Churchill and the Bengal Famine

Churchill and the Bengal Famine

Leopold S. Amery, Sec­re­tary of State for India and Bur­ma 1940-45. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

A wide­ly pub­li­cized 2010 book alleged that Churchill refused to help India dur­ing the 1943-44 famine in Ben­gal. The charges were explod­ed years ago, but the accu­sa­tion con­tin­ues to sur­face. Churchill’s sup­posed dark secrets and fatal flaws are pop­u­lar among those who refuse to read the full details on the mat­ter.

In 2010 the late Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, Churchill’s offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, told me he had looked care­ful­ly into con­tem­po­rary 1943-44 doc­u­ments. He said they entire­ly exon­er­ate Churchill and the War Cab­i­net. He would pub­lish this mate­r­i­al in the appro­pri­ate vol­ume of the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, Win­ston S. Churchill.

Hills­dale Col­lege is now pub­lish­ing those doc­u­ments. Dai­ly we review Sir Martin’s “wodges,” vir­tu­al day-by-day records of Churchill’s life. In 2017 we pub­lished Doc­u­ment Vol­ume 19, Sep­tem­ber 1943 – April 1944. True to his word, Sir Mar­tin amassed many papers on the Ben­gal Famine. They prove that Churchill and the War Cab­i­net did every­thing they could, under wartime con­straints, seek­ing help to alle­vi­ate the famine. The tragedy began with Japan­ese aggres­sion in Bur­ma (India’s chief grain sup­pli­er)… Then, cer­tain Hin­du mer­chants in Ben­gal start­ed hoard­ing grain sup­plies, hop­ing for wind­fall prof­its.

Here is just one doc­u­ment from Sir Martin’s metic­u­lous com­pi­la­tion. This one is late in the his­to­ry of the famine. It does how­ev­er recap the sto­ry. Its very date is sig­nif­i­cant. Despite urgent prepa­ra­tions for the inva­sion of France, the Cab­i­net was still attempt­ing to relieve Ben­gal short­ages. (Bold face is mine.) For more exam­ples, dat­ing to autumn 1943, click here.

Bengal: War Cabinet Meeting 55

24 April 1944: 10 Down­ing St.

Field Mar­shal Sir Archibald Wavell, Viceroy of India 1943-47. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

The War Cab­i­net had before them a Mem­o­ran­dum by the Sec­re­tary of State for India (WP (44) 216). It reviewed the lat­est posi­tion as regards the Ben­gal food grain sit­u­a­tion. The result was a net wors­en­ing of 550,000 tons. The Viceroy, in addi­tion to the 200,000 tons already promised, now required 724,000 tons of wheat. This was the min­i­mum needs of the civ­il pop­u­la­tion and the Army were to be met.

The Sec­re­tary of State for India said that the posi­tion had been wors­ened by unsea­son­able weath­er, and by the dis­as­ter at Bom­bay,* in which 45,000 tons of bad­ly-need­ed food­stuffs and 11 ships had been lost. He was sat­is­fied that every­thing pos­si­ble had been done by the Author­i­ties in India to meet the sit­u­a­tion. Giv­en the threat to oper­a­tions which any break­down in India’s eco­nom­ic life involved, he felt that we should now apprise the Unit­ed States of the seri­ous­ness of the posi­tion. It must be for the War Cab­i­net to decide how far we should ask for their actu­al assis­tance.

* * *

Sir Firoz Khan Noon said that every­thing pos­si­ble was being done in Ben­gal to con­trol prices and move­ments of grain. The out­stand­ing fac­tor was a def­i­nite short­age of food grains in the coun­try. The effect of the unsea­son­able rains this Spring had been very serious….Substantial imports from abroad were essen­tial, not only to meet the short­ages, but because of their reac­tion on pub­lic opin­ion and morale, and their deter­rent effect on hoard­ers. While hoard­ing by mer­chants was under con­trol, the peas­ant was still uneasy and was hold­ing back sup­plies. India, which had nev­er been a self-sup­port­ing coun­try, had lost her Bur­ma imports and, in addi­tion, was car­ry­ing a heavy increase of pop­u­la­tion and sub­stan­tial num­bers of troops.

