Hunger, Starvation, Famine and the Sweep of Human History

Starvation China
Great Famine, China, 1946 (Photo credit: George Silk)

When it comers to food, we humans live in a paradox these days. In the West, there’s too much food — as long as one has money with which to buy it — and because of that excess, we begin to look like the Michelin Man or the Pillsbury Doughboy. And on the flip side  lies true hunger and its cousin, starvation, usually in Africa and other places where money, transportation, and just plain decent soil (not to mention rain) persist in short supply.

Hunger and starvation pose complications, and always have been there throughout the sweep of human history.

With Thanksgiving coming up, it seems quite appropriate to examine the role of hunger and starvation in human history. After all, we humans consciously and conceptually know about death.  In today’s Western world, side-stepping death’s sting is ultimately the major concern.  Obviously, this proved true in the past as well.

Starvation French workersAvoiding death requires food.

So, in theory, the history of humankind really isn’t just about kings and queens, battles and sieges: it’s about food. Most human activity boils down to this:    procuring, storing, and eating enough food.

Hunger is, and was, a powerful weapon.

A modern irony lies in the self-starvation and meat avoidance so prevalent among certain groups today. That’s not to say that the same phenomenon didn’t occur in past centuries.  But today’s luxury choices in food almost make a mockery of the culinary hardship that birthed the very holiday we’re about to celebrate, itself really based upon a myth, as we shall see.

All the lavish writings about food, the chronicling of banquets, the latest “easy” recipes, the gorgeous food photographs, the Twittering about “what I ate at Chez Jean,” hide a fact that, well, we try to ignore. The Bard of Cincinnati coined the perfect saying. When paraphrased, this phrase really implies that humans have only a thin layer of soil between themselves and starvation.

Starvation John Smith 2
Captain John Smith

We shall begin with a passage concerning Captain John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia:

1607. Being thus left to our fortunes, it fortuned that within ten days scarce ten among us could either go or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us. And thereat none need marvel if they consider the cause and reason, which was this. While the ships stayed, our allowance was somewhat bettered by a daily proportion of biscuits, which the sailors would pilfer to sell, give, or exchange with us for money, sassafras, furs, or love. But when they departed, there remained neither tavern, beer, house, nor place of relief, but the common kettle. Had we been as free from all sins as gluttony and drunkenness, we might have been canonized for saints; but our president [Wingfield] would never have been admitted for engrossing to his private [use] oatmeal, sack, aquavitae, beef, eggs, or what not, but the kettle; that indeed he allowed equally to be distributed, and that was half a pint of wheat, and as much barley boiled with water for a man a day, and this having fried some twenty-six weeks in the ship’s hold, contained as many worms as grains; so that we might truly call it rather so much bran than corn, our drink was water, our lodgings castles in the air.

With this lodging and diet, our extreme toil in bearing and planting palisades so strained and bruised us, and our continual labor in the extremity of the heat had so weakened us, as were cause sufficient to have made us as miserable in our native country, or any other place in the world. (From Generall Historie of Virginia)

Of course some authors beg to differ, chiefly Carville V. Earle.*

A bibliography of hunger, famine and starvation. Somewhat dated, but still pertinent.

*Earle, Carville V. “Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia.” In The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, eds. Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, pp. 96-125. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

To be continued …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


2 thoughts on “Hunger, Starvation, Famine and the Sweep of Human History

  1. Thanks for this post, which is indeed relevant around the time of Thanksgiving. Coincidentally – though I expect because we were both thinking about the same paradoxes – I finished yesterday a blog on fasting and feasting in Africa that I will put up shortly (problems with photos, given our poor connections). It adds another dimension to the points you raise.

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