Great Bengal famine of 1770

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The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 (Bengali: ৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর, romanizedChiẏāttôrer mônnôntôr, lit.'The Famine of ’76') was a famine between 1769 and 1773 (1176 to 1180 in the Bengali calendar) that affected the lower Gangetic plain of India from Bihar to the western Bengal region. Warren Hastings’s estimate of the famine mortality was 10 million, or one third of Bengal's population at that time,[2][3] but modern scholars estimate a much lower and more plausible revised number, in the range of around 1.2 million Bengalis, who were killed within 6–7 months.[4]

Great Bengal Famine of 1769.
৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর (Chhiattōrer monnōntór)
CountryCompany rule in India
Period1769–1771 (English year)
1176-1180 [১১৭৬-১১৮০ বঙ্গাব্দ](Bengali year)
Total deaths1.2 million(modern estimate) 10 million(Hastings' estimate)
ObservationsPolicy failure and drought
ReliefAttempts to stop exportation and hoarding or monopolising grain; £15,000 expended in importation of grains.[1]
Impact on demographicsPopulation of Bengal declined by 33% or 4%
ConsequencesThe revenues of East India Company dropped to £174,300 due to the famine and resulted in death of almost 4% of Bengal's population .[1]

The famine is one of the many famines and famine-triggered epidemics that devastated the Indian subcontinent during the 18th and 19th century.[5][6][7] It is usually attributed to a combination of weather and the policies of the East India Company. The start of the famine has been attributed to a failed monsoon in 1769 that caused widespread drought and two consecutive failed rice crops.[3] The devastation from war, combined with exploitative tax revenue policies of the East India Company after 1765 crippled the economic resources of the rural population. However, modern scholarship has suggested that the effect of taxation was marginal.[3][8][4]

Amartya Sen describes it as a man-made famine, noting that no previous famine had occurred in Bengal that century, and the region under the Muslim rule was one of the world's major economic powers and signalled the advent of proto-industrialisation.[9][10][11] Historian William Dalrymple held that the deindustrialisation of Bengal[12] and the policies of the East India Company were the reasons for the mass famine and widespread chaos.[13] But modern scholars have raised doubts over these orthodox interpretations. Datta has shown that artisans were vulnerable to food spikes, thus ruling our de-industrialisation as a possible cause, and any de-industrialisation that occurred started at around 1790, 20 years after the famine.[14][15] Furthermore, famine of similar and perhaps more severity occurred in areas outside the Company's control during the same time period.[16]


The Bengali name Chiẏāttôrer mônnôntôr is derived from Bengali calendar year 1176 and the word for famine (chiāttôr’ – ‘76’; ‘-er’ – ‘of’; ‘mônnôntôr’ – ‘famine’ in Bengali).[17]


The famine occurred in Bengal, then ruled by the East India Company. Their territory included modern West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Assam, Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand. It was earlier a province of the Mughal empire from the 16th century and was ruled by a nawab, or governor. In early 18th century, as the Mughal empire started collapsing, the nawab became effectively independent of the Mughal rule.[citation needed]

In the 17th century, the English East India Company was granted the town of Calcutta by the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja. During the following century, the company obtained sole trading rights for the province and became the dominant power in Bengal. In 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company defeated the nawab Siraj Ud Daulah, annexing large portions of Bengal afterwards. In 1764 their military control was reaffirmed at Buxar. The subsequent treaty gave them taxation rights, known as dewan; the Company thereby became the de facto ruler of Bengal.[citation needed]


Print by Henry Singleton and Charles Knight entitled Scarcity in India, 1794, depicting a two sailors bargaining with an Indian woman, offering a mirror and watch in exchange for fruit

The regions in which the famine occurred affected the modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal in particular, but the famine also extended into Orissa and Jharkhand as well as modern Bangladesh. Among the worst affected areas were Central and Northern Bengal, and Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar.[18]

A partial shortfall in crops, considered nothing out of the ordinary, occurred in 1768 and was followed in late 1769 by much more severe conditions. By September 1769 after the failure of the annual South-East monsoon there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural distress. These were, however, largely ignored by company officers.[citation needed]

By early 1770 there was starvation, and by mid-1770 deaths from starvation were occurring on a large scale.

