TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE CATASTROPHE IN BENGAL.
THAT telegram from India, announcing that half the popu- lation of Orissa have perished in the famine, must be a lie. It is impossible, inconceivable, incredible, that so trans- cendental a horror, one so utterly beyond all precedent, so nearly beyond imagination, should actually have occurred, that so inexpiable a disgrace should have fallen upon the British name. Two millions and a half of people dead of hunger in five months 1 Why, they are British subjects, and British subjects in India living under the care of a paternal despotism, —of a Government with boundless power to help, with a con- tinent to tax at will, with a revenue of 46,000,0001., with 14,000,0001. in its treasuries,—of a Government which declares that its moral right to reign is its care for the masses of the population,—of a Government which, if it has a fault, has that of loving the peasantry above the landholders. The state- ment is false, the invention of an enemy, to disgrace us in the eyes of the world. Two millions and a half of human beings dead of hunger on the south-west coast of
Bengal Why, the coast is opposite Arracan, the rice granary of India, looks straight to the mouths of the Ganges, and the rich Delta whose endless wealth of pro- duction supplies the surplus revenue of a continent, opposite ports crowded with shipping, under a Government which can transport armies, which can find agents by the million, which maintains in comfort soldiers equal in number to three-fifths of the families which the telegraph says have perished. Two millions and a half of people, five hundred thousand heads of houses, five hundred thousand mothers, fifteen hundred thousand children, dead of hunger ! Why, the Viceroy is the picked Indian, the man chosen by a nation because of his capacity to govern, the ruler who risked a rebellion to secure comfort to the peasantry of Oude, the Englishman whom of all human beings philanthropists would have picked out for a throne, and he is in the Hills, as far away from those whom this villanons story represents as dying in myriads as Warsaw is from Paris. Two millions and a half of people!— twice the population of Denmark or of Greece, eight Suffolks, six Hampshires, five-sixths of Scotland, dead of hunger. Why, they are trusted to the Government of Bengal, and the " Govern- ment " is a cool, far-sighted civilian, who has just been selected for honour, and he has not stirred from his hill retreat, has not gone among the dying, or sent a representative, or organ- ized relief at his capital, or shown the faintest idea that he is face to face with a calamity such as, since the birth of Christ, has scarcely stricken the subjects of a civilized State. Two millions and a half of men, and women, and babies, our sub- jects, dead of hunger! Why, we are Christians, and if but one woman so dies, move the whole force of the State to secure inquiry and relief from a horror which chills the warm comfort of our wealth. It is a lie, incredible and absurd.
And yet—and yet—and yet. Suppose, when the potato crop failed in Ireland, there had been no England, and no Poor Law, and no store of realized wealth, and no roads, and no Government, would the awful statement of that telegram—a statement which, could we but realize its true meaning, would have condensed all British energy into one frenzied effort for relief—have been impossible? Two millions, three millions, could have died, would have died in Ireland, died of sheer want of food ; and we feel no security whatever that they have not died in Orissa, where all those conditions exist, no reason why a calamity absolutely without a parallel in a country governed by Christians should not at this moment be occurring in Bengal. The famine, it is clear, is real, and it covers a terrible extent of country. Dismissing for a moment the vague word " Orissa," which is used in all manner of ways, it seems certain that in six counties or districts, South Midnapore, Hidjellee, Tellasore, Balasore, Cuttack, and North Ganjam, throughout the entire north-west coast of the Bay of Bengal, and far away into an interior of hill, and jungle, and swamp, among Coles, and Gonda and Khonds, and tribes whose names are unheard in Europe, the crops have failed almost entirely for three suc- cessive years, that on a part of that territory the cyclone of October, 1864, worked terrible ravages, driving masses of sand over the rice plains ; that the crops of 1865 were worse than those of the year before, and that this year there have been none, a sudden rise of the Mahanuddy and its cognate rivers having swept away the last chance of the wretched cultivators. Through this region, larger than England and Wales—official Orissa alone is 52,000 square miles, and the famine stretches deep in Madras and into the back country—there dwell at least six millions of people, of whom perhaps one-third or half may be accounted "civilized," men, that is, with some sense of foresight and precaution, the rest savages, tillers most of them, but wasteful, capricious, and utterly poverty-stricken. There are very few wealthy men in the whole region, few officials, few towns of any magnitude, and the country is one of the most difficult in Asia, full of wide salt marshes, hills, ravines, rivers dry in summer and torrents in winter, and wide plains and valleys covered. with dense jungle. Their crops once gone, those people would