Mali­cious rumours were being spread by inter­est­ed par­ties in India that the Unit­ed States were will­ing to help with the grain but that His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment would not apply to them. If we now approached the Unit­ed States and they were unable to help, it would at least dis­pel that alle­ga­tion.

The Min­is­ter of War Trans­port point­ed out that the exist­ing pro­gramme of imports pro­vid­ed 35,000 tons of food grains per month for India from Decem­ber last to the end of Sep­tem­ber next. He found no fur­ther ship­ping avail­able, save at the expense of oper­a­tions or of the Unit­ed King­dom import pro­gramme. The Unit­ed States faced very seri­ous ship­ping dif­fi­cul­ties.

Churchill’s View

The Prime Min­is­ter said that it was clear that His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment could only pro­vide fur­ther relief for the Indi­an sit­u­a­tion at the cost of incur­ring grave dif­fi­cul­ties in oth­er direc­tions. At the same time, there was a strong oblig­a­tion on us to replace the grain which had per­ished in the Bom­bay explo­sion. He was scep­ti­cal as to any help being forth­com­ing from Amer­i­ca, save at the cost of oper­a­tions of the Unit­ed King­dom import pro­gramme. At the same time his sym­pa­thy was great for the suf­fer­ings of the peo­ple of India.

* * *

After fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion the War Cab­i­net agreed as fol­lows:

(1) The Prime Min­is­ter would rep­re­sent to the Pres­i­dent the sit­u­a­tion which had arisen from the Bom­bay explo­sion, with such addi­tion­al detail in regard to the gen­er­al­ly threat­en­ing char­ac­ter of the Indi­an food sit­u­a­tion and its pos­si­ble effect on oper­a­tions, as was thought desir­able at this stage. He would urge them to assist us with ship­ping, on the under­stand­ing, how­ev­er, that any help giv­en would be addi­tion­al to, and would not come out of, the ship­ping already allo­cat­ed to us, and would not be made in such a way as to reduce the Unit­ed King­dom import pro­gramme.

(2) The replace­ment of the 45,000 tons of grain lost in the Bom­bay explo­sion should be regard­ed as an oblig­a­tion which His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment must meet even if the Amer­i­can response was neg­a­tive….

Appeal to FDR

Five days lat­er Churchill wrote to Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt:

I am seri­ous­ly con­cerned about the food sit­u­a­tion in India and its pos­si­ble reac­tions on our joint oper­a­tions. Last year we had a griev­ous famine in Ben­gal through which at least 700,000 peo­ple died….By cut­ting down mil­i­tary ship­ments and oth­er means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Aus­tralia dur­ing the first nine months of 1944. This is the short­est haul. I can­not see how to do more.

We have had much hes­i­ta­tion in ask­ing you to add to the great assis­tance you are giv­ing us with ship­ping but a sat­is­fac­to­ry sit­u­a­tion in India is of such vital impor­tance to the suc­cess of our joint plans against the Japan­ese that I am impelled to ask you to con­sid­er a spe­cial allo­ca­tion of ships to car­ry wheat to India from Aus­tralia…. have resist­ed for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but…I am no longer jus­ti­fied in not ask­ing….

The edi­tors at Hills­dale thor­ough­ly indexed this and many oth­er key doc­u­ments. Togeth­er, they prove that, con­trary to sneer­ing alle­ga­tions, out of con­text quotes, and charges of racism, Churchill did all he could. His efforts and the Cabinet’s did alle­vi­ate the short­age through numer­ous out­side sources.


*On 14 April 1944, the car­go ship SS Fort Stikine caught fire and explod­ed in the Vic­to­ria Dock of Bom­bay. Deaths totaled 1,300 peo­ple, injuries more than 2,000.

7 thoughts on “Churchill and the Bengal Famine

  1. I am not sure what you are refer­ring to, since none of the above post includes any­thing Churchill wrote in his “mas­ter­ly his­to­ry” to “white wash” the Ben­gal famine. Those words are from doc­u­ments record­ed by oth­ers, large­ly the Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary, direct­ly from meet­ings of the War Cab­i­net, or offi­cial, then-secret, com­mu­ni­ca­tions to such per­sons as Roo­sevelt. There are many more of them. You can start here.

