That the British Raj was a uniquely murderous episode in South Asian history is now a commonly encountered argument. Historians such as Janam Mukherjee and Madhushree Mukherjee have, for example, dissected the intentional moves to allow three million Bengalis to starve to death during World War II.
Benjamin Kingsbury’s fine work of microhistory, An Imperial Disaster, travels along the same path, taking a detailed look at the events of 1876 in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). On the fateful night of October 31, a fierce cyclone – one of the deadliest in recorded history – hit the Meghna estuary. It brought in its wake a massive, 40-foot high wall of water that crashed into the coast of some of Bengal’s most remote districts: Bakarganj, Noakhali and Chittagong.
This calamity, terrible as it was, was overshadowed, however, by the cruelty of the British Empire. The government of the day simply left its subjects to suffer and die. Soon, famine and Bengal’s worst recorded cholera epidemic struck the lands just hit by the storm wave. Nature and the Raj combined to kill more than three lakh Bengalis over the span of just a few months. Kingbury calls it “the worst calamity of its kind in recorded history”.
The Ideology of the British Empire
While regimes such such as Hitler’s, Mao’s or Stalin’s are, correctly, parsed in terms of ideology, the British Empire has for the most part escaped such deconstruction. Mass deaths during the Cultural Revolution are attributed to Maoism – but even harsh critics of the British Empire rarely single out the ideology that allowed banal men to commit such terrible evil. This lacuna is even more stark when we look at the death toll of British rule in India. Just one incident in a single province of British India – the Bengal Famine of 1943 – killed 3 million people: more than half the toll of the Holocaust. Adding up the dead for every province for 190 years of the Raj would result in a number that would boggle the mind.
While Kingbury’s recounting of events is detailed, where his book really differentiates itself, however, is the light is shines on the ideological superstructure that allowed such a mass killing to take place. At every turn, the book reminds us what made it possible for Bengal’s British administers to be so callous in the face of such incredible suffering: the ideology of laissez faire or free markets. This ensured that the colonial government simply washed its hands of its responsibility towards the victims of the storm wave, famine and cholera epidemic – in the inexplicable hope that the law of supply and demand would take care of them.
Punished for saving lives
The calamity of 1876 needs to be seen against the background of 1874 when Richard Temple, then a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, had successfully overseen relief work during a famine in Bihar (then part of Bengal). His efforts were a success – providing a rare example of effective famine relief in British India. It was also a stark exception that proves that other mass famine deaths were not natural calamities – but mass killings engineered by the British Raj.
Incredibly, Temple faced a strong backlash for his efforts. Temple might have saved lakhs of lives but this was offset by a much greater crime. He had ignored the principle of laissez faire: the idea that government should barely do anything for public welfare and markets, given their purported efficiency, would handle food provisioning.
Given that government resources had been spent on famine relief, The Economist – the global high priest of laissez faire then, as now – severely castigated the Bengal administration, criticising them for having “scattered money which ought to have been saved”.
A cup and a half of rice
In 1876, Temple, then lieutenant–governor of Bengal made sure to not repeat his mistake and made no effort to save lives. “That had been the policy in 1874, and it had got him into serious trouble,” writes Kingsbury. The principle of laissez faire was strictly applied to the dying people of the Meghna estuary and even small efforts at relief, taken by less rigidly ideological members of the lower bureaucracy, were quickly shut down by the lieutenant–governor. “The termination of work was based on Temple’s orders and the principle of laissez faire rather than any empirical data about the nature and extent of the disaster,” points out Kingsbury.
This application of laissez faire was a disaster. In Bakarganj district, the government’s relief efforts amounted to a per capita sum that would buy a cup and a half of rice – this for one of history’s fiercest natural disasters. Later, when Bengal’s worst cholera epidemic would hit the same area, the government did not budge and steadfastly continued to do nothing.
Where was all the money that was being saved then going? Kingsbury points to two main expenses at the time: the Delhi Durbar of 1877 which proclaimed Queen Victoria as Empress of India. The other was for an invasion of Afghanistan. Then, as now, laissez faire did not apply to parsimony in war.
Kingsbury points out that in this sordid matrix, 1874 not 1876 was the odd man out. “Laissez faire was accepted by all levels of Indian administration, and had been for generations,” he writes.
