The Unseen World, and other essays, by John Fiske


30 The Annals of Rural Bengal. By W. W. Hunter. Vol. I. The Ethnical Frontier of Lower Bengal, with the Ancient Principalities of Beerbhoom and Bishenpore. Second Edition. New York: Leypoldt and Holt. 1868. 8vo., pp. xvi., 475.

No intelligent reader can advance fifty pages in this volume without becoming aware that he has got hold of a very remarkable book. Mr. Hunter’s style, to begin with, is such as is written only by men of large calibre and high culture. No words are wasted. The narrative flows calmly and powerfully along, like a geometrical demonstration, omitting nothing which is significant, admitting nothing which is irrelevant, glowing with all the warmth of rich imagination and sympathetic genius, yet never allowing any overt manifestation of feeling, ever concealing the author’s personality beneath the unswerving exposition of the subject-matter. That highest art, which conceals art, Mr. Hunter appears to have learned well. With him, the curtain is the picture.

Such a style as this would suffice to make any book interesting, in spite of the remoteness of the subject. But the “Annals of Rural Bengal” do not concern us so remotely as one might at first imagine. The phenomena of the moral and industrial growth or stagnation of a highly-endowed people must ever possess the interest of fascination for those who take heed of the maxim that “history is philosophy teaching by example.” National prosperity depends upon circumstances sufficiently general to make the experience of one country of great value to another, though ignorant Bourbon dynasties and Rump Congresses refuse to learn the lesson. It is of the intimate every-day life of rural Bengal that Mr. Hunter treats. He does not, like old historians, try our patience with a bead-roll of names that have earned no just title to remembrance, or dazzle us with a bountiful display of “barbaric pearls and gold,” or lead us in the gondolas of Buddhist kings down sacred rivers, amid “a summer fanned with spice”; but he describes the labours and the sufferings, the mishaps and the good fortune, of thirty millions of people, who, however dusky may be their hue, tanned by the tropical suns of fifty centuries, are nevertheless members of the imperial Aryan race, descended from the cool highlands eastward of the Caspian, where, long before the beginning of recorded history, their ancestors and those of the Anglo-American were indistinguishably united in the same primitive community.

The narrative portion of the present volume is concerned mainly with the social and economical disorganization wrought by the great famine of 1770, and with the attempts of the English government to remedy the same. The remainder of the book is occupied with inquiries into the ethnic character of the population of Bengal, and particularly with an exposition of the peculiarities of the language, religion, customs, and institutions of the Santals, or hill-tribes of Beerbhoom. A few remarks on the first of these topics may not be uninteresting.

Throughout the entire course of recorded European history, from the remote times of which the Homeric poems preserve the dim tradition down to the present moment, there has occurred no calamity at once so sudden and of such appalling magnitude as the famine which in the spring and summer of 1770 nearly exterminated the ancient civilization of Bengal. It presents that aspect of preternatural vastness which characterizes the continent of Asia and all that concerns it. The Black Death of the fourteenth century was, perhaps, the most fearful visitation which has ever afflicted the Western world. But in the concentrated misery which it occasioned the Bengal famine surpassed it, even as the Himalayas dwarf by comparison the highest peaks of Switzerland. It is, moreover, the key to the history of Bengal during the next forty years; and as such, merits, from an economical point of view, closer attention than it has hitherto received.

