Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Cyclone

Everyone in Midnapore dates the famine from the day of the cyclone, October 16, 1942.

From the beginning of British rule until the mid-twentieth century, events transpired as one would expect regarding the colony: wealth transferred from colony to the empire; rebellions against foreign rule; suppressions against local protests; closing of the local congress. 

Most important for this story: India went from being reasonably self-sufficient in food and grain to a significant exporter of these, to the benefit of other parts of the Empire.  Life-expectancy was increasing in Britain while decreasing in India.

Inventory in food and grain was minimized from the beginning of the war.  In the face of this, the cyclone; heavy rains and wind, strong enough to lift a man.  The winds went from morning until midnight; the banks of the Rupnarayan River had burst, and the ocean swept in:

Salt water covered the entire landscape.  The cyclone had destroyed virtually every tree and house on the horizon.

Huts collapsed; bodies – human and animal – floated by in the flood-waters; trees uprooted.  Something between ten-thousand and thirty-thousand perished.  Worst of all, the receding waters left a layer of sand that crushed the rice plants; the crop – expected to be harvested that winter – was gone.  A difficulty in any circumstance; the beginning of a famine when years of forced export drained all inventory and stores.

No more cereal was going to be available for upward of a year – until the next crop could be sown in the monsoon of 1943 and harvested at the end of that December.

The government (British, of course) would not allow the release of boats for rescue; cyclone relief would be withheld until the people turned over stolen guns; private charity workers were arrested for attempting to provide aid. 

By January 1943, a food crisis was raging in Bengal.  As the government could pay any price for food, prices immediately escalated – exacerbating even further the misery of the people.  Rice in the country – including Bengal – was extracted for the cities; famine was traded to avoid chaos in the cities.  The extraction was not voluntarily supported. 

Any reserves were either transferred or destroyed – destroyed to keep them out of the hands of insurgents.  Society would break down: gang rape and prostitution both became common – the first, often by police, the second often to just get some food.

Nothing would shake Churchill’s resolve:

“I am glad to learn from the Minister of War Transport that a strict line is being taken in dealing with requests for cereals from the Indian Ocean area.  A concession to one country at once encourages demands from all the others.”

Of course, the others weren’t in the middle of a famine.

“They must learn to look after themselves as we have done.”

By forcibly taking food from India in the first place, and commandeering all Indian registered shipping.

“The grave situation of the U.K. import programme imperils the whole war effort and we cannot afford to send ships merely as a gesture of good will.”

If one defines “good will” as feeding a people whom you have deprived of all possibility to feed themselves….

It didn’t help that Britain was going deep into debt – and one of their larger creditors was…India!  At war’s end, Britain likely wouldn’t have funds sufficient for food for the home island – hence, stockpiling now was a sensible alternative…for the British; Britain was exporting its future economic risk to its colonies. 

The government in India pleaded for imports of grain, but none would be forthcoming for months.  What little shipping that was available all went to war transport or for shipping food from Australia to the Middle East, North Africa, or Europe – bypassing Bengal along the way.  And many of the available ships were being transferred from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.


“There is no reason why all parts of the British Empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the Mother Country has done.”  So said Churchill.  Of course, the mother country was not facing famine.  The biggest depravation in 1943 was that they had to eat multi-grain bread instead of white.

The situation was soon to turn catastrophic.

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