Commentary / History

The 1770 Indian Famine and the American Revolution

Oct. 5, 2018–The following is a guest article, originally published under the title “How Famine in India Sparked the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution.” It sheds considerable light on what the Founding Fathers and American population at large saw as their possible fate if they did not resist the “taxes” of the British Crown. The author can be reached at mjfairchild@gmail.com.

by Mark Fairchild

Here’s some history you were likely not taught in high school or college.

In 1771, numerous American newspapers ran excerpts of a “Letter from a Gentleman in India”[1]:

“On our arrival here, we found a river full of dead human carcasses floating up and down, and the streets crowded with the dead and dying, without anyone attempting to give them relief; so horribly has the famine raged here, that they who were able to walk and procure food for themselves were so accustomed to see their fellow creatures perishing before them, that it did not even create a painful emotion.

“The numbers that have perished in Calcutta only, amounted (while they found it possible to keep an account) to 10 or 12,000 a week, but afterwards they became so numerous, that they were every morning just gathered together in a heap, and thrown into the river without any possibility of numbering them. I have myself passed by and seen 20 or 30 lain down to die in the length of one street. I have beheld the hapless infant tugging at the empty breast of its mother just expiring, without being capable of affording them the smallest aid.

“The dying mothers have frequently been delivered of the fruit of their wombs in the streets, and both have immediately been swept up amongst the dead. It was no uncommon sight to see dogs running about with human limbs in their jaws, and I am told that many of the expiring wretches were seen gorging on the bodies of those who perished within their reach.”

The 1770 Bengal Famine and the American Revolution

The Bengal famine of 1770

In 1765, the British East India Company acquired the right to collect the diwani (peasant’s tribute) formally held by the Mughal Emperor of the region, Shah Alam II. Prior to 1764, this tribute had been approximately 10-15% of the agricultural output of the peasantry, but the British East India Company (BEIC) raised the rate to 40 to 50%. In addition, the BEIC outlawed the “hoarding” of rice and other staples. (India experiences drought with some regularity, so a standard practice was to put aside a portion of the crop in a reserve. The BEIC wanted to maximize profits, so they outlawed this practice).

Thus, when drought hit in 1769, it produced famine conditions that modern historians estimate killed 10 million people. The response of the BEIC? It raised the tax rate to 60%, and resorted to “violent” measures to collect the taxes.  According to Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of British India:

“It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity; that it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” [2]

But the BEIC was not satisfied with merely maintaining the same level of revenue from the peasants of India in the face of millions of people starving. They wanted more.

It Wasn’t Just the Issue of Tea

As Wikipedia puts it in its article on the Great Bengal Famine of 1770: the BEIC “influenced Parliament to pass the Tea Act in 1773 to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. This led to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773″. In Wikipedia’s entry on the Tea Act we read:

“The principal objective was to reduce the massive amount of tea held by the financially troubled British East India Company in its London warehouses and to help the financially struggling company survive”.

The effect of the Tea Act was that the BEIC could bring tea to North America duty-free, although the tax collected in the colonies and paid by the colonists remained in force. Its design was to grant the BEIC an American monopoly on tea, and enable it to gain greater profits from the tea trade.

In a series of agitational pamphlets entitled “The Alarm”, circulated in Boston in 1773 calling for refusing to accept the tea brought by the BEIC from India to America, “Rusticus” writes,

“It was easy then to predict, that the East India Company would some Day or other have a baneful Influence on the Politicks and Constitution of that Nation. Incorporated by Queen Elizabeth, favoured by her Successors of the Stuart Line, who were always necessitous, and sold the Royal Munificence to them for immense and repeated Bribes.”

Raising the Alarm

In another of “The Alarm” pamphlets, Rusticus writes:

“Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain. The Revenue of Mighty Kingdoms have centered in their Coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their Avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions, and Monopolies, stripped the miserable Inhabitants of their Property, and reduced whole Provinces to Indigence and Ruin. Fifteen hundred Thousands (i.e. 1.5 million – ed.), it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them so high at a Rate that the poor could not purchase them. Thus having drained the Sources of the immense Wealth . . . they now, it seems, cast their Eyes on America, as a new Theatre, whereon to exercise their Talents.”

The 1770 Indian Famine and the American Revolution

The Boston Tea Party

In “The Alarm” number two, Rusticus writes:

“IT was fully proved to you in my first Number, That the East-India Company obtained their exclusive Privilege of Trade to that Country, by Bribery and Corruption: Wonder not then, that Power thus obtained, at the Expence of the national Commerce, should be used to the most tyrannical and cruel Purposes. It is shocking to Humanity to relate the relentless Barbarity, practised by the Servants of that Body, on the helpless Asiatics; a Barbarity scarce equalled even by the most brutal Savages, or Cortez, the Mexican Conqueror.”

In other words, Rusticus put the issue before his fellow Americans: the East India Company has just starved to death millions in India for the sake of greed, they’ve taken over the British government with immense and repeated bribes, and now they have their sights set on America.

Wouldn’t you say that’s a bit more compelling than the version of the story you’ve heard up until now?

[1] The Free Library of Philadelphia has an online, searchable database of Early American Newspapers. The author found the “Letter from a Gentleman in India” in the following newspapers: New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth NH) – Sept 27 1771; Providence Gazette (Providence RI) – Oct 5 1771; Boston Evening Post (Boston MA) – Sept 23, 1771; Essex Gazette (Salem, MA) – Sept 17, 1771; Boston News-Letter (Boston MA) Sept 26, 1771; Massachusetts Spy – Sept 26, 1771; Connecticut Courant (Hartford, CT) – Sept 24, 1771; Connecticut Journal (New Haven, CT) – Oct 4, 1771

[2]  See: Wikipedia entry for: Great Bengal famine of 1770

One Comment

  1. Michele C. Greene, JD, LLM says:

    Excellent research and analysis by a citizen-scbolar that we need in a leadership position. Let’s Go Find Him for a political office in Congress.

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