Lower Bengal gathers in three harvests each year; in the spring, in the early autumn, and in December, the last being the great rice-crop, the harvest on which the sustenance of the people depends. Through the year 1769 there was great scarcity, owing to the partial failure of the crops of 1768, but the spring rains appeared to promise relief, and in spite of the warning appeals of provincial officers, the government was slow to take alarm, and continued rigorously to enforce the land-tax. But in September the rains suddenly ceased. Throughout the autumn there ruled a parching drought; and the rice-fields, according to the description of a native superintendent of Bishenpore, “became like fields of dried straw.” Nevertheless, the government at Calcutta made — with one lamentable exception, hereafter to be noticed — no legislative attempt to meet the consequences of this dangerous condition of things. The administration of local affairs was still, at that date, intrusted to native officials. The whole internal regulation was in the hands of the famous Muhamad Reza Ehan. Hindu or Mussulman assessors pried into every barn and shrewdly estimated the probable dimensions of the crops on every field; and the courts, as well as the police, were still in native hands. “These men,” says our author, “knew the country, its capabilities, its average yield, and its average requirements, with an accuracy that the most painstaking English official can seldom hope to attain to. They had a strong interest in representing things to be worse than they were; for the more intense the scarcity, the greater the merit in collecting the land-tax. Every consultation is filled with their apprehensions and highly-coloured accounts of the public distress; but it does not appear that the conviction entered the minds of the Council during the previous winter months, that the question was not so much one of revenue as of depopulation.” In fact, the local officers had cried “Wolf!” too often. Government was slow to believe them, and announced that nothing better could be expected than the adoption of a generous policy toward those landholders whom the loss of harvest had rendered unable to pay their land-tax. But very few indulgences were granted, and the tax was not diminished, but on the contrary was, in the month of April, 1770, increased by ten per cent for the following year. The character of the Bengali people must also be taken into the account in explaining this strange action on the part of the government.

“From the first appearance of Lower Bengal in history, its inhabitants have been reticent, self-contained, distrustful of foreign observation, in a degree without parallel among other equally civilized nations. The cause of this taciturnity will afterwards be clearly explained; but no one who is acquainted either with the past experiences or the present condition of the people can be ignorant of its results. Local officials may write alarming reports, but their apprehensions seem to be contradicted by the apparent quiet that prevails. Outward, palpable proofs of suffering are often wholly wanting; and even when, as in 1770, such proofs abound, there is generally no lack of evidence on the other side. The Bengali bears existence with a composure that neither accident nor chance can ruffle. He becomes silently rich or uncomplainingly poor. The emotional part of his nature is in strict subjection, his resentment enduring but unspoken, his gratitude of the sort that silently descends from generation to generation. The. passion for privacy reaches its climax in the domestic relations. An outer apartment, in even the humblest households, is set apart for strangers and the transaction of business, but everything behind it is a mystery. The most intimate friend does not venture to make those commonplace kindly inquiries about a neighbour’s wife or daughter which European courtesy demands from mere acquaintances. This family privacy is maintained at any price. During the famine of 1866 it was found impossible to render public charity available to the female members of the respectable classes, and many a rural household starved slowly to death without uttering a complaint or making a sign.

“All through the stifling summer of 1770 the people went on dying. The husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed-grain; they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer of children could be found; they ate the leaves of trees and the grass of the field; and in June, 1770, the Resident at the Durbar affirmed that the living were feeding on the dead. Day and night a torrent of famished and disease-stricken wretches poured into the great cities. At an early period of the year pestilence had broken out. In March we find small-pox at Moorshedabad, where it glided through the vice-regal mutes, and cut off the Prince Syfut in his palace. The streets were blocked up with promiscuous heaps of the dying and dead. Interment could not do its work quick enough; even the dogs and jackals, the public scavengers of the East, became unable to accomplish their revolting work, and the multitude of mangled and festering corpses at length threatened the existence of the citizens. . . . . In 1770, the rainy season brought relief, and before the end of September the province reaped an abundant harvest. But the relief came too late to avert depopulation. Starving and shelterless crowds crawled despairingly from one deserted village to another in a vain search for food, or a resting-place in which to hide themselves from the rain. The epidemics incident to the season were thus spread over the whole country; and, until the close of the year, disease continued so prevalent as to form a subject of communication from the government in Bengal to the Court of Directors. Millions of famished wretches died in the struggle to live through the few intervening weeks that separated them from the harvest, their last gaze being probably fixed on the densely-covered fields that would ripen only a little too late for them. . . . . Three months later, another bountiful harvest, the great rice-crop of the year, was gathered in. Abundance returned to Bengal as suddenly as famine had swooped down upon it, and in reading some of the manuscript records of December it is difficult to realize that the scenes of the preceding ten months have not been hideous phantasmagoria or a long, troubled dream. On Christmas eve, the Council in Calcutta wrote home to the Court of Directors that the scarcity had entirely ceased, and, incredible as it may seem, that unusual plenty had returned. . . . . So generous had been the harvest that the government proposed at once to lay in its military stores for the ensuing year, and expected to obtain them at a very cheap rate.”

