In 1771, numerous American newspapers ran this excerpt of a “Letter from a Gentleman in India”:
On our arrival here, we found a river full of dead human carcasses floating up and down, and the streets crowded with the dead and dying, without anyone attempting to give them relief; so horribly has the famine raged here, that they who were able to walk and procure food for themselves were so accustomed to see their fellow creatures perishing before them, that it did not even create a painful emotion.
The numbers that have perished in Calcutta only, amounted (while they found it possible to keep an account) to 10 or 12,000 a week, but afterwards they became so numerous, that they were every morning just gathered together in a heap, and thrown into the river without any possibility of numbering them. I have myself passed by and seen 20 or 30 lain down to die in the length of one street. I have beheld the hapless infant tugging at the empty breast of its mother just expiring, without being capable of affording them the smallest aid.
The dying mothers have frequently been delivered of the fruit of their wombs in the streets, and both have immediately been swept up amongst the dead. It was no uncommon sight to see dogs running about with human limbs in their jaws, and I am told that many of the expiring wretches were seen gorging on the bodies of those who perished within their reach.
Later historians identify the author as Warren Hastings the chief rival of Robert Clive who ran the East India Company. As I mentioned in my last article on Clive, the East India Company is generally considered to have causes (or allowed for the conditions that caused) the deaths of over 10 million people during the great famine in Bengal between 1769 and 1772. Letters like this appeared all over the empire in an attempt to wrest the control of India from a single corporation – the British East India Company.
In 1765, the British East India Company under the leadership of Robert Clive (Clive of India) acquired the right to collect the diwani (peasant’s tribute) formally held by the Mughal Emperor. Prior to 1764, this tribute had been approximately 10-15% of the agricultural output of the peasantry, but the British East India Company (BEIC) raised the rate to 40 to 50%. In addition, the BEIC outlawed the “hoarding” of rice and other staples, including those stockpiles traditionally held for the periodic droughts and famines that have hit India with some regularity for all of recorded history. Under the Mughal’s, the practice was to put aside a portion of the crop in a reserve so that charity could be given in times of famine. The EIC wanted to maximize profits, so they outlawed this practice.
So, when drought hit in 1769, and the inevitable Crop failure ensued the emperor and his nobles had no reserves to share with the people. Add to this disaster smallpox epidemic and the country was plunged into chaos. What was the EIC response to this disaster, why naturally, they sent their tax collectors out to round up the remaining rice and other foodstuffs needed to meet shareholder demands back in England. Then the EIC raised the tax rate to 60%, and resorted to “violent” measures to collect the taxes. The EIC was not satisfied with merely maintaining the same level of revenue from the peasants of India in the face of millions of people starving. They wanted more.
By the summer of 1770, people were dying everywhere. Although the monsoon immediately after did bring plentiful rains, it also brought diseases. The famine and crop failures continued. Now the EIC was reaping the rewards for their greed. No crops mean no wealth and no wealth meant no taxes. The EIC when from the biggest most lucrative corporation in history to bankruptcy and they dragged 33 European banks, including the Bank of England, down with them. But don’t worry, Parliament would bail them out after all, many of their key stockholders were now members of the House of Lords.
The EIC convinced Parliament to pass the Tea Act in 1773 to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. The principal objective was to reduce the massive amount of tea held by the financially troubled British East India Company in its London warehouses and to help the financially struggling company survive. The Tea Act actually allowed the EIC to bring tea to North America duty-free. Far from “not taxation without representation,” the Tea Act was in effect a tax holiday, So, why were the residents of Boston so alarmed that they were willing to disguise themselves as Indians (American Indians but the pun is marvelous), climb aboard three EIC ships and destroy £10,000 of duty-free tea incurring the full wrath of Parliament and ultimately the British Army? To keep the EIC from doing to them what had been done in Bengal.
In a series of pamphlets entitled “The Alarm”, circulated in Boston in 1773, Americans all up and down the east coast were urged to refuse tea brought by the EIC from India to America.
Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain. The Revenue of Mighty Kingdoms have centered in their Coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their Avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions, and Monopolies, stripped the miserable Inhabitants of their Property, and reduced whole Provinces to Indigence and Ruin. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them so high at a Rate that the poor could not purchase them. Thus having drained the Sources of the immense Wealth . . . they now, it seems, cast their Eyes on America, as a new Theatre, whereon to exercise their Talents.
People don’t really rebel against taxes, unless they are the oppressor and want others, less able, to pay for their greed. It wasn’t taxes that started the American Revolution, it was fear of oppression and destruction at the hands of a corrupt country and its monarchy. Think about this next time you think about some multimillionaire that isn’t required to pay taxes at the same rate as you. Think about this next time you see a corporation labeled “too big to fail.” Anyone who thinks themselves above the law will ultimately use that power in a manner that is bad for society. It wasn’t the Seven Years War alone that bankrupted the United Kingdom, it was a corporation, formed by 20 men who looted a continent and destroyed one of the wealthiest countries on earth to line their pockets.