Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill condemned hundreds of thousands of colonial subjects to death by starvation. At a meeting of the British War Cabinet on Aug. 4, 1943, he refused to provide relief for famine victims in India's far eastern province of Bengal. Their deaths were of little consequence, he subsequently explained, because Bengalis were "breeding like rabbits" anyway.
The famine had resulted from the forced and exhaustive participation of India, then a British colony, in World War II. India provided £2 billion worth of goods and services for the war effort, largely paid for by paper money that caused runaway inflation. Further, in the spring of 1942 Japanese forces invaded Burma and arrived at India's eastern border; fearing they would continue into Bengal, colonial authorities undertook scorched-earth measures that devastated the local economy. The Axis occupation of Burma also cut off imports of rice that normally fed India's poor. Churchill forced India to absorb this loss, and also to start exporting rice to other parts of the British empire, which could no longer get rice from the Far East. As if that were not enough, a massive cyclone and accompanying pest infestations damaged Bengal's subsequent rice crop.
Even as famine loomed, in January 1943 Churchill withdrew most merchant ships from the Indian Ocean so that these could instead carry food and raw materials to the United Kingdom. The colony's own ocean-worthy ships had been requisitioned by the War Cabinet; in consequence, the British Indian government had no ships with which to import wheat from Australia, where it was abundant. With supplies for the army running low, the colonial administration bought vast quantities of domestic wheat and rice to feed soldiers and war workers -- provoking a steep price rise and precipitating famine.
By July, the pavements of Calcutta, the capital city of Bengal, were strewn with corpses. At the fateful August meeting, the Secretary of State for India asked that the colony be sent half a million tons of wheat by year-end. The grain would feed not civilians, but the army and the war-related industries until the next harvest. The mere news of its arrival should ease famine, however: speculators would anticipate a fall in prices and release any hoarded cereal, thereby causing prices to fall in reality. Although ships were then plentiful, Churchill and his aides refused. Instead they ordered for India 100,000 tons of Iraqi barley -- which was of little help because barley had negligible effect on grain prices.
Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over. The War Cabinet determined that around 75,000 tons of Australian wheat would be transported to Ceylon and the Middle East each month for the rest of 1943, to supply the war effort -- and a further 170,000 tons would be shipped to a supply center in the Mediterranean region, there to be stored for future consumption in Europe. So shiploads of wheat bypassed starving India, headed for long-term storage.
By year-end, India did receive 80,000 tons of wheat. That was far from enough even for the army, which continued to consume local grain that might otherwise have saved the starving. The famine came to an end that winter, when Bengal harvested its own rice crop. The death toll was at least 3 million.
A couple of years later, Churchill complained to his secretary that Hindus, or most Indians, were protected by their rapid breeding from "the doom that is their due." He wished that Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could "send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them."
Churchill's refusal to relieve famine had dire consequences not only for Bengalis, but also for the empire that he so cherished. The luxurious Governor's palace in Calcutta, adorned with marble busts of Roman emperors and surrounded by high walls, was the symbolic seat of the British Indian empire. At the height of the famine, unknown protestors laid the dead and dying around the one-kilometer perimeter of the palace, encircling it in a wreath of corpses that marked the passing of British prestige.
Just four years later, after almost two centuries of colonial rule, India had broken free.