die, die wholesale, by villages at a time • and they are gone, gone so completely that there are paces where "rice is selling at a shilling a pound," or, to use the English analogy, the quartern loaf costs six shillings, twelve times the price of a good year. That price is of course utterly prohibitory, and in most of the region rice at any price is no longer procurable, food having so utterly disappeared that English magistrates indent on the charitable store for food, and apply to friends in Calcutta, 120 miles off, for bread and poultry, the very hens having perished for want of grain. We have explained before the difficulties, or we should say the impossibility, of emigration, of the flight, that is, of millions over a roadless country in the rainy season towards a hungry coast, or a capital, one, two, three, or four hundreds of miles away. No such flight ever occurred any- where, and in " Orissa " it was simply impossible, even if the masses had the energy or the knowledge to accomplish it. The wild tribes would not try ; to the semi-civilized Hindoo outside his village there is a howling world full of all unknown dangers, and they do not fly, save the few to whom their despair, or a leader, or some trifle of knowledge has given courage, and who to the number of twenty thousand, or some such insignificant total, have flung themselves on the ready charity of Calcutta. We have no moral doubt whatever, having read the accounts from Calcutta and the afflicted districts, that hundreds of villages have lost their popu- lation, that whole tribes have died of hunger and its con- sequences, that, in short, the Indian telegram is only an exaggeration concealing an equally terrible truth.
The official statements are few, Government steadily suppres- sing all information lest it should cause a panic, and we shall probably not know the full truth in a definite form until the reports of the American missionaries in Balasore have reached New York, and rebounded thence, but the few figures which crop out are ominous. The statement that half the population has perished was made originally by one " who has been many years resident in Orissa," that is, we doubt not, by a mis- sionary, no other class of Europeans residing there "many years." Then a Calcutta journal, obviously inspired by the Local Committee of Belief in Balasore, stated that the deaths in Balasore amounted to 300 a day, and the Government demanded of its officials a report against the libel. Mr. H. Muspratt, the collector of the district, replied that he had catechized all persons likely to have sent such information to the journal, and had not found any—that kind of tyrannical in- quisition being always evaded in India by a very simple device —but that on 8th August he had 245 deaths in the city, on the 9th, 151, and for the week ending the 9th, 126 a day, the bodies remaining sometimes unburied for three days. So utter, he admits, is the famine, that it has reached the Europeans. " Poultry and eggs are procured in small quantities with very great difficulty, and at one time there were only four maunds of wheat in my hands, and none was procurable in the district. Through the kindness of R. B. Chapman, Esq., Secretary to the Board of Revenue, I obtained a further supply of fifty maunds to furnish the [European] residents with bread." At the same time the Government. " stock of rice was almost exhausted, and it became a very serious question how the officials could obtain supplies for the table." That is exactly as if the distress in Lancashire had risen to a height which compelled Lord Derby to think seriously whether he could much longer procure the Countess food. To those who know India volumes could not tell more than that unconscious touch from an official pen, wielded, too, by a man known to be at once quiet, considerate, and a sportsman. Balasore being within reach of the coast, and ruled by a man who evidently realized the situation, is not the worst off of the afflicted districts, yet Balasore is des- cribed as a " charnel-house." One paper declares that 400,000 souls have perished in maritime Orissa alone. The secretary to the Relief Fund reports that it is maintaining 200,000 persons, of whom 170,000 "are incapacitated for
work," and the belief of many members was that, the people having no seed-corn, the famine must last another year ; and when it ended but one-fourth of the population would be left alive, three millions of people at least would have per- ished. " Evident exaggeration there ?" We trust in God there is, but we have one remark to make. Indian editors never accept a native statement, and though Indian settlers exagge- rate, no doubt, they have no interest in exaggerating native suf- fering, and no tendency to do it, the drift and instinctive bias of the class being unfortunately all the other way. When they raise the cry of famine, we may rely on it it is raining death. This writer remembers three Indian famines, and in only one was the European community seriously stirred, and that one almost depopulated a province. It is our sincere conviction, written with full appreciation of the gravity of the statement, that when a year hence the officials have thoroughly sifted and compared the facts, it will be found that one-third of the popu- lation of the stricken districts has disappeared, that some two millions of human beings have died of hunger, exposure, and the diseases which exposure and hunger everywhere produce.
