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Famine's Legacies

Posted: 08/08/11 04:59 PM ET

David Nally's insightful post on historical famine studies alerts us to the need to see immediate crises in the context of longer-term causes (see also Alistair Fraser's helpful account, 'What makes a famine official?'). But history can also provide an opportunity to think about the likely longer-term consequences of traumatic famine. These consequences are demographic, economic, cultural and political.

In demographic terms, there are the direct consequences of mortality and the indirect consequences of bare survival. Famine deaths deplete the workforce, multiply the social burden of orphans, send the elderly and weak to earlier graves, and decimate the rising generation of children. Those who survive are left poorly and those still maturing have their development stunted. These longer-term consequences are very clear from studies of well-documented famines such as that of Amsterdam (Zena Stein, Famine and human development: the Dutch hunger winter of 1944-1945, Oxford University Press, 1975) during the German blockade of the Second World War. The sequelae include increased propensity to heart disease and diabetes, and greater likelihood of producing underweight babies with attendant health risks for the infant. There is much talk of the right of humanitarian intervention where it is necessary for the saving of life but perhaps there is also a further obligation of care for the survivors assumed with the right of intervention.

The economic results of famine begin with the direct results of mortality but of course they go much further. In his brilliant book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2001), Mike Davis argues that by colonial design several famines of the late-nineteenth century left behind in places such as India and Brazil, rural populations so bereft of savings that independent farming was now denied them and they were henceforth as desperate people without means forced to accept proletarian employment on very low wages. From this situation, they could never again accumulate the savings to attempt independence or acquire the social capital with which to bargain for higher wages. A vicious cycle of low wages, proletarian status, and intense exploitation thus instituted the development of underdevelopment so long thereafter the plight of the Third World. In the case of Somalia, then, we should attend not only to the survival of the starving but also to reinstating the economic independence of the pastoralists who have now lost their cattle or capital.

Seeing livelihoods dry-up and loved ones starve is traumatic. In the case of Ireland, it saw many in the rural districts in the west of the country conclude that they had been abandoned, that the land had turned against them. They saw flight as the only prospect of escape. In an act redolent of cultural suicide, they steered their children away from the Irish language and the soil towards the English language and the cities of England or North America. The emigrants, themselves, understood that they had abandoned their cultural roots and, as Thomas Kinneally describes so well in his study of the Irish diaspora, felt shamed by it; The Great Shame: a story of the Irish in the Old World and the New (Chatto & Windus, 1998). Cultural continuity is imperiled by the trauma of famine and the self-confident rebuilding of society is unlikely. The resources of a cultural tradition need the most special nurturing and attention in these circumstances, or what Mindy Fullilove describes as 'root shock' is sure to ensue with further social dislocation and inter-generational alienation; Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It (Random House, 2005). Emotional ecosystems are as fragile as the biotic.

Famine can have important political consequences. In his excellent book Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), David Nally writes of the ways that the British colonial government managed the famine in Ireland in order to 'modernize' Irish agriculture and society. In Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage, 1988), Robert Kaplan describes the ways that access to food has been used as a weapon within civil and irredentist wars. The claim that food has been used as a weapon can intensify the distrust and anger felt by those people who feel it has been used in this way against themselves or their families. Famine can thus intensify social conflict. However, it can also affect the character of conflict. The Irish nationalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century was changed profoundly by the experience of the Famine. I am exploring this in my current work on Anticolonial Nationalism but, in broad terms, anticolonial sentiment became so intense that politics took on a more narrowly Manichean character with the ejection of the British the limit-point of independence. In thus utterly demonising the British, the Irish nationalist movement somewhat lost sight of what independence was for and the essential utopian dimension of nationalist politics was foregone. As we look at the synergy between famine and war in Somalia we can only fear that conflicts will take on ever more absolute and unforgiving forms.

The case of Ireland shows also that traumatic histories of famine can disperse the new extremism far beyond its birthplace. Irish migrants took with them to Australia, to the United States, to Canada and to South America the violent tactics of a nationalism blistered by the horrors of the Famine; see my essay on Bare Life and Political Violence in Violent Geographies, edited by Derek Gregory and Allan Pred (Routledge, 2006). Indeed, now distant from the consequences of advocating violence in Ireland and Britain, the diaspora was if anything more committed than were its cousins at home to making Ireland and Britain ungovernable through a campaign of dynamite and assassination.

In North America the Irish Fenians openly raised money for their campaign to wreak havoc dynamiting British public buildings and indeed they were successful, culminating (1884) in the destruction of part of Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the British police force. But diasporic movements can also find other targets that impact more directly upon the domestic harmony of their new homes. The Fenians, for example, organized a raid (1866 and again in 1870) across the Great Lakes into Canada hoping to draw British imperial forces into a fight that would spill back into the United States and incite conflict between their new homeland and their old masters. The political legacy of famine can be expected to include a diaspora organized for the violent overthrow of the institutions it holds responsible for its own exile and for the suffering of the relatives whom it had earlier buried back home. The political legacy of famine, then, may well include diasporic movements striking at targets near and far to provoke international war, diffuse fear of terrorism, and stoke ongoing rebellion to destabilise the homeland.