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Famine in European History

Editor(s):Alfani, Guido
Ó Gráda, Cormac
Reviewer(s):Naumenko, Natalya

Published by EH.Net (January 2018)

Guido Alfani and Cormac Ó Gráda, editors, Famine in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xi + 325 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-316-63183-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Natalya Naumenko, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.

This collection of essays undertakes to construct a comprehensive history of famine in Europe. Each of the authors is an expert on the history of famine in a particular country or group of countries. In the opening chapter, the editors introduce methodology and discuss the common factors that created famine conditions and their relative importance in the European context. The concluding chapter studies famines during World Wars I and II.

Throughout the book, a standard definition of famine is used: “Famine refers to a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced disease” (p. 2). Famines occur when food is scarce. Scarcity, in turn, occurs when either food production or distribution is impaired (or both). Weather, crop diseases, changes in technology and climate all affect production. Market integration and specific public institutions providing relief affect distribution. Population pressure can increase the probability of famine (the number of famine episodes notably decreased after the Black Death epidemics). Finally, war is another important factor affecting both production (by destroying crops and reducing available labor) and distribution (via extortions and disruption of trade). The relative importance of production versus distribution changed over time — while some medieval famines can probably be attributed mostly to a shortage of the total amount of available food due to adverse shocks to production, with improvement in technology and market integration the factors affecting the distribution started playing a major role.

The country-specific chapters have a similar structure. Each chapter reports a time series of famines using best available data (relying on chronicles for earlier events, time series of burials and foodstuff prices for later events) usually from the thirteenth century and up to nineteenth century, although for some countries the time series of famines start as early as seventh century. Each chapter then attempts to analyze the scope and the severity of the famines, highlights some of the most important ones, and discusses the factors that led to the famines.

Although the reasons leading to famine are similar for all countries and are summarized in the introduction, some interesting country-specific factors are worth highlighting. For Italy the authors name population pressure combined with crop failure due to the weather or war as the main reasons leading to famine. Introduction of new crops (especially maize) during the eighteenth century finally increased food security but led to spread of pellagra disease. In Spain in addition to all the factors mentioned earlier epidemics could lead to famine by decreasing labor and consequently harvest. The famine research in France has been so extensive that it is difficult to distinguish between true crises affecting large areas and a high share of population and relatively localized ones. The increase in fiscal dues and the growth of cities to some extent offset the improvement in agricultural technology and therefore increased the probability of famines. In Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the lack of centralization increased the probability of famines — in case of local dearth, neighboring lords could shut grain trade exacerbating local food shortages.

The northern Low Countries, escaped from famine as early as late sixteenth century (with the exception is the crisis of 1845-1850 caused by potato blight) due to the central position of Amsterdam in the European grain trade. Episodes of famine in the southern Low Countries are mostly linked to war. Similarly, England escaped famine as early as eighteenth century due to change in weather conditions, improvements in food production technology, market integration, and, most importantly, the presence of well-developed relief system. In Ireland, chronicles document severe famines as early as seventh century. The two most notable recent crises are the famines of 1740-1741 and the famine of the 1840s. Both were triggered by severe external shocks — extremely cold weather and potato blight respectively. The 1840s crisis is outstanding both in its scale and its long-term impact on the population as it triggered mass emigration. Finally, despite the fact that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland) are located in areas that are less suitable for agriculture and therefore more prone to crop failures due to poor weather, widespread famine was a rare occurrence there due to diversified agriculture and well-integrated markets.

In Eastern Europe (Russia and the Soviet Union) little quantitative information is available before the eighteenth century (characteristically, in the Russian language there is no distinction between dearth and famine), although some notable famines of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are discussed. Most importantly, the nature of food difficulties was determined by specific geographic conditions: for strategic reasons the capital and major industrial centers were located in the grain-deficit North and food had to be extracted from grain surplus regions of the South. Thus, when markets disintegrated due to the war, the grain-deficit North suffered (as in 1918-1920), and when negative weather shock occurred, mortality increased where grain was produced (as in 1921-1922). According to Stephen Wheatcroft, the famine of 1927-1933 was triggered by severe drought, and 1941-1947 food shortages and famine were caused by the occupation of grain producing regions by the Germans, and by poor weather of 1946. Nevertheless, it remains an open question why unfavorable weather caused severe famines in the Soviet Union while in other European countries weather ceased to play a major role by the beginning of twentieth century.

The final chapter discusses the episodes of famines related to World War I and World War II. The unprecedented scale of these conflicts disrupted food production and distribution, negatively affecting both traditionally grain exporting and grain importing territories. In addition, famine relief efforts were hindered by the conflict, the population in the occupied territories suffered from over-extraction of foodstuffs, and many prisoner camps were inadequately supplied. These factors explain pockets of starvation occurring even in areas that had long been free of famine.

This book does not oversell, does not strike the reader with bold concepts, unorthodox perspectives, or loud slogans. It does exactly what it promises — delivers a comprehensive systematic history of famine based on rigorous data collection and careful analysis. The analysis in the introductory chapter provides an excellent summary of the complex phenomena that famines are and will take its deserved place in many economic history courses. And although famine is [hopefully] long gone in Europe, all factors discussed in the book are still relevant for less developed parts of the world.

Natalya Naumenko is completing her dissertation on famines in the Soviet Union at Northwestern University.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Military and War
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered

Editor(s):Curran, Declan
Luciuk, Lubomyr
Newby, Andrew G.
Reviewer(s):Alfani, Guido

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew G. Newby, editors, Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered. New York: Routledge, 2015. xvii + 267 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-65681-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Guido Alfani, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics, Bocconi University.

In the recent historiography on famine, some episodes have tended to attract most of the attention. This is especially the case of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50, which surely was a major event in the European history of the last two centuries — an event which however, as is often the case, can be understood fully only in comparison to others. This book, edited by Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew Newby, aims to provide us with this much-needed comparative perspective.

The book is organized in nine chapters (plus introduction), evenly divided between three of the main famines affecting Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apart from the Great Irish Famine, the book covers another relatively well-researched episode, the Holodomor (“Death by Starvation”) affecting Ukraine in 1932-33, as well as an important but not internationally well-known episode involving northern Europe and particularly Finland, the “Great Hunger Years” of 1867-68. All these famines were characterized by particularly high death tolls, which (according to the estimates summarized in the editors’ introduction) amounted to about 1 million in 1845-50 in Ireland, 100,000-150,000 in 1867-68 in Finland and 1.9 million in 1932-33 in Ukraine. Notice that these figures do not include victims caused by these famines outside the boundaries of the three specific geographic areas that the book focuses on (see below).

Overall, the authors of the chapters explore in considerable detail the political and cultural consequences of famines. In Ireland and Ukraine in particular, the “politicisation” of famine — i.e. the way in which the crisis is used in the political discourse — and its “appropriation in collective memory and national identity formation” (p. 3) is particular apparent, while the case of Finland is singled out as one in which famine underwent (to a degree at least) a process of collective forgetfulness. A particularly interesting aspect is that of “culpability,” which has also to be understood in the context of areas which were all peripheries in much broader empires. So, while in Ireland and in Ukraine a discourse with political undertones developed blaming respectively the British and the Russians, in Finland the political center was never indicated as the culprit for the catastrophe, presumably because in 1867-68 Finland was a largely self-governed and well-identified territorial entity within the Russian Empire.

