The Famine in Bengal 1770
The Bengal Famine of 1770 claimed millions of casualties and depopulated whole districts. No comprehensive study of this momentous event exists. Current research tends to blame the disaster on the exploitation of the British East India Company (EIC). It focuses on the mismanagement of the EIC in connection with the takeover of the rights of revenue (diwani) for Bengal, Orissa and Bihar during the crisis years 1769-1771. EIC policy is deemed to have escalated the crisis to a catastrophe with up to ten million dead and displaced – an interpretation first put forward by contemporaries such as Adam Smith.
Such a mono-causal perspective on a complex situation like a famine ignores natural impacts as well as the actions of the Bengal 'victims'. A more comprehensive approach is necessary to account for the perceptions, interpretations and coping strategies of the local population and elites. To this end, my projects will combine the approaches of environmental history and subaltern studies. The concept of vulnerability ties these approaches together, providing a framework to integrate natural and social factors and trace their mutual entanglement. The project will examine social and climatic vulnerability in the area before, during and after the famine, covering the period of 1750-1780.
The dramatic events of this time are reflected in copious and heterogeneous sources. The Bengali references to the famine have so far received little attention and need to be scrutinized in detail. Similarly, the EIC papers deserve a close reading that goes beyond the current focus on governance or price history. As a result, diaries, correspondences and petitions will be studies alongside the EIC records. The historical sources will also be supplemented by data from the natural sciences that document the failure of the monsoon rains 1768-1770. These will be augmented by material documenting the 'built environment' of the Bengal 'riverine ecology' and the agricultural usage of arable land.
The aim of this study is to establish a multi-causal perspective that combines natural, social and cultural factors on the Bengal Famine. Such an approach addresses crucial questions concerning the agency of the local population and the co-development of human-nature relations. This change in perspective allows for a re-evaluation of the instrumentalisation of nature in early modern colonial settings.