A history of the 1943 Bengal famine that shows Britain and Winston Churchill in a distinctly unheroic light.
Mukerjee (Land of the Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, 2003) reminds readers that Britain’s shock at Hitler’s 1940 blitzkrieg was matched in 1942 when Japan easily conquered Burma. Fearing invasion through nearby Bengal, Indian officials ordered the destruction of local infrastructure including warehouses, boats, bridges and roads of this vastly overpopulated area dependent on Burma for rice imports, which were now cut off. Bad weather that year reduced harvests, and grain purchases to feed the army raised prices. Famine broke out in 1943. Mukerjee quotes survivors and letters from shocked British soldiers, painting an often gruesome picture. Skeletal refugees poured into Calcutta, corpses littered the streets and the air smelled of decay. The news of the famine produced offers of food from the United States, Canada and Australia, which Britain indignantly rejected. Irritated at the Indian independence movement, Churchill accused pleading colonial officials of overreacting. The famine was India’s fault, he insisted, caused by hoarding and local corruption. Readers will squirm as the author recounts months of cabinet debates alternating with awful scenes of starvation. Churchill’s advisors assured him that ships were in short supply, and diverting food would cause shortages in Britain and Europe. Mukerjee and many historians disagree—ships and food were abundant. A better harvest and a few food shipments eased the famine in 1944, but not before several million people died.
An important though uncomfortable lesson for readers who think they know the heroes and villains of World War II.