Monuments to Famine

Alex de Waal

Almost all the stone monuments across the hills of the west of Ireland, where a million people died between 1845 and 1851, were erected in the last 25 years: the Great Famine is now part of Ireland’s official record of British misrule. In purely demographic terms the famine was a calamity without modern parallel: Ireland is one of the small number of places on earth where there are fewer people today than there were 175 years ago. Besides the million dead, more than a million emigrated, and entire counties were depopulated. The famine was followed by the Great Silence, in which the Irish language all but vanished from the public realm: famine killed a way of life as surely as it killed people. Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term ‘genocide’ and presided over the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, described Stalin’s use of starvation in Ukraine in 1932-34 as an instrument of genocide ‘aimed at the farmers, the large mass of independent peasants who are the repository of the tradition, folklore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit, of Ukraine’. Lemkin’s insistence that the Ukrainian famine – known to nationalists as the Holodomor – was chiefly aimed at destroying the Ukrainian nation, is still controversial. But it is clear that the early stages of the famine were caused by the forced collectivisation of agriculture, and when Stalin realised what was happening he scaled back the policy in southern Russia, and intensified it in Ukraine.

The German eradication of the Herero in south-west Africa in the early 20th century is now considered the locus classicus of genocide by starvation. In response to an uprising against imperial rule in 1904, General Adrian von Trotha, the German military commander in Deutsch-Südwestafrika, ordered that the Herero people in their entirety be driven into the desert, where around 40,000 died of hunger and thirst. The proclamation issued by his successor a year later, offering amnesty to the survivors, is forthright about the method used: ‘I therefore call upon the Hereros who are still wandering about the veld and in the mountains and who nourish themselves by eating wild roots and by theft: come and lay down your arms … so that your thirst and great hunger may be appeased.’ Today, only a small stone memorial in the Omaheke desert marks this crime.

In Bengal, the East India Company secured hegemony by force of arms over a once prospering land. According to the governor, Warren Hastings, as many as ten million people – fully one third of the population – died of starvation. The Company maintained its taxation levels even as villages were depopulated and farmers and fishermen sold their last possessions to buy food. In an account published a century later, the historian William Wilson Hunter wrote: ‘Until 1772 Bengal was regarded by the British public in the light of a vast warehouse, in which a number of adventurous Englishmen carried on business with great profit and on an enormous scale. That a numerous native population existed they were unaware.’ Misrule under Hastings was so scandalous that he was impeached and tried in Westminster Hall: the only occasion in British history when colonial crimes have been prosecuted – he was acquitted after a seven-year trial.

A century of East India Company rule in India was attended by regular famines and the pattern persisted after governance transferred to the British Raj. During what Mike Davis has called the ‘late Victorian Holocausts’ of the 1890s, at least 12.9 million died in India alone, even though, by the 1870s, the most doctrinaire colonial officials had accepted that modest adjustments, such as price controls on basic grains, could avert mass deaths. The final episode of British colonial starvation, again in Bengal, during World War Two, killed three million people and hastened the end of the empire. Faced with the Japanese occupation of Burma, the British Army took control of food supplies and confiscated fishing boats – fearing that they would be seized for a seaborne invasion – and then refused to modify wartime food policies: that is, military demands were privileged whatever the cost to the local population when it became clear that food prices were spiralling out of control. Ships bringing food from Australia to Britain could have been diverted, even word of their arrival would have broken the speculative fever in Calcutta’s rice market, but no such decision was taken. News of the famine was suppressed, and all copies of the official report into the disaster were ordered to be destroyed (only one survives). Informed of the famine, Churchill remarked: ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’

The expediency of famine in a theatre of war is not always secondary to a grand strategy: famine can be used to achieve purely military objectives. Colonial settlers used hunger to drive Native Americans off their lands. In his 1896 handbook, Colonel Sir Charles Callwell advised his fellow officers that pacification operations in southern Africa or the North-West Frontier would entail confiscating cattle and burning villages, ‘an aspect which may shock the humanitarian’. Half a century later, Colonel Roger Trinquier, adviser on French counterinsurgency in Indochina and Algeria, wrote that it was necessary to ‘make the ground unsuitable’ for the guerrilla:

Anything that could facilitate the existence of guerrillas in any way, or which could conceivably be used by them – depots, shelters, caches, food crops, houses etc – must be systematically destroyed or brought in. All inhabitants and livestock must be evacuated from [their] refuge area. When they leave, intervention troops must leave behind them an area empty of all resources and absolutely uninhabitable.

