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How the Bengal Famine led to American Independence

Did you know there has been no significant famine in India since Independence? That a famine in India was directly or indirectly responsible for the American Independence. And there have been twelve famines during the 200-year British rule?

There is a lot of extremely interesting if not intriguing history that we do not know, primarily because we were taught the same old boring stuff repeatedly from Class 5 to 10. And there is no dearth to the horrors that the British perpetrated on us during their rule, in addition to reducing us from one of the richest countries in the world to one of the poorest countries in the world, as Shashi Tharoor has highlighted on several occasions.

My blog has been versatile in terms of content, but till date it has never witnessed the write-up on a historical event. It was a suggestion from my son, who also provided some of the basic inputs – he avidly devours history and unlike his father – remembers it. That is how this post came into being, a short blog article on how a famine in India led to American independence.

Most history is about human greed, individually or collectively and this one is no different. It also shows us how difficult it is to foresee the outcome of a particular action or a series of actions.

It is always a challenge to know where to begin a story even if one has determined where to stop. Let me begin with Bengal in the 1760s and 1770s which included modern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, parts of Orissa and Jharkhand as well as the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. One of the major crops cultivated here was rice and considering that India was a land prone to occasional droughts, it was a practice for centuries to hoard rice and other essentials.

The Mughal Emperor had the right to collect Diwani (or the tax paid by the peasant) and in 1765, the British East India Company (BEIC) acquired this right. Profit-maximisation has always been the objective of all ‘companies’ and this one was no different. In a bid to maximise their profits (or increase their collections), the BEIC increased the tax rate from 15% to 40% and outlawed the hoarding of rice. Additionally, they discouraged the cultivation of food crops and encouraged the cultivation of cash crops such as tea and sugarcane, which further enriched their coffers with regular tax collections. In their immediate greed, they hardly foresaw the chain of events that would emerge from this singular action.

In 1769, drought hit Bengal again, however this time there were no stocks of rice as was the practice over centuries. This led to the first of the twelve famines that would wreak havoc and result in millions of deaths in India during the British rule. The emphasis on cash crops like sugarcane which consumed huge quantities of water aggravated the frequency and intensity of the droughts. The Great Bengal Famine is reported to have resulted in over 10 million deaths. There are terrible stories narrated by various newspapers and books, which are too horrible to be reproduced here. The BEIC did not, of course, care about the deaths of Indian human beings, but they did get immensely perturbed by the fact that their revenues plunged severely.

One of their first actions was to increase the rate of tax to 60% and resort to violent means to collect it. Quite obviously the price of rice rose steeply during the drought, from Rs. 2.48 per maund (37.32 kgs) in 1769 to Rs. 8.64 in 1771 (almost 400% increase), but the produce was so little and the unaffordability so high, that despite the higher rate of tax, it could hardly compensate the loss of revenue. The next course of action was to derive higher revenues by way of taxes from their cash crops which they sold overseas including the Americas.

Meanwhile, in America, owing to a string of protests that had broken out, Britain had repealed the taxes it had imposed on the colonists. However, it refused to repeal the tea tax due to their revenues being severely impacted by the Great Bengal Famine – it was estimated that the colonists drank more than a million pounds of tea each year. In protest, the colonists boycotted tea sold by BEIC and smuggled in Dutch tea, leaving BEIC with millions of pounds of surplus tea and facing bankruptcy.

This in turn prompted BEIC to persuade the British parliament to pass the Tea Act in 1773, which permitted BEIC to sell tea to the colonies duty-free and much cheaper than other tea companies – but still tax the tea when it reached colonial ports. The vehement and obstinate refusal to pay tax on tea led not to the reduction but an increase in tea smuggling, even though the cost of the smuggled tea exceeded the cost of tea sold by the BEIC.

Led by Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty rallied meetings against the British Parliament. In December 1773, even as several BEIC ships carrying tea arrived at Griffin’s Wharf, the colonists refused to pay taxes or allow the tea to be unloaded, stored, sold or used. The British Governor on his part refused to allow the ships to return to Britain and ordered the tea tariff be paid and the tea unloaded.

That night, over a 100 colonists teamed up to empty 45 tons of tea (worth over a million dollars today) into Boston Harbour. This event eventually became famous as the ‘Boston Tea Party’. In retribution, the British Parliament passed a series of Acts which came to be known as the ‘Coercive Acts’ or ‘Intolerable Acts’. They hoped (erroneously) that these Acts would crush the rebellion and prevent the colonies from uniting, but the colonies viewed these reprehensive laws as tyranny and the resistance movement gained strength and momentum.

The first Continental Congress was convened in 1774, to write ‘The Declaration and Resolves’ and prevent oppression by the British; which eventually sparked the beginning of the American Revolution. Thus, some stupid decisions in Bengal by the BEIC eventually led to American independence. Wasn’t that interesting?

PS: 270 years later, we have still not learnt our lessons. If the Indian addiction to refined sugar does not reduce dramatically and significantly and we continue to grow such enormous quantities of sugarcane, not only would the drought-like conditions increase but several parts of India may turn into a desert. Do we really need all this sugar?

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