Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II
Rate it:
0%
Flag icon
“No great portion of the world population was so effectively pro tected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan,” Winston Churchill wrote in his 1950 history of the twentieth century’s most lethal conflict. “They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small Island.” By Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus, Churchill meant India, which during the war was part of the British Empire. Britain’s wartime prime minister did not discuss in his six-volume account the 1943 famine in the eastern Indian province of Bengal, which killed 1.5 million ...more
0%
Flag icon
If the famine garnered little attention not just from Churchill but from twentieth-century historians, it also occasioned scant surprise, because Bengal had long been synonymous with hunger. Its modern incarnations, Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India, rank among the poorest regions of the world: Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, once described Bangladesh as a “basket case.” For two and a half centuries, the history of Bengal—which is in miniature the history of India itself—has featured relentless poverty. But before 1757, when General Robert Clive founded the ...more
1%
Flag icon
IN LATE 1665, traveling eastward from the Mughal court in Delhi, physician François Bernier arrived in Bengal to find a vast, populous delta, its myriad channels lined with vibrant towns and cities interspersed with fields of rice, sugar, corn, vegetables, mustard, and sesame. He declared it “the finest and most fruitful country in the world.” Foreign merchants worked the wholesale markets, offering to buy produce in exchange for silver. They could not trade goods with the native businessmen, because Bengal was in need of virtually nothing. Its rice traveled to Sri Lanka (called Ceylon by the ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
chief food of the common people, are purchased for the merest trifle,” Bernier attested. Fish and meat were so plentiful, he added, that the region’s many Portuguese immigrants virtually lived on pork. “Bengale abounds with every necessary of life,” he wrote, concluding with a wink: “[t]he rich exuberance of the country, together with the beauty and amiable disposition of the native women, has given rise to a proverb in common use among the Portuguese, English and Dutch, that the Kingdom of Bengale has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.”
1%
Flag icon
In the early 1700s, a far-sighted diwan named Murshid Quli Khan reformed the administration. Sixteen powerful zamindars, or overseers, and about a thousand minor ones, ran the province under his watchful eye. The zamindars, who called themselves rajas if they were Hindu and nawabs if they were Muslim, maintained armies, collected taxes, and ran the courts, police, postal services, and often the schools. Villagers owned the lands they tended, and not even bankruptcy could evict them. Tax-exempt fields attached to temples and mosques aided the poor, whereas those who excavated ponds or made ...more
1%
Flag icon
Soon, however, Bengal would descend into subjugation and ruin. Upon ascending to the Bengal throne, the impetuous Siraj-ud-daula confronted the British East India Company. In 1717 the Company had obtained from the Mughal emperor in Delhi the right to trade salt, opium, tobacco, and betel nut (a mild intoxicant) without paying customs duties, but many of its employees were claiming this right for their personal transactions and thereby defrauding the royal treasury. Moreover, in 1756 war broke out between England and France. The Company, fearing attack by French merchants, began to fortify its ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
set off from the capital city of Murshidabad on July 3, 1757, accompanied down the Ganga (or Ganges) River by the trumpeting of a British military band. It was a momentous occasion, for countless such tributes would thereafter flow from east to west. That day, another procession in Murshidabad displayed Siraj-ud-daula’s body draped over the back of an elephant.7 Bengal now had a government beholden to the Company, but its treasury was empty. Mir Jafar’s unpaid soldiers mutinied. The British East India Company’s senior local officers, known as the Calcutta Council, soon replaced him with one of his rich relatives, Mir Qasim, claiming as a reward for his elevation to power another £200,000 for themselves and, for the Company, the revenues of the prosperous districts of Midnapore, Burdwan, and Chittagong. The Council put the task of collecting taxes up for auction, ceding it to whoever promised the greatest returns for each of the contract’s three years. “Thus numberless harpies were let loose to plunder, whom the spoil of a miserable people enabled to complete their first year’s payment,” related Harry Verelst, a later British governor of Bengal.
