Richard Melson

October 2006

Bengal Famine of 1770

Bengal Famine of 1770

The Bengal famine of 1770 was a catastrophic famine that between 1769 and 1773 affected the lower Gangetic plain of India. The famine is supposed to have caused the deaths of an estimated 10 million people, approximately one-third of the population at the time.


The famine occurred in the territory which was called Bengal, then ruled by the British East India Company. This territory included modern West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand. It was originally a province of the Mughal empire, from the 16th century, and was ruled by a Nawab, or governor. The Nawab had become effectively independent by the beginning of the 18th century, though in theory was still a tributary power of the Great Mughal in Delhi.

In the 17th century, the British East India Company had been given a grant on the town of Calcutta, by the Mughal emperor Akbar. At this time the Company was effectively another tributary power of the Mughal. During the following century, the Company obtained sole trading rights for the province, and went on to become the dominant power in Bengal. In 1757, at the battle of Plassey, the British defeated the then Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah, and plundered the Bengali treasury. In 1764 their military control was reaffirmed at Buxar. The subsequent treaty gained them the Diwani, that is the taxation rights: in effect, the Company became the ruler of Bengal.

The famine

About 10 million people, approximately one third of the population of the affected area, are thought to have died in the famine. The regions in which the famine occurred included especially the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, but the famine also extended into Orissa and Jharkhand, as well as modern Bangladesh. Among the worst affected areas were Birbhum and Murshidabad, in Bengal, and Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah, in Bihar.

A partial shortfall in crops, considered nothing out of the ordinary, occurred in 1768 and was followed in late 1769 by more severe conditions. By September 1769 there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural distress. These were, however, ignored by Company officers.

By early 1770 there was starvation, and, by mid 1770, deaths from starvation were occurring on a large scale. There were also reports of the living feeding on the bodies of the dead in the middle of that year. Smallpox and other diseases further took their toll of the population. Later in 1770, good rainfall resulted in a good harvest and the famine abated. However, other shortfalls occurred in the following years, raising the total death toll.

As a result of the famine large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated in mass in a search for food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned: much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards. From 1772, bands of bandits and thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and these were only controlled by punitive actions in the 1780s.

East India Company responsibilities

Fault for the famine is now often ascribed to the British East India Company policies in Bengal. As a trading body, its first remit was to maximise its profits and with taxation rights the profits to be obtained from Bengal came from land tax as well as trade tariffs. As lands came under company control, the land tax was typically raised by 3 to 4 times what it had been – from 10-15% up to 50% of the value of the agricultural produce. In the first years of the rule of the British East India Company, the total land tax income was doubled and most of this revenue flowed out of the country. As the famine approached its height, in April of 1770, the Company announced that land tax for the following year was to be increased by 10%.

The company is also criticised for forbidding the "hoarding" of rice. This prevented traders and dealers from laying in reserves that in other times would have tided the population over lean periods.

By the time of the famine, monopolies in grain trading had been established by the Company and its agents. The Company had no plan for dealing with the grain shortage, and actions were only taken insofar as they affected the mercantile and trading classes. Land revenue decreased by 14% during the affected year, but recovered rapidly (Kumkum Chatterjee). According to McLane, the first governor-general of British India, Warren Hastings, acknowledged "violent" tax collecting after 1771: revenues earned by the Company were higher in 1771 than in 1768 [1]. Globally, the profit of the Company increased from 15 million rupees in 1765 up to 30 million rupees in 1777.


External links

Bengal Famine of 1770

October 2006