Such sudden transitions from the depths of misery to the most exuberant plenty are by no means rare in the history of Asia, where the various centres of civilization are, in an economical sense, so isolated from each other that the welfare of the population is nearly always absolutely dependent on the irregular: and apparently capricious bounty of nature. For the three years following the dreadful misery above described, harvests of unprecedented abundance were gathered in. Yet how inadequate they were to repair the fearful damage wrought by six months of starvation, the history of the next quarter of a century too plainly reveals. “Plenty had indeed returned,” says our annalist, “but it had returned to a silent and deserted province.” The extent of the depopulation is to our Western imaginations almost incredible. During those six months of horror, more than TEN MILLIONS of people had perished! It was as if the entire population of our three or four largest States — man, woman, and child — were to be utterly swept away between now and next August, leaving the region between the Hudson and Lake Michigan as quiet and deathlike as the buried streets of Pompeii. Yet the estimate is based upon most accurate and trustworthy official returns; and Mr. Hunter may well say that “it represents an aggregate of individual suffering which no European nation has been called upon to contemplate within historic times.”

This unparalleled calamity struck down impartially the rich and the poor. The old, aristocratic families of Lower Bengal were irretrievably ruined. The Rajah of Burdwan, whose possessions were so vast that, travel as far as he would, he always slept under a roof of his own and within his own jurisdiction, died in such indigence that his son had to melt down the family plate and beg a loan from the government in order to discharge his father’s funeral expenses. And our author gives other similar instances. The wealthy natives who were appointed to assess and collect the internal revenue, being unable to raise the sums required by the government, were in many cases imprisoned, or their estates were confiscated and re-let in order to discharge the debt.

For fifteen years the depopulation went on increasing. The children in a community, requiring most nourishment to sustain their activity, are those who soonest succumb to famine. “Until 1785,” says our author, “the old died off without there being any rising generation to step into their places.” From lack of cultivators, one third of the surface of Bengal fell out of tillage and became waste land. The landed proprietors began each “to entice away the tenants of his neighbour, by offering protection against judicial proceedings, and farms at very low rents.” The disputes and deadly feuds which arose from this practice were, perhaps, the least fatal of the evil results which flowed from it. For the competition went on until, the tenants obtaining their holdings at half-rates, the resident cultivators — who had once been the wealthiest farmers in the country — were no longer able to complete on such terms. They began to sell, lease, or desert their property, migrating to less afflicted regions, or flying to the hills on the frontier to adopt a savage life. But, in a climate like that of Northeastern India, it takes but little time to transform a tract of untilled land into formidable wilderness. When the functions of society are impeded, nature is swift to assert its claims. And accordingly, in 1789, “Lord Cornwallis after three years’ vigilant inquiry, pronounced one third of the company’s territories in Bengal to be a jungle, inhabited only by wild beasts.”

On the Western frontier of Beerbhoom the state of affairs was, perhaps, most calamitous. In 1776, four acres out of every seven remained untilled. Though in earlier times this district had been a favourite highway for armies, by the year 1780 it had become an almost impassable jungle. A small company of Sepoys, which in that year by heroic exertions forced its way through, was obliged to traverse 120 miles of trackless forest, swarming with tigers and black shaggy bears. In 1789 this jungle “continued so dense as to shut off all communication between the two most important towns, and to cause the mails to be carried by a circuit of fifty miles through another district.”