There is much to like in this book, particularly because many chapters provide interesting new information which will surely be of great use to other scholars. The attention dedicated to the famine in Finland in 1867-68 is particularly welcome. However, the book as a whole also has a few shortcomings, which somewhat hinder its ambitious comparative aims. A first problem, is that it never provides a clear definition of what a famine is — a topic which was quite contentious until recently, but has probably been settled (at least temporarily) by Cormac Ó Gráda with his recent definition of famine as a “a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases.”[1] Quite obviously, all three episodes covered by Curran, Luciuk and Newby’s book fit into this definition (as they were characterized by mass mortality) — but the book is never entirely clear regarding the very important issue of causation. As Ó Gráda makes explicit, a famine can be due either to production problems (a shortage of food) or to distribution problems (a lack of purchasing power or “entitlement” to resources, à la Amartya Sen[2]). Quite obviously, this issue is also key to understanding correctly the debate about culpability of political authorities, which seems to be close to the heart of many of the authors of this book and consequently, a more detailed and encompassing discussion of famine causation would have been useful.

A second problem is that the book does not attempt to place the three specific episodes into an even broader perspective. First of all, the large literature on the continental European famines of the early modern period is almost entirely neglected. This matters because, as clearly shown by a very recent attempt at a comparison of European famines in the very long run (which admittedly the authors could not know about)[3], some reference to at least the main earlier episodes — like the famous “years of misery” of 1693-97 when famine ravaged most of the continent[4] (including Finland where the overall mortality might have been in the order of 25-33%, i.e. about three times the rate which can be estimated for 1867-68[5]) or the terrible famine of  the 1590s[6] — considerably puts a different complexion, in relative terms, on the European famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Additionally, the three famines covered by the book were not exclusive to Ireland, Finland and Ukraine but also affected other areas, which is an important aspect to consider when assessing both the issue of causation, and that of the use of famine in the political discourse. So for example, the so-called “Great Irish Famine” was only one component (although admittedly the main one and by far) of a much broader crisis associated to the failure of the potato crops caused by a fungal disease (phytophthera infestans), a crisis which also affected the Low Countries, northern Spain (Galicia) and parts of Germany[7] (this is only mentioned in passing in Curran’s chapter), while the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 also affected (albeit less severely) other regions of the Soviet Union[8].

Notwithstanding these limitations, there is no doubt that Curran, Luciuk and Newby provide us with a very useful book, which advances our knowledge in many directions and especially regarding the political and cultural consequences of famine. It will be of considerable interest to all researchers working on modern famines.

1. C. Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 4.
2. A. Sen, Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Clarendon Press, 1981).
3. G. Alfani and C. Ó Gráda (eds.), Famine in European History (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017).
4. M. Lachiver, Les années de misère: La famine au temps du Grand Roi, 1680-1720 (Fayard, 1991).
5. M. Lappalainen, “Death and Disease During the Great Finnish Famine 1695-1697,” Scandinavian Journal of History 39 (4), 2014: 425-47.
6. G. Alfani, Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave, 2013).
7. C. Ó Gráda, R. Paping and E. Vanhaute (eds.), When the Potato Failed. Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Brepols, 2007).
8. R.W Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (Palgrave, 2004).

Guido Alfani is Associate Professor in Economic History at Bocconi University (Milan, Italy). He is the author of Calamities and the Economy in Renaissance Italy: The Grand Tour of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Palgrave 2013).

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Ireland’s Great Famine

Ireland’s Great Famine

Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin

The proximate cause of the Great Irish Famine (1846-52) was the fungus phythophtera infestans (or potato blight), which reached Ireland in the fall of 1845. The fungus destroyed about one-third of that year’s crop, and nearly all that of 1846. After a season’s remission, it also ruined most of the 1848 harvest. These repeated attacks made the Irish famine more protracted than most. Partial failures of the potato crop were nothing new in Ireland before 1845, but damage on the scale wrought by the ecological shock of potato blight was utterly unprecedented (Solar 1989; Clarkson and Crawford 2001). However, the famine would not have been so lethal had dependence on the potato been less. Poverty had reduced the bottom one-third or so of the population to almost exclusive dependence on the potato for sustenance. For those in this category, the daily intake was enormous: 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 pounds) daily per adult male equivalent for most of the year. That, coupled with an inadequate policy response from the authorities, made the consequences of repeated failures devastating (Bourke 1993).

Ireland was a poor country in 1845, income per head being about half that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The half-century or so before the famine was a period of increasing impoverishment for the landless poor. With impoverishment came rising inequality. Increasing population pressure was only partly relieved by an increase in the emigration rate and a fall in the birth rate (Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). Moreover, demographic adjustment was weakest in the western and southern areas most at risk. The nutritional content of the potato and widespread access to heating fuel in the form of turf eased somewhat the poverty of Ireland’s three million ‘potato people.’ They were healthier and lived longer than the poor in other parts of Europe at the time. However, their poverty meant that when the potato failed, there was no trading down to a cheap alternative food (Ó Gráda 1994). Nowhere else in Europe had the potato, like tobacco a gift from the New World, made such inroads into the diet of the poor. It bears noting that the potato also failed throughout Europe in the 1840s. This brought hardship in many places, and excess mortality in the Low Countries and in parts of Germany. Yet nowhere was Ireland’s cataclysm repeated (Solar 1997).

The first attack of potato blight inflicted considerable hardship on rural Ireland, though no significant excess mortality. The catastrophe of the Great Famine really dates from the fall of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. At first there were food riots and protests, but they subsided as hope and anger gave way to despair (Eiriksson 1997). During the winter and spring of 1846-7 the carnage reached its peak, but the famine continued for another three years. Like all major famines, the Irish potato famine produced many instances of roadside deaths, of neglect of the very young and the elderly, of heroism and of anti-social behavior, of evictions, and of a rise in crimes against property. It was widely reported in the contemporary press at first, both in Ireland and abroad. It elicited a massive response in terms of private donations for a time, especially through the Catholic Church worldwide and the Society of Friends. Philanthropists in Britain were also moved by Irish suffering. That was before compassion fatigue set in. For narrative accounts of the tragedy see Edwards and Williams (1956), Woodham-Smith (1962), Ó Gráda (1999), and Donnelly (2001).

Public Action

The debate about relief measures for Ireland in the press and in parliament in the 1840s has quite a modern resonance (compare Drèze and Sen 1989). At first the government opted for reliance on the provision of employment through public works schemes, the cost of which was to be split between local taxpayers and the central government. At their height in the spring of 1847 the works employed seven hundred thousand people or one-in-twelve of the entire population. The works did not contain the famine, partly because they did not target the neediest, partly because the average wage paid was too low, and partly because they entailed exposing malnourished and poorly clothed people (mostly men) to the elements during the worst months of the year.

The publicly-financed soup kitchens which replaced the public works reached three million people daily at their peak in early 1847. Mortality seemed to fall while they operated, though doubts remain about the effectiveness of a diet of thin meal-based gruel on weakened stomachs. The drop in food prices during the summer of 1847 prompted the authorities to treat the famine henceforth as a manageable, local problem. The main burden of relieving the poor henceforth was placed on the workhouses established under the Irish Poor Law of 1838. In principal those requiring relief were supposed to pass ‘the workhouse test,’ i.e. refusal to enter the workhouse was deemed evidence of being able to support one’s self. In practice, most of the workhouses were ill-equipped to meet the demands placed upon them, and in the event about one-quarter of all excess famine mortality occurred within their walls. Local histories highlight mismanagement and the impossible burden placed on local taxpayers; and the high overall proportion of workhouse deaths due to contagious diseases is an indictment of this form of relief. The very high mortality in some workhouses in 1850 and 1851 is evidence of the long-lasting character of the famine in some western areas (Guinnane and Ó Gráda 2002; Ó Murchadha 1998).

