History Book Club
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Famines in the World
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: Famines in the World. Famines have killed millions over the centuries. In modern times there have been disastrous famines in Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, all over West Africa. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 killed over a million and sent many to America. Famines in Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Poland, England, Iceland, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland and India all have legends attached to them. [Suggested by Linda Burkell and Walt Frederick]
Cormac Ó Gráda, Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. First paperback printing, 2000, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 302 pp.
Winner of the 2000 James S. Donnelly Sr. Prize for Best Book on Irish History or Social Studies
“It’s an ill wind that blows no good” is an old saying.
The Great Irish Famine of 1847 was the most lethal natural disaster to strike Europe in the nineteenth century. Over a million died, in an event that was a perfect storm of dependence upon one food source, greed, huge accumulation of debt amongst landowners, and official incompetence. At its most critical point in 1847, it lasted at least five years. Emigration to America peaked in 1851.
The famine encouraged (or forced) over one million Irish men, women and children to leave home, and move to England, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. Many Irish came right here to Boston, and became strong participants in the growth of our country.
Cormac Ó Grada (b. 1945) is an Irish economist, a professor of economics at University College Dublin, and a prolific author of books and academic papers.
Ó Grada notes that in the 1840s people in high places in Dublin and London viewed the famine as nature’s response to Irish demographic irresponsibility. He quotes a contemporary writer who observed “Ireland died of political economy.”
Ó Grada has produced a masterful textbook on famine and the economics surrounding and contributing to it. He compares the Irish famine to later famines, particularly recent ones in Biafra, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sahel.
This book is loaded with tables and graphs, showing variations in price of potatoes in various locations, acres planted in potatoes by county and year, variation in potato prices by county, changes in population by county, mortality by years during the famine, variation in deaths by county, deaths on ships bound for America, deaths by the various famine-related diseases (including dysentery, diarrhea, fever, dropsy), exports and imports of grain by years, pawnbroking during the famine, Dublin bank stock prices, and much more. Fortunately, there are good descriptions of conditions and events during the famine.
The author’s many tables of data tended to overwhelm this reader, because it becomes a worrisome plum pudding of possible contributing factors. One is inclined to think that he simply throws all this stuff up, leaving the reader to imagine what it was that caused this famine
Was this famine simply bad luck, or was it a result of greedy landlords, merchants and bankers, dismissive government bureaucrats, a Parliament and Queen who preferred to look the other way?
A big difference in modern African famines and Ireland’s 1847 famine is all those today are in backward countries with low levels of agricultural and industrial development. Ireland in 1847 was indeed quite backward, but it was only a few miles from the most progressive and prosperous economy in the world.
It is hard for us today to imagine what life must have been like for millions of poor rural Irish. They lived in huts with mud floors, without even a glass window. Children, farm animals, all together in one cold, smoky room. Children often went barefoot even in winter, and sickness dragged them down mercilessly. For food, it was often just the potatoes that they could dig up from the family plot, so that when Phytopthera infestans (potato blight) turned the potatoes into black mush, there was nowhere to turn.
Winter was cold and damp, and the rural poor, surrounded by weed-choked and untended land “and no preparation in the way of seed”, kept warm with a peat fire, tended to semi-hibernate. Ó Grada calls this situation what development economists call a low-level equilibrium or poverty trap: a labor force too short of capital to be productive at home and too poor to emigrate and be productive elsewhere.
As more and more people fell into the poverty trap, and had nothing to eat, government offered meager wages for public works projects. Tradespeople accustomed to working indoors had no trade, so they joined those on these work projects, working in miserable winter conditions. It was a recipe for sickness and trouble.
Prison was preferable. In Limerick in 1849 1200 cases appeared in court, and all pleaded guilty in hopes of being held in prison. Two defendants who were set free were recommitted the next day because they attempted to break into jail.
The confiscations 0f the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had left most Irish land in the hands of a small elite of English origin. In the mid-nineteenth century the elite still owned the bulk of the country’s fixed capital and was still very powerful politically. Ó Grada connects this to the famine in three ways: (1) Landlords generally did nothing to control population or subdivision on their lands; (2) On the eve of the famine a significant portion of the landlords were in serious financial trouble, so that they were incapable of making the repairs and improvements necessary for sustaining life; and (3) landlords generally did not live on the land, so the destitute were even more poorly served when famine struck.
