Continuing my rapid reading of choice texts from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, I came across what was purported to be an excerpt of a letter from Bengal by someone present in the Doab at the time. The excerpt was published in the New-York Literary Magazine Or Literary Repository in the newly-independent United States of America in 1791. It is a rather gruesome account not suitable for those with weak constitutions, unverifiable, and almost certainly afflicted by hyperbole.
“Great dearth has desolated the upper provinces of this beautiful country. Hardly any rain has fallen during four years. In consequence the crops have failed, and the poor starved. The scarcity was also in Bengal; but it being under better government, preserved it from monopolists and ruin. Thanks to the Almighty! a plentiful crop promises this year, plenty of rain having fallen. From my enquiries, I find half of the inhabitants of the Duab and Rohileund have perished. Every ditch, road, brook, pond, and street, of these countries, were strewed with dead bodies of men, women, and children. As there is no police in this country, where the wretch expires, there he lies, till his flesh is stripped off by the dogs, which is generally done in two days. No one buries him; for who are friends to a starved wretch? Besides, the Hindoos do not bury their dead, but burn, them if they have money to buy fuel. We have been often obliged to shift our camp on account of the stench, arising from the putrefaction of so many bodies. When you reflect, that the people of Hindostan are the most abstemious in the world; that their daily food is never stern; hardly any thing else than about a seer (not quite two pounds weight) of wheat or barley made into cakes, and baked over a few lighted sticks: when you understand, that such is their food, and simple water their drink, you may form some judgment of the rage of this famine, which could deprive them of even this little.
“Men and women, with their children in their hands, flocked to camp, offering themselves for sale for a quart of corn. Mothers sold their children for four annas each, (or the fourth part of a rupee or half-crown.) I could have purchased a thousand children at this price from four to ten years of age. I actually did purchase three very fine children, between seven and eight years of age, for three rupees, or half-crowns. I might have had them for a third of the sum, together with their mothers. I have them now. I had writings delivered with them, properly attested by the cutwal (or magistrate.) But as I shudder at the thought of one human creature being slave to another; and fearing, should any accident happen to me, my executors might fell them, I have destroyed the writings, and declared them free. My sole motive for purchasing them was to preserve them from death.
“But the most shocking instance of the effect of famine ever recorded is what I am going to relate, and which happened half a quarter of a mile from me. A poor woman at this place had not tasted food for five days. In this extremity she was delivered of a live child. Hunger was so extreme, that she cut off the head of the infant, and threw it away; the body she put into an oven of hot sand, in which the people of this country parch their corn: when it was something roasted, she drew it forth, and had actually eaten the arm and shoulder before it was discovered. I understand she perished next day.
“History informs us of a mother devouring her child during the siege of Jerusalem; but then the whole city was starving. This poor wretch was reduced to this hard alternative in a British camp, where many, I am sorry to say,—oh the partial distribution of fortune —were sick with repletion. You, in England, who are so accustomed to cherish dogs, and receive the fondest submission from them, are astonished, no doubt, to hear of these creatures devouring dead bodies of men in India. But I must set you right, by informing you, that dogs are not private property in this country as in England; they are common to all: a native would no more call a parriar (dog) his than he would the jackal of the field. Wise nature has so ordered, that this hot country, in which flesh putrefies almost as soon as the life leaves it, abounds with these dogs, called parriars; they are in shape like a fog-dog in England, but longer legged. Every village and town has many of them; they go up and down the streets seeking dead carcasses, which they devour, whether of horses, bullocks, sheep, or men. Nothing comes amiss to them; no one offends them: they are considered of essential service; and they are really so, preserving the land from pestilence, which animal corruption would certainly bring on without them. The sagacity of these animals is astonishing; they have been seen to walk by a famished wretch, in expectation of sinking with weakness, every now and then looking in his face, as if to enquire how long he would be kept from his prey. So soon as the unhappy man falls, the dog seizes the part next him, which is generally the bowels, and then tears them out before the wretch’s face. It is observable, that although the poor victim is unable to defend himself long before he falls, yet the dog never attacks him while he walks or stands. I have seen hundreds of bodies with two or three dogs tugging the limbs to pieces.”
Early accounts claim that nearly 10 million inhabitants of Bengal died in the famine which roughly corresponded to one-third of the total population of the province. However, these numbers have come into question in recent years. What is known from accounts of British administrators such as Sir William Wilson Hunter (who described the famine in great detail in Annals of Rural Bengal) is that the social upheavals were enormous.
The famine also influenced over two centuries of economic theory and policy. In 1776, Adam Smith, the patron-saint of free-trade wrote in the Wealth of Nations (v2. p 110):
In rice countries, where the crop not only requires a very moist soil, but where in a certain period of its growing it must be laid under water, the effects of a drought are much more dismal. Even in such countries, however, the drought is, perhaps, scarce ever so universal as necessarily to occasion a famine, if the government would allow a free trade. The drought in Bengal, a few years ago, might probably have occasioned a very great dearth. Some improper regulations, some injudicious restraints imposed by the servants of the East India Company upon the rice trade, contributed, perhaps, to turn that dearth into a famine.
Substitute democracy for free-market and you have, in essence, Amartya Sen’s explanation for why India hasn’t had a single major famine since Independence:
Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence …they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. (from: “Democracy as a Universal Value” in Journal of Democracy, 1999 )
Next time you hear someone complain about the price of onions in independent India, ponder on this. I’d rather be alive and not eat onions for a week than die of hunger under a foreign rule.