War and famine are, even now, inextricable. Two years ago, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance called for urgent attention to four famines: in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. A fifth candidate, Syria, was excluded only on the technicality that the UN’s standardised food security data collection process is not undertaken there. All these countries are at war. In each case, military commanders override humanitarian concerns in the name of military victory or of refusing to provide even the smallest nourishment to groups designated as terrorists, and the civilians they control. Trinquier would have commended them: the South Sudanese commanders who have depopulated vast swathes of the country; the Nigerian counter-terror strategists who are tightening the noose on Boko Haram and the 900,000 people in the area it controls by preventing any food stuffs crossing their front line; Bashar al Assad’s generals who have starved one city after another into surrender.

Yemen, however, stands out. A UN report published last month estimated that 80 per cent of the population – 24 million people – required some sort of humanitarian assistance. The number in ‘acute’ need is now estimated at 14.3 million, 27 per cent higher than in 2018. The famine is the world’s worst since North Korea in the 1990s and the one in which Western responsibility is clearest. Even before the war, Yemen was poor, dependent on food imports and suffering from water scarcity. Coalition aircraft now strike military and civilian targets, including agricultural project offices, irrigated farms and terraces, fishing ports and fishing boats, clinics and hospitals, busy markets teeming with vendors and shoppers. Fishing on the Red Sea coast, formerly a major livelihood – fish exports were Yemen’s second biggest earner after oil – is almost at a standstill. The coalition blockade has at times extended to commercial food imports essential to the country, including 80 per cent of its grain. Equally calamitous is the general economic collapse, including a shutdown of markets and the non-payment of public sector salaries, leaving middle-class families destitute. More than a million people have contracted cholera – the worst epidemic of modern times.

The clearest demographic consequence of famine is usually migration: in the short term, over short distances; in the long term, further. When the blockade eases, how many ‘distress migrants’ from Yemen will follow the people-smuggling routes up the Red Sea to Egypt and the Mediterranean? And how will our political leaders account for their arrival on our shores? Responsibility for Yemen goes beyond Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to London and Washington. Britain has sold at least £4.5 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and £500 million to the UAE since the war began. The US role is even bigger: Trump authorised arms sales to the Saudis worth tens of billions last May. Yemen will be the defining famine crime of this generation, perhaps this century.

In the 19th century, public outrage was clouded by misapprehension as to the nature of famine. Might it not be a natural calamity? Were the Irish poor responsible for their fate simply by having been born and contributing to the Malthusian bogey of ‘overpopulation’? Those who believed otherwise identified a villain in Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary at the Treasury in the 1840s and 1850s, who delegated responsibility for relief away from Whitehall to bankrupt and incapable local authorities. But Trevelyan was merely carrying out a policy devised by his superiors. It was only much later, in solidarity with Indian nationalists, that the Irish began to narrow in on the colonial project itself. Full public remembrance was only possible when several strands of public life had come together with the slow sedimentation of oral history.

Since 1995, more than a hundred memorials to the Irish famine have been erected, from St Stephen’s Green in Dublin to sites in Sydney and Toronto. There are modest memorials in Liverpool and Cardiff – but nothing in London. The closest Britain has come to an apology was in 1997, when Tony Blair acknowledged the ‘deep scars’ of the famine. But the famines in India and Ireland are not yet part of our national story. A public monument, in Whitehall, opposite the Treasury, or in St James’s Park, near the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, would be a first step – one we could take actively, rather than prevaricating until apologies are demanded by formerly colonised peoples. The memorial should leave space available to inscribe the names of famines in which British government complicity might come to play a part. ‘Yemen’ will be the first to be added.