Such a state of things it is difficult for us to realize; but the monotonous tale of disaster and suffering is not yet complete. Beerbhoom was, to all intents and purposes, given over to tigers. “A belt of jungle, filled with wild beasts, formed round each village.” At nightfall the hungry animals made their dreaded incursions carrying away cattle, and even women and children, and devouring them. “The official records frequently speak of the mail-bag being carried off by wild beasts.” So great was the damage done by these depredations, that “the company offered a reward for each tiger’s head, sufficient to maintain a peasant’s family in comfort for three months; an item of expenditure it deemed so necessary, that, when under extraordinary pressure it had to suspend all payments, the tiger-money and diet allowance for prisoners were the sole exceptions to the rule.” Still more formidable foes were found in the herds of wild elephants, which came trooping along in the rear of the devastation caused by the famine. In the course of a few years fifty-six villages were reported as destroyed by elephants, and as having lapsed into jungle in consequence; “and an official return states that forty market-towns throughout the district had been deserted from the same cause. In many parts of the country the peasantry did not dare to sleep in their houses, lest they should be buried beneath them during the night.” These terrible beasts continued to infest the province as late as 1810.

But society during these dark days had even worse enemies than tigers and elephants. The barbarous highlanders, of a lower type of mankind, nourishing for forty centuries a hatred of their Hindu supplanters, like that which the Apache bears against the white frontiersman, seized the occasion to renew their inroads upon the lowland country. Year by year they descended from their mountain fastnesses, plundering and burning. Many noble Hindu families, ousted by the tax-collectors from their estates, began to seek subsistence from robbery. Others, consulting their selfish interests amid the general distress, “found it more profitable to shelter banditti on their estates, levying blackmail from the surrounding villages as the price of immunity from depredation, and sharing in the plunder of such as would not come to terms. Their country houses were robber strongholds, and the early English administrators of Bengal have left it on record that a gang-robbery never occurred without a landed proprietor being at the bottom of it.” The peasants were not slow to follow suit, and those who were robbed of their winter’s store had no alternative left but to become robbers themselves. The thieveries of the Fakeers, or religious mendicants, and the bold, though stealthy attacks of Thugs and Dacoits — members of Masonic brotherhoods, which at all times have lived by robbery and assassination — added to the general turmoil. In the cold weather of 1772 the province was ravaged far and wide by bands of armed freebooters, fifty thousand strong; and to such a pass did things arrive that the regular forces sent by Warren Hastings to preserve order were twice disastrously routed; while, in Mr. Hunter’s graphic language, “villages high up the Ganges lived by housebreaking in Calcutta.” In English mansions “it was the invariable practice for the porter to shut the outer door at the commencement of each meal, and not to open it till the butler brought him word that the plate was safely locked up.” And for a long time nearly all traffic ceased upon the imperial roads.

This state of things, which amounted to chronic civil war, induced Lord Cornwallis in 1788 to place the province under the direct military control of an English officer. The administration of Mr. Keating — the first hardy gentleman to whom this arduous office was assigned — is minutely described by our author. For our present purpose it is enough to note that two years of severe campaigning, attended and followed by relentless punishment of all transgressors, was required to put an end to the disorders.

Such was the appalling misery, throughout a community of thirty million persons, occasioned by the failure of the winter rice-crop in 1769. In abridging Mr. Hunter’s account we have adhered as closely to our original as possible, but he who would obtain adequate knowledge of this tale of woe must seek it in the ever memorable description of the historian himself. The first question which naturally occurs to the reader — though, as Mr. Hunter observes, it would have been one of the last to occur to the Oriental mind — is, Who was to blame? To what culpable negligence was it due that such a dire calamity was not foreseen, and at least partially warded off? We shall find reason to believe that it could not have been adequately foreseen, and that no legislative measures could in that state of society have entirely prevented it. Yet it will appear that the government, with the best of intentions, did all in its power to make matters worse; and that to its blundering ignorance the distress which followed is largely due.