Traditional accounts of the famine pit the more humane policies of Sir Robert Peel’s Tories against the dogmatic stance of Sir John Russell’s Whig administration, which succeeded them. Peel was forced out of office in July 1846 when his party split on the issue of the Corn Laws. The contrast between Peel and Russell oversimplifies. Though Peel was more familiar with Ireland’s problems of economic backwardness than Whig ideologues such as Charles Wood, the crisis confronting him in 1845-6 was mild compared to what was to follow. Moreover, Peel broadly supported the Whig line in opposition, and it was left to his former Tory colleagues to mount a parliamentary challenge against Russell and Wood. Assessment of the public policy response cannot ignore the apocalyptic character of the crisis that it faced. Nonetheless, the government’s obsession with parsimony and its determination to make the Irish pay for ‘their’ crisis cannot but have increased the death rate. The same goes for the insistence on linking relief with structural reform (e.g. by making the surrender of all landholdings over a quarter of an acre in size a strict condition for relief). At the height of the crisis the policy stance adopted by the Whigs was influenced by Malthusian providentialism, i.e. the conviction that the potato blight was a divinely ordained remedy for Irish overpopulation. Compassion on the part of the British elite was in short supply. The fear that too much kindness would entail a Malthusian lesson not learnt also conditioned both the nature and extent of intervention (Gray 1999).

The Irish famine killed about one million people, or one-eighth of the entire population. This made it a major famine, relatively speaking, by world-historical standards. In pre-1845 Ireland famines were by no means unknown — that caused by arctic weather conditions in 1740-41 killed a higher share of a much smaller population (Dickson 1998) — but those that struck during the half-century or so before the Great Famine were mini-famines by comparison. The excess death toll of one million is an informed guess, since in the absence of civil registration excess mortality cannot be calculated directly (Mokyr 1985; Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). The record of deaths in the workhouses and other public institutions is nearly complete, but the recording of other deaths depended on the memory of survivors in households where deaths had taken place. In many homes, of course, death and emigration meant that there were no survivors. The estimate does not include averted births, nor does it allow for famine-related deaths in Britain and further afield (Neal 1997).

Mortality was regionally very uneven. No part of Ireland escaped entirely, but the toll ranged from one-quarter of the population of some western counties to negligible fractions in counties Down and Wexford on the east coast. The timing of mortality varied too, even in some of the worst hit areas. In west Cork, a notorious problem area, the worst was over by late 1847, but the deadly effects of the famine ranged in county Clare until 1850 or even 1851. Infectious diseases — especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhea — rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. While Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish famine killed ‘poor devils only,’ many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases. Medical progress, by shielding the rich from infection, has made subsequent famines even more class-specific. By and large, the higher the death toll, the higher the proportion of starvation deaths (Mokyr and Ó Gráda 2002). As in most famines, the elderly and the young were most likely to succumb, but women proved marginally more resilient than men.

The famine also resulted in migration on a massive scale. Again precise estimates are impossible. Though these migrants were also victims of the famine, their departure improved not only their own survival chances, but also those of the majority who remained in Ireland. True, the Atlantic crossing produced its own carnage, particularly in Quebec’s Grosse-Isle, but most of those who fled made it safely to the other side. There thus is a sense in which migration was a crude form of disaster relief, and that more spending on subsidized emigration would have reduced the aggregate famine death toll (Ó Gráda and O’Rourke 1997). Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources; some landlords helped through direct subsidies or by relieving those who left of their unpaid rent bills. The landless poor simply could not afford to leave.

A Hierarchy of Suffering

Like all famines, the Irish famine produced its hierarchy of suffering. The rural poor, landless or near-landless, were most likely to perish, and the earliest victims were in that category. Farmers found their effective land endowment reduced, since their holdings could no longer yield the same quantity of potatoes as before. They also faced increased labor costs, forcing them to reduce their concentration on tillage. Landlords’ rental income plummeted by as much a third. Many clergymen, medical practitioners, and poor law officials died of infectious diseases. Pawnbrokers found their pledges being unredeemed as the crisis worsened. Least affected were those businesses and their work forces who relied on foreign markets for their raw materials and their sales. The relative impact of the famine on different occupational groups may be inferred from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. The overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 percent. There were 14.4 percent fewer farmers, and 24.2 percent fewer farm laborers. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerability, the number of physicians and surgeons dropped by 25.3 percent. The small number of coffin makers (eight in 1841, twenty-two in 1851) is a reminder that during the famine most coffins were not made by specialist coffin makers. It is difficult to identify any significant class of ‘winners’ in the 1840s, though the census indicates increases in the numbers of millers and bakers, of barristers and attorneys, and of bailiffs and rate collectors. The huge fall in the numbers of spinners and weavers was partly a consequence of the famine, partly due to other causes (Ó Gráda 1999: chapter 4; 2001).

Post-Famine Adjustment

The Great Irish Famine was not just a watershed in Irish history, but also a major event in global history, with far-reaching and enduring economic and political consequences. Individual memories of the famine, coupled with ‘collective memory’ of the event in later years, influenced the political culture of both Ireland and Irish-America — and probably still do (Cullen 1997; Donnelly 2000; Ó Gráda 2001). The famine brought the era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end. Serious failures of the potato in the early 1860s and late 1870s, also due to potato blight, brought privation in the west of the country, but no significant excess mortality. The famine also resulted in higher living standards for survivors. The bargaining power of labor was greater. Any negative impact on landlords’ income from a declining population was more than compensated for by the relative increase in the prices of land-intensive output and the prompter payment of rents due. Higher emigration was another by-product of the famine, as the huge outflow of the crisis years generated its own ‘friends and neighbors’ dynamic. Only in a few remote and tiny pockets in the west did population fill the vacuum left by the ‘Great Hunger,’ and then only very briefly (Guinnane 1997).

Whether or not the famine led to the decline of certain native industries by reducing the domestic market remains a moot point, worthy of further research (Whelan 1999). The long-run impact of the famine on the health of affected survivors is another unresearched topic (compare Lumey 1998). Finally, though the introduction of new potato varieties offered some respite against phythophtera infestans thereafter, no reliable defense would be found against it until the 1890s.

Note: This essay builds on my entry on the Great Irish Famine in Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, editors, Encyclopedia of Population (New York: Macmillan, 2003).

Further Reading

Bourke, Austin. The Visitation of God? The Potato and the Great Irish Famine. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993.

Boyle, P.P. and C. Ó Gráda. “Fertility Trends, Excess Mortality, and the Great Irish Famine.” Demography 23 (1986): 543-62.

Clarkson, L.E. and E.M. Crawford. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cullen, L.M. ‘The Politics of the Famine and Famine Historiography,” Comhdháil an Chraoibhín 1996 (Roscommon, Ireland) 1997: 9-31.

Dickson, David. Arctic Ireland. Belfast: White Row Press, 1998.

