The New York Times Book Review
Three Famines: Starvation and Politicsby Thomas Keneally
Through the lens of three of the most devastating food crises in modern history—the Górta Mor of British-ruled Ireland, the great famine of British-ruled Bengal in 1943, and the string of famines that plagued Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s, Booker Prizewinning author Thomas Keneally vividly evokes the terrible cost of mass starvation at the level… See more details below
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Through the lens of three of the most devastating food crises in modern history—the Górta Mor of British-ruled Ireland, the great famine of British-ruled Bengal in 1943, and the string of famines that plagued Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s, Booker Prizewinning author Thomas Keneally vividly evokes the terrible cost of mass starvation at the level of the individual who starves and the nation that watches. Famine is widely misunderstood as a completely natural catastrophe. Keneally recounts that while the triggers—crop, pestilence, and drought—are natural, the political and ideological choices that prolong famine are man-made. Government neglect and individual venality, not food shortages, are historically the causes of sustained, widespread hunger.
In Ireland, British authorities ignored the existence of a food crisis while the famished fed on diseased cattle and human remains. In Bengal, where over four million starved to death, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell’s reports of people dying in Calcutta’s streets and demands for relief resulted in little more than a mocking cable from Winston Churchill asking, why, if food was so scarce, hadn’t Gandhi died yet? In Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam arranged for 400,000 bottles of whisky to ship to Addis Ababa from Britain to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution that put him in power, while one person died every twenty minutes in Korem. These three famines are stark examples of how throughout history, racial preconceptions, administrative neglect, and incompetence have been more lethal than the initiating blights or crop failures. Keneally’s startling narrative history is a sobering warning to the authorities in charge of mercy in our time to stop making choices that feed famine instead of the starving.
The New York Times Book Review
Booker Prize–winning author Keneally (Searching for Schindler:A Memoir, 2008, etc.) examines causes of deadly famines over the past 150 years, terrible times of starvation when the victims became "members of the nation of the famished, who have more in common with each other than with the cultures starvation steals from them."
The author focuses on three examples—the great hunger that began in Ireland in 1845, the deadly famine in Bengal, India, during World War II and the decimation of Ethiopians in the 1970s and '80s—to argue that while famines may be triggered by natural disasters, in every case their cause is mainly political. They are neither acts of God nor the result of the improvident behavior of the hungry, but are the result of deliberate policies by those in power—made worse by the denial of the democratic right of the victims to voice their protest. Keneally takes particular aim at Malthusian explanations that couple famine with overpopulation. He documents that postponement of marriage limited the size of Irish families, and their heavy reliance on a potato diet had the positive effect of protecting them from vitamin-deficiency diseases such as pellagra and scurvy. Although the failure of the potato crop in Ireland was a precondition for the famine, writes the author, grain and livestock grown in Ireland could have fed people adequately had the British government permitted its domestic distribution instead of insisting that its export to England be continued. A similar situation existed in Bengal when the British diverted rice to the use of the army deployed against the Japanese. In Ethiopia, it was forced collectivization by Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam that fatally disrupted agricultural production. Keneally concludes that the major cause of famine is human agency.
The author provides ample documentation instead of just preaching, but his important message is clear—unless we deal with the real causes of famine, it "has not had its last ride."
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