The first duty incumbent upon the government in a case like that of the failure of the winter rice-crop of 1769, was to do away with all hindrance to the importation of food into the province. One chief cause of the far-reaching distress wrought by great Asiatic famines has been the almost complete commercial isolation of Asiatic communities. In the Middle Ages the European communities were also, though to a far less extent, isolated from each other, and in those days periods of famine were comparatively frequent and severe. And one of the chief causes which now render the occurrence of a famine on a great scale almost impossible in any part of the civilized world is the increased commercial solidarity of civilized nations. Increased facility of distribution has operated no less effectively than improved methods of production.

Now, in 1770 the province of Lower Bengal was in a state of almost complete commercial isolation from other communities. Importation of food on an adequate scale was hardly possible. “A single fact speaks volumes as to the isolation of each district. An abundant harvest, we are repeatedly told, was as disastrous to the revenues as a bad one; for, when a large quantity of grain had to be carried to market, the cost of carriage swallowed up the price obtained. Indeed, even if the means of intercommunication and transport had rendered importation practicable, the province had at that time no money to give in exchange for food. Not only had its various divisions a separate currency which would pass nowhere else except at a ruinous exchange, but in that unfortunate year Bengal seems to have been utterly drained of its specie. . . . . The absence of the means of importation was the more to be deplored, as the neighbouring districts could easily have supplied grain. In the southeast a fair harvest had been reaped, except, in circumscribed spots; and we are assured that, during the famine, this part of Bengal was enabled to export without having to complain of any deficiency in consequence. . . . . INDEED, NO MATTER HOW LOCAL A FAMINE MIGHT BE IN THE LAST CENTURY, THE EFFECTS WERE EQUALLY DISASTROUS. Sylhet, a district in the northeast of Bengal, had reaped unusually plentiful harvests in 1780 and 1781, but the next crop was destroyed by a local inundation, and, notwithstanding the facilities for importation afforded by water-carriage, one third of the people died.”

Here we have a vivid representation of the economic condition of a society which, however highly civilized in many important respects, still retained, at the epoch treated of, its aboriginal type of organization. Here we see each community brought face to face with the impossible task of supplying, unaided, the deficiencies of nature. We see one petty district a prey to the most frightful destitution, even while profuse plenty reigns in the districts round about it. We find an almost complete absence of the commercial machinery which, by enabling the starving region to be fed out of the surplus of more favoured localities, has in the most advanced countries rendered a great famine practically impossible.

Now this state of things the government of 1770 was indeed powerless to remedy. Legislative power and wisdom could not anticipate the invention of railroads; nor could it introduce throughout the length and breadth of Bengal a system of coaches, canals, and caravans; nor could it all at once do away with the time-honoured brigandage, which increased the cost of transport by decreasing the security of it; nor could it in a trice remove the curse of a heterogeneous coinage. None, save those uninstructed agitators who believe that governments can make water run up-hill, would be disposed to find fault with the authorities in Bengal for failing to cope with these difficulties. But what we are to blame them for — though it was an error of the judgment and not of the intentions — is their mischievous interference with the natural course of trade, by which, instead of helping matters, they but added another to the many powerful causes which were conspiring to bring about the economic ruin of Bengal. We refer to the act which in 1770 prohibited under penalties all speculation in rice.

This disastrous piece of legislation was due to the universal prevalence of a prejudice from which so-called enlightened communities are not yet wholly free. It is even now customary to heap abuse upon those persons who in a season of scarcity, when prices are rapidly rising, buy up the “necessaries of life,” thereby still increasing for a time the cost of living. Such persons are commonly assailed with specious generalities to the effect that they are enemies of society. People whose only ideas are “moral ideas” regard them as heartless sharpers who fatten upon the misery of their fellow-creatures. And it is sometimes hinted that such “practices” ought to be stopped by legislation.