Donnelly, James S. The Irish Potato Famine. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edwards, R.D. and T.D. Williams. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52. Dublin; Browne & Nolan, 1956 [new edition published by Lilliput Press, 1994].

Eiriksson, Andrés. “Food Supply and Food Riots.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 67-93. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Gray, Peter. Famine, Land, and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Guinnane, Timothy W. and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Workhouse Mortality and the Great Irish Famine.” In Famine Demography, edited by Tim Dyson and Cormac Ó Gráda, 44-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lumey, L.H. “Reproductive Outcomes in Women Prenatally Exposed to Undernutrition from the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57 (1998): 129-35.

Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Mokyr, Joel and Cormac Ó Gráda. “What Do People Die of during Famines? The Great Irish Famine in Comparative Perspective.” European Review of Economic History 6, no. 3 (2002): 339-64.

Neal, Frank. Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Famine, Trauma, and Memory. ” Béaloideas 69 (2001): 121-43.

Ó Gráda, Cormac and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Mass Migration as Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Great Irish Famine.” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1997): 3-25.

Ó Murchadha, Ciarán. Sable Wings over the Sand: Ennis, County Clare, and Its Wider Community during the Great Famine. Ennis: Clasp Press, 1998.

Solar, Peter M. “The Great Famine Was No Ordinary Subsistence Crisis.” In Famine: The Irish Experience, 900-1900, edited by E.M. Crawford. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989.

Solar, Peter M. 1997. “The Potato Famine in Europe.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 113-27. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Whelan, Karl. “Economic Geography and the Long-run Effects of the Great Irish Famine.” Economic and Social Review 30, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-49, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.

Citation: O Grada, Cormac. “Ireland’s Great Famine”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s

Author(s):Li, Lillian M.
Reviewer(s):Will, Pierre-Étienne W
, Pierre-Ét

Published by EH.NET (May 2008)

Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. xix + 520 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8047-5304-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pierre-?tienne Will, Coll?ge de France, Paris.

In this long-awaited book Lillian Li offers us a masterful account of three centuries of environmental and socio-economic history in one of the core regions of China ? the Hai River drainage that more or less corresponds to present-day Hebei, the capital province since the Mongol period. Li’s achievement is especially noteworthy when we consider the multiplicity of variables she addresses with equal thoroughness and clarity and combines into a convincing narrative of ever-mounting problems and tensions: the climate and natural environment, models and techniques of agricultural production, hydraulic engineering, market organization and price movement, dynastic and bureaucratic institutions, political and military history, and more.

As its title indicates, famine and the attempts at fighting it are central to the book. Not that North China always was a “land of famine” (a phrase coined by Western philanthropists in the 1920s and the title of a famous book at the time); but avoiding famine and promoting agricultural production in a context of high rainfall variability and environmental instability were traditional tasks of the Chinese state, tasks at which the Manchu rulers of China proved particularly adept during the heyday of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century. Indeed, one of Li’s dominant themes ? not entirely new, to be sure, but treated here with especial sensitivity and attention to all conceivable factors ? is the dangers of success. Following a pattern that is found elsewhere in Chinese history, efficient river control and disaster relief during the middle decades of the eighteenth century encouraged population growth and land reclamation. This in turn led to a higher impact of natural disasters from the early nineteenth century on, at a time when the political and financial means of the state were rapidly diminishing, and eventually to the mega-famines of the late Qing and early Republican eras. The mega-famine of the 1959-61 Great Leap Forward is a special case, as it was caused not by environmental overload, government powerlessness or military disturbances, but by mad social engineering.

Such, then, is the narrative that Li unfolds in chapter after chapter, making important methodological points along the way. She starts with an historical account of the natural environment, stressing in particular that “what is important about the climate of the past or present is not that it directly causes particular social, economic, or social results, but rather the way in which politics, economy, and society have adapted to the weather and other environmental challenges” (p. 37). Much of the book is a development of that notion. Chapter 2 on river conservancy ? a particularly onerous task in Hebei ? is subtitled “Emperors as Engineers,” pointing less at the Qing rulers’ engineering interventions (only the Kangxi emperor [r. 1662-1722] claimed competence in that profession) than at their political and bureaucratic impact. Li proposes the intriguing notion of a “reign cycle” in floods, with exceptional disasters at the start of a new reign resulting from the gradual accumulation of negligence during the preceding period and triggering a fresh effort at bureaucratic mobilization and infrastructure building. This pattern well describes the situation through the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in some way it re-emerged under the “reign” of the powerful Zhili governor general, Li Hongzhang, during the last three decades of the same century. Still, if strong political leadership was vital, it was not enough to prevent such long-term environmental problems as increased silting and reckless land reclamation that was detrimental to drainage; and more and more it gave way to fragmented bureaucratic responsibilities that made any concerted action impossible: in Lillian Li’s phrase, “the rivers themselves became bureaucratized.”

The next chapter discusses the relation among population, land resources and agricultural techniques ? already a hot topic, incidentally, in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi emperor and his successor expressed much concern about population growth on a limited land base. Li offers the best educated estimates of Hebei population one can hope for given the present state of knowledge, as well as careful descriptions of crops, yields, techniques, cropping patterns, and so forth. The general picture ? here as in most chapters ? is one of overall downward trend after the eighteenth-century successes, even though Li refuses to speak of a “Malthusian tale”: coarse grains get more land at the expense of higher value-added crops like wheat and cotton, yields tend to diminish, no technological breakthroughs are in sight, the silting of rivers makes transportation more difficult and costly, available land per capita decreases, and so on.

Chapter 4 on prices is of strategic importance to the narrative as Li uses the massive price data produced by the Qing system of economic monitoring as well as that of its Republican inheritors as a backdrop to the ensuing chapters on disasters and famine relief. She tackles brilliantly the considerable methodological problems entailed by the data: several sorts of grain were monitored, the quality of the surveys was uneven, the pricing system resorted to different currencies with a volatile exchange rate (official figures were in silver weight but ordinary people used copper cash), statistics used the traditional lunar calendar, and finally, in order to make real sense the curves created by connecting the dots representing the data ? which have many gaps ? need to be subjected to various statistical procedures. As the administration monitored not only grain prices but also the weather, one major ambition of the book is to explore every possible correlation between the two. In the long term the secular rise of prices in imperial times appears surprisingly moderate despite steady demographic growth and increased pressure on natural resources. As far as the annual cycle is considered, the system seems to have been made more stable by its very complexity (“multicropping with different seasonalities,” p. 122); but massive state intervention in the form of organizing imports (the crucial role of Manchurian surpluses is stressed again and again), maintaining food reserves, and providing relief definitely was the major stabilizing factor. After all the region under scrutiny was the metropolitan province of a vast empire, therefore subject to special care on the part of the dynasty.

This theme is developed in the next few chapters, on “Provisioning Peking,” considerably qualifying the textbook image of a northern capital fed with southern “rice” transferred through the Grand Canal (Chapter 5); on the granary system, seen as both “solution and problem” and the object of much debate in official circles (Chapter 6); on markets and prices, with the interesting notion that the apparently strong integration of markets across the province in the eighteenth century was a “false integration,” state maintenance of the waterways and intervention on the market largely explaining the parallel behavior of prices (Chapter 7); and on famine relief during the high Qing (Chapter 8) and in the nineteenth century (Chapter 9). Even though Li draws generously on existing research (notably the work on storage policies and famine relief by R. Bin Wong, Helen Dunstan, and the undersigned), there is an abundance of new materials and, especially, original interpretations. Chapters 7 and 8 in particular provide a sense of texture and impact, and of change, by progressing painstakingly from one major disaster to the next and analyzing in great detail the way each unfolded, the impact on prices, the nature of official intervention, and the aftermath. To this reviewer the lesser-known part of the story ? the nineteenth-century devolution from the “classical” model of famine relief ? is of particular interest, with the reservation perhaps that there is too much adherence to the imperial discourse on corruption and abuses during the Daoguang reign (1821-50).

