Rivers, inundations, and grain scarcity in early colonial Bengal

Prof. Ujjayan Bhattacharya, Vidyasagar University, Midnapur


Rivers, by the nature of their seasonal flooding, and volatile change in their courses of flow, determines the scale of ecological impact on agrarian society. Changes in the direction of river flow altered ecological zones creating new deltaic spaces for expansion of agriculture, rendering the older zones moribund. Some rivers altered their character completely – from being a rather peaceful and navigable river to becoming one with marked degree of volatility. For the second half of the 18th one can identify that the channels of Damodar in 1770 and Teesta and Karatoya in 1787-89 had gone through rapid changes in their behavior and caused tremendous ecological shifts in western and north-eastern Bengal.

The long term changes resulting from the immense impact of inundations and change in the system of watercourses were crucial in the process of evolution of new agrarian settlements. But the peculiarities in the nature of floods in the non-deltaic regions of Bengal also determined the immediate impact of the inundations on agrarian society and food security situation. By referring to the nature of floods that occurred in northern and eastern Bengal in 1787-89 the paper will discuss the famine situation that was created by floods particularly because of the uncertainties in grain production and supply.

The paper will also focus on the government’s response to the flood and famine situation in 1787, and how it planned to cope with famine crisis in the 1790s.