1 September 1771
On 1 September 1771, the Scots Magazine published an account from a ‘gentleman’ in Bengal describing an unprecedented famine. It has been provoked by a combination of a prolonged drought and the rapacity of Britain’s East India Company which, despite the wretched condition of the population, continued to ruthlessly extract high levels of taxation. The Company’s only charitable support for the starving was the employment of a hundred people on its account ‘with doolys, sledges and bearers to carry the dead and throw them in the river Ganges.’ Help in the clearance effort was also afforded by ‘greater numbers of birds of prey… than was ever known,’ which pluck away ‘the eyes and intestines’ of the dead, ‘whilst other animals gnaw the feet and the hands.’1
The anonymous witness, cited by the Scots Magazine, confessed that months earlier, ‘as soon as the dryness of the season foretold the approaching clearness of rice, our Gentlemen in the Company’s service… were as early as possible in buying up all (the rice) they could lay hold of.’ A complaint to local officials was ‘only laughed at and thrown out,’ so that some of the Company’s traders were able to purchase ‘the rice at 120 and 140 seers for a rupee, which they afterwards sold for 15 seers for a rupee to the black merchants; so that the persons principally concerned have made great fortunes by it.’ Among them, one merchant ‘not esteemed to be worth 1000 rupees last year,’ had ‘sent down, as it is said, 60,000l Sterling to be remitted home this year.’2
The shocking account is substantially corroborated by recent research, which shows that Company brokers transferred a total of £ 1,086,255 to London in the peak famine years of 1770 and 1771, during which at least 1.2 million people died.3 Frugal Company officials refused even to consider any public works to provide relief for the most vulnerable families. Nor did they offer, from their substantial financial reserves, either loans to the destitute peasantry or even spare seed for the subsequent season. The only noteworthy intervention was the determined effort made to raise the taxation level on those surviving in order to maintain the total, with soldiers erecting gibbets at places of execution as a reminder of the ultimate penalty for tax evasion.4 These ruthless measures were so successful that in February 1771 the Company’s Council was able to boast that ‘notwithstanding the great severity of the late famine, and the great reduction in people thereby, some increase (in revenue) has been made.’5
- The Scots Magazine, 1 September 1771, p. 454.
- Warren Hastings, Governor of Calcutta, reported a death toll of as many as 10 million but more recent estimates suggest fatalities of around 1.2 million. William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019, pp. 216-217 and 220.
- Ibid., p. 219.
- Ibid., p. 220.
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