The last famines of the Qing (beginning with the great North China famine of 1876-79) make the transition to the modern era. Unlike similar earlier events they were considered as “national” events by the philanthropic sphere newly emerging around Shanghai, whose action was crucial even though, as Li shows, the state was far from being as absent as is often claimed. And they were “international” famines publicized overseas through diplomatic communication and missionary propaganda. Together with international (mainly missionary) organizations, Chinese philanthropies, which have been the object of recent research in China not mentioned here, continued to play a major role in the early Republican era. (The crucial impact of the Buddhist revival at the time might have been more clearly brought out.) This is when Hebei and North China become the “land of famine” (Chapter 10). The major disasters, described here with the same thoroughness as the earlier famines, were compounded by a series of military conflicts culminating with the Japanese invasion. They reveal several important shifts that were in large part due to the foreign presence in China. While the discourse on famine acquires nationalistic overtones and focuses on the need to eradicate its socio-economic causes, rather than restoring the existing balance between land and resources as in imperial times, the conditions for the management of relief change drastically with the advent of the railway and the development of Tianjin as a major port and industrial city. It is also during the early Republican decades that the ever-growing hydraulic problems of the Hai River basin start being addressed systematically and with the help of modern engineering, although the major work required had to wait until after 1949 to get accomplished.

The impact of such infrastructural change is analyzed with much subtlety in the important Chapter 11 on “Rural Crisis and Economic Change, 1900-1949.” To negotiate her way between the conflicting interpretations, then as now, of economic conditions in Republican China and their causes, Li takes us on a tour of selected districts, availing herself of the many well-informed local gazetteers published in the 1930s and showing that, indeed, the landscape was highly contrasted. Many places enjoyed new opportunities in terms of handicrafts (predominantly cotton goods), new commercial crops, employment outside the region, and so forth, and there was an improvement in living standards (further favored by a steady rise in prices through 1931) despite environmental change and general poverty. While admitting that this cannot be described as a fundamental economic “break-through” (p. 340), Li takes exception to such notions as “economic involution” (Philip Huang) or “high-level equilibrium trap” (Mark Elvin), which have been widely influential in the field of Chinese economic history: there was a process of development at work, but this was cut short by political and military turmoil.

The last chapter, “Food and Famine under Communist Rule,” which is perhaps less new, takes us to quite a different world. But disasters were still there, and at least one major famine, actually the worst in the whole of Chinese history ? the Great Leap famine. Li goes so far as to use the term “holocaust” (p. 359, following Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts), probably not the best one in this case; but indisputably this mostly man-made event would deserve the appellation “incredible famine” (qihuang) much more than the 1876-79 famine for which it was coined. The period after 1980, called “post-revolutionary” by many and marked by the “unleashing” of the market (p. 371) and a quantity of scientific inputs in the improvement of agricultural production ? though the Chinese “green revolution” had already started in the 1960s ? leaves us with ambiguous perspectives: while it is true that “at the end of the [twentieth] century, prosperity for many people in China has allowed them to leave hunger behind” (p. 375), rapid urbanization and mounting problems with water availability and desertification, not to speak of price instabilities, remind us that this is not yet the end of history. Certainly Li’s monumental work is a must-read for present-day planners and decision-makers.

Pierre-?tienne Will is the author of Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China, Stanford University Press, 1990 (original French edition 1980) and co-author with R. Bin Wong of Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650-1850, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991. He is currently researching famine and the role of philanthropy in Northwestern China during the 1920s and 1930s.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

Author(s):Bigelow, Gordon
Reviewer(s):Peart, Sandra

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Gordon Bigelow, Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x + 229 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-82848-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sandra Peart, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace College.

Gordon Bigelow’s Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland serves as a powerful reminder that economic ideas — then and now — are contextual, and that we fail fully to understand them when we neglect context. So, in Victorian England and Ireland, political economy emerged amidst social and literary responses to institutional, banking, and agricultural failures of the 1840s. Bigelow’s book demonstrates that there is much to be learned about economics from a survey of this commentary, his aim being “to understand the relationship between economics and other forms of social discourse and description in the nineteenth century” (p. 8).

Bigelow is an assistant professor of English at Rhodes College in Tennessee. His project is necessarily ambitious: he attempts to place the economic theory and methodology developed by Adam Smith through William Stanley Jevons in the context of major literary and philosophical discussions that took place during a period of roughly one hundred years. In the course of his investigation, Bigelow argues that political economy was entirely reoriented in the nineteenth century (p. 182). This comes as no surprise to economists who are familiar with the history of economic ideas and the “Marginal” or “Jevonian Revolution” that occurred with the near-simultaneous publication of Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy (1871), Carl Menger’s Grunds?tze (1871), and L?on Walras’s El?ments d’?conomie politiques (1870). For the most part, accounts of the transition by historians of economic thought have focused on the formal elements that entered into economics at the time.

Bigelow argues, instead, that neoclassical economics originated in the harsh and successful cultural criticism of classical (liberal) political economy (p. 4). Late in the century, Jevonian economics divorced itself from culture and politics (p. 3) and economic theory re-emerged as a “widely-accepted justification of capitalism” with the consumer at the centre of economic theory (pp. 2, 73). In the course of the transition, the “sea-change in the understanding of value that takes place between the work of Ricardo and that of Jevons, 1871, reveals a great deal about the cultural and political orientation of economic thought in the period” (p. 50).

To make his case, Bigelow begins with a wonderfully oriented investigation of Smithian economics. He rightly makes the case that Smith’s “theory of wealth and poverty developed out of his engagement with the philosophy of language” (p. 13). Human communication arose out of physical needs (p. 29), humans are characterized by a capacity for sympathy (p. 36), and humans trade both sentiment as well as goods (p. 44). To this, might be added the explicit case made by Smith in his Wealth of Nations for trade carried in language and governed by reciprocity (Smith 1776, p. 30). It might be noted, as well, that Smith’s position is in line with that of Archbishop Whately (see Whately 1831, p. 6), whom Bigelow distances from Smith on a number of issues. Bigelow rightly focuses on the significance of the debates concerning national character that ensued. Smith’s position on these matters, especially relative to that of Hume, is terribly important. Smith held to a doctrine (contra Hume) of human homogeneity, the street porter being the philosopher’s equivalent (see Peart and Levy 2005).

Since he makes his case in 229 pages — including 45 pages of notes, bibliography and index — there are, understandably, areas in Bigelow’s reconstruction that might be fleshed out. I would point to three. First, he might expand upon the romantic criticism of English classical political economy, wonderfully done as it is. Bigelow sketches the criticisms in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Cranford, and North and South, and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. But Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay and John Stuart Mill’s 1850 response to it — both in the center of the ten-year period in which Bigelow locates the “death” of Classical political economy — are entirely missing. Second, the role and influence of mid-nineteenth century biological and anthropological “science” receives no attention. Third, since the book points to a “sea-change” that culminates in the development of Jevonian exchange theory, Bigelow might examine Jevons’s works, including but not limited to The Theory of Political Economy, more fully.