To situate this in its historical context, this was the high noon of classical liberalism in Britain. Adam Smith’s laissez faire and the ideas of Thomas Malthus – that calamities are natural and expected checks on population – was part of “almost every [Raj] document on famine policy”.
In 1866, for example, as a famine hit Orissa, the Raj simply did nothing hoping that the problem would be “met by the laws of supply and demand”. It was not met. A third of the population of Orissa was wiped out.
Seventy-six years and millions of deaths later, as Bengal again faced terrible food shortages, the same medicine was adopted. At the Viceroy-convened Price Control Conference in 1942, price controls were rejected. “Instead it was concluded that a broad facilitation of ‘free trade’ would solve the problem,” writes Janam Mukherjee in Hungry Bengal. The result: over the next few months, a starving Bengal exported record quantities of rice, leading to three million dead. Nineteen forty-three, in fact, stands out for its unique cruelty even by the Raj’s standards since there was no shortfall in rice production at all – government policy was solely responsible.
A stronger empire
Like in every famine before and after, the massive death toll of 1876 was not seen as a failure of laissez faire. It was instead seen as a success, given that money had been saved. Lord Lytton, then the governor general – and a “fanatical proponent of laissez faire” – was pleased with Temple given that they had found “a man more likely, or better able to help us save money in famine management”.
As a reward for his efforts in East Bengal, Temple was appointed a member of the Government of India’s famine delegation to Madras province, secure in the understanding that he would stick to the “same uncompromising free market principles he had insisted on after the cyclone of 1876”. This was done to the letter and the complete lack of any effort by the Raj ensured that more than five million south Indians were killed in the Great Famine of 1876-’78 – a genocide that Temple wrote merely “terminated lived of idleness and too often of crime”.
Why did the Raj continue with laissez faire in spite of these death tolls? One grim answer is that it bolstered the British Empire. Kingsbury details how the 1876 Cyclone caused no loss of revenue for the Bengal government and strengthened the hand of the zamindars, the principle agents of empire in Bengal. The only sufferers were the Bengal peasantry and artisanal class.
While Kingsbury’s history is thorough in itself, he also makes sure his work follows quainter threads. The work recounts how the cyclone made way for a new subdivisional officer in Bakarganj, the previous one having gone on leave after losing his children as well as grandchildren in the storm. The new man was Romesh Chunder Dutt, who is now best remembered for his economic history of British Rule, one of the first critiques of the destruction wrought by colonial rule. While Dutt was also a believer in the “gospel of the free market”, unlike the British he did not think it could solve each and every problem and there was certainly a role for government in providing relief after the 1876 famine.
The mass deaths also led to an unlikely outcome: it boosted the popularity of homeopathy in Bengal. Kingsbury notes that Mahendralal Sarkar used the Cholera epidemic to argue, “the allopathic treatment of this disease is almost useless”. Sarkar was a leading physician from the Calcutta Medical College and it was his conversion to homeopathy that is one of the major reasons for the popularity of the system of treatment amongst Bengalis till today.
Naturally, after independence, the modern successor states of the British Raj – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – did not carry on the with the Raj’s policy of laissez faire. Today, no government in South Asia can make a virtue of not providing assistance after a natural calamity or continue to export food when its people are starving.
In spite of this history, however, laissez faire has seen a small resurgence amongst a section of Indian elites after 1991. However, it has no mass support and, even when implemented as policy in India, is done “by stealth” – a euphemism for undemocratic, babu-driven measures that are usually hidden away from the voting public during elections.
In this, Prime Minister Modi’s lesson is instructive. The Hindutva politician started his first term championing laissez faire in the form of small government. Attacks from the Opposition, however, forced Modi to effect a complete and total retreat, barely a year after his massive general election win. The rest of his term was spent, ironically, on building large-scale welfare schemes – on which basis the BJP fought and won the 2019 general elections.
Over in Britain, the laissez faire strain has incredibly, remained unchanged since 1876. In January, 2020, the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson was clear: “The UK rose to greatness because of our championing of global free trade. That was how this country first became prosperous”.
It was a statement that almost every administrator of the British Raj would have thoroughly approved off.
An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876, Benjamin Kingsbury, Oxford University Press.