The Times (London)
November 24, 2007, Saturday
The politics of famine
FEATURES; Books; Pg. 11
A Modern History
HURTS. TO THE 24,000 children and adults throughout the world who starve to death or die of
diseases associated with
every day, this might be regarded as a banal statement. In his history of
is anything but trite. He wants us to meditate on the cultural and historical specificities of the
in the United Kingdom and the Empire between the 19th century and the 1940s.
Starvation is fundamental to our past. During the Great Irish
of 1843 46, close to a million people died.
Furious as well as frightened, Irish commentators attempted to allocate blame. Was the blight an indictment of British
rule? As the Ulster-born Protestant nationalist John Mitchel declaimed, the Irish were "carefully, prudently, and
peacefully slain by the English government". More commonly, dire poverty was blamed on the poor themselves.
Starving paupers were accused of being lazy or profligate. Famine was a punishment from God, a wrathful providence
bent on striking down the ungodly.
was not simply an Irish problem. Throughout the UK, citizens suffered starvation. In 1845 and 1846 The
Times launched a campaign to expose the extent of the crisis even in flourishing English towns. Its initial target was
Andover, in Hampshire. Journalists vied for the most lurid stories. According to one, paupers in Andover were so
hungry that they fought over the bones they were employed to crush. Some of these bones, journalists alleged, came
from cemeteries. The Times implored readers to try to imagine how English paupers could be so hungry that they could
sink into "such a state of brutal degradation" that they were forced to "satisfy the cravings of
from such a
Instead of castigating the poor for their moral laxity, the newspaper blamed incompetent local officials and
expressed loathing for the Government's inadequate Poor Law policies. Rather than being shunned as objects of
opprobrium, the poor were embraced as innocent victims. Almost single-handedly, The Times succeeded in converting
the hungry into objects of humanitarian concern.
The so-called "
marches" carried out by unemployed men throughout the country in the 1930s were another
occasion when the consciences of middle class Britons were pricked. These marchers sought not only to redeem the
moral worth of destitute men, but also to publicise that governmental policies were responsible for the economic crisis.
No jobs existed; the unemployed were victims of forces beyond their control. Even worse, unemployment insurance
was inadequate and applicants were demeaned.