Bigelow’s account focuses specifically on 1845-55, in which the seeds of the “sea-change” were sown in the debate between classical political economists and social and literary commentators (pp.74-75). Yet the picture is distorted if we leave Thomas Carlyle — and, for that matter, John Ruskin — largely out of the fray. For we fail to see what alternatives to capitalism were being defended by at least some of the critics of classical political economy. In his essay, Carlyle made the case that classical political economists were wrong to presume that all humans were potentially the same, that institutions, not inherent characteristics, explained observed variations in poverty and wealth. Some races, Carlyle argued against the economists like Smith and Mill, were inherently lazy and would fail to lead productive lives unless forced to do so (Carlyle 1849).

Most importantly, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was the fact that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and all entitled to liberty, that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.” (see

Bigelow rightly locates the context for the debate between classical political economy and its critics in the “Irish problem.” And here the issue of character versus institutions was of paramount importance. Bigelow suggests that classical political economy saw poverty as “atonement” for behavior (p. 2). This, he argues, was the political economy that “Coleridge, Carlyle, and Ruskin loved to hate” (p. 4). What is less clear is that, on the other side of this, the critics of classical political economy made the case that poverty was the result of innate human characteristics — the unwillingness to work under any circumstances. Carlyle’s argument was used by the critics of classical political economy, some of whom eschewed his polemical excesses but who nonetheless retained his basic assumptions of variability among human-folks, and inherent laziness of some. For example, the political economist and social commentator, W. R. Greg, attacked Mill for arguing that land reform would help solve the problem of poverty in Ireland:

“Make them peasant-proprietors,” says Mr. Mill. But Mr. Mill forgets that, till you change the character of the Irish cottier, peasant-proprietorship would work no miracles. He would fall behind the instalments of his purchase-money, and would be called upon to surrender his farm. He would often neglect it in idleness, ignorance, jollity and drink, get into debt, and have to sell his property to the newest owner of a great estate. … In two generations Ireland would again be England’s difficulty, come back upon her in an aggravated form. Mr. Mill never deigns to consider that an Irishman is an Irishman, and not an average human being — an idiomatic and idiosyncratic, not an abstract, man (Greg 1869, p. 78). In Greg’s view, the Irish would always be improvident and overly populous because they were impulsive and sexually debauched.

It is important to note that, along with the mathematical statistician, Francis Galton, Greg co-founded the British eugenics movement. In so doing, Greg began by attacking classical economics of the Malthusian sort. Malthus worried about the quantity of births, which, Greg argued, missed the real problem: it was not that too many births, but that too many Irish births, were occurring (Greg 1875). The caricature of the improvident Irishman was strenuously resisted by John Stuart Mill, who held that, contrary to this “vulgar” explanation for their poverty, the Irish were poor because of institutional failure:

Is it not, then, bitter satire on the mode in which opinions are formed on the most important problems of human nature and life, to find public instructors of the greatest pretension, imputing the backwardness of Irish industry, and the want of energy of the Irish people in improving their condition, to a peculiar indolence and insouciance in the Celtic race? Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences. What race would not be indolent and insouciant when things are so arranged, that they derive no advantage from forethought or exertion? … It speaks nothing against the capacities of industry in human beings, that they will not exert themselves without motive. No labourers work harder, in England or America, than the Irish; but not under a cottier system. (Mill 1848, p. 319)

Starting in the 1850s, leaders of the Anthropological Society of London devoted a great deal of attention to the problem of whether the Irish constituted a separate — and inferior — race, in which case their problems might be solved only by such drastic means as eugenics. In the popular press such as Punch, images of the supposedly impulsive and debauched Irish appeared frequently throughout these two decades (see, all serving to reinforce the argument that the Irish needed either looking after (paternalism), or something darker. An important part of the social fabric of this period, then, is the biological “science” which in some cases worked in concert with literary criticism. As Bigelow rightly notes, race and nationality were conflated. What, perhaps, remains underemphasized is the extent to which the negro and the Irish were intermixed in social and “scientific” commentary. As one indication of this conflation the President of the Anthropological Society of London in 1870 developed the racial category, “Africanoid Celt,” and an “Index of Nigrescence” to measure how close the Irish were to the negro (Beddoe 1870).

Bigelow’s project holds that the literary criticisms of markets in Dickens and Gaskell were, eventually, incorporated into a new economics which placed the consumer at the forefront and removed economic analysis from political or social concerns. He might well expand on this argument, the crux of his book. Even in his Theory of Political Economy Theory, Jevons makes it clear that man is a social, trading being. Bigelow rightly notes that race and gender are not removed from economic analysis with the insistence of marginalism. And, of course, Jevons wrote extensively about the very social phenomena that preoccupied the classical economists (Peart 2004).

Transitions are always a bit murky. Yet the key question which Bigelow’s important work forces us to examine in historical context, is clear: whether poverty is best explained in terms of choices within an institutional setting, or inherent human nature (pp. 69-70). On this, it seems clear that the classical economists differed from their critics. Classical political economy placed the (same, social) human at the center of analysis, and explained variations in observed outcomes in terms of history, luck and incentives. Their critics would add another explanation for observed poverty: human nature. I would place Jevons in this latter category, at least as far as the explanation for Irish poverty was concerned. Then, the question that emerged was how does the “expert” fix poverty if poverty is the result of inherent poor judgment, a purported failure of national or ethnic character? This opened up the door for a nasty set of eugenic policy recommendations that followed the transition to post-classical economics — restrictions on immigration flows (from so-called ethnic failures) and births among the “unfit” (Peart and Levy 2005). The importance of Bigelow’s project is that it gives us another lens through which to view the analytical underpinnings of such policies.


Beddoe, John 1870. “Anthropology and Politics: Kelts and Saxons.” The Anthropological Review viii: 211-213.

[Carlyle, Thomas.] 1849. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40: 670-679.

[Greg, W. R.] 1869. “Realities of Irish Life.” Quarterly Review 126: 61-80.

Greg, W. R. 1875. Enigmas of Life. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2001-2002. “Secret History of the Dismal Science.”

Mill, J. S. 1848. The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. Volume 2 of Collected Works. Edited by J. M. Robson. University of Toronto Press, 1965

Peart, Sandra J. 2004. “Introduction”, in W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 volumes. Edited by Sandra J. Peart. London: Routledge, pp. 1-26.

Peart, Sandra J., and David M. Levy 2005. The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economic Thought, forthcoming. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by W. B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Whately, Richard. 1831. Introductory Lectures on Political Economy. London: B. Fellowes.

