The great historian Élie Halévy’s (died in 1937) History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, a multi-volume classic, gives us a sense of nineteenth century famine dynamics for the 1840s, which combines failed harvests and failed incomes and failed speculations together:
“It was a ‘dearth’ (i.e., scarcity)—a crisis belonging to the old order—the last ‘dearth,’ in fact, Europe had known up to the present day (i.e., before 1937). The unsatisfactory harvest of 1845 was followed by the disastrous autumn of 1846. The potato disease was worse than it had been the year before. The cereal harvest, moderately good in 1845, was a failure not only in the United Kingdom, but in France and throughout Western Europe. In 1845, Great Britain could still purchase corn even in Ireland, while the Irish poor were starving to death. Nothing of the kind was possible at the end of 1846.
“Britain could not obtain wheat from France or Germany. In short, it was no longer Ireland alone, but the whole of Western Europe that had to be saved from famine.
“The United Kingdom, France, and Germany must import Russian and American wheat, the only sources available to supply the deficit.
“In consequence the price of wheat rose from 50 shillings and 2d. on August 22 to 65 shillings and 7d. on November 18. The price of wheat rose once more. It exceeded 78 shillings in March.
“In Germany and France, where another ‘jacquerie’ seemed to have begun, hunger caused an outbreak of rioting. The same happened in Scotland and the south of England…but England suffered in common with Ireland and Continental Europe, and a drain on English gold began, to pay for the Russian and American wheat.
“Later there was a fall of 50% in four months. The corn factors (i.e., corn dealers) who for months had been gambling on a rise had no time to retrace their steps and were ruined at a single blow.” (“Commerical Failures in 1847,” Eclectic Review, December 1847)
(Élie Halévy, “Victorian Years (1841-1895),” Halévy’s History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Volume 4, pages 191-193, Ernest Benn Ltd., 1970)
Note that in British usage, “corn” refers to all feed grains (primarily wheat), not corn (in the American sense) or maize. For example, see the Corn Laws.
We sense from Halévy’s description of the “food insecurity” of the nineteenth century in Europe, why the Revolutions of 1848 were to a large extent severe food riots and how food poverty and speculation interacted with risk and uncertainty prevailing.
This should be read and pondered in connection with Prof. Amartya Sen’s classic from 1981, Poverty and Famines, which highlights the famine of income and buying power, as opposed to famines based on outright crop failures. Pearl Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth (1931), fits this topic set, as it analyzes in human terms the pattern of Chinese famines. It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that the movie of The Good Earth could not feature Chinese actors in lead roles due to racial craziness at the time. Stepping back, we see a world of food insecurity aggravated by the spectre of racism further poisoning social relations worldwide.
Halévy states: “It was a ‘dearth’ (i.e., scarcity)—a crisis belonging to the old order—the last ‘dearth,’ in fact, Europe had known up to the present day…”.
It would be instructive to ponder whether this really was “a crisis belonging to the old order” given the catastrophes and food crises that could come with climate change from 2019 on out. Will we have “global ‘dearths’”?