Bengal Shadows
January 17, 2018 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Said to be larger than the Holocaust in absolute numbers, a new documentary, Bengal Shadows, revolves around the British empire’s role, especially that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in causing and exacerbating the Bengal famine of 1943.
posted by infini (22 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
I am super ashamed to say that I only recently learned that this even happened. I learned about it from the Malcolm Gladwell podcast Revisionist History.

S02 E05 - The Prime Minister and the Prof : The story of Winston Churchill’s close friend and confidant — an eccentric scientist named Frederick Lindemann — whose connection to Churchill altered the course of British policy in World War II. And not in a good way.

Incredibly sad and horrific behavior on the part of someone considered a hero. All war is a crime.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:41 AM on January 17, 2018 [9 favorites]

I did not know about this ( very little world history taught in the US in the 60s)but am not surprised, the British are old hands at encouraging famine to get rid of surplus conquered populations. See: Ireland, 1847, An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger)
posted by mermayd at 6:17 AM on January 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also the Southern India Famine of 1876-8, produced by a combination of drought, grain exports, and conversion of farmland to cotton production.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:34 AM on January 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War by Yasmin Khan recently, which is pretty good and has some information on the famine.

The Bengal Famine has always been carefully kept quiet. The British government released a report on the subject... on VE day, the official end of the war in Europe, to make sure it got as little information as possible.

The position of Viceroy of India was changed partway through the famine, and the successor worked much harder to get more assistance, or at least a lesser burder for the famine than his indifferent predecessor. Even he was given too little too late.

The irony of Churchill is that although he was a stalwart imperialist, a racist, and very right-wing, he ended up undermining all those things. Yasmin Khan makes it very clear how the Second World War at very least much hastened the end of the British Empire. Indians were exposed to the wider world and greater ideas of freedom, they saw the Japanese having military success against Europeans, they gained military experience. Under the pressures of war the British Empire was forced to abandon its policies and allow India to develop its manufacturing industry.

Churchill's decision to allow Labour politicians into his wartime cabinet meant that they were able to gain the trust of the electorate, and form a socialist government in 1945 that established the NHS and a modern welfare system.

If he knew what we knew now, he might well have decided to reach an accommodation with Hitler, prolonged the British Empire by decades, and let Europe be ethnically purged...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:09 AM on January 17, 2018 [16 favorites]

I referenced this in the other thread but it's worth sharing here too. It's good that we're getting other versions of Churchill. Too often we only see this one side of him in film/tv/history. The elder statesman and war-time bully. We're meant to be inspired. It's praise and not criticism that we too often get. This is a good post and it shines a light on something that is too easily glossed over and forgotten.
posted by Fizz at 7:09 AM on January 17, 2018 [12 favorites]

Thank you for the lovely memail Fizz. I hadn't seen your post when I came to make this, just the news on the documentary. I'll share why in the subsequent comment.
posted by infini at 7:39 AM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm angry that this stuff isn't taught as standard in British schools, along with all of the other shit we did as an Empire and after. Instead we have constant interference from successive Tory education minsters in an attempt to portray our country as a nation of plucky do-gooders casting the bright light of progress and reason upon the world. The narrative has barely changed since Victoria was on the throne.

If your country's history doesn't leave you feeling guilty about a few things (or in Britain's case, a hell of a lot), how can you expect future generations to do better?
posted by pipeski at 7:48 AM on January 17, 2018 [14 favorites]

Under the pressures of war the British Empire was forced to abandon its policies and allow India to develop its manufacturing industry.

My nanaji (mother's father) came back once with a broken leg, thanks to the Raj hangover in 1955, but ultimately succeeded in laying the backbone of India's manufacturing sector, particularly heavy engineering, and consumer products* for boosting people's incomes and quality of life.

Nanaji% lived and worked in Calcutta. My auntie is born in August 1943, and mummy is born in December 1944. Mummy's health has never been as good as auntie's. I was born in March of 1966, in Calcutta, which relied on the grainfields of Bengal and Bihar for its population. You have to know that Calcutta was abandoned as the capital by the British as they went off to build a new one when the old started stinking.

I am one of Churchill's children, that's why I made this FPP, though I hate looking at those familiar old photographs of hunger and death.

As for Mataji (father's mother), she bit through her lips and retained the scars forever. The Raj had imprisoned her for marching with the women in the Quit India movement. Dad's hearing was lost in one ear when a bomb in Rangoon made his ear drum explode.

Now our story of World War 2 is also emerging on the global platform. Thank you all for reading it.

*Oct 1961 - "In internal market. USHA has become a byword for the highest value in manufactured goods and to a very large extent, consumer preference for foreign Sewing Machines and Fans has been displaced. It appears clear from the progress of our Company and from that of other large and small-scale manufacturers, that in our field there is absolutely no need for foreign know-how or capital, and indigenous resources are adequate for meeting the country's requirement of Sewing Machines and Fans."

% And so, TR Gupta laid down the positronic pathways for his 7 year old granddaughter who was the first born of the first born on her father's side by taking her for a morning walk after breakfast but before the white hatted chauffer came to take her to school, to learn how to know and see the world, and to give thanks to the big spirit for gaia.

posted by infini at 7:56 AM on January 17, 2018 [32 favorites]

I cannot recommend the book Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire enough on this topic. It places the famine and Calcutta Riots (the Week of the Long Knives) in historical context, explaining how the British led by Churchill and (in some ways) his successor Earl Clement Atlee tried their best to commit genocide and foment unrest in India. All while fighting Nazis who were doing the same in Europe. As the post's link notes, Churchill led the British through the war, but was a racist who loathed Indians, and tried to kill them en masse. He even refused offers of aid from the US and Canada, which could have saved thousands.

