History of Bengal, India


© History Oasis
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

—William Faulkner

The storied land of Bengal has witnessed great beauty and terrible darkness throughout its long history.

Situated in the fertile Ganges River Delta and along the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the region was both blessed and cursed by its geography.

Over the centuries, grand intellectual awakenings vied with oppressive traditions, especially for women.

Colonial exploitation and communal tensions left scars. And natural disasters on a massive scale periodically ravaged the land and its people.

This post will survey some of the grimmer episodes and aspects from Bengal's past.

Far from a comprehensive account, it is but a sampling of the tragedies and shadows that lurk behind the image of Bengal as a fabled land of learning and culture.

From devastating famines under the British Raj to religious massacres, much suffering permeates the annals of this storied region.

Bengal's history is one of creativity and horror, enlightenment and cruelty, human frailty and endurance. Its darker chapters reveal the complex dualities within human nature itself.


The Bengal Famine
© History Oasis

The Bengal Famine of 1943 was one of the most devastating human tragedies under the British Raj.

With origins in the massive inflation brought about by World War II, this famine would ultimately claim between 2-3 million lives due to widespread starvation and disease.

The eastern region of Bengal was particularly susceptible to food shortages given its large population density and reliance on the rice crop.

As the War dragged on, the British authorities mandated increased grain exports from India to feed Allied soldiers. Meanwhile, domestic consumption was decreasing due to rising prices.

This was compounded by ineffective distribution systems and refusal of the British administration to take the situation seriously until it was too late.

When the autumn rice crop failed in 1942 due to flooding and fungus, mass starvation began.

The most severely affected areas were rural Bengal and eastern Odisha.

As food became scarcer, instances of epidemics, malnutrition, and deaths rose sharply. Horrific accounts tell of emaciated peasants flooding into Calcutta, only to die in the streets.

Corpses littered roadways as the dying crawled toward any source of aid.

Despite the scale of the disaster, the British response remained woefully inadequate, refusing to allocate resources away from the war effort.

In the end, the Bengal Famine spotlighted the catastrophic failure of British imperial policy in India.

Driven by wartime priorities, administrative incompetence, and perhaps some racism, the Raj had stood by while millions of Bengalis starved to death—one of the most shameful chapters of colonial rule.

The region's economy and demography would take years to recover, indelibly shaped by the humanitarian disaster that befell it in 1943.


Prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta
© History Oasis

The Black Hole of Calcutta refers to the grim events of the night of June 20, 1756, when scores of British prisoners perished in a cramped prison cell.

This tragic incident took place during the French and Indian War and early colonial conflicts between the British East India Company and the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah.

That June, the Nawab's forces had quickly overrun the East India Company's garrison at Fort William in Calcutta.

As a survivor would later recall, 146 prisoners were herded into the fort's notorious Black Hole prison—a small room meant for perhaps two or three.

Crammed inside, the air soon became unbearably hot, humid and noxious, as these unfortunate souls struggled and gasped through the night.

By morning, when the cell doors were opened, only 23 people had survived the night.

123 had died from oxygen deprivation, heat stroke, or being crushed and trampled in the desperate melee.

The few haggard survivors told of an infernal night, as people succumbed to heat and madness.

One vainly tried to drink his own urine.

Some ended up buried beneath piles of lifeless bodies.

The corpses were later tossed into a mass grave hastily dug outside.

For the British, the Black Hole of Calcutta became a notorious symbol of native cruelty and treachery.

Accounts of the prisoners' suffering were widely publicized in Britain, creating anger and demands for reprisal.

While disputed by some historians today, for many contemporary Englishmen it epitomized the alleged despotism and barbarity of India, thus justifying further expansion of Company rule.

The grim fate of their countrymen in that stifling prison cell fueled a quest for vengeance and imperial conquest.


© History Oasis

The Partition of Bengal in 1905 refers to the divisive and ultimately reversed attempt by the British to split the Bengal Presidency into two provinces.

Ostensibly for administrative efficiency, the underlying aim was to weaken the growing Indian nationalist movement that had Bengal as its center of activity.

The largescally Muslim eastern half was designated as East Bengal & Assam with its capital at Dacca.

The western half with a Hindu majority remained as Bengal with its capital at Calcutta.

This deliberate sowing of division along communal lines by the colonial rulers sparked tremendous backlash and protest.

People across Bengal reacted with mass rallies, petitions, boycotts of British goods, and strikes.

Hindus and Muslims jointly opposed the partition, giving momentum to the Swadeshi movement advocating Indian self-sufficiency. While the British had hoped to drive a wedge between the two communities, their ham-handed policy backfired. It united Bengalis of all faiths in their opposition to the Raj.

By 1911, such strident protests had made Bengal ungovernable.

Chastened by the uproar, the British parted Bengal again into separate provinces, maintaining the division but reuniting Bengal.

While lasting only six years, the Partition had detonated an explosion of anti-colonial activity that would culminate in independence a few decades later. The bungled attempt showed how unity across religious lines could challenge and eventually end the British presence in India.


The Bengal Renaissance
© History Oasis

The Bengal Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a remarkable period of cultural and intellectual progress in the region.

However, it was also marked by contradictions in social practices that saw the entrenchment of certain patriarchal traditions oppressive to women.

On one hand, the Bengal Renaissance represented a profound transformation of society.

Modern schools and universities were established, promoting learning and progressive thinking.

