First World Hegemony and Mass Mortality – from Bengal to Afghanistan

NewsCentralAsia, Asia
Aug 10 2004

First World Hegemony and Mass Mortality – from Bengal to Afghanistan
and Iraq
Dr. Gideon Polya

The world has now been confronted for a dozen years by the continuing
devastation of strategically-located, oil-rich Iraq by Anglo-American
armies and their allies. Afghanistan has been devastated by a quarter
century of war intimately connected with First World rivalries and
both Russian and US desires for Indian Ocean access to Central Asia.
These extensions of what was once called the `Great Game’ between
Britain and Russia have had an appalling human cost.

Using United Nations population statistics for the period 1950 to the
present it has been possible to calculate the `excess mortality’ (or,
essentially, the avoidable mortality) for every country in the world
for this period. `Excess mortality’ is simply the difference between
the ACTUAL deaths in a country and the deaths EXPECTED for a
decently-run, peaceful country with the same demographic
characteristics. The results are startling and horrifying. The total
post-1950 `excess mortality’ has been 5.2 million for Iraq, 16.2
million for Afghanistan, 550 million for the Muslim world, 1,230
million for the non-European world – and 54 million in total for all
the countries of Europe, North America and Australasia.

The French have a saying `Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’
(the more things change, the more they stay the same). We can go back
in history and see that the same greed, violence, racism, dishonesty
and criminal immorality involved in continuation of First World
hegemony in the world today is closely mirrored in the European
expansion into the non-European world over the last 500 years.

Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and French expansion into the
Americas brought disease that, in addition to egregious violence,
wiped out millions and destroyed sophisticated civilizations. The
subsequent slave trade from Africa transported 15 million to America
but associated deaths in Africa may have been much greater. While
knowing of the deadly transmissibility of disease in the Americas (23
million victims) and from the medieval Black Death (24 million
victims), the Europeans happily devastated Australasia and the
Pacific through disease in the 19th century (1-2 million victims).
The Europeans carved up Africa in the 19th century and imposed
horrendous colonial regimes. Thus the Belgians butchered some 10
million Congolese in exacting rubber supplies; colonial wars
slaughtered millions more. The Europeans left a crippled continent in
the 1960s.

Two hundred and fifty years ago Bengal was a prosperous province of
the Muslim Mughal Empire in India. Bengal led the world in its
agriculture, civil administration and textiles. The textiles were so
fine it was said that you could pass a sari of Dacca silk through a
wedding ring. However in the mid-18th century the East India Company
turned its attention seriously to Bengal and the British set up a
trading post called Fort William at the site of what is now Calcutta.
Steady pressure from the British (as well as from the French, Dutch,
Portuguese and Danes) eventually elicited Bengali resistance and in
1756 the Muslim Nawab (or Prince) of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah,
captured Fort William.

British-Bengali machinations may have meant that the Nawab was merely
supposed to besiege Fort William and then a palace revolution would
secure `régime change’ in favour of the British. In the event, Fort
William was taken and all school children in the British Empire were
subsequently told the dreadful story of the Black Hole of Calcutta –
how, supposedly, 146 British prisoners were incarcerated overnight in
a small prison cell in captured Fort William and in the morning only
23 survivors (including the one woman) emerged alive. This story is
believed by many historians to have been greatly exaggerated. However
for a quarter of a millennium it has very successfully demonized
Indians and, by extension, all non-Europeans who resisted European

In 1757 the British returned with a vengeance, bribed important
Bengali princes to withhold their troops and, at the Battle of
Plassey, Robert Clive won a stunning victory over numerically vastly
greater Bengali forces. Siraj-ud-daulah was hunted down, captured,
chopped into pieces and demonized forever. A key plotter was Mir
Jafar and he was rewarded by being made the next Nawab by the British
(just as the US helped install the Shah in Iran and Saddam Hussein in

After the British had installed their puppet Nawab they set about
taxing the Bengalis. Taxes that formally would go successively
through collectors, zamindars and the Nawab to the Mughal Emperor to
pay for civil administration now started to flow to the East India
Company and its officers. Robert Clive returned to Britain in 1767 as
its richest man. In responding to Parliamentary cross-examination in
1773 about his excessive wealth from the down-trodden Bengalis, Clive
declared `By God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at
my own moderation’. The vast wealth flowing from India with the East
India Company and its returning officers (the so-called `nabobs’, a
corruption of `nawab’) helped fund the Industrial Revolution and 2
centuries of British global domination that has variously devastated
peoples and cultures on 6 continents.

Unfortunately the British exceeded themselves and a mere 12 years
after the Battle of Plassey a temporary food shortage in Bengal
translated inexorably into the man-made Great Bengal Famine of
1769-1770 that killed 10 million Bengalis, one third of the
population. Over-taxed Bengalis who could not meet the escalating
price of grain simply starved. The East India Company, concerned
about its diminishing profits, sent Warren Hastings out to Calcutta
to reorganize taxation of the half-starved, surviving Bengalis.
Hastings succeeded and indeed greatly extended British control in
India. However his rapacious excesses (from the robbery of the Begums
of Oudh to famine in the Gangetic plain) led to his impeachment by
Parliament after his return to England and a protracted trial.
Hastings was acquitted in 1795 in what has been Britain’s only war
crimes trial of a major colonial administrator. He has been lionized
by British historians as a great founder of Empire.