Sandra Peart is professor of economics at Baldwin-Wallace College. She has published articles on the economics and methodology of W. S. Jevons and J.S. Mill, rationality and intertemporal choice, eugenics, and the transition to neoclassicism, in journals such as the Manchester School, the Canadian Journal of Economics, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the European Journal of Political Economy, the History of Political Economy, and the Journal of the History of Economic Thought. She edited W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses for Routledge (2004) and co-edited, with David Levy, The Political Economy of Slavery (2004), for Thoemmes Continuum. She is Vice-President of the History of Economics Society, and serves on the Editorial Board of JHET. Her book on the transition from Classical to Post-Classical economics, co-authored with David Levy, will be published by Michigan Press in 2005: The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855

Author(s):Gallman, F. Matthew
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

F. Matthew Gallman, Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and

the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North

Carolina Press, 2000. xii + 306 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4845-X; $55

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2534-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Raymond L. Cohn, Department of Economics, Illinois State


Gallman (currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at

Gettysburg College) examines the responses of Liverpool and Philadelphia to new

and intensified urban problems that resulted from Irish immigration during the

period of the famine. For each city, he considers the responses of the public

and the Catholic Church, and explores how the migrants affected health,

sanitation, and crime. Thus, this book is a study in comparative urban history,

where the developments in the two cities are examined during a period in which

“new urban problems were magnified by the thousands of poor Irish Catholic

immigrants” (p. 14).

Gallman’s argument is that the responses in each city were determined by a

number of similar influences, but that the specific response in a particular

case also depended on three aspects of “national distinctiveness.” First,

government was structured differently in the two cities, with the central

government in Britain traditionally playing a larger role. Decisions in

Liverpool were frequently affected by Parliamentary actions whereas Congress

never influenced Philadelphia’s responses. Second, Americans tended to be more

committed to voluntarism and solved many of the problems caused by the influx

of migrants without resorting to government, even at the local level. Third,

the two cities faced different options concerning what to do with the migrants

and different economic abilities in helping them. Liverpool was often stuck

with many of the migrants, particularly the poorest ones. Philadelphia was able

to employ many of the migrants and could try to send the remainder out to the

frontier. In addition, Philadelphians seemed more able economically to provide

assistance to the migrants.

Gallman’s approach is analytical though he does not use economic theory or

provide numerical estimates. The six substantive chapters possess the same

general framework. Gallman discusses developments in each city before the

famine migration, examines developments in each city during the migration, and

draws conclusions concerning how the famine migration affected the situation.

The book is especially well grounded in original sources. Gallman has spent a

large amount of time going through contemporary newspapers and urban reports

along with the more recent literature.

Chapter 2 examines the public response to the migrants. In both cities, the

influx of poor migrants put a strain on public services in the face of public

pressure to keep taxes low and maintain economic stability. Gallman finds

Philadelphia helped the migrants more through voluntarism than did Liverpool.

In chapter 3, Gallman examines the issue of poor relief. In Liverpool,

non-government assistance was sparse, a situation in stark contrast to

Philadelphia where many private organizations greatly expanded their services.

Chapter 4 on medical care and chapter 5 on environmental reform examine the

issue of health. During the famine migration, a cholera epidemic occurred,

though it affected Philadelphia much less than Liverpool. In both cities, sick

immigrants were seen as a public charge. In Liverpool many were forced into

medical wards in public workhouses or almshouses, whereas Philadelphia’s

hospitals expanded their services and philanthropic organizations increased

their assistance. In both cities, efforts were made to limit the entry of the

afflicted, to quarantine them, and to clean up wastes and “nuisances.”

Chapter 6 on religion and chapter 7 on crime and policing examine the

repercussions of the famine migration. Even before the migration, religion was

an issue in schooling in both cities because the Protestant Bible was

traditionally taught. The famine migrants thus arrived in a heated situation in

both cities, though the main effect of their entry seems to have been that the

Catholic Church expanded its efforts to build parochial schools and churches.

The response was greater in Philadelphia, which is viewed as evidence of

greater American ability to respond. As to crime and policing in each city, the

entry of the famine migrants contributed to street violence and increased

arrest rates for minor crimes but did not have major effects on either the

level of serious crime or the development of the police forces. Overall,

Gallman argues that “the immigrants were adjusting to, rather than recasting,

the established patterns of the host culture” (p. 210).

The major criticism I have concerning Gallman’s book is his choice of cities to

compare. Though Gallman claims that Philadelphia and Liverpool were

sufficiently similar in terms of size, population growth, importance of the

Irish, and migration trends that the cities make an appropriate comparison on

which to draw conclusions concerning urban decision making, I am not convinced

this is the case. Most of the Irish viewed Liverpool as a city through which

they traveled on their way to the United States or elsewhere, rather than as a

final destination. The port that served the corresponding function in the

United States at the time of the famine was New York, not Philadelphia. Thus, a

much larger number of Irish arrived in Liverpool than in Philadelphia (so

potential effects were larger, such as with the amount of funds needed for poor

relief and the extent of the disease outbreaks) and a larger percentage of the

Irish arriving in Philadelphia were presumably planning to stay. The two cities

therefore experienced substantially different numbers of Irish immigrants who

were in different situations. Thus, it is possible that voluntarism would not

have taken on the same level of importance in Philadelphia that it did if the

city had been inundated with the much larger number of migrants who went

through Liverpool. While it is obvious that no set of cities would ever provide

a perfect comparison, and though it might not have changed his conclusions, I

believe Gallman would have better served comparing Liverpool and New York.

Criticisms aside, Gallman’s book is an important work in urban history. In

connection with his other work, he continues to provide support for the

argument that national and local history matters in affecting how a city reacts

to exogenous events.

Raymond Cohn primarily studies immigration to the United States during the

nineteenth century. He is the author of “Nativism and the End of the Mass

Migrations of the 1840s and 1850s,” which appeared in the June 2000 issue of

Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century

Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish

Author(s):Neal, Frank
Reviewer(s):Weir, Ron

Published by EH.NET (March 2000)


Frank Neal, Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan Press and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998. xv + 292 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-333-66595-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ron Weir, Department of Economics, University of York.

During the 1980s there appeared to be developing a minor academic industry popularly known as ‘The Irish in ….’ It was concerned with describing the experiences of Irish immigrants in nineteenth century Britain and seemed destined to embrace every British city. In fact this research was never quite so all inclusive as its critics suggested and focussed pre dominantly on Dundee, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Salford, and York. It could also be justified in terms of the quantitative dimensions of Irish immigration, particularly during the decade of the Great Famine. Between 1841 and 1851 the Irish-born percentage of the population of England and Wales rose from 1.8% to 2.9%, or from 291,000 to 520,000. In Scotland the proportionate increase was even greater, from 4.8% to 7.2%, or from 126,000 to 207,000. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of such single city studies did pose the question whether further research was likely to yield more than marginal gains to our existing knowledge of the Irish in Britain.

In Black ’47 Frank Neal, Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Salford, proves conclusively that there is still a lot to be learned. That this is so, owes much to five features of his research. First, he adopts a very narrow time horizon, essentially the events of a single year, 1847. Secondly, he concentrates on a tightly focussed area, Lancashire, the county that exceeded all others in the number of Irish-born residents, and in particular on Liverpool, the main port of entry for famine refugees. Outside London, Liverpool had the greatest number of Irish-born within its boundaries and the greatest proportion of its population who were Irish-born. By comparing Liverpool with Glasgow, Manchester, and Salford, the four towns which accounted for 27% of all Irish-born in Britain in 1851, the sheer concentration of Irish immigration and the resulting problems are starkly revealed. Thirdly, he is aware that much previous research has been ‘going over old ground’ and responds by utilizing a wider range of primary source material, including county and church archives, newspaper reports, and personal testimony. Fourthly, he regards what might be described as the mechanisms of migration, that is the behavior of the shipping companies and the nature of the passage, as vital to understanding the condition of the refugees when they arrived in Britain. Finally, he has two clear objectives: to employ statistical evidence to establish ‘the parameters of sensible discussion’ and to evaluate the nature of individual experiences. The resulting analysis never loses sight of the individual yet offers a clear explanation of public policy and its consequences.