We wish we could stop there, but it is impossible. There are calamities like the earthquake of Lisbon or the Bengal cyclone of 1864, before which man has only to bow his head in sorrowful recognition of a will wiser and mightier and more merciful than his own, but famine is not one of these calamities, is one which human beings can re- lieve, or under some circumstances avert. The latter point we shall not press. It is affirmed distinctly in Calcutta that Government was warned of the impending calamity twelve months ago, that it disregarded the warning, that it established no stores and made no preparations, and that up to the actual explosion it was preparing for an increase in the taxation, or rather rental, of Orissa ; but we will let that pass. It is always difficult for men to believe that that which has been will not always be, and in India, where statistics are unknown, and nature can repair in a week the losses of a month, prophetic administration is nearly impossible. But when the catastrophe had occurred, when it was once known that men were dying in hundreds, that the distress had passed all local bounds, and that we might have millions to keep alive, the course of the Government was clear. Sir Cecil Beadon should at once have started for Balasore, which is nearer Calcutta than Darjeeling, and organized an army of relief as he would one of occupation, meanwhile loading every procurable ship with rice for the coast, thence to be carried as the supplies of an army would have been carried to great cen- tral depots. Or, if other business pressed so severely that he could not go himself, he should have appointed the best admin- istrator about him Special Commissioner, armed him with the whole power of Government, which, whenever Government chooses, is absolute, and then, hurrying to Calcutta, have kept up with his agent an incessant communication of supplies. Instead of that, he first rejected offers of outside assistance, then allowed some petty sum to be expended, 50,0001. or 60,000/., we believe, and at last ordered rice to be sent and sold to the famishing population at bazaar rates. That proviso, which looks so silly, is under certain circumstances wise. In the case of a small and local famine, the sale of rice from Govern- ment stores at a fixed price or its free gift acts like a law of maximum, and represses the natural import ; but this was neither a local nor a small famine. The people had no money to buy with, the province was exhausted, and the single duty of Government was to keep the population alive at any cost, and at any hazard to official traditions. Even then the Lieutenant-Governor might not have saved the people. The calamity might have transcended the whole force of the State, but at least he would have done his utmost, would have justi- fied the claim to "paternal rule," would have convinced the people that their destruction was the result of the will of God, and not of man's neglect. As it was, he retired to the pleasant Hills, where there is no heat, or drought, or officious Europeans, and the matter, left to subordinates, to a Board slow beyond even the average of Boards, got itself lazily and perfunctorily performed. Ships arrived and were lost, rice was stolen in transit, the quantities pur- chased were too small, and on 30th August Mr. Muspratt, collector of Balasore, reported that the rice was so nearly exhausted that even European officials were threatened with a want of the necessaries of life, while the daily average of deaths in his station—not his district, mind—was 126. As many were dying daily in one petty town from hunger as died daily in London from cholera during the last month. For the failure of supply the officials will of course have a hundred
excuses, but the broad facts cannot be denied. With a population starving, Sir Cecil Beadon, who governs forty millions of men and has a State treasury at his back, did not send rice enough to prevent deaths from hunger on the coast, did npt care enough either to superintend the supply himself or send a special agent to see it done. He may plead that he had not control of funds, his power of inde- pendent expenditure being limited to 2,000/. ; but that merely throws back the blame upon the Viceroy. How came Sir John Lawrence, warned as he was by the Europeans, whom he does not distrust, not to interfere ? He is not afraid of revolu- tionary vigour. He did not hesitate to remove Mr. Wingfield, the Chief Commissioner of Oude, an officer whose rank is barely short of that held by Sir Cecil Beadon, because he thought his policy hard upon the peasantry. How came he to take such a view of his duty that Lord Cranborne was com- pelled to order him to spend freely and liberally, or to tele- graph to England for subscriptions, or to remain in the Hills ordering stately ceremonials, when a province was perishing of hungers So terrible a failure has hardly been recorded in the annals of British India, and if-the telegram of Monday is true, or half true, or a twentieth true, the British Parliament will yet ask of him, as the Duke d'Aumale asked of Napoleon,— what have you done with the people of Orissa ?