the East Indies had to offer. By the beginning of the 18th century, it had established itself as a monopoly power in trade in India by defeating its European rivals, the Portuguese and the Dutch, in various wars. The East India Company maintained a strong army that it used to consolidate its power in India. The French were the only remaining power and the East India Company was able to overtake them in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 where the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, was also defeated by a British army led by Robert Clive. In 1764, the British survived an attack from the then Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, and his allies and gained control of Bengal. They also assumed diwani, i.e. taxation, minting, and financial rights, and had taken control as the actual rulers under Governor-General Clive through their new puppet, Nawab Mir Jafar.
Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, the most prosperous regions of the Mughal Empire were now under the control of an English joint-stock company, the East India Company. The main interest of the company was to plunder this region to make huge revenues for the benefit of its shareholders. It had reduced the mighty and all-powerful Mughal Empire to just puppet Maharajas and were controlling their territory for them.
There had been a failure of monsoon, in mid-1769-1770s, which led to poor crop production. This was a natural event, which had forebodings of a famine. The administration was least bothered by the grave despair in which the population found itself.
The British were ruthless and undeterred with their economic agenda, as an effective company as they were only answerable to their shareholders, they were only concerned with their tax collections and their production of opium, cotton, tea, and other spices. Even when the rains of 1769 were dismal, they did not reduce their harsh taxes which farmers would pay in the form of their crop production. The farmers had nothing to feed themselves as the British took away anything they had. There was no food in the markets because there was no food with the farmers. The East India Company did not pay any attention, while millions starved and died. The scenes in Calcutta, Murshidabad, and Birbur were ghastly. Many dead bodies would be lying around on the streets, their lives not valuable enough for the Company to interfere.
Many tried to migrate from Bengal, but the cycle of despair and doom caught them. There was no food for people to survive. The company also faced a huge loss in 1770 due to the loss of the lives of peasants. To compensate for its loss, it increased the land tax. The result was more deaths and more losses for the company. According to an estimate by Warren Hastings, one-third of erstwhile Bengal’s population had perished. The richest state of the Mughal Empire was reduced to dead bodies and empty farmlands.
The rains had soothed the situation by 1771, but the deaths and starvation continued as the poor had no access to grains and were incapable of paying the British. Large swathes of land were depopulated as a result of the famine and got converted into jungles. The menace of thugs and dacoits also increased.
The deaths and shortage of food continued till 1773, by which time the East India Company had also suffered massive losses. The news had reached Westminster. The British Parliament was furious with the financial status of the Company. They passed the famous Tea Act of 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. The Regulating Act of 1773 was also passed by the parliament to control the administration of the Company and make it answerable to the Crown. Warren Hastings, who took charge as Governor in 1772, was investigated and he acknowledged the role of the “violent tax collections”.
This was first of the many famines that would haunt Bengal for the next centuries because of the scourges and plunder that the East India Company would cause for its own profit and for the prestige of the British Empire.