When famine and drought struck India in 1873 and 1874, the British
government acted quickly to ensure that no casualties occurred.
As part of the so-called Bengal famine relief works, the Calcutta
Mint created 1-rupee “grain” tokens. A pair of the tokens is offered
in A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.’s April 2 auction in Hong Kong.
The famine, also known as the Bihar famine of 1873 to 1874, was
caused by drought. In response, rice was imported from Burma for
distribution. The tokens were presumably used to monitor equitable
distribution of rice to the needy.
Maj. Fred Pridmore wrote about the pieces, briefly, in The Coins
of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Part 4, India (published
Britain had dealt with India’s history of famines back to at least
1770, during the East India Company’s control of parts of the nation,
according to The Imperial Gazetteer, Vol. III, the Indian Empire.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 and 1858 ultimately saw the dissolution
of the British East India Company and the transfer of power to the
The shift of power also spelled a change in famine relief administration.
“A new spirit entered into famine policy when the Government of
India passed to the crown,” according to the Gazetteer.
The Bihar famine became fodder for the front pages of London’s news
publications, like the Feb. 21, 1874, edition of Illustrated London
News accompanying this article, with Indian subjects pleading
before a statue depicting a cow, representing a goddess of plenty, for
respite from the famine.
The crown acted quickly to assist the people of India, and leading
the relief effort was Sir Richard Temple, newly appointed
lieutenant-governor of Bengal.
The 1873 to 1874 famine relief efforts incorporated some of the
lessons learned in earlier efforts under the British crown.
An estimated 21.5 million individuals were affected by the Bihar
famine, with nearly two-thirds of the 67.5 million pounds sterling
spent on providing 300 million daily servings of food (one per person,
per day) in relief.
“Financial consideration were thrown to the winds, but lives were
saved and a great advance was made in administration,” according to
How the tokens played a role is unclear in the literature, but their
denomination and the system of rationing that was instituted suggests
that they may have been provided by a relief agency to families, much
as ration tokens were used in the United States during World War II.
The pair of tokens in the auction are each identified as Extremely
Fine condition and together carry an estimate of $100 to $150 U.S.
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