Susannah’s Grandad Ran Bengal When Famine Killed Millions

Susannah’s father, the boy in white in this picture from 1940, told her little of her grandfather.

Kavita Puri at the BBC: “I feel enormous shame about what happened,” Susannah Herbert tells me.

Her grandfather was the governor of Bengal, in British India, during the run-up and height of the 1943 famine which killed at least three million people.

She is only just learning about his significant role in the catastrophe, and confronting a complex family legacy.

When I first meet her, she is clutching a photograph from 1940. It’s Christmas Day at the governor’s residence in Bengal. It’s formal, with people sitting in rows, in their finery, staring straight into camera.

In the front are the dignitaries – Viceroy Linlithgow, one of the most important colonial figures in India, and her grandfather Sir John Herbert, Bengal’s governor.

At their feet is a little boy, in a white shirt and shorts, knee-high socks and shiny shoes. It’s Susannah’s father.

He had told her some stories of growing up in India, like the day Father Christmas came in on an elephant, but not much more.

But little was spoken of her grandfather, who died in late 1943.

The causes of the famine are many and complex. While John Herbert was the most important colonial figure in Bengal, he was part of a wider colonial structure. He reported to his bosses in Delhi, who reported to theirs in London.

Dr Janam Mukherjee, historian and the author of Hungry Bengal, tells me Herbert “was the colonial official most directly linked to the famine because he was the chief executive of the province of Bengal at that time”.

One of the policies he executed during World War Two was known as “denial”, where boats and rice – the staple food – were confiscated or destroyed in thousands of villages. It was done because of the fear of a Japanese invasion and the aim was to deny the enemy local resources to fuel their advance into India.

However, the colonial policy was catastrophic for the already fragile local economy. Fishermen couldn’t go to sea, farmers weren’t able to go upstream to their plots, and artisans were unable to get their goods to market. Critically, rice could not be moved around.

Inflation was already high, as the colonial government in Delhi was printing money to pay for the vast war effort on the Asian front. The hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers in Kolkata – then Calcutta – were straining food resources.

Rice imports to Bengal from Burma had halted after it fell to the Japanese. Rice was hoarded, often for profit. And a deadly cyclone hit, wiping out much of Bengal’s rice crop.

Repeated demands – in the middle of the war – to the war cabinet and Prime Minister Winston Churchill for food imports were denied or partially heeded at the time.

The numbers who died are overwhelming. I wondered why Susannah, the granddaughter of Bengal’s governor, felt shame so many decades later.

She tries to explain. “When I was young there was something almost glamorous about having a connection with the British Empire.”

She says she used to borrow a lot of her grandfather’s old clothes. “There were silk scarves, with a nametape saying ‘Made in British India’

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