Now, so far is this prejudice, which is a very old one, from being justified by facts, that, instead of being an evil, speculation in breadstuffs and other necessaries is one of the chief agencies by which in modern times and civilized countries a real famine is rendered almost impossible. This natural monopoly operates in two ways. In the first place, by raising prices, it checks consumption, putting every one on shorter allowance until the season of scarcity is over, and thus prevents the scarcity from growing into famine. In the second place, by raising prices, it stimulates importation from those localities where abundance reigns and prices are low. It thus in the long run does much to equalize the pressure of a time of dearth and diminish those extreme oscillations of prices which interfere with the even, healthy course of trade. A government which, in a season of high prices, does anything to check such speculation, acts about as sagely as the skipper of a wrecked vessel who should refuse to put his crew upon half rations.

The turning-point of the great Dutch Revolution, so far as it concerned the provinces which now constitute Belgium, was the famous siege and capture of Antwerp by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma. The siege was a long one, and the resistance obstinate, and the city would probably not have been captured if famine had not come to the assistance of the besiegers. It is interesting, therefore, to inquire what steps the civic authorities had taken to prevent such a calamity. They knew that the struggle before them was likely to be the life-and-death struggle of the Southern Netherlands; they knew that there was risk of their being surrounded so that relief from without would be impossible; they knew that their assailant was one of the most astute and unconquerable of men, by far the greatest general of the sixteenth century. Therefore they proceeded to do just what our Republican Congress, under such circumstances, would probably have done, and just what the New York Tribune, if it had existed in those days, would have advised them to do. Finding that sundry speculators were accumulating and hoarding up provisions in anticipation of a season of high prices, they hastily decided, first of all to put a stop to such “selfish iniquity.” In their eyes the great thing to be done was to make things cheap. They therefore affixed a very low maximum price to everything which could be eaten, and prescribed severe penalties for all who should attempt to take more than the sum by law decreed. If a baker refused to sell his bread for a price which would have been adequate only in a time of great plenty, his shop was to be broken open, and his loaves distributed among the populace. The consequences of this idiotic policy were twofold.

In the first place, the enforced lowness of prices prevented any breadstuffs or other provisions from being brought into the city. It was a long time before Farnese succeeded in so blockading the Scheldt as to prevent ships laden with eatables from coming in below. Corn and preserved meats might have been hurried by thousands of tons into the beleaguered city. Friendly Dutch vessels, freighted with abundance, were waiting at the mouth of the river. But all to no purpose. No merchant would expose his valuable ship, with its cargo, to the risk of being sunk by Farnese’s batteries, merely for the sake of finding a market no better than a hundred others which could be entered without incurring danger. No doubt if the merchants of Holland had followed out the maxim Vivre pour autrui, they would have braved ruin and destruction rather than behold their neighbours of Antwerp enslaved. No doubt if they could have risen to a broad philosophic view of the future interests of the Netherlands, they would have seen that Antwerp must be saved, no matter if some of them were to lose money by it. But men do not yet sacrifice themselves for their fellows, nor do they as a rule look far beyond the present moment and its emergencies. And the business of government is to legislate for men as they are, not as it is supposed they ought to be. If provisions had brought a high price in Antwerp, they would have been carried thither. As it was, the city, by its own stupidity, blockaded itself far more effectually than Farnese could have done it.

In the second place, the enforced lowness of prices prevented any general retrenchment on the part of the citizens. Nobody felt it necessary to economize. Every one bought as much bread, and ate it as freely, as if the government by insuring its cheapness had insured its abundance. So the city lived in high spirits and in gleeful defiance of its besiegers, until all at once provisions gave out, and the government had to step in again to palliate the distress which it had wrought. It constituted itself quartermaster-general to the community, and doled out stinted rations alike to rich and poor, with that stern democratic impartiality peculiar to times of mortal peril. But this served only, like most artificial palliatives, to lengthen out the misery. At the time of the surrender, not a loaf of bread could be obtained for love or money.