This morning the purser of the Lapwing Packet, (late) Capt. Gardner, came to the East India House, with the news of the above packet being safe arrived at Falmouth from Bengal. She brings an account of the terrible famine which has made dreadful ravages amongst the natives of Bengal; and that about two million people had died; so that there were not enough people left to bury the dead.[19]

In 1770, a great epidemic of smallpox raged in Murshidabad and killing 63,000 of its inhabitants, including Nawab Najabat Ali Khan. He was succeeded by his brother Ashraf Ali Khan, who also died from smallpox two weeks after his coronation.[citation needed]

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. The famine killed an estimated ten million Indians in Bihar and Bengal according to contemporary estimates,[20][21] or approximately one-third of the population of the Bengal presidency, but modern scholars estimate a toll of 1.2 million dead within 6–7 months, claiming that the 10 million figure carries "little conviction" and is "a largely inflated number";[22] this would be closer to 4-5% of the population during that period.[23]

As a result of the famine, large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated in search of food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned—much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards.[citation needed] From 1772 onwards, bands of bandits and Thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and were only brought under control by the authorities in the 1790s.[citation needed]

East India CompanyEdit

In addition to its profits from trade, the company had been given rights of taxation in 1764. In Bengal, these profits came from both land tax and trade tariffs. Within the first few years of its ability to tax, the Company raised the land revenue assessment and collections by about 30%.[24] As the famine approached its height in April 1770, the Company faced declining profits. Acting upon the advice of Mahomed Reza Khan, the Naib, the Council added 10% to the land tax of the ensuing year.[25]

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. According to McLane, the first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, acknowledged that tax collecting had become "violent" after 1771: revenues earned by the company were higher in 1771 than in they were 1768.[26] Hastings became Governor of Bengal at the end of April 1772, and in November reported to the company the preliminary result of his investigations into the revenue:[27]

It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity; that it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard. To ascertain all the means by which this was effected will not be easy; it is difficult to trace the progress of the collections through all its intricate channels, or even to comprehend all the articles which compose the revenue in its first operations. One tax, however, we will endeavour to describe, as it may serve to account for the equality which has been preserved in the past collections, and to which it has principally contributed. It is called najay, and is an assessment upon the actual inhabitant of every inferior division of the lands to make up for the loss sustained in the rents of their neighbours who are either dead or have fled the country. This tax, though equally impolitic in its institution and oppressive in the mode of exacting it, was authorised by the antient and general usage of the country. It had not the sanction of Government, but took place as a matter of course. ... The tax not being levied by any fixed rate or standard fell heaviest upon the wretched survivors of those villages which had suffered the greatest depopulation, and were of course the most entitled to the lenity of Government. It had also this additional evil attending it in common with every other variation from the regular practice: that it afforded an opportunity to the farmers and shicdars, to levy other contributions on the people under color of it, and even to encrease this to whatever magnitude they pleased, since they were in course the judges of the loss sustained and of the proportion which the inhabitants were to pay to replace it.

However, modern scholarship has again raised doubts as to whether these statements of Hastings actually hold water. In fact, Datta has stated that the rise in prices due to the extreme severity of the drought was probably the main cause while the burden of taxation only made a 'marginal difference'.[4]

See alsoEdit


  • Bowen, H.V (2002), Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics 1757–1773, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-89081-6
  • Heaven, Will (28 July 2010). "The history of British India will serve David Cameron well – as long as he doesn't go on about it". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  • Brooks Adams, The Laws of Civilizations and Decay. An Essays on History, New York, 1898
  • Kumkum Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society in Early Modern India: Bihar: 1733–1820, Brill, 1996, ISBN 90-04-10303-1
  • Sushil Chaudhury, From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1999, ISBN 978-81-7304-297-3
  • John R. McLane, Land and Local Kingship in 18th century Bengal, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-52654-X
  • Sir William Wilson Hunter, Annals of Rural Bengal, Smith, Elder and Company, 1871, Digitised 12 Nov 2007



