- Famine: A Short History
In what is, surprisingly, the only book of its kind on the market, Cormac Ó Gráda has written a concise, informative, and thoroughly readable study of famines in world history. He uses historical cases to fashion a model for famines—what they are, what causes them, why they are often so severe, and, most important, how we can prevent them from occurring. Thus his book is as prescriptive as it is descriptive. As he puts it, "Writing about famine today is, one hopes, part of the process of making it less likely in future" (p. 2).
In so doing, Ó Gráda has taken on a Herculean task. Owing to the dearth of reliable contemporary statistics—to say nothing of survivor testimonies—past famines are notoriously difficult to measure. "The [death] tolls of the vast majority of historical famines," he cautions, "can only be guessed at" (p. 92). Even some twentieth-century famines remain enigmatic because they occurred in authoritarian states whose governments still prevent access to information. Famine is thus reminiscent of genocide insofar as the full story of the suffering is susceptible to politicized claims and disparate death tolls. Witness, for example, the charges of Irish and Ukrainian nationalists concerning mortality and government culpability during the potato famine of the 1840s and the Soviet famine of the 1930s, respectively.
Ó Gráda overcomes these difficulties by casting as wide a net as possible, including famines from such diverse locales as ancient Rome, pre-Columbian Mexico, and modern China, Bengal, and Ethiopia. Given this range, he does the reader a great service by rescuing some forgotten human tragedies from the enormous condescension of posterity. How many are aware, for example, of Europe's last famine, which hit the Western USSR in 1946–1947 and killed perhaps 1.5 million? Or for that matter, how many of us teach our students about the Irish famine of 1740–1741, which, although it "may have matched or exceeded the famine of the 1840s in relative mortality terms," has nonetheless been overshadowed in popular memory by the latter Irish famine (p. 93)? From such examples, the reader learns just how common famines have been in world history.
In a series of compelling early chapters, Ó Gráda lays bare the raw effects of famine on human populations, the basic demographics behind famine mortality and survival, and some common coping strategies. He draws a parallel between the physical deterioration of the human body and the accompanying breakdown in public order that accompanies [End Page 725] hunger on a mass scale. He also catalogues some of the hallmarks of famines, including mass migration, declining birthrates, higher crime rates, and the eating of "famine foods" (which in more prosperous times would be considered barely edible, and which in fact often were indigestible, only furthering human misery). These famine-induced social breakdowns amplify a society's pre-existing inequalities. "Equality must yield," writes Ó Gráda, "if somebody has to starve" (p. 52).
The book is packed with fascinating conclusions, and more than a few surprises. Among Ó Gráda's more provocative assertions, he suggests that scholars have been too quick to blame colonialism for famines that, in reality, stemmed from complex causes. "In the longer run," he argues, "although colonial rule may have eliminated or weakened traditional coping mechanisms" in places like India, "it meant better communications, integrated markets, and more effective public action, which together probably reduced famine mortality" (p. 19). And in a vivid excerpt, Ó Gráda surmises that local culture had an influence on whether or not a specific famine's victims resorted to cannibalism. Famines in India, Biafra, and the Sahel seem not to have been accompanied by cannibalism, whereas famines in other regions were. Religious conceptions of the body and spirit may explain this disparity; "culture matters," writes Ó Gráda, "even in extreme situations" (p. 68).
Ó Gráda relies largely on secondary sources, though this is hardly a matter for criticism. A reader could not expect him to conduct primary research on every famine in human history...