The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World Book Review
Over the last two decades, I have made my home in three of India’s great cities and travelled through the length and breadth of pretty much the whole country. Nearly everywhere I have gone, I have found very little affection for the British empire and for what it did to India.
At a personal level, most of us like the British people and admire much of their culture. But it is usually hard to find an Indian who thinks that the Raj was a good thing or that the white men sent over to rule us were benevolent masters.
The exception is Calcutta. It is the only Indian city where a large part of the middle class suspects that the empire was not such a bad thing, after all. Many well-educated Bengalis model themselves on Englishmen, talk about the books they read while they were ‘at Oxford’ (I only discovered much later that this was a sly reference to the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street), talk nostalgically about a London they never really knew and revere the monuments of the Raj.
They do this knowingly and consciously. One Bengali aristocrat told me that P G Wodehouse had said that the last Englishman would probably be called Sengupta. (Try as I might, I have never been able to track this quote down). The clubs of Calcutta – dark, dismal places packed out with old bores – try and echo the clubs of London’s St. James, serving dishes that should have died with the Raj. For many upper middle class Bengalis, going to London is a spiritual homecoming, if not a pilgrimage. All middle class English conversation in Bengal is full of expressions that Bertie Wooster might have used: “I say, that is frightful”, etc.
Fair enough. All of us are entitled to our own little foibles. I imagine Bengalis would make the same sort of remark about people in other cities.
I once interviewed the New York based chef Vikas Khanna on stage in Mumbai at a function hosted by Vogue magazine for the city’s botoxed and bejewelled jet set. I asked Vikas how, despite living in New York for so long, he still spoke English without an accent. “Pata nahin ji”, he said, in his simple Punjabi manner, “I find there are more people in this room with American accents than the people I meet in New York.”
So yes, we all have our peculiarities and our affectations.
And I am sure there are good reasons for Calcutta’s love affair with the Raj. Partly, it could be that Bengalis felt disenfranchised by a Hindiwallah dominated Central government and found refuge in an earlier era. (Not now, of course; these days they vote for the Hindiwallahs.)
Or it could be that modern Bengali civilization has few classical or ancient roots: no historical sites, no great dance forms, etc. Nearly everything Bengalis value is medieval or modern. Even Rabindrasangeet only dates back to Rabindranath Tagore’s day. So the reference points tend to focus on the last 300 years or so.
But the more I look back at the Bengali affection for the Raj and for British ways, the more I am astonished by how forgiving the Bengalis are. Few regions were treated as badly by the British as Bengal, right down to the period just before Independence. And yet, many Bengalis seem to bear them no ill will.
The zamindars who later came to regard themselves as the Bengali nobility were largely a creation of the East India Company. In 1793, the Company, which had run Bengal since the Battle of Buxar in 1764 imposed Permanent Settlement, a measure that transferred ownership of the land to tax-collecting zamindars. The peasantry was forced to grow cash crops and sell them for a pittance to the zamindars and the Company.
The major cash crop was, of course, opium. The average Indian had little interest in opium. But the Chinese loved it. So the East India Company forced the peasantry to grow poppies. The harvesting of the opium from the poppy plants was back-breaking work – the latex had to be scooped out from small holes in the plants every two days.
Each spring the Company’s officials would collect the cakes of new opium and send them off to factories in Bankipur and Ghazipur. The farmers were paid a pittance for their labour while the Company made a fortune selling the opium to the Chinese through a variety of underhand methods.
The huge profits it made went directly to London. At the first stage of the web of transactions that ensured that the Company made millions, it auctioned a chest of opium that had been bought from poor peasants for Rs 370 for a staggering Rs 1382. As with heroin today, these profits kept increasing at each stage till the product hit the streets.
So important was the opium trade that till 1947, it was the third most important source of revenues for the Raj regime after land revenue and the salt tax. The poor farmers themselves saw none of this money. They had to take loans to finance the following year’s crop-planting and made a living by selling other parts of the poppy plant for use in cooking.
Not only did the East India Company (and the Crown after 1857) exploit poor Bengalis to make its own drug-dealing fortune but the forced cultivation of the poppy prevented large portions of agricultural land from being used for food crops that Bengalis could consume.
Bizarrely, hardly anyone you speak to in Calcutta, where the evil zamindari system is sometimes romanticised, seems to hold any of this against the colonial administration or the Raj. Most people don’t even know that Bengalis were the victims in this medieval version of Narcos.
Even the Bengal Famine of 1943 is hardly remembered. This was a man-made, largely avoidable famine, created deliberately by British policy-makers.
That year, there was a poor rice harvest and British war-time policies prevented rice from reaching deficit areas. A black market in rice developed so the poor --- not just farmers, but teachers, clerks, etc. --- found they could not afford food.
The British could have averted the famine but Winston Churchill, an India-hater, refused to send more food to Bengal. The Viceroy wrote begging letters to London, warning of the widespread starvation deaths that were sure to ensue but his letters were ignored.
The situation got so bad that villagers simply lay down on the ground to wait for death. The (British) Editor of The Statesman who was so angered by the needless deaths wrote about how quietly famine had struck Bengal. “There was no shouting, no violence, no looting of shops”. The starving wandered “bewildered and finding no help, squatted in the by-ways, grew feebler and lay down and after a while, died.”
The Statesman ran a campaign about the famine and carried photos of the skeletal desperate people who had come to Calcutta from the villages in search of any food at all. The British rounded up these starving people and carted them off the streets of Calcutta to live and die out of sight. And eventually the government conceded that this was a famine.
But it still took a while to persuade Churchill to divert food he was stockpiling for his troops in East Asia to Bengal. By then it was too late.
Three million Bengalis perished in that famine. The vast majority of these deaths were avoidable. The blood of those who died was on Churchill’s hands.
I can understand why the British continue to revere Churchill who saved their country from the Nazis. But why do Indians refuse to recognize what a murderer (indirectly, perhaps) he was? Hitler killed six million Jews and is justly reviled. Churchill was responsible for the deaths of three million Bengalis and is hailed as a hero, even in India.
Strangest of all is the complete lack of resentment in Bengal. If an imperialist power had destroyed your farming economy, turned your peasantry into suppliers for what was then the largest drug-running operation in the world, had forced a class of zamindars on you, had stopped you from growing food and had then let three million of your people starve, well then, wouldn’t you mind?
Nopes. You wouldn’t. Not if you were one of the Anglicised Bengalis I know. They are bright enough to recognize the terrible things the Raj did to Bengal but they still retain a strange affection for their oppressors.
I can’t figure it out. May be it is just down to the Bengali capacity for large-heartedness or forgiveness.
But, honestly, how odd is it?I really can’t explain it.
This piece is essentially a review of Lizzie Collingham masterly new book The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World which I recommend to anyone who wants to know the truth about the British Empire.
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