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A google search of the term ‘corporate greed’ throws up a staggering 2.69 million results. There are scores of articles on the net blaming corporate greed for a variety of problems. However, perpetrating genocide is certainly not one of them. Incredible as it may sound, it has happened in the past, that too on a scale people today could scarcely imagine.

This is a small tribute to the countless victims of the colossal crime perpetrated by the East India Company.

Rulers of Bengal

The battle of Buxar on 22nd October 1764, fought between the East India Company and the triumvirate of Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, the nawab of Bengal and the nawab of Avadh resulted in an overwhelming victory for the company.

On 20th February 1765, the newly appointed nawab of Bengal signed a treaty with the East India Company whereby the administration of the province was entrusted to a deputy subedar. By virtue of the treaty, the deputy subedar could not be dismissed without the consent of the company- which meant that the key person responsible for administration of the state owed his power not to the ruler, but to the company. The agreement effectively established a diarchy whereby the nawab was the nominal ruler responsible for ruling the province while real power remained firmly in the hands of the company.

Robert Clive: The Conqueror of Plassey and Buxar

Robert Clive: The Conqueror of Plassey and Buxar

Six months later, on 12th August 1765, the defeated Mughal emperor Shah Alam II concluded a treaty formally granting the East India Company the ‘diwani’ for the provinces of Bengal (which included the modern day Bangladesh) Bihar and Orissa. The treaty gave the company complete control over use of land and collection of revenue in those provinces.  Once again, the mughal emperor in Delhi held nominal power while the remote control was firmly in the hands of the company.

With those two treaties, the East India Company became the effective rulers of the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa, unburdened by responsibility or accountability.

New System of Land Settlement

Semi-feudal zamindars (hereditary landlords) existed well before the British even set foot in India. East India Company officials cancelled the hereditary rights of the zamindars in the districts of Burdwan and Midnapore in 1760 and sold their estates by auction for a 3 year period. This brought to power men who had neither fortune nor character, whose only concern was to extort as much out of their subjects as possible. In the words of Governor Verelst

…numberless harpies were let loose to plunder, whom the spoil of a miserable people enabled to complete their…payment

The new policy was a spectacular success for the company, its land revenue collections registering a spectacular jump of 68% from £ 2.26 Million in 1765-66 to £ 3.79 Million in 1768-69. The effect of that plunder would prove devastating.

Drought from Hell

Historically, agriculturists retained surplus stocks after paying duties to the crown, which acted as a buffer in the event of crop failures. However, the vastly increased revenue collections deprived countless farmers of the buffer stocks. Under the circumstances, a drought was bound to have an effect quite out of proportion to its intensity.

A partial crop failure in 1768, combined with brutal taxation meant that there was an acute scarcity of foodgrains come 1769. Spring rains brought temporary respite, but left the situation far from comfortable. Provincial officials appealed to the Company bosses to remit land taxes. In complete disregard of their warnings, the Company opted for a business as usual policy.

As we have seen earlier in this blog, rice was grown in three harvests in Bengal, out of which aman crop (harvested in November/ December) was the most important one, as the local populace depended on it (plus whatever surplus was available) for sustenance until the minor boro crop in February/ March. Unfortunately, not a drop of rain fell from September onwards. In the words of the then superintendent of Bishanpore

The fields of rice  are become like fields of dried straw

Not surprisingly, millions of people were left to starve. The only way out now was to declare a famine and arrange for famine relief measures. The government did neither, going on as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. As records show, government collections slipped marginally from £ 3.78 million in 1768-69 to £ 3.34 million in 1769-70- still substantially higher than collections in 1765-66, when the province suffered from a severe drought but one which paled in comparison to the disaster underway.

By March 1770, hundreds of thousands were already dead and the entire province was crushed by appaling poverty. As had been the case the previous year, the minor boro crop in February/March brought temporary respite from starvation. Unfortunately, at this stage the government decided that it was time to make good the deficient collections from the previous financial year. In April, land taxes were increased by a further 10%. With the next crop several months away (in August/ September) the government’s decision came like a thunderbolt from hell for the starving millions in the province.

As the summer of 1770 wore on, people fell like flies. In desperation, famers sold their cattle, their implements and even devoured their seedstocks. Countless farmers even sold their children in desperation. In June 1770, the British resident at the mughal darbar affirmed that desperate people were resorting to cannibalism to survive. Whole villages became deserted.

Warren Hastings

Warren Hastings

As the corpses piled on, disease and pestilence took over. Lakhs of survivors, their immunity all but destroyed by starvation, perished as the year wore on.

Aftermath

  • Timely and abundant rains resulted in bountiful harvests in the winter of 1770, followed by even better harvests in 1771-72 and 1772-73
  • The human cost of the famine was estimated at a staggering 10 million people- one third of the population of the region
  • In November 1772, Governor Warren Hastings wrote to the court of directors

Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province and the consequent decrease of cultivation, the nett collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of 1768

  • The entire administration was accused of trading in grain for private advantage. No satisfactory investigations were made and it was widely suspected that senior company officials were responsible for the black marketing
  • Hastings extended the system of zamindari by auction to the whole of the province in 1773
  • The East India Company, facing tremendous financial difficulties, applied to the government for a bailout. Deemed too big to fail (to use the modern parlance), the British government bailed out the company in 1773- the first corporate bailout in all history.

Legacy

  • Vast areas became depopulated. Most of Birbhum, for instance, became forested and remain impassable until well into the 1810s
  • Several noble families, reduced to ruin, took to bandity as a means of survival, becoming the scourge of the countryside. The bandits were eventually put down by military action in 1790.
  • The disaster came to be known as Chhiattōrer monnōntór- the famine of ’76 (as 1770 coincided with the year 1176 in the Bangla calendar)
  • The famine of 1770 is almost completely forgotten in India today.

Sources

  • Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule (Sixth Edition), Kegan Paul, French, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1901
  • W.W. Hunter, The Annals of Rural Bengal (Second Edition), Leypoldt & Holt (1868)
  • John Fiske, The Unseen World and Other Essays (10th Edition), Houghton, Mifflin and Company (1876)
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