Churchill's Secret War is another that should be read by everyone, including the large segment of the UK population that looks upon the Empire's colonial days through a nostalgic lens.
Mukherjee tracks down some of the survivors of the famine and paints a chilling tale of the effects of hunger and deprivation. Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones. "No one had the strength to perform rites," a survivor tells Mukherjee. Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal's villages. The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. "Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters," writes Mukherjee.

The famine ended at the end of the year when survivors harvested their rice crop. The first shipments of barley and wheat reached those in need only in November, by which time tens of thousands had already perished. Throughout the autumn of 1943, the United Kingdom's food and raw materials stockpile for its 47 million people - 14 million fewer than that of Bengal - swelled to 18.5m tonnes.
All while the British chafed under bread rationing.

Said to be larger than the Holocaust in absolute numbers

I'm curious about this. The books I've read (and link) and the links you have here place the range at between 3 and 5 million. The link under "absolute numbers" says this as well. Has the number of people who were killed in the famine revised upward recently? Beyond the links you've provided here?
posted by zarq at 8:13 AM on January 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

Britain: the sow that eats her own farrow
posted by hortense at 8:15 AM on January 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

zarq: I don't know. But I can look it up somewhat. What is customary for the Holocaust's numbers? (and how many villages of your people and mine dissappeared without a name?)
posted by infini at 8:17 AM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't want to abuse the edit window, but the way I've worded that above comment, I've unfortunately accused Atlee of fomenting genocide. Atlee was considered Britain's foremost expert on India for decades before he took office (and during his time as Prime Minister,) and he has long been acknowledged as playing a pivotal role in Independence. He is considered a sympathetic-to-India figure by the history books, and in many ways he was. But post-WWII was the time of the Red Fort Trials and the mutiny of 20,000 sailors of the Royal Indian Navy against the British Empire. The situation in '45 and '46 was complicated, and Atlee's reasons for pursuing independence and how he manipulated the situation were as well.
posted by zarq at 8:22 AM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

infini, the usual numbers I've seen for the Holocaust is 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews (Roma, Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.) This number is probably somewhat low, since it turns out that there were small camps which aren't in the obvious records.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:34 AM on January 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

zarq: I don't know. But I can look it up somewhat. What is customary for the Holocaust's numbers? (and how many villages of your people and mine dissappeared without a name?)

Far, far too many. :(

Thinking about it further, I hope you don't mind but I'd like to completely withdraw the question. And I apologize for asking it. I was curious and spoke without thinking.

There's a danger when looking at such large numbers of people killed, that we will dehumanize what happened in an attempt to place it in abstract context. I'd really rather not spark such a discussion on those terms. Once we reach the point where millions of people have been killed, I don't think there's any benefit in talking about whether one group lost more than another. The numbers (and what was done to those people is and) are simply horrific.
posted by zarq at 8:36 AM on January 17, 2018 [15 favorites]

The censuses were designed more for social engineering and to further the British agenda for governance rather than to uncover the underlying structure of the population. The sociologist Michael Mann says that the census exercise was "more telling of the administrative needs of the British than of the social reality for the people of British India."[1] The difference of the nature of Indian society during the British Raj from the value system and the societies of the West were highlighted by the inclusion of "caste", "religion", "profession" and "age" in the data to be collected, as the collection and analysis of this information had a considerable impact on the structure and political overtones of Indian society.

Never mind. We weren't human enough ...
posted by infini at 8:46 AM on January 17, 2018

I think the number comparison thing may be a confusion of the 1943 one with the 1770 one. But it really doesn't matter. Once you starve, say, a million people to death, you are in the big leagues of atrocities.
posted by thelonius at 10:12 AM on January 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is something deeply perverse about the human psyche that makes intentionally starving people to death somehow more palatable than gassing or shooting them.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:16 AM on January 17, 2018

There is something deeply perverse about the human psyche that makes intentionally starving people to death somehow more palatable than gassing or shooting them.

Which is of course insane. Imagine watching your children starve to death and being powerless to help them - that's famine.
posted by thelonius at 2:57 PM on January 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Does anyone know how to get to see the film? I could only find screenings that had already happened - is there any news on when it's going to be released more widely? Thanks!
posted by Flitcraft at 3:51 PM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

The problem with comparing genocides, particularly comparing them numerically, is that it's often exploited by racists who want to encourage racial hatred. It's a bit like how some Men's Rights activists say that men are the victims of sexism too, and then say that because "feminists" aren't doing anything about male victims they're somehow exploiting men. Facts aren't important, you can point to feminists doing fantastic work but it will make no difference.

In fact the best resources for information on a relatively-overlooked genocide are often the scholars studying a different genocide, because insights from one inform the other. There's a free book, Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, that gives an overview of the field with reference to recent and ongoing genocides today. It's published by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which I understand is part of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is basically my point.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:47 PM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Southern India Famine of 1876-8

The book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, does a disturbingly good job covering how that famine, among others, was the result of deliberate choices in the part of the British. It's an excellent read if you want to simultaneously be informed, outraged, and sad.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:11 PM on January 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

I just miss my grandfather. I'm lucky to have reached my 3rd decade when he died in my father's arms. Of malnutrition related trauma - in 1995, 50 years after the famine. There's research out there iirc that talks about the genetic heritage of famine/starvation. When I heard the diagnosis of why he died at age 86, it shook me.
posted by infini at 12:15 AM on January 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

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