28 January 1771
On 28 January 1771, news arrived in Britain of a famine in the East India Company’s newly acquired territory of Bengal. ‘We learn,’ observed the Northampton Mercury, ‘that several of the Districts in the Kingdom of Bengal have suffered considerably… from a dreadful famine.’1 British newspapers initially treated the new of mass starvation as one of relative insignificance.
The Kentish Gazette calmly noted that ‘the news from the East Indies’ was ‘favourable in every respect, except in the loss of some of the inhabitants in the province of Bengal.’2 By late March, however, reports began to arrive of unprecedented fatalities. Several newspapers cited a letter in which the author declared ‘I believe I speak within compass when I say at least two millions of souls have perished.’3 There were various estimates, some claiming ‘a million and a half of people have perished,’ and others that ‘the number is not less than three millions: But they all agree, that there are scarcely enough to bury the dead.’4
Since 1757, when General Robert Clive had conquered Bengal for the Company, Bengal’s wretched peasantry had been squeezed by increasing levels of taxation, only a small fraction of which was invested locally. The remainder funded wars of subjugation across the subcontinent, extravagant construction projects, including India House on London’s Leadenhall Street, and products for export to Britain, including tea from China, as well as Indian silks and cotton cloths. Company officials also stripped Bengal of all its silver and gold reserves, which might have been used to mitigate the crisis, and as soon as they realised that the rice crop had failed, they bought up almost every grain, even forcing farmers to hand over what they were safekeeping for planting.5
The predictable consequence was a staggering loss of life which was briefly remarked on, but which for several weeks did not attract much additional press comment. What finally focused attention, was the impact of the famine on British commerce and business. ‘You cannot conceive the Calamities which now reign,’ declared one report, adding that ‘the Manufactories are all at a stand for Want of Workers to carry them on, and it will be impossible for proper investments to be made for Europe, more than what is now ready to ship off, for two or three Years to come. Several of the Company’s ships which should have been dispatched this Season, will be obliged to stay in the country another, for Want of Hands such numbers of Seamen have died.’6
- ‘London’, The Northampton Mercury, 28 January 1771, p. 3
- ‘London’, The Kentish Gazette, 23 March 1771, p. 4
- ‘Extract of a Letter from Bengal,’ cited in The Caledonian Mercury, 30 March 1771, p. 2 and The Oxford Journal, 30 March 1771, p. 1 See also the Newcastle Courant, 30 March 1771, p. 1
- ‘London’, The Caledonian Mercury, 27 March 1771, p. 2, ‘Postscript London,’ The Northampton Mercury, 25 March 1771, p. 3, The Stamford Mercury, 28 March 1771, p. 2 and the Ipswich Journal, 30 March 1771, p. 1.
- Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, Basic Books, New York, 2010, p. XV.
- ‘Extract of a Letter from Bengal dated September 16, brought by the Lapwing,’ cited in The Caledonian Mercury, 30 March 1771, p2 and The Oxford Journal, 30 March 1771, p. 1.
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