The writings of Thomas Malthus come in for discussion here. Malthus taught that food increases arithmetically while population increases geometrically. In 1808 Malthus predicted that Ireland’s catholic masses, greatly dependent upon potatoes for food, might be headed for trouble. But Ó Grada writes that on the eve of the famine, the Irish birth rate was down, and Irish women were not marrying until their mid-twenties, and men three years older.
The ideas of Malthus are certainly worthy of our consideration, but perhaps this famine did not fit the Malthusian pattern.
Ó Grada includes a chapter called “Famine Memory” consisting of oral histories gathered nearly a century after the famine. This chapter contains much of the color you expect from any Irish tale. The cruel landlords during the famine –Lord Lansdowne of south Kerry, Wyndham Goold of Limerick, Lord George Quin of east Clare. The good ones---Cronin Coltsman of Knocknagree in northwest Cork, the Bournes of Rossport in northwest Mayo, the Fitzwilliams of south Wicklow, Charles Tottenham of Kiltyclogher…There are stories of carrying the dead and nearly-dead to the graveyard and just depositing them there. A tale about a man caught stealing turnips, and several tales about eating potatoes. There’s a tale from south Kerry of biscuits given out down from the Cumaraibh, and they fought bitterly over them, and they got a small can of soup once a week to go with the biscuits. And there are stories of saintly sacrifice and selflessness.
Summary: In the end the Irish Potato Famine was the result of a population that was backward and repressed, but because of cheap food (potatoes) that population grew to the point that when that food source failed, there was disaster. Because of irresponsible, greedy and incompetent landlords, a government bureaucracy that was thick-headed and dismissive, and neglect and disengagement all the way back to London and Queen Victoria. The event, however, changed Irish society, and created a whole population shift for the United States and Canada.
It was a hard time for Ireland, but brought a lot of fine Irishmen to America.
Famine victims at Skibbereen, west Cork, 1847 by James Mahony
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2017
Wednesday, June 28, 2017: History of English/British Colonialism It started in the latter part of the 15th Century with plantations in Ireland. Read how the United Kingdom grew to become the greatest Empire in the history of the world. If you wish, home in on British slave trade, and how the U.K. colonized the New World, bringing slaves to grow sugar and cotton. Then Napoleonic Wars and Britain’s seizure of French Colonies. America and Canada. Colonization of Asia in Hong Kong, Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma. Africa, and more for you to discover. [Suggested by Richard Heuser]
Wednesday, July 26, 2017:euser]
Treasure Hunts in History. This is your opportunity to find a treasure and discover the hunt for it, whether it is the quest for gold in California, diamonds in Africa, the hunt for the pharaohs buried in the pyramids, the hunt to discover a cure for polio or yellow fever, the terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, the search for the source of the Nile, the discovery of Neanderthal man… This topic is for you to imagine! [Suggested by Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, August 31, 2017: Gloucester and the Sea. Gloucester has throughout four centuries cast its lot with the North Atlantic, remaining a maritime port for better or worse. The maritime culture of Cape Ann is the mix of a noble maritime heritage; ubiquitous sea influences that reach as far as the quarries behind Rockport and into the haunted tracks of Dogtown Common; seductive but capricious natural splendors; and untidy independence that repels some but converts other visitors into lifetime devotees. We plan to invite Chester Brigham, author of Gloucester’s Bargain with the Sea, to join us. Read this or any other book about the maritime history of Gloucester. [Suggested by Richard Verrengia]
Wednesday, September 28, 2017: The History of History. Read any book about Historiography, or methods of recording history, from Herodotus and Thucydides to Saint Augustine to Ibn Khaldun. You might want to read about ways people have used history as propaganda, or to build up the image of a leader, or focus upon a particular kind of history. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, October 25, 2017: The Industrial Revolution in New England. Development of mills, the textile industry in Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester and elsewhere. Life in the mills, quality of life in the cities. Advent of the steam engine. Railroads. Banking and commerce in the Industrial age. Labor problems and unionization. Iron and steel production. Coal mining. Communications. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]