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The legacy of Empire: The Bengal Famine

Updated Sunday, 7 January 2018

Does the Bengal Famine shape the way Indians view the British?

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Ever since I learned of the 1943-4 Bengal Famine, I have always wanted to do more to bring it to the attention of the general public.

One of the motivations of The Things We Forgot To Remember is as an answer to the question "Why study history?" There are a lot of answers to this, but one important reason is that people are already talking about history, and sometimes, they have got it seriously wrong. One example of this is the widespread ignorance of the Bengal famine.

For me, the 'killer facts' about the Bengal famine are straightforward. In 1941, when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height, Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet considered the question of relative priority to give to imports of food, raw materials, and munitions.

Record of Winston Churchill's debt at the Bangalore Club, India
Record of an 'irrecoverable' debt left behind at the Bangalore Club in India - one of the smaller unresolved elements from the years of Empire.

They reached a clear conclusion: food came first. In 1943, when famine threatened millions in India, the War Cabinet responded to the urgent calls for help by Amery and Wavell. They discussed whether or not to divert shipping and food to try and lower prices and hence avert mass deaths. They took an equally clear decision: the demands of the war (in this case, moving onto the offensive in the Balkans) came first.

It seems pretty clear that the British Empire gave a higher priority to the lives of its British subjects (who, of course, had a say in voting for the government) than it did to its Indian ones – who had no such hold over their rulers.

Right now, it appears increasingly fashionable to sing the praises of the British Empire. Gordon Brown has even gone so far as to argue that the British should "stop apologising" for it. At the same time, he played an enthusiastic part in celebrating the British Empire's abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Any such moral accounting has to set such achievements (and others, such as the suppression of sati) against the sacrifice of Imperial subjects to power games.

I'm having to grapple with these questions in concrete terms right now, because I'm involved in the production of a new OU history course, on the topic of 'Empire'. We're trying to present and summarise the main features of empires over the last five hundred or so years, so in any case it's not an easy task. We have to leave a lot out, so the debates about what to put in are often rather fierce. One question that often return to is the relative prominence to give to issues like the Bengal famine, compared to factors such as modernisation.

Any apologist for empire has to deal with the racism, the oppression, the violence, and the frankly amazing (for me) sadism that it involved – as well as the initial wars of conquest. Empire may have looked pretty towards the end, but its formation was anything but.

Perhaps the most important reason for British people to remember the Bengal Famine, though, is that people in South Asia remember it. We can't understand how they might see the Empire - and the idea that it was a Good Thing, until we've got some idea of its appalling downside.


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