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officials always exaggerated the difficulties. The Council were quite unprepared for relief measures, which, so far as they were affected, were administered by the native officials. The Company laid an embargo on export and removed duties on imports of grain, but want of capital, want of roads, want of means of transport rendered these measures of little effect. In all times, as for example with Pharaoh in Egypt in Joseph's day, or in the Highlands at the beginning of the eighteenth century, especially when the farmer is accustomed to payment in kind, he is not persuaded to use his abundance as an insurance against future scarcity. The abundant crop is merely a means for waste and an opportunity for extravagant entertainment, and the repayment at great sacrifice of the loans from the money-lender.
On the advice of the Mussulman Minister of Finance, in April, 1770, the Council added ten per cent to the land tax, advice which would have been harmless under Oriental methods of collection. But the method of taxation under the Company increased the distress. Under the Oriental government the collections of the land tax had varied with the abundance of the harvest; take thy bill and sit down quickly and write fifty ; but the European method of assessment was very rigid, the same in good as in bad years. In consequence, not only during but after the famine, the history of Bengal becomes a narrative of increasing severities for wringing a constantly increasing revenue out of a starved and depopulated province,” the villagers being forced to pay by Mussulman troops though half the country lay untilled.
The disaster came quickly. In February, 1770, the Council had written to the Resident to assure him of their cordial cooperation in relief measures. In June he wrote that six out of every sixteen had died.
The historian of Rural Bengal describes the calamity : “All through the stifling summer of 1770 the people went on dying. The husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed grain ; they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer of children could be found ; they ate the leaves of the trees and the grass of the fields; and in June, 1770, the Resident at the Durbar affirmed that the living were feeding on the dead. Day and night a torrent of famished and disease-stricken wretches poured into the great
cities. Early in the year pestilence had broken out. The streets were blocked with promiscuous heaps of the dying and dead. Interment could not do its work quick enough; even the dogs and jackals, the public scavengers of the East, became unable to accomplish their revolting work, and the multitude of mangled and festering corpses at length threatened the existence of the citizens.”
Then in September came the rains and an abundant harvest. But it was too late. The rains brought pestilence, and millions, says Hunter, died in the struggle to live through the few weeks that separated them from the harvest, their last gaze being probably fixed on the densely-covered fields that would ripen only a little too late for them.
It was not then suggested that anyone, least of all the European trading Company, was responsible for this appalling act of God, nor is it just now to blame the few Europeans in the province for their failure to organize and provide relief for the many millions. They were responsible for the revenue to the perpetual call for money of the Court of Directors and its shareholders in England, to a House of Commons intensely jealous of a monopoly, and an opposition exercising their exuberant verbosity on the obstruction of government and abuse of the Company without either local experience, scientific knowledge, or any counter constructive policy.
It is a pity, of course, that the traders on the spot, intent on profits for the Company and themselves, did not foresee and provide against this catastrophe, to them a novelty. But we cannot all be supermen.
Before the end of May, 1770, it was officially estimated that a third of the people had died, and it was later calculated that onehalf of the cultivators and taxpayers would die.
(Note : In dealing with the Bengal famine of 1770 and its results, among a number of authorities consulted I have most relied on and quoted freely from Hunter's Rural Annals of Bengal, Warren Hastings' Report to the Directors, November, 1772, cited as W. H. Rep., and the Letters and other documents in the Appendices to Rural Bengal.)
No blame was at the time attached to anyone for the catastrophe, but, as Hastings says in his report, “ Laboured descriptions in which every circumstance of fact and every art of languages have been accumulated to raise compassion and to excite indignation against your servants whose unhappy lot it was to be the witnesses and spectators of the sufferings of their fellow-creatures,” resulting in accusation against the Europeans in India of dealing in grain for their own advantage. This may have been true in individual instances, but the Directors were greatly responsible for the extent of the disaster by their persistent call for revenue and discouragement of abatement.
The results of the famine did not end with the autumn rains of 1770.
Wherever the claims of the community as a whole, as expressed in the ancient social customs of India and of all lands where the principle industry is agriculture, discourage the efforts of the individual in favour of communal interests, the individual limits his initiative and his energy as far as possible to the production of what is necessary for himself. The Oriental, looking back on a long history of military despotisms, was accustomed to look upon work as an expression of slavery, to be left to those of a lower caste or of no caste. He produced no more than was necessary for present support, so that capital, the investment of surplus gains, without which no human progress is possible, was no part of his system of life. “In Bengal,” say the General Letters, February 4, 1770, paragraph 5, “we have not yet found any failure in the Revenue or stated payments; but we must not flatter ourselves in a country where the labourer depends merely on the coming in of the harvest, not on any established or accumulated property, that he can always pay the demands of government; neither can we with any regard to justice or consequences insist on it.” But, as I shall show directly, they did so insist.
