Shelf Life

EXCERPT: Three Famines

Chau Tu Sep 1, 2011

The following is an excerpt from “Three Famines.” Listen to an interview with author Tom Keneally here.


In a world of cyclical and enduring historic and modern want, this account is in greatest part a comparative story of three terrible hungers. The first of these famines is an Gorta Mór, the great hunger of Ireland, the famine that began in 1845 and whose end-date is a matter of debate among historians. I have written about this famine before, but in terms of the history of Irish nationalism instead of as a famine that echoed and illustrated other famines. By comparing this renowned event with other outbreaks of starvation, I hope to tell its tale anew, and – while not avoiding the causes, actions and ideas that made it – narrate it stripped of its former nationalist rhetoric.

The second hunger is a more hidden famine than the other two, one I encountered first in the writings of Amartya Sen. Though less well-known and submerged by competing accidents of history, it was the even more deadly famine that struck Bengal in 1943-4. It was triggered by natural causes, but also by the impact of World War II on north-east India and by British-Indian government policies.

The third great hunger narrated here, that of the Ethiopians, had two phases separated in time – the early 1970s and then the early and mid 1980s. But, though presided over first by an emperor and then by a Stalinist dictator, they were interconnected to an extent that they could in some lights appear to be one continuing reality. I was moved to write about this famine by my own visits to Eritrea in the late 1980s and the evidence I saw that the tyrant Mengistu was spending massively on armaments rather than food and the means to distribute it.

In those people who suffered these famines; in those who denied the suffering or propounded theories to explain it, excuse it, and so see it as necessary; in those who – against the wishes of government – told the world what had happened and still was happening, or tried to address the suffering by giving aid, there is a remarkable continuity of impulses and reactions. So, though these famines are in obvious ways diverse from each other, they were also siblings to each other. It is as if they shared part of the same DNA, being as they are the result of a similar human fallibility, and of dogmatic and determined misinterpretation by governments and officials of both the victims and the events that had overtaken them.

In all famines there is a continuity of the features of the famished. Their hollowed and stark-eyed faces bring forth in witnesses the same sort of horrified descriptions, which become interchangeable; without any editing, one could be used to speak of any of the others.

Along with everything else, the sufferers lose not only accustomed food and seed crops and livestock, and clothing and all dignity, but also their particular culture. No matter how separated in time, they become members of the nation of the famished, who have more in common with each other than with the cultures starvation steals from them. But, as narratives, there are also great differences between these disasters. One famine occurred in a country – Ireland – where there was certainly popular sedition but no full-scale military conflict to afflict the rural population. The bayonet and the rifle were part of the fatal mix, but they were not deployed anywhere near as actively in Ireland as weapons would be in Ethiopia.

The famine in Bengal was unwittingly, though not blamelessly, instigated by the conditions of World War II. There was the imminent threat of the Japanese entering Britishruled India across the border from Burma, which they had captured with resounding military competence in 1942. This military pressure facing both the British government of India, and indeed the war cabinet in London, made it easier for those in authority to make choices that failed to meet, indeed worsened, the Bengali crisis.
But official and large-scale savaging and murder did not occur in Bengal and Ireland the way it would in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s, when, under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam the army slaughtered peasants, dissenters against the founding of collectives on the Stalinist model, escapees from detention and minority peoples unpopular with the central government. To identify this distinguishing factor does not, of course, deny the torment of the Irish or Bengalis. But in Ethiopia, the violence undermined the growing of food and the survival of many people who were already under threat of extinction by hunger. In addition, in Ethiopia, a vicious war against rebels in the provinces was waged by Mengistu, regardless of its massive cost and its capacity to make the country’s famine more intense.

This book, in telling its story, will argue that famine occurred in all cases not because of the loss of a single staple food, or because of natural disasters – drought or plant pestilence – in themselves. Whether applied to Irish families in the 1840s, Bengali families in the early 1940s, or Ethiopian families in the 1970s and 1980s, commentators have sometimes said that ‘famine’ is actually the wrong term to use. For the victims felt with some accuracy that the land itself produced enough food. It was the fact that the food became inaccessible to millions that produced the emergency. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, for example, a nineteenth-century radical whose family left Ireland because of an Gorta Mór, argued that ‘there was no famine in the land’, but that food was taken out of Ireland to feed domestic needs on the British mainland. As the poet John O’Hagan wrote at the time:

Take it from us, every grain,
We were made for you to drain;
Black starvation let us feel,
England must not want a meal!

This is not to deny the however niggardly official aid instigated, sometimes against their own principles, by government, nor the private aid donated and distributed in a more generous spirit. Both forms of relief are believed to have saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet at the same time the Irish could complain that detachments of the British army and armed police were used to enforce thousands of evictions and to guard exports of food from Ireland.

In Ethiopia in the 1980s, the army operated as a vengeful force, destroying lives and imperilling the normal supplies of food. ‘When we came back from the forest,’ an Ethiopian refugee would later say, ‘our wives were [already] in prison and we were accused of working with the rebels. They put us all in a big ditch as a prison and many died there. Many are still there.’ Mengistu’s army then burned down sixteen houses, shot people and raided corn and coffee. ‘There was no hunger before this.’
Such testimonies are too numerous to have been totally fabricated. The famed Four Horsemen rode wild in Ethiopia. The argument, therefore, that famine is due utterly to a natural disaster, or even to the previous sins of the victims themselves, is one that suits governments, who naturally wish to be exempted from all blame. Inevitable acts of God and deliberate previous wrongdoing by the famishing have brought on the calamity – so goes the assertion. Among other perceived faults of the starving: the Irish married too early, bred too many children and based their existence on one crop easily grown; the Bengalis were overbreeders, were caste-ridden and suspected of disloyalty to the Empire; the Ethiopians resisted relocation to collectives, were reluctant to plough without oxen and lacked a clear Marxist appreciation.

To show these ideas are fraudulent is one of the main purposes of this narrative; in all the cases narrated here, mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than the initiating blights, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or of the grain named teff.

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