WHO STARVED A NATION
During a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S., Britain also saw monuments topple in 2020. In June protestors in Bristol pulled down a statue of a 17thcentury slave trader, rolled it through the streets, and then dumped it into the harbor nearby. That same month a crowd in London defaced a statue of one of Britain’s greatest heroes: Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister who led the nation to victory over Nazi Germany. Someone added a piece of graffito to the base of the statue in London’s Parliament Square. The message: “Churchill was a racist.” But was he really?
Richard Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of three books on Churchill, thinks so, and adds that Churchill’s leadership during World War II and his resistance to the Nazis can’t diminish his racism. According to Toye, Churchill had said he hated people with “slit eyes and pig tails” and that Indians were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” But when racist views are held by people in power, they can lead to action—or inaction—that is to other people’s significant detriment. In Churchill’s case, racism influenced the drafting of policies that cost more than 3 million Indian lives in 1943.
At that time Bengal, a South Asian region that’s now divided between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, was undergoing a major famine. That was nothing new: There had been five other famines in the region since 1870. But for those other five, drought had been the cause. A joint U.s.-indian study published in 2019 found that the 1943 famine was different: There was no drought that year. In fact, the rain levels had been above average. “This was a famine caused by policy failure,” concluded the lead researcher, and that policy had been dictated from London. The suffering was extensive and horrific, and the tragedy was magnified by the political refusal to even recognize the famine as well as redistribution of vital supplies to the British military and the stoppage of rice imports from Burma. Instead, India exported 70,000+ tons of rice just as the famine was starting. Churchill’s reaction: A war is going on, and aid won’t do much good anyway. “Famine or no famine, the Indians will breed like rabbits.”