Two centuries of British rule in India saw recurrent famines that
killed scores of millions. Further, the British railways, irrigation
canals and shipping spread cholera (endemic to Bengal) throughout
British India at the cost of an estimated 25 million lives in the
19th century. The British taxation system deprived indigenous Indian
institutes of support (noting that education is vital in the war on
disease and want). The Bengal textile industry was destroyed and
Britain exported textiles to India. Well-watered, warm Bengal with an
energetic population is a part of the sub-continent that should never
suffer famine. Nevertheless Bengal suffered repeated famine in the
1860s and 1870s and at the turn of the century.

Of course Bengal was part of an empire `on which the sun never sets’.
The British traded Bengali opium to China for tea and silver, this
trade precipitating the 19th century China Opium Wars and the
subsequent Tai Ping rebellion that took 20-100 million lives

In 1918-1919 Indian soldiers returning from World War 1 brought
influenza to India (this causing 17 million deaths). Indeed the
global influenza death toll of some 40 million greatly exceeded the
military casualties of World War 1 (8 million). However in the middle
of World War 2 the price of rice begin to rise in Bengal for a
variety of reasons (cessation of supplies from Japanese-occupied
Burma, small seasonal losses from fungal infection and storm damage,
the divide-and-rule granting of food supply autonomy to Indian
provinces, sequestration of some rice stocks and decreased grain
imports via Indian Ocean shipping because of shipping losses in the
Atlantic). However, as analysed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen,
Calcutta was experiencing a war-time boom and effectively sucked food
out of a food-producing countryside. Those who could not afford rice
at 4 times the normal price simply starved under a callous British

The death toll from the man-made Bengal famine was 4 million as
compared to the deaths from the Jewish Holocaust (6 million), the
Namibian genocide (0.1 million), the Rwandan Tutsi genocide (1
million), the World War 1 Armenian Holocaust (1 million), the Polish
(6 million), Soviet (20 million) and Chinese (35 million) losses in
World War 2, the Chinese Great Leap Forward (16-30 million victims)
and the millions who died in the Russian, Chinese and Ukrainian
famines between the World Wars, the Soviet Gulags and Pakistan-Indian

In an astonishing collective act of racist white-washing, the Bengal
famine has been largely expunged from British historical writing.
History ignored yields history repeated and the Bengalis have
continued to suffer: post-Independence Partition massacres and
displacements in 1947, US-backed West Pakistan invasion in 1971 (3
million dead, 0.3 million women raped, 10 million refugees) and
further famine and murderous US-backed régime change (1974). However
the biggest killers in Bengal since 1950 have been deprivation,
malnourishment, disease and illiteracy – the post-1950 `excess
mortality’ has been 51 million in Bangladesh (present population 150
million) and about 27 million in West Bengal (population about 80

What can be learned from this sorry tale? The biggest message is that
ignoring or white-washing mass mortality simply allows unimpeded
continuance or repetition. Indeed Bengal is now facing a devastating
prospect of inundation from global warming-induced sea level rises.
The US and Australia, variously linked with Bengal’s previous
man-made disasters, refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol while being
among the world’s worst greenhouse gas polluters. In the past month
over two thirds of Bangladesh has been under water from international
monsoon run-off. Afghanistan and Iraq simply illustrate the same
sorts of First World impositions that devastated Bengal for over a
quarter of a millennium in the interests of profit, power and
imperial satisfaction – manipulation, corruption of indigenous
leaders, régime change, vilification and demonization of indigenous
opponents, militarization, debt, economic distortion, economic
exclusion, divide-and-rule, support for intra- and international war,
sanctions, invasion, occupation, extirpation of undesired indigenous
opponents, installation of unelected governments and inclusion into a
new order of global, violence-backed hegemony. Of course, just like
the mythology of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the demonization of
Indians and the asserted nobility of British civilization and Pax
Britannica, today we have the non-existent weapons of mass
destruction, the demonization of Muslims and the violent and
massively deadly imposition of an Anglo-American vision of `freedom’.

Sensible analysis of the horrendous mass mortality in the world over
the last half century indicates that the First World imposes war for
profit and that war kills massively – but mainly through deprivation
and malnourishment-exacerbated disease that sweeps away 20 million
people a year or 60,000 a day and overwhelmingly in the non-European
world. It is the IGNORING of horrendous global mass mortality that is
the fundamental cause of this continuing tragedy.

About the author: Dr Gideon Polya is a Melbourne-based scientist and
writer. Over a 4 decade scientific career he published some 130
works, most recently a huge, pharmacological reference text
“Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds’ (Taylor &
Francis/CRC Press, London & New York, 2003).