Famine: a short history

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 17

Famine: a short history
Cormac Ó Gráda
(Princeton, $27.95)
ISBN 9780691122373


73_small_1252855893Some time ago, before I went to Tanzania, I asked a class of adults who had returned to education whether they thought that the Great Irish Famine contributed to a particular empathy with the plight of Africa in Ireland. Spontaneously, they replied that it did, that their own feelings towards Africa were at least in part formed by a sense of a common past. It was a far from scientific survey—a random selection of very decent people, not all of whom had had it easy—but they were right in their equation of the African famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the Great Irish Famine of the nineteenth: mass mortality from disease more than hunger; migration in search of subsistence; crime, prostitution, suicide, infanticide and demoralisation.
Cormac Ó Gráda, well known in this country for his book of ten years ago on the Irish Famine, has now expanded on the subject to a write a short history of a world phenomenon. If it is a relatively short book, conceptually it is an enormous task: Ó Gráda ranges across time and space, from classical times to the near-present, from West Cork to Northern China, as he discerns the universal characteristics of famine. At one level, famine is immediately recognisable: a swollen belly, over-sized eyes and spindle limbs. Somewhat more dispassionately, no one could disagree with the singular definition offered by Ó Gráda of famine as ‘a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases’. Amartya Sen, an influential writer on famine in recent years, defines famine as ‘the inability of large groups of people to establish command over food in the society in which they live’. These straightforward formulations speak of a disempowerment that has left an unknowable number of people dead over the last century alone. Estimates range from 60 to 70 million.
Who were these people? Karl Marx, quoted by Ó Gráda, remarked in Das Kapital that the Great Irish Famine killed ‘poor devils only’. It is a simple phrase that covers a multitude, erasing the distinction between mass and individual. Ó Gráda, through his use of folklore sources, has restored a sense of who the Irish dead were. Some differentiation has been made in the Bengal famine of 1943–4.
Elsewhere, the very poor leave the least trace. Non-literate Africans have left some oral accounts, but their reliability has been questioned. Some people simply do not want to remember. Bureaucratic records are scant. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ famine in China in 1959–61 remains the largest ever, and unique in China in that it enveloped the entire country. Ó Gráda discusses the various estimates of how many people died. He concludes that a toll of 25 million dead is as plausible a figure as 15 million. Rana Mitter in A bitter revolution gives a figure of 30 million. Both sides of the Cold War had an interest in manipulating the figures for famine deaths in the Soviet Union.
More recently, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were given to exaggerating the number of people potentially at risk, not least to raise their profile and fund-raising operations. Donor governments may also have an interest in keeping the figures high—an opportunity for what is effectively dumping surplus foodstuffs in the case of the EU and United States. Recipient governments may see an opportunity to entrench their domestic positions.
It is possible to define in quite simple terms what a famine is. What happened and what brought it about is another matter. The simple logic of Thomas Malthus’s late eighteenth-century prescription that famine is ‘the last and most dreadful mode by which nature represses a redundant population’, that population would outstrip production and suffer the inevitable consequence, had an easy appeal. In societies where the élites were trying hard to row back on their reciprocal obligations to the less fortunate, Malthus provided a ready excuse: ideological self-interest masquerading as disinterested science. Markets then become the preferred mechanism for the restoration of equilibrium. But famines by their nature are relatively sudden, catastrophic events, likely to overwhelm markets. Putting it bluntly, Ó Gráda concludes that ‘in nineteenth century Ireland and India a dogmatic faith on the part of the ruling elite in markets as a mechanism for relieving famine cost millions of lives’.
Explanation for and prevention of famine lie elsewhere. One chapter examines the great Bengal famine of 1943–4. It presents two views, one associated with Sen: that food was, if not plentiful, then at least available, but subject to hoarding and profiteering exacerbated by bureaucratic incompetence and market failure. Ó Gráda takes an alternative view: that there was genuine scarcity of food which the British, unwilling to divert shipping from the war effort elsewhere, would not make up. Either way, government failure played its part in spite of attempts by various civil servants and government officials to deal with the crisis.
In the end, both Sen and Ó Gráda are of a similar mind: that governance, accountability and peaceful coexistence are the keys to preventing future famine. Ó Gráda may err somewhat on the side of optimism, but in writing a very fine book that puts a central event in Irish history in a world context he has made his contribution.  HI

Eoin Dillon is writing a Ph.D on the state in East Africa.


Copyright © 2022 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568