In this way a bungling act of legislation helped to decide for the worse a campaign which involved the territorial integrity and future welfare of what might have become a great nation performing a valuable function in the system of European communities.

The striking character of this instructive example must be our excuse for presenting it at such length. At the beginning of the famine in Bengal the authorities legislated in very much the same spirit as the burghers who had to defend Antwerp against Parma.

“By interdicting what it was pleased to term the monopoly of grain, it prevented prices from rising at once to their natural rates. The Province had a certain amount of food in it, and this food had to last about nine months. Private enterprise if left to itself would have stored up the general supply at the harvest, with a view to realizing a larger profit at a later period in the scarcity. Prices would in consequence have immediately risen, compelling the population to reduce their consumption from the very beginning of the dearth. The general stock would thus have been husbanded, and the pressure equally spread over the whole nine months, instead of being concentrated upon the last six. The price of grain, in place of promptly rising to three half-pence a pound as in 1865-66, continued at three farthings during the earlier months of the famine. During the latter ones it advanced to twopence, and in certain localities reached fourpence.”

The course taken by the great famine of 1866 well illustrates the above views. This famine, also, was caused by the total failure of the December rice-crop, and it was brought to a close by an abundant harvest in the succeeding year.

“Even as regards the maximum price reached, the analogy holds good, in each case rice having risen in general to nearly twopence, and in particular places to fourpence, a pound; and in each the quoted rates being for a brief period in several isolated localities merely nominal, no food existing in the market, and money altogether losing its interchangeable value. In both the people endured silently to the end, with a fortitude that casual observers of a different temperament and widely dissimilar race may easily mistake for apathy, but which those who lived among the sufferers are unable to distinguish from qualities that generally pass under a more honourable name. During 1866, when the famine was severest, I superintended public instruction throughout the southwestern division of Lower Bengal, including Orissa. The subordinate native officers, about eight hundred in number, behaved with a steadiness, and when called upon, with a self-abnegation, beyond praise. Many of them ruined their health. The touching scenes of self-sacrifice and humble heroism which I witnessed among the poor villagers on my tours of inspection will remain in my memory till my latest day.”

But to meet the famine of 1866 Bengal was equipped with railroads and canals, and better than all, with an intelligent government. Far from trying to check speculation, as in 1770, the government did all in its power to stimulate it. In the earlier famine one could hardly engage in the grain trade without becoming amenable to the law. “In 1866 respectable men in vast numbers went into the trade; for government, by publishing weekly returns of the rates in every district, rendered the traffic both easy and safe. Every one knew where to buy grain cheapest, and where to sell it dearest, and food was accordingly brought from the districts that could best spare it, and carried to those which most urgently needed it. Not only were prices equalized so far as possible throughout the stricken parts, but the publicity given to the high rates in Lower Bengal induced large shipments from the upper provinces, and the chief seat of the trade became unable to afford accommodation for landing the vast stores of grain brought down the river. Rice poured into the affected districts from all parts — railways, canals, and roads vigorously doing their duty.”

The result of this wise policy was that scarcity was heightened into famine only in one remote corner of Bengal. Orissa was commercially isolated in 1866, as the whole country had been in 1770. “As far back as the records extend, Orissa has produced more grain than it can use. It is an exporting, not an importing province, sending away its surplus grain by sea, and neither requiring nor seeking any communication with Lower Bengal by land.” Long after the rest of the province had begun to prepare for a year of famine, Orissa kept on exporting. In March, when the alarm was first raised, the southwest monsoon had set in, rendering the harbours inaccessible. Thus the district was isolated. It was no longer possible to apply the wholesome policy which was operating throughout the rest of the country. The doomed population of Orissa, like passengers in a ship without provisions, were called upon to suffer the extremities of famine; and in the course of the spring and summer of 1866, some seven hundred thousand people perished.

January, 1869.

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