    Churchill him­self in his mem­oirs wrote noth­ing about the Ben­gal famine. What Churchill did write about Indi­ans in his mem­oirs might be more to the point:

    …all this is only the back­ground upon which the glo­ri­ous hero­ism and mar­tial qual­i­ties of the Indi­an troops who fought in the Mid­dle East, who defend­ed Egypt, who lib­er­at­ed Abyssinia, who played a grand part in Italy, and who, side by side with their British com­rades, expelled the Japan­ese from Burma…The loy­al­ty of the Indi­an Army to the King-Emper­or, the proud fideli­ty to their treaties of the Indi­an Princes, the unsur­passed brav­ery of Indi­an sol­diers and offi­cers, both Moslem and Hin­du, shine for ever in the annals of war.

    The Sec­ond World War and Japan’s aggres­sion placed great strains on India’s food sup­plies, as it did in Britain and else­where. War is hell, which is why Churchill tried to avoid it. Arthur Her­man, nom­i­nat­ed for a Pulitzer for his book Gand­hi and Churchill, not­ed: “Of all the peo­ple who ignored the Ben­gal famine, per­haps the most curi­ous case is Mohan­das Gand­hi. For all his rep­u­ta­tion as a human­i­tar­i­an, Gand­hi did remark­ably lit­tle about the emer­gency. The issue bare­ly comes up in his let­ters, except as anoth­er griev­ance against the Raj. Yet in peace­time, the Raj always han­dled famines with effi­cien­cy.” Per­haps you will read and weigh what this emi­nent his­to­ri­an con­clud­ed: “Absent Churchill, the Ben­gal Famine would have been worse.”

  2. Churchill knew how to write his own his­to­ry. How­ev­er, ardent­ly believ­ing in the racial supe­ri­or­i­ty of the white Eng­lish­man, he nev­er hid his con­tempt and glee while also cre­at­ing the above doc­u­ments so that he would look good to Amer­i­cans. The British in gen­er­al con­tin­ued their extrac­tion pol­i­cy dur­ing the war and food short­ages caused by large scale pur­chas­es from large farm­ers depriv­ing the mass­es of food wasn’t dur­ing the war wasn’t restrict­ed to Ben­gal. I have heard sto­ries of rice short­age and peo­ple starv­ing since they did not know how to cook wheat in far away Ker­ala from old men who sur­vived the war. (First hand accounts). They can­not be white washed by Churchill’s mas­ter­ly his­to­ry.

  3. You’re read­ing an old post in which only one exam­ple of the rel­e­vant doc­u­ments was cit­ed. The rea­son is pre­cise­ly because of the 1944 date. At that time Churchill was in the midst of prepar­ing for D-Day, the largest seaborne inva­sion in history—yet he still made time to try to pro­vide for famine vic­tims.

    Click here for a reply to the lat­est out­burst of this slan­der. You will find five doc­u­ments, three from 1943. They are a frac­tion of numer­ous doc­u­ments attest­ing to strong and effec­tive efforts by Churchill and the War Cab­i­net to scour every resource to find grain for Ben­gal. The famine, by the way, was not over at the end of 1943. I have my own def­i­n­i­tion of clap­trap, but don’t take my word for it:

  4. What a load of clap­trap! The famine was in 1943. The records you cite are from 1944. Mad­hus­ree Mukerjee’s 2010 book “Churchill’s Secret War” was true in every word.

  5. Thanks kind­ly. We can’t prove a neg­a­tive, but there is no record in Churchill’s 15 mil­lion pub­lished words of his hav­ing said that about Gand­hi, nor does any col­league quote it. Until attrib­uted it must be con­sid­ered unproven. See:

    He cer­tain­ly did say many uncom­pli­men­ta­ry things, and was par­tic­u­lar­ly exas­per­at­ed with Gand­hi­ji in the midst of fight­ing WW2. Against this we have to con­sid­er that they retained a degree of respect for each oth­er. See:

    I enjoyed your blog and hope you find nir­vana.

  6. Very well writ­ten and well researched. In India, we often hear a sto­ry that when the Viceroy implored upon Churchill to send more food sup­plies to India because “mil­lions were dying”, Churchill is sup­posed to have remarked, “If mil­lions are dying, why isn’t Gand­hi dead yet?”

    The pen of his­to­ry belongs to one that wields the sword. So, we do not know if such an exchange did real­ly hap­pen.

    I like your blog. Please vis­it mine if you get a chance.

    Desi Babu

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