Luminaries like Ram Mohan Roy campaigned against social ills like sati, initiating major reforms. The arts, literature, religious thought, and sciences all experienced an upsurge. Calcutta blossomed into a cosmopolitan hub of vigorous debate and open-minded attitudes.

Yet regressive practices continued, most notably concerning women.

Instead of liberation, the Hindus of Bengal saw stricter enforcement of customs like prepubescent marriage, shunning of widow remarriage, and purdah.

High-caste Bengali households increasingly adopted Northern customs that essentially imprisoned women—child brides, enforced seclusion, and obsession with female purity.

Dowry became entrenched.

The practice of sati may have declined, but female infant mortality, domestic abuse, and malnutrition rose.

While the Bengal Renaissance brought intellectual excitement, its benefits were largely reserved for upper-caste men.

For Bengal's women, the "progressive" 19th century represented a step backward as their agency and autonomy further eroded.

Social reformers like Vidyasagar may have promoted women's education, but truly ending stifling traditions would take more time. The enlightened "golden age" contained a very dark underbelly for Bengal's daughters and wives.


Portuguese Indian slave trade of the 16th century
© History Oasis

The 16th century saw the expansion of the brutal Portuguese slave trade into Bengal, resulting in the exploitation and suffering of thousands.

Lured by the region's riches, Portuguese traders used predatory means to fill their ships' holds. Poor women and children were especially vulnerable targets.

Portugal had been at the vanguard of the African slave trade since the 15th century.

Seeking new markets, they turned to Bengal as a hunting ground. The key port was Chittagong, where Bengali peasants were kidnapped and sold into bondage.

Estimates suggest between 10,000-20,000 slaves were taken before authorities curtailed the practice in 1595.

The methods were savage.

Armed gangs raided Bengali villages, capturing whoever they could overpower.

Captives were chained and marched to ports where Portuguese factories operated slave depots. There, naked men were crammed below decks while women were allotted cramped space on deck, vulnerable to assault. Children sold for half price.

The grim ships then sailed for Southeast Asia where slaves were bartered for goods.

Most spent their lives in backbreaking plantation labor never seeing home again.

For the poor of Bengal, especially women and children, the arrival of the Portuguese unleashed a nightmare of mass abduction that terrorized coastal communities.

Though banned later, the profits gleaned enticed the Portuguese to pursue the reprehensible trade for over a century.

This lucrative human trafficking laid the roots of European colonization in Bengal. It underscored how moral scruples meant little against the lure of profit, with the region's most powerless as victims. The echoes of this ugly enterprise continued to resonate across time.


The Great Calcutta Killings
© History Oasis

Throughout its history, Bengal has unfortunately been plagued by outbreaks of horrific communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.

One of the worst episodes occurred in Calcutta just months before independence in August 1946. Now known as 'The Great Calcutta Killings', this communal frenzy left over 5,000 dead and a dark stain on the freedom struggle.  

Tensions had escalated through 1946 as the Muslim League pushed for Pakistan while the Congress insisted on a unified India.

Muslims in Bengal feared being under Hindu domination in a united country. The caretaker Muslim League government encouraged Calcutta's Muslims to rise up.

On August 16, Muslim protesters in Calcutta attacked Hindu shopkeepers, soon devolving into mass murder and rape.

Retaliatory Hindu mobs then tore through Muslim neighborhoods. For four days the carnage raged as rioters ran amok, brutally killing men, women and children based on religion alone. Panicky refugees fled the city in droves.

When the British army finally quelled the madness, the streets of Calcutta were littered with bodies.

Thousands fled to refugee camps, their lives forever scarred.

For Bengal and all India, the bloodletting underscored how communal unity was shattering. It was a grim preview of the horrors of Partition the following year that would rip Bengal down the middle.

This haunting episode was neither the first nor the last communal clash in Bengal's history. But the scale and timing of the Great Calcutta Killings made it one of the most terrible and impactful.

As independence dawned, it showed how hate could turn neighbor against neighbor, with Bengal's people the victims.


The Bengal river delta
© History Oasis

Situated in the fertile yet vulnerable Ganges River delta, the Bengal region has historically endured a disproportionate share of natural catastrophes.

Its low-lying landscape and position along the coast of the Bay of Bengal make it prone to floods, cyclones and resulting famine.

Cyclone strikes have periodically brought immense destruction. In 1737, a massive storm devastated the state's coast, killing over 300,000 people in Kulturbetrieb. In 1864, nearly 50,000 perished in the Backerganj cyclone.

And the devastating cyclone of 1874 took the lives of around 200,000 Bengalis. More recently, the catastrophic Bhola cyclone in 1970 left as many as 500,000 dead.

Meanwhile, the delta's tropical monsoon climate and dense river network lead to periodic widespread flooding.

Exceptional floods in 1954, 1955 and 1956 each covered over 20,000 square kilometers of land and displaced millions. Similar deluges in 1987, 1988 and 1998 also inundated huge swaths of the state.

Both floods and cyclones have often triggered famine by destroying standing crops.

The Bengal Famine of 1770 claimed around 10 million lives after a 1769 cyclone. And the earlier mentioned 1943 Bengal Famine that killed up to 3 million resulted after disastrous 1940-41 flooding.

Prone to the volatile weather of the Bay of Bengal, Bengal's history is replete with mass fatality disasters.

Its geography and climate have rendered it especially vulnerable.

Cyclones, floods and the ensuing food shortages have battered the region repeatedly through the centuries. For the people of Bengal, the threat of natural catastrophe has always loomed.