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Bengal Famine of 1943
Transcript of Bengal Famine of 1943
Bengal is a region in the northeastern Indian Subcontinent, defined by the river delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. This rich agricultural land has been the home of one of the densest human populations on Earth. Today, Bengal is divided between the nation of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal, India. The native language in Bengal is called Bengali or Bangla, which is an eastern Indo-European language. Bengali has about 205 million native speakers. The Bengali people are divided by two religions, 70% are Muslim and the remaining 30% are mostly Hindu. Bengal is primarily an agricultural region that produces crops such as rice, legumes and high-quality tea.
In 1943, millions of people in Bengal starved to death. Many historians settled the death toll at 3-4 million. This famine was caused by a combination of natural factors, socio-politics, and poor leadership.
The natural factors included a cyclone, which hit Bengal on January 9, 1943, flooding the rice fields with salt water and killing 14,500 people, as well as an outbreak of the Helminthosporium oryzae fungus, which took a heavy toll on the remaining rice plants. Under ordinary circumstances, Bengal might have sought to import rice from neighboring Burma, also a British colony, but the Japanese Imperial Army had captured it.
The British officials made all the decisions that followed the cyclone. The British officials ordered the destruction of all boats and rice stocks in coastal Bengal, in fear that the Japanese might land there and seize the supplies. This left the coastal Bengalis to starve on their now-scorched earth, in what was called the "Denial Policy." However, India as a whole did not have a food shortage in 1943. In fact, it exported over 70,000 tons of rice for British troops and British civilians in the first seven months of the year. In addition, wheat shipments from Australia passed along the Indian coast, also for the British. Lastly, the United States and Canada offered the British government food aid specifically for Bengal, once the predicament of its people became known, but London refused the aid.
Indian scholars today believe that London’s refusal to help the Bengali people stemmed from the hatred of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, generally considered one of the heroes of World War II. Even as other British officials like Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, and Sir Archibald Wavell, India's new viceroy, sought to get food to the hungry, Churchill blocked their efforts.
Estimates are that between 1.5 and 4 million people died of starvation, malnutrition, and disease, out of Bengal's 60.3 million population, half of them dying from disease after food became available in December 1943. However Bengal’s population well exceeds that limit now. In 2001, it was reported that Bengal has a population of approximately 245,598,679. The Bengal Famine ended in 1944, thanks to a bumper rice crop.