I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A combination of natural and political disasters caused the death of more than three million people in India's Bengal state. The disaster was made worse by a hero of the United Kingdom.
Environmental Factors in Bengal
Bengal sits in the northeast corner of the Indian subcontinent; today, the eastern part of the state is the independent nation of Bangladesh. Traditionally, it has been a major rice growing region.
According to Cultural India, the poor people of Bengal suffered from chronic food insecurity, a result of population growth and mismanagement of resources.
Then, in January 1943, a tropical cyclone swamped the low-lying land of the Ganges Delta with salt water from the Bay of Bengal. That killed much of the rice crop and a fungus disease took care of the rest.
Starvation stalked to land.
India's History of Famines
India had known famines before. In 1770, a famine in Bengal caused by crop failure affected 30 million people. Drought brought on a famine in several parts of the sub-continent, taking the lives of more than eight million people.
Another famine struck in 1873-74. Associate professor Vimal Mishra at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, told CNN that “In the 1873-74 famine, about 25 million people were affected, but mortality was almost negligible.” That was because food relief came from neighbouring Burma (now known as Myanmar) and aid was organized by Richard Temple the lieutenant-governor of Bengal.
However, according to Mishra, Temple was heavily criticized by the British government for his humanitarian actions. In future famines there were to be no concerted relief measures.
As the famine began to spread in 1943, the go-to supplier of food, Burma, was closed down because it was occupied by Japanese forces. There was to be no help from that quarter. It turned out there was little or no help from anywhere.
The world war was wreaking havoc with the global food supply chain. The British government, in an attempt to stall a food shortage in the home country, had bought up vast quantities of rice and was hoarding it. During the first seven months of the famine in Bengal, India actually exported 70,000 tonnes of rice for British troops and British people.
Writing for ThoughtCo.com, Kallie Szczepanski notes that at the same time, the British government “ordered the destruction of all boats and rice stocks in coastal Bengal, for fear that the Japanese might land there and seize the supplies.”
Australian vessels loaded with wheat were in the area and could have unloaded their cargo to help starving Bengalis. No, said the British government. London also turned down offers of grain from Canada and the United States.
This was called bluntly the “Denial Policy.”
Dr. Gideon Polya is an Australian biochemist. He has written that “The British brought an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda to India,” and he has called the 1943 famine in Bengal a man-made “holocaust.”
Was Winston Churchill to Blame?
The question that comes up is why did Britain behave in such a callous way toward the starving Bengalis? Indian scholars, almost universally, point the finger of blame a Winston Churchill. He was an avowed imperialist who believed firmly that it was Great Britain's destiny to bring enlightenment and civilization the world's brown- and black-skinned people.
As soon as he got his commission in the army, Churchill scooted off to take part in what he called “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.”
In Sudan “he bragged that he personally shot at least three 'savages' ” (The Independent). And, in South Africa he wrote about his “irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.”
For the times, Churchill's views were not at all out of step with his peer group. It was widely believed among British elites that most Native people were childlike and would, as Churchill put it “willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden circle of an ancient crown.”
There was no greater jewel in that crown than the Empire of India, in which stirrings of independence had been evident for some years.
One of the leaders of the call for home rule, Mahatma Gandhi, came in for Churchill's scorn, saying he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
Did these attitudes influence his apparently heartless and cruel reaction to the Bengal famine?
Author Alfie Coulstock-Cockeram writes that “Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India and Burma, concluded privately that Churchill was 'not quite sane' when it came to the Bengal famine . . . When desperately requested for more supplies, Churchill quipped 'if food is scarce, why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?' ”
A different point of view is offered by the International Churchill Society, which states that “At worst, Churchill’s failure was not sending more aid—in the midst of fighting a war for survival.”
Arthur Herman is the author of the 2008 book Gandhi & Churchill. He writes that “The idea that Churchill was in any way ‘responsible’ or ‘caused’ the Bengal famine is of course absurd. The real cause was the fall of Burma to the Japanese, which cut off India’s main supply of rice imports when domestic sources fell short, which they did in Eastern Bengal after a devastating cyclone in mid-October 1942.”
Herman acknowledges that Churchill diverted food supplies from Bengal but the demands of the war made such apparently cruel decisions necessary.
However, such arguments fall flat in the Indian subcontinent where the weight of opinion falls heavily on the side of Winston Churchill making a bad situation much worse.
- In 2002, a poll in the U.K. chose Winston Churchill as the greatest Briton of all time.
- In 2013, then-British Prime Minister David Campbell visited India but came in for criticism for not taking the opportunity to apologize for numerous atrocities committed during colonial rule including the Bengal famine.
- Between 1958 and 1962, as many as 30 million Chinese people died in a famine that was brought on by Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward program. This is the largest number of people to have died in any famine.
- “The Bengal Famine of 1943.” Kallie Szczepanski, ThoughtCo, November 5, 2019.
- “The Bengal Famine of 1943.” Cultural India, undated.
- “Bengal Famine Of 1943 - A Man-Made Holocaust.” Joseph Lazzaro, International Business Times, February 22, 2013.
- “Churchill’s Policies to Blame for Millions of Indian Famine Deaths, Study Says.” Bard Wilkinson, CNN, March 29, 2019
- “Not His Finest Hour: The Dark Side of Winston Churchill.” Johann Hari, The Independent, June 8, 2020.
- “It’s Time to Abandon Our Infallible Image of Churchill.” Alfie Coulstock-Cockeram, The Gryphon, March 5, 2019.
- “The Bengali Famine.” The International Churchill Society, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 20, 2021:
This is eye-opening (and astonishing), Rupert. The people in the photos are literally skin and bones. Famine is a wicked beast.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 19, 2021:
It is so sad that anyone die of food starvation no matter what the cause may happen to be. Thanks for shedding some light on history.