Three Famines: Starvation and Politics

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Famine may be triggered by nature but its outcome arises from politics and ideology. In Three Famines, award-winning author Thomas Keneally uncovers the troubling truth—that sustained widespread hunger is historically the outcome of government neglect and individual venality. Through the lens of three of the most disastrous famines in modern history—the potato famine in Ireland, the famine in Bengal in 1943, and the string of famines that plagued Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s— Keneally shows how ideology, mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions, and administrative incompetence were, ultimately, more lethal than the initiating blights or crop failures.

In this compelling narrative, Keneally recounts the histories of these events while vividly evoking the terrible cost of famine at the level of the individual who starves and the nation that withers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this vivid but muddled comparative history, novelist and journalist Keneally (Schindler's List) studies three great famines and finds weather, insects, and disease less culpable than misguided, punitive, and sometimes murderous government policies. The Irish potato famine, Keneally argues, was instigated by a fungus, but then compounded by British free market dogmas and trade policies (which he doesn't sufficiently explain), miserly food aid, and the eviction of starving tenants by cruel landlords. He chalks up the Bengal famine of 1943–1944 to British military policies that requisitioned grain and hindered food imports into the Indian province following floods and bad harvests. In his starkest example, he contends that Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and '80s were triggered by drought and worms, but made catastrophic by repression, civil war, and the forcible resettlement of ethnic minorities. Keneally's anecdotal accounts of suffering and misrule are colorful and affecting. Unfortunately, his thematic approach makes a coherent narrative of each famine difficult, and his contentious interpretations lack the requisite scholarly apparatus. (His suggestion that actual dearth of food was a minor factor needs a firmer grounding in statistics.) Keneally's case for famine as a manmade disaster is important, but it deserves a more systematic development. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews

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."

Johann Hari
Eradicating famine from the human condition is one of the most noble goals we can have. But to do this, we need to understand how famine happens—and in the past few decades, this has gone through a revolution, which Keneally's important new book helps explain.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781610390651
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 8/30/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982 with Schindler’s Ark, later made into the Academy Award-winning film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg. He has written ten works of non-fiction, including his recent memoir Searching for Schindler. His novels The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip From the Forest, and Confederates were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Parclete won the Miles Franklin Award. He lives in Australia.
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Table of Contents

Maps of the regions ix

Introduction: the Three Famines 1

1 Democracy and Starvation 7

2 Short Commons 17

3 Nature s Triggers 23

4 God's Hand 31

5 Coping 35

6 Villains: Ireland 61

7 Villains and Heroes: Bengal 75

8 Villains: Ethiopia 101

9 Whistleblowers 127

10 Famine Diseases 143

11 Evictions, Movements and Emigration in Bengal and Ireland 157

12 Evictions and Movements, Mengistu-style 183

13 Resistance 203

14 Relief: Ireland 223

15 Relief: Bengal 247

16 Relief: Ethiopia 263

17 Other Catastrophes 285

Bibliography 303

Index 309

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 1, 2014

    An excellent book describing the three tragic famine events and

    An excellent book describing the three tragic famine events and how they came to be. This book details the causation and environment that lead to these disasters and the political turmoil that accompanied them. Through drought, war, policies, and political millions of deaths are explained in a way that affords you the opportunity to see how it happened and how it could happen again.

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  • Posted December 27, 2011

    British Imperialism and Famine

    Anglophiles will not like this book. It highlights a direct connection between the British Empire and these three famines. It is true that the British were not directly involved in the horrors of the Mengistu era famines in Kenya, but it was the British who introduced maize as a staple crop there, blunting the ability of the Kenyan's traditional agriculture to mitigate the worst effects. The famines in Ireland and Bengal occurred under colonial governments established by the British. It was a combination of a Protestant/free market philosophy that equated charity with laziness and their perception of colonial peoples as uncivilized and lazy ( "Trevelyan believed the Irish too indolent to farm like civilized people..." p.67)that allowed British officials to discount the realities the subject peoples faced. In Bengal there was a military threat from the Japanese, but government inaction went far beyond the end of the military crisis. It is a good book to begin an exploration of the political aspects of famine with. From here you could more easily grasp something like "The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849" by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

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