1%
Flag icon
The new ruler, Mir Qasim, was not a weakling. Since the triumph at Plassey, every Englishman had been trading without paying customs duties, which not only pinched the treasury but undercut local businessmen as well. Bengal’s towns began to empty out, bankrupt local merchants moved to other Indian cities, and shopkeepers took to downing their shutters and running when British traders and their soldiers approached. Some winders of silk cut off their thumbs for fear of being forced to work in factories run by Englishmen. Mir Qasim protested, complaining also that these British merchants “force ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
source of income by obtaining from the ever-weakening Mughal emperor in Delhi the right for the Company to collect the revenues of Bengal province. (This vast administrative unit, larger than France, comprised three segments, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa—regions that were differentiated by language.) In return, the emperor would annually receive £272,000, which left, in Clive’s estimation, “a clear gain to the Company” of £1,650,900 a year. As a result, the East India Company became de facto ruler of India’s richest province.10 Within five years, Bengal became India’s poorest province. The stream of treasure flowing to England had led to a boom in the Company’s shares—a boom that was threatened now that Bengal had run out of money and its industries lay in ruins. The directors in London had come to expect enormous profits, even as they owed His Majesty’s Government an annual payment of £400,000; so the Company proceeded to collect agricultural taxes with unprecedented rigor. It parceled out by auction the task of extracting revenue from the entire province. No longer were taxes a portion of the harvest, to be paid in kind: the Company operated on the principle that all land belonged to the state and fixed the tax at a specific monetary level, now called rent. This had to be paid in silver even when a crop failed, and farmers who could not pay lost possession of their land. The Company did make more money; for instance, the annual revenue from Bihar, which previously hovered around £200,000, shot up to £680,000. The tax collectors were so oppressive, wrote cloth merchant William Bolts, that farmers were often “necessitated to sell their children in order to pay their rents, or otherwise obliged to fly the country.”11
2%
Flag icon
Such an economic drain could not go on forever. By 1769, Bengal had no gold, silver, or other valuables left. A group of Armenian merchants—whose trade in the region long preceded that of the British—petitioned the Calcutta Council, complaining that the lack of currency had brought virtually all business to a halt, so that “not only a general bankruptcy is to be feared, but a real famine, in the midst of wealth and plenty.”13 Then the rains failed. “The fields of rice are become like fields of dried straw,” wrote a superintendent. Recognizing that the cost of rice would go up, British officers ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
numbering about 10 million, perished.
2%
Flag icon
The British East India Company’s policies had clearly aggravated the disaster. Despite repeated petitions, the Company had refused to march a brigade of troops out of a hard-hit district of Bihar, where they were appropriating all the available grain, to a region farther west that was better provisioned. (Calcutta’s officials feared that if the troops were not close at hand, the French would take the chance to invade from bases in the Indian Ocean.) The Company also prohibited trade in rice among the districts of Bengal—unless the grain was destined for the cities of Murshidabad and Calcutta, ...more
2%
Flag icon
Most important, during previous droughts agriculturists would have possessed grain, stored in anticipation of a bad year, as well as jewelry, coins, or other savings they could use to purchase rice. (Neighboring areas had a decent harvest. One zamindar bought rice in Benares, west of Bihar, had it transported down the Ganga in barges, and distributed it to famine sufferers on the riverbanks.) By 1770, however, rural Bengal had no currency left—even as, at the height of the famine, speculators were selling their hoards of rice at six times the usual price. Virtually every employee of the ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
the late famine and the great reduction of people thereby, some increase has been made in the settlements [revenue collections] both of the Bengal and the Behar provinces for the present year.” The revenue did not fall, commented a subsequent governor-general, Warren Hastings, “owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.”18 Large harvests appeared the next two years as well, and the Company’s annual earnings continued to rise as its agents forced villagers to pay the rent owed by dead neighbors. “While the country every year became a more total waste, the English Government constantly demanded an increased land-tax,” Hunter wrote—adding that the collections inevitably faltered. The villagers of Birbhum “were dragooned into paying the land-tax by Mussulman troops, but notwithstanding the utmost severities the receipts seldom amounted to much more than one-half of the demand.”19 The level of taxes that the Company had grown to expect could not be met because there were now far fewer plantings of rice to tax. With no hands to tend them, a third of Bengal’s fields returned to jungle. Most of the province was a fertile delta, formed over millennia by the Ganga and its distributaries: in the absence of cultivators its natural state was tropical forest. The impenetrable growth invaded formerly prosperous villages and shadowed tiny hamlets where the few inhabitants lived in terror of the jungle’s rampaging elephants and man-eating panthers. In 1780, two battalions of sepoys—native soldiers in the employ of the British—trying to force their way through Birbhum (a district considered at one time to be “the highway of armies”) found “all the way a perfect wilderness” infested with tigers and bears. Communications broke down throughout Bengal because the postmen began to get carried off by wild animals. Many of the surviving villagers deserted their lands and, led by Hindu sadhus or Muslim fakirs (men of religion), took to waylaying British consignments for grain or cash and looting any fields of rice they could find. The rebellion was the first of innumerable peasant and tribal uprisings that would harass the British Raj for the rest of its reign.20
2%
Flag icon
Bengal’s capital city of Murshidabad, where the dead had lain in piles on the street, fed on by dogs, jackals, and vultures, never recovered from the famine and its aftereffects. By 1771, Calcutta—which historian Narendra K. Sinha states “was well supplied with grain at a time when many places from which it was brought were destitute”—stood alone in all of Bengal as an island of wealth. Desperate people trekked to Calcutta in search of food. “I have counted from my bed-chamber window in the morning when I got up forty dead bodies lying within twenty yards of the wall, besides many hundred ...more