  1. ^ Bowen 2002, p. 104.
  2. ^ Amartya Sen (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-19-828463-5.
  3. ^ a b c Fredrik Albritton Jonsson (18 June 2013). Enlightenment's Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism. Yale University Press. pp. 167–170. ISBN 978-0-300-16374-2.
  4. ^ a b c Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. pp. 257–259. ISBN 8173043418.
  5. ^ Mike Davis (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso. pp. 5–7. ISBN 978-1-85984-739-8.
  6. ^ Murton Brian (2001). Kenneth F. Kiple (ed.). The Cambridge world history of food. 2. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1411–1427. ISBN 978-0-521-40215-6.
  7. ^ Amartya Sen (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–212. ISBN 978-0-19-828463-5.
  8. ^ Dalrymple, William (4 March 2015). "The East India Company: The original corporate raiders". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 June 2015., Quote: "Before long the province, already devastated by war, was struck down by the famine of 1769, then further ruined by high taxation. Company tax collectors were guilty of what today would be described as human rights violations. A senior official of the old Mughal regime in Bengal [or in other sources, an anonymous contemporary pamphleteer] wrote in his diaries: “Indians were tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns and villages ransacked; jaghirs and provinces purloined: these were the ‘delights’ and ‘religions’ of the directors and their servants.”
  9. ^ "Imperial Illusions". The New Republic. 31 December 2007.
  10. ^ Sanjay Subrahmanyam (1998). Money and the Market in India, 1100–1700. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780521257589.
  11. ^ Perlin, Frank (1983). "Proto-industrialization and Pre-colonial South Asia". Past & Present. 98 (1): 30–95. doi:10.1093/past/98.1.30. JSTOR 650688.
  12. ^ John L. Esposito, ed. (2004). The Islamic World: Past and Present. Volume 1: Abba - Hist. Oxford University Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0-19-516520-3. |volume= has extra text (help)
  13. ^ Dalrymple, William (4 March 2015). "The East India Company: The original corporate raiders". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  14. ^ A new economic history of Colonial India. Latika Chaudhary, Bishnupriya Gupta, Tirthankar Roy, Anand V. Swamy. London. 2016. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-1-317-67432-0. OCLC 919087482.CS1 maint: others (link)
  15. ^ Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. pp. 294–296. ISBN 81-7304-341-8. OCLC 44927255.
  16. ^ Imperial Gazetteer of India: Volume III. 1907. pp. 475–502.
  17. ^ Kedarnath Mazumdar, Moymonsingher Itihash O Moymonsingher Biboron, 2005, (in Bengali), pp. 46–53, Anandadhara, 34/8 Banglabazar, Dhaka.
  18. ^ Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p. 249. ISBN 81-7304-341-8. OCLC 44927255.
  19. ^ "London March 22". Oxford Journal. 23 March 1771. Retrieved 29 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  20. ^ Fiske, John (1942). The Unseen World and other essays. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 978-0-7661-0424-2.
  21. ^ Dutt, Romesh Chunder (1908). The economic history of India under early British rule. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
  22. ^ Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p. 262. ISBN 81-7304-341-8. OCLC 44927255.
  23. ^ Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p. 266. ISBN 81-7304-341-8. OCLC 44927255.
  24. ^ Datta, Rajat (2000). Society, economy, and the market : commercialization in rural Bengal, c. 1760-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. pp. 333–340. ISBN 81-7304-341-8. OCLC 44927255.
  25. ^ Hunter, William Wilson (2008). Annals of Rural Bengal. BiblioLife. p. 23. ISBN 978-0559504419.
  26. ^ Rahman, Atiur (2012). "Famine". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  27. ^ East India Company (1960). Fort William -India House Correspondence (1770-1772). Government of India. p. 418.

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