The effort of the Company at the outset to prevent the hoarding of grain encouraged extravagant use at the beginning of the scarcity, and the movements of troops which might be necessary aggravated the distress by their consumption of supplies.
When plenty returned it came to a deserted land of which the tillage tended steadily to decrease and some of the finest parts remained uncultivated. The cattle, the seed, the implements
. had often perished in the struggle and the wretched cultivator had no capital with which to replace their loss. The effect on labour was very similar to that following the Black Death in
Europe. So much land lay uncultivated that the cultivator could leave his accustomed abode and search for cheaper land, the landowners bidding against one another for the workers.
For years the country was going back to a wild state, the richest parts being described as “a sequestered and impassable jungle, a perfect wilderness, an extensive wood, a jungle so dense as to cut off all communication between the two most important towns." These conditions continued, so that in 1789 (after the British in 1787 had taken over the direct government) Lord Cornwallis, after three years of exhaustive enquiry, pronounced one-third of the Company's territories in Bengal to be a jungle, inhabited only by wild beasts. The wild beasts, the tigers and wild elephants, in spite of the large rewards offered for their destruction, increased so enormously that in two parishes alone, during the last few years of the native management, fifty-six villages with their communal lands had all been destroyed and gone back to jungle, and forty market towns throughout the district had been deserted from the same cause. Banditti finished what famine and the wild beasts had left.
iii. The Trade of the East India Company. Finance.—While the country went back to jungle, the Company called for an increased land tax, the country being regarded by the British at home as a perennial source of immense wealth to be worked to provide large dividends by rack renting. “The revenue does not decrease," says W.H. Report,“owing to it being violently kept up to its former standard.” There was a tax called Najay, assessed on the actual inhabitants of the lands to make up for the loss sustained in the rents of their former neighbours, who were either dead or had fled the country, a tax authorized by ancient and general usage. In normal times its pressure was not felt, and it was a check on an inferior defaulting collector. But in the time of famine, not being levied by any fixed rate or standard, it fell heaviest upon the wretched survivors of those villages which had suffered the greatest depopulation, and it gave a wide opening to false claims by the collectors.
There was no regular system of collection. Each district did its work according to its custom. A great confusion resulted as these were broken in upon.
"This confusion had its origin
in the nature of the former government. The Nazims exacted what they could from the Zemindars and great farmers of the revenue, whom they left at liberty to plunder all below them, reserving to themselves the prerogative of plundering them in their turn, when they were supposed to have enriched themselves with the spoil of the country . It therefore became the duty of every man to take the most effectual measures to conceal the value of his property and to elude every enquiry into his conduct, while the Zemindars and other landholders who had the advantage of long possession availed themselves of it, by complex division of the lands and intricate modes of collection, to deceive the government, and confine the knowledge of the rents to themselves. It will easily be imagined that much of the current wealth stopped on its way to the Public Treasury. (W. H. Report.)
The great families were either utterly ruined by the loss of revenue and by the weight of taxation, which was not for one moment relaxed on the ruined and half-deserted lands, or they were imprisoned and deprived of their lands for non-payment of revenue. When in 1787 the British took over the management they found the prisons filled with the defaulters of the revenue, “not one of whom had a prospect of regaining his liberty.” Driven from their lands by the Mussulman agents of the Company, these men lived by plunder, like the Irish Tories who had been dispossessed by the Ulster Protestants, and took their tax in return for protection from themselves as the Highlanders of Rob Roy's time. They dressed in the Company's uniform to plunder the ryots, the Company's soldiers setting them the example. The cultivators, robbed on all sides, left farming and joined the banditti, roaming over the land in bodies fifty thousand strong, defeating the armies sent against them and making collection of revenue impossible.
Meanwhile in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies the expensive unproductive wars with bodies of Mahratta Horse, with Hyder Ali of Mysore and various allies, powers growing in strength, exhausted the revenues that remained.
The finances of the great trading Company were always in a very dangerous condition. An abundant harvest gave no relief in payment of revenue; for the transport of grain was so costly, owing to the lack of roads and means of carriage, that the