Photos Of The Forgotten Bengal Famine Fueled By British Colonialism

Published October 1, 2017
Updated December 20, 2017

The death toll estimates of the Bengal famine vary so wildly because, at some point, there were simply too many dead to count.

Vultures Eat The Dead
Starving Bengali child with an outstretched hand
Starving Bengali woman on roadside
Bengali child bride with infant in Bengal Famine
Photos Of The Forgotten Bengal Famine Fueled By British Colonialism
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Though few in the West likely know its name, the Bengal Famine was one of the greatest massacres of World War II — and it wasn’t even caused by India’s enemies. It was brought on by British policies that put the lives of soldiers over Indian civilians and it killed an estimated 3 million people. By the time the famine was over, it killed more citizens of the British Empire than the Axis ever would.

Even before the war, the people of Bengal, India had already been struggling with a small food supply and a skyrocketing population. By 1930, the area had the least nutritious diet in the world, and the battering of tropical storms wasn’t making it any better.

But the war made things far worse. Life in Bengal became a horror show after Japan invaded Burma. Burmese refugees fled into India for shelter, and Japanese bombing raids followed on their heels. Fields were destroyed, the population grew, and what little food the people of Bengal had was stretched even further.

So, they called their colonial overlords in Britain for help — but they only made it worse. First, they moved the army out to Bengal, on the eastern side of India, to defend the border. But these soldiers had to be fed — and the British government ordered that the army get priority food distribution. Food went to the soldiers, and civilians were left to starve.

Then, the British started a scorched-earth project, destroying food supplies and transports in Bengal and even confiscating civilians boats out of fear that the Japanese might steal these things from them.

The other provinces of India, in a panic, started refusing to trade with each other. Food shipments to Bengal stopped and the people of Eastern India were left with no way to get help from their countrymen.

Without enough food to feed everybody, the price of rice skyrocketed. People starved on the streets, and diseases like cholera, malaria, smallpox, and dysentery devastated their malnourished bodies.

The stories that came out of the Bengal famine are horrific. One witness described seeing children, driven to desperation from starvation, “picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggars’ diarrheal discharge.” Another saw a man fall dead after getting slapped for stealing food. “In those days,” the witness said, “everyone was so weak a slap could kill you.”

By the end, so many died that no one could keep count of the dead. By some accounts, it was 1.5 million, by others, 3 million. But no matter which number you believe, more citizens of the British Empire died in the Bengal Famine than in all of World War II combined.

After this look at the Bengal famine, find about Gandhi's dark side and the British genocide in Kenya.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.