Hunger and Ideology
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature…. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.
AS EVERY schoolboy knows, the Irish famine is one of the capital disasters of history. It broke upon a people who had been dominated by a foreign power for seven hundred years, and who lived in almost bestial servitude, poverty, misery, ignorance, and helplessness. The accounts of contemporary travelers uniformly attest to the extremity of Ireland’s condition: one witness asserted that “no mode of life in Europe could seem pitiable after one had seen Ireland … the poorest among the Letts, the Esthonians and the Finlanders, lead a life of comparative comfort”; another wrote that “the Negro in his chains” suffered less misery. Subsisting under conditions of systematic exploitation and classic peonage, the Irish peasants had been reduced to living off a single crop, the potato. Indeed in certain back areas of Ireland “cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art.” And yet, as if to demonstrate the ghastly truth of Malthus’s theory, the population of Ireland had been steadily increasing. The calamity began with the blight of the potato crops in 1845 and 1846. A variety of public and private schemes for relief were undertaken, but such measures soon proved inadequate as the famine extended through the following years and began to take cumulative effect. Hunger was succeeded by disease, primarily by an epidemic of typhus, but bacillary dysentery, hunger oedema, scurvy, and cholera were also general. The vegetable blight was thus followed by human blight; the lightning-like reproduction, spread, and infestation of the spores of the potato fungus were equaled only by the rapidity with which typhus propagated itself. “A brush in passing was enough to transfer the fever-transmitting louse or its dustlike excrement to a new victim, and one fever-stricken person could pass on infection to a hundred others in the course of a day.”
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