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Bengal population, 1751-1801

Bengal population, 1751-1801

              Rama Deb Roy (Population Studies Unit. Indian Statistical Institute.)

"Population of the Province of Bengal , 1751 - 1801".

The regular decennial census operation has been taking place in India since 1872 to throw detailed statistical information on population. For the earlier period no such systematic data are available either for India as a whole or for any other region. A few attempts have been made to estimate the population of the Province of Bengal for the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Henry Thomas Colebrooke in his treatise Remarks on the Husbandry and Commerce of Bengal written in 1794 constructed macro regional estimates of population, labour force and gross agricultural products of Bengal of around 1790 on the basis of some survey methods. During 1807-14 Francis Buchanan conducted a number of micro regional statistical investigations in some districts of the Bengal Province and supplied voluminous data of the contemporary period.

In the present paper an attempt has been made to estimate a decennial series of population of Bengal Province from 1751 to 1801 using some appropriate growth rates of the later periods. Within this half a century period a devastating famine visited Bengal in 1769-70 which had a longterm effect on the growth pattern of her population. In this paper a special attention has also been given to estimate the extent of mortality caused by that famine to arrive at a post famine population figure of Bengal in 1771.

To construct the series of decennial population estimates of Bengal from 1751 to 1801 on a macro regional basis, it has been assumed that the percentage change in population during the fifty-year period from 1751 to 1801 was similar to that of 1871 to 1921. Factors determining the population growth rate were more or less similar in both the segments of time - the Bengal famine of 1769-70 was somehow comparable to the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. It is, however, natural that as the famine occurred at the middle point of the former time segment, its immediate effect was reflected in the growth pattern of population in the following two or three consecutive decades while no such impact of the influenza was to be felt within the time segment under consideration. The following table shows the series of decennial population and also pre-famine (1769) and post-famine (1771) population figures.

Estimated Population of the Bengal Province  1751-1801

(in  thousand)

1751 38779
1761 41352
1769 43553
1771 33085
1781 36162
1791 39055
1801 42179

The method of estimation can be explained as follows. We have started with the percentage variation of population from 1871 to 1921. Over these fifty years the percentage changes were 32.92 for Bengal and 12.78 for Bihar - the two component parts of the Bengal Province. P. C. Mahalanobis and D. Bhattacharya estimated population of Indian subcontinent for the period 1801 - 1921 with regional breakdowns.(1) Applying the above rates on Mahalanobis and Bhattacharya's figures of population of Bengal and Bihar in 1801 which are 28055 thousands and 19931 thousands respectively, we arrive at the figures for the year 1751 and adding them together we get the total population of the Bengal Province to be 38779 thousands as shown in the above table.

Assuming an annual growth rate of 0.8 per cent in Bengal and 0.5 per cent in Bihar we get the total population figures for 1761 and 1769. The average growth rate for Bengal was assumed on the basis of G. F. Hardy's assumption for non-affected districts of the Madras Presidency in the famine of 1876-78;(2) and the same for Bihar was taken as the median growth rates of Mahalanobis-Bhattacharya from 1801 to 1921.

At this point we have to take account of the famine mortality which occurred in 1769-70. It is generally believed that one-third of the total population of Bengal was wiped away by that famine. This ratio was nothing but an eye estimation. Just after the famine the English Supervisors roamed over different districts of Bengal and it seemed to them that almost one-third of total population died. We have tried to improve this situation by estimating the mortality rate with some objective basis.

The districts of the Bengal Province were classified as affected and non-affected ; the affected districts were again divided into
(I) severely affected districts where mortality was assumed to be 40 to 60 per cent,
(ll) moderately affected districts where mortality was assumed to lie between 20 and 30 per cent and
(lll) mildly affected districts where mortality was taken to be only 5 per cent. The percentages of mortality were assumed on the basis of available descriptive materials to indicate the extent of severity for different disrticts.(3) From the recorded information it was ascertained that 65 per cent of the total population were affected in Bengal by the famine. Using the distribution of population in 1872 as weights it was also estimated that in the affected districts 36.17 per cent population in Bengal Province died during the famine. For the non-affected districts the mortality rate was assumed to be 1.5 per cent following the results of mortality study in non-affected districts in the Madras Presidency during the famine of 1876-78 by Hardy.(4)

Applying all these ratios we arrive at the post famine population of 1771 ( 33085 thousands), total reduction being about 24 per cent. It must be pointed here that the total reduction was taken to be caused only by the famine mortality. Factors like total birth and migration were ignored. Over this period, in the famine striken districts people were dying numberlessly in want of food. In such a situation addition by birth was rather a negligible factor. Similar is the case with migration. It can be taken that in that earlier period very few people could have shifted to some secured places because of poor communication system and self content character of the villages. Even if we take a 14 per cent migration ratio for the Bengal Province as a whole following N. G. Chaudhury's estimate for the district of Rajshahi, in the population estimate of Bengal Province the effect of migration may be taken as nil because it can be reasonably assumed that people migrated from the affected districts to the non-affected districts.(5)

On arriving at population for 1771 we have applied an annual growth of one per cent on the affected population and 0.8 per cent on the rest to get the figure for 1781. Here one important point to note is that during famine years death occurs more among the old and the children in comparison with the young generation belonging to the fertile group. Due to the vacuum created in the famine years, the rate of birth is accelerated and population recoups very quickly. Thorold Roger pointed out to a similar tendency in the years of Black Death.(6)

Assuming an annual growth rate of 0.8 per cent the population figure for Bengal Province in 1801 comes to be 42179 thousands which is seemingly very close to that of 1769 (43553 thousands). A generally accepted view in population theory is that after a major famine population takes about 30 years to be recovered. According to this theory, therefore, the growth pattern of population of Bengal over 1751-1801 seems to be quite plausible.


1. Mahalanobis, P. C. and Bhattacharya, D : Growth of Population in India and Pakistan, 1801-1961. Artha Vijnan, March, 1976. Pp. 1-10.

2. Hardy, G. F : Actuarial Report for the Census of 1881. Pp. 12.

3. Chaudhury, N. G : Cartier, Governor of Bengal, 1769-72. Calcutta, 1970. Pp. 71.

4. Hardy, G. F : Ibid . pp. 1-9.

5. Chaudhury, N. G : Ibid. pp. 68-71.

6. Roger, Thorold : Eight Chapters on History of Work and Wages. 7th edn. London, 1908.




Convenor: Alexandre AVDEEV
avdeev@ined.fr and avdeev@ns.econ.msu.ru
Centre for population studies, Faculty of economics, Moscow State University, 119899, MGU, Vorobievy Gory, Moscow, RUSSIA

This page was upgrated  22/11/2000