During the British Raj in India, the subcontinent experienced countless famines and the worst hit was Bengal. The first Bengal Famine came in 1770. The other ones that had hit Bengal were in the years 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and finally in 1943.
All of them were severe but the one that stands out is the famine of 1943.
The first Bengal Famine of 1770 was ghastly brutal. The signs of the onslaught started showing a year before in 1769 and Bengal was hit by the disaster in 1770, which continued till 1773.
Mughals had a simple policy. The peasants were made to pay 10% to 15% of the cash harvest to the Emperor. The tribute (taxes) thus paid created a massive treasury for Mughal rulers.
It wasn’t unusual for peasants to face what is called ‘Partial Crop Failure’. After paying 10% to 15% tribute to the emperor, peasants would still have surplus stock at their hands to help them during times of partial crop failure. This method worked just fine.
Then things changed in 1765. That was the year when Treaty of Allahabad was signed between British East India Company and Shah Alam II – the Mughal Emperor. The Treaty of Allahabad shifted the tax collecting power to the hands of British East India Company. The company suddenly increased the tribute (as they preferred to call it instead of taxes) were increased to 50%. The peasants had no idea that the money had changed hands and that the taxes were now going to British East India Company and not the emperor.
The start of the famine has been attributed to a failed monsoon in 1769 that caused widespread drought and two consecutive failed rice crops.
An estimated 10 million people in Bengal province died – that’s 4 million more than the claimed 6 million Jews being incarcerated during World War II. John Fiske – American historian and philosopher wrote in his book titled ‘The Unseen World’ that the Bengal Famine of 1770 was way deadlier than Black Death that took whole of Europe in its embrace during the 14th century.