Bengal Famine

“I hate Indians,” he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for “breeding like rabbits.”

– Winston Churchill

Churchill’s Man-Made Famine

Death Toll: 4,000,000

This Forgotten holocaust committed by British imperialism was caused by the diversion of shipping normally used to bring food to Bengal. The shipping was used instead to bring military supplies to the British army in North Africa in 1942.

According to Dr. Gideon Polya, a professor in Victoria, Australian, the 1943-44 famine that killed an estimated 3.5 to 5 million people in Bengal was “man-made”. Dr. Polya says that “the British brought an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda to India” and that “the creation of famine” was brought about by British “sequestration and export of food for enhanced commercial gain.”

He says that “British disinclination to respond with urgency and vigor to food deficits resulted in a succession of about 2 dozen appalling famines during the British occupation of India.” These swept away tens of millions of people. One of the worst famines was that of 1770 that killed an estimated 10 million people in Bengal (one third of the population) and which was “exacerbated by the rapacity of the (British) East India Company”.

Dr. Polya writes that “An extraordinary feature of the appalling record of British imperialism with respect to genocide and mass, world-wide killing of huge numbers of people (by war disease and famine) is its absence from public perception. Thus, for example, inspection of a selection of British history texts reveals that mention of the appalling Irish Famine of 1845-47 is confined in each case to several lines (although there is of course detailed discussion of the attendant, related political debate about the Corn Laws). It is hardly surprising that there should be no mention of famine in India or Bengal.”

How Destructive Was Colonialism to India?

Colonial era (1765–1947)

Great Bengal Famine  1769–1770      10,000,000

Madras city famine     1782–1783    Unknown

Chalisa famine            1791–1792      11,000,000

Doji bara or Skull famine        1789–1795      11,000,000

Agra famine of 1837–38         1837–1838      800,000

Eastern Rajputana       1860–1861      2,000,000

Orissa famine of 1866 1865–1867      1,000,000

Rajputana famine of 1869      1868–1870      1,500,000

Bihar famine of 1873–74        1873–1874      Unknown

Great Famine of 1876–78       1876–1878      10,300,000

Orissa, Bihar   1888–1889      150,000

Indian famine of 1896–97      1896–1897      5,000,000

Indian famine of 1899–1900  1899–1900      1,000,000

Bombay Presidency    1905–1906      230,000

Bengal famine of 1943           1943–1944      5,000,000

Independent India

Bihar famine of 1966-67         1966–1977   Unknown

The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit

The British had a ruthless economic agenda when it came to operating in India and that did not include empathy for native citizens. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, indigenous rulers were quick with useful responses to avert major disasters. After the advent of the British, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc these actions wrought. If anything, they were irritated at the inconveniences in taxing the famines brought about.

The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal. The first signs indicating the coming of such a huge famine manifested in 1769 and the famine itself went on till 1773. It killed approximately 10 million people, millions more than the Jews incarcerated during the Second World War. It wiped out one third the population of Bengal. John Fiske, in his book “The Unseen World”, wrote that the famine of 1770 in Bengal was far deadlier than the Black Plague that terrorized Europe in the fourteenth century. Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765 the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent. The peasants were not even aware that the money had changed hands. They paid, still believing that it went to the Emperor.

Partial failure of crop was quite a regular occurrence in the Indian peasant’s life. That is why the surplus stock, which remained after paying the tributes, was so important to their livelihood. But with the increased taxation, this surplus deteriorated rapidly. When partial failure of crops came in 1768, this safety net was no longer in place. The rains of 1769 were dismal and herein the first signs of the terrible draught began to appear. The famine occurred mainly in the modern states of West Bengal and Bihar but also hit Orissa, Jharkhand and Bangladesh. Bengal was, of course, the worst hit. Among the worst affected areas were Birbum and Murshidabad in Bengal. Thousands depopulated the area in hopes of finding sustenance elsewhere, only to die of starvation later on. Those who stayed on perished nonetheless. Huge acres of farmland were abandoned. Wilderness started to thrive here, resulting in deep and inhabitable jungle areas. Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar were similarly affected in Bihar.

Prior to this, whenever the possibility of a famine had emerged, the Indian rulers would waive their taxes and see compensatory measures, such as irrigation, instituted to provide as much relief as possible to the stricken farmers. The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine, although starvation had set in from early 1770. Then the deaths started in 1771. That year, the company raised the land tax to 60 per cent in order to recompense themselves for the lost lives of so many peasants. Fewer peasants resulted in less crops that in turn meant less revenue. Hence the ones who did not yet succumb to the famine had to pay double the tax so as to ensure that the British treasury did not suffer any losses during this travesty.

After taking over from the Mughal rulers, the British had issued widespread orders for cash crops to be cultivated. These were intended to be exported. Thus farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables were now being forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food. There was no backup of edible crops in case of a famine. The natural causes that had contributed to the draught were commonplace. It was the single minded motive for profit that wrought about the devastating consequences. No relief measure was provided for those affected. Rather, as mentioned above, taxation was increased to make up for any shortfall in revenue. What is more ironic is that the East India Company generated a profited higher in 1771 than they did in 1768.


Although the starved populace of Bengal did not know it yet, this was just the first of the umpteen famines, caused solely by the motive for profit, that was to slash across the country side. Although all these massacres were deadly in their own right, the deadliest one to occur after 1771 was in 1943 when three million people died and others resorted to eating grass and human flesh in order to survive.

Winston Churchill blamed for 1m deaths in India famine

Sir Winston Churchill may be one of Britain’s greatest wartime leaders, but in India he has been blamed for allowing more than a million people to die of starvation.

Dean Nelson in New Delhi

According to a new book on the famine, Sir Winston ignored pleas for emergency food aid for millions in Bengal left to starve as their rice paddies were turned over to jute for sandbag production and supplies of rice from Burma stopped after Japanese occupation.

Between one and three million died of hunger in 1943.

The wartime leader said Britain could not spare the ships to transport emergency supplies as the streets of Calcutta filled with emaciated villagers from the surrounding countryside, but author Madhusree Mukerjee has unearthed new documents which challenge his claim.

In her book, Churchill’s Secret War, she cites ministry records and personal papers which reveal ships carrying cereals from Australia were bypassed India on their way to the Mediterranean where supplies were already abundant.

“It wasn’t a question of Churchill being inept: sending relief to Bengal was raised repeatedly and he and his close associates thwarted every effort,” the author said.

“The United States and Australia offered to send help but couldn’t because the war cabinet was not willing to release ships. And when the US offered to send grain on its own ships, that offer was not followed up by the British,” she added.

The man-made famine and the contrast between the plight of starving Indians and well-fed British officers dining in the city’s many colonial clubs has been described as one of the darkest chapters in British rule on the Indian subcontinent.

Miss Mukerjee blames Churchill’s ‘racism’ for his refusal to intervene.

He derided Gandhi as a “half-naked holy man” and once said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

He was known to favour Islam over Hinduism.

“Winston’s racist hatred was due to his loving the empire in the way a jealous husband loves his trophy wife: he would rather destroy it than let it go,” said Miss Mukerjee.