The book is also carefully structured. After an introductory review of recent work on the Famine, eight chapters take us through the nature of Irish settlement in urban Britain before the famine, the escape from Ireland, the arrival in Britain, the Irish fever (the typhus epidemic of 1847) – this is examined in separate chapters on Liverpool, and Glasgow and South Wales – survival and dispersal, removal, and the cost of famine immigration. Well before the influx of famine refugees, living conditions for the immigrant Irish were extraordinarily bad. At the bottom of the housing market with low incomes and intermittent employment, the Irish endured a wretched lifestyle and their presence was increasingly subject to unfavorable press comment. Yet at the same time their importance to the regional economy was recognized, not least because they were more mobile than English laborers subject to the laws of settlement. Whilst the volume of immigration swelled with the Famine, Neal argues convincingly that the ordinary workings of the labor market continued throughout 1845 to 1851. A perceptive analysis of the economics of shipping explains why. Human cargoes had always taken second place to goods and livestock, but as food exports from Ireland fell, competition between shipping companies intensified and fares were varied to suit whatever level the traffic would bear. The destitute found the fare either by selling their remaining assets or by assistance from ratepayers and landlords. In an unregulated market, terrible conditions were tolerated because ‘Irish paupers had no friends in high places’ and, unlike livestock, had no market value. On arrival the Irish had no legal claim to long term poor relief and were subject to the laws of removal. On the other hand, the poor law unions had a legal obligation to ensure that nobody died of starvation, malnutrition, or ‘the want of the necessaries of life.’ It is the resolution of this essential paradox which forms Neal’s core theme and he displays great skill in interpreting it at several different levels: ratepayers, Boards of Guardians, clergy, medical officials, and individual paupers. He also makes the first attempt to estimate the cost of famine immigration: for Liverpool in 1847 this amounted to #33,159 on a tax base of #929,645; for England and Wales as a whole perhaps #155,000 or 2% of all expenditure on the poor. Whilst coping with famine refugees did exert pressure on ratepayers, in what was a disastrous year for the economy, it was not a disaster for wealthier or business ratepayers, nor did the working class finance the payment of poor relief to the Irish. The extra rates burden amounted to 9s7d, roughly the equivalent of half a wee k’s wages for a laborer. However, as so often with refugees, it was perceptions rather than facts that counted; the belief that the Irish were diverting funds from Britain’s own poor damaged inter-communal relations.

Despite the harrowing nature of individual testimonies, Neal’s overall judgement of the performance of the poor law authorities during 1847 is that they fulfilled their responsibilities to the welfare of Irish famine refugees. They increased spending in proportion to the numbers seeking relief, they kept deaths from starvation to low levels (a maximum of 22 in Liverpool in 1847), they acted swiftly to deal with the much more serious problem of famine related diseases and, by doing so, averted a much greater crisis. Above all, they shouldered a burden whose ultimate duration was unknown – in Liverpool it was not till 1854 that Irish immigration dropped dramatically – and which ought properly to have been borne by national government rather than local ratepayers. Generous they were not, but the poor law was not generous to the British poor. Neal’s conclusion is that social class rather than ethnicity determined the response to the crisis.

Ron Weir, Provost of Derwent College, University of York, is on the editorial panel of the journal Irish Economic and Social History. His recent publications include The History of the Distillers Company 1877-1939 (Oxford University Press, 1995) and “The Scottish and Irish Unions: The Victorian View in Perspective,” in S. J. Connolly, editor, Kingdoms United? Great Britain and Ireland since 1500 (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1999).


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

Author(s):Ridley, Matt
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip

Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom. New York: Harper Collins, 2020. 406 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-06-291659-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.



Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, has written another excellent book; he is an imaginative thinker and a writer of clarity. This book is very worthwhile reading; still (like any project) it is not perfect. In this review, I will try to convey what he has done and point out where I have difficulties. The book’s 12 chapters explain the histories of innovation in various economic sectors. Chapter one is devoted to energy, Two to public health, et cetera. In the Introduction, Ridley explains why and what he is doing, and what he expects to accomplish; he defines innovation as: “like evolution … a process of … discovering ways of rearranging the world … that happen to be useful. The resulting entities are the opposite of entropy: they are more ordered, less random, than their ingredients were before” (p. 2). This is a very useful, non-didactic definition; it avoids semantic arguments (whether a person was or was not an entrepreneur, and what do entrepreneurs do) that bedevil business histories. The author is borrowing from his training as an evolutionary biologist by incorporating its analytics into a history of innovation. Ridley forthrightly states that he is not attempting to explain why, when or where innovation occurred, but “telling stories” about people turning inventions into “useful innovations [that] teach us, by the examples of their successes and failures, how it happened” (p. 7).

Chapter 1, “Energy” is illustrative of his methodology. Starting in the eighteenth century Ridley examines innovations in the production of energy from non-animal sources. The basic theme, reiterated throughout the book, is that innovation is an evolutionary process; it is accretive, not the product of lonely geniuses huddled and isolated in workshops. He puts forth three candidates (Denis Papin, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen) as putative innovators (“Notice I do not call him an inventor; the difference is crucial” (p.15)) of the first successful steam engine. Ridley’s distinction is crucial; it identifies an inventor as a person who first conceptualizes a process and defines innovators as the people who make the invention economically useful. In the case of steam power, Hero of Alexandria employed rudimentary steam powered devices in the first century AD; still there were people using steam power centuries before Hero, so the case for identifying the person who first conceptualized steam power is, at best, quixotic. Still steam power was not economically useful before the developments that occurred in the eighteenth century. Then a series of innovators made steam power economic; it could be employed to produce goods and services in less costly ways than had been available previously. In 1698 Thomas Savery was granted a patent for an invention for the “raising of water by the impellent force of fire” (p. 18). This introduces another theme that Ridley returns to throughout his book: that patents are more than somewhat arbitrarily rewarded and they, more often than not, impede innovation. People who used the Newcomen engine had to pay royalties to the holders of the Savery patent no matter how much they had modified it. Similarly, Ridley argues that the Watt patents were obstacles in the way of improving the efficiency of the Watt steam engine.

There is a tension between the effects that patent protection laws have in stimulating innovation and the rent-seeking obstacles to innovations that patents provide. Ridley is firmly in the camp that argues that current patent laws discourage more innovations than they promote. If you throw in copyright laws — which in theory and in practice, (e.g. the film Bambi) can be almost perpetually protected — then I am in complete agreement with Ridley. This is an economic issue: as they are currently structured, do patent protection and copyright laws promote or impede innovation? The economic basis for granting “intellectual property” a favored place in the law and in public debate should be reconsidered.

In the “Energy” chapter, Ridley reprints a plea from an 1819 edition of the magazine The Chemist asking for funds to build a monument to Watt: “He is distinguished from other public benefactors, by never having made, or pretended to make it his object to benefit the public . . . This unpretending man in reality conferred more benefit on the world than all those who for centuries have made it their especial business to look after the public welfare” (p. 26). This is a great quote and it echoes the famous “invisible hand” passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, yet I have not been able to track down Ridley’s source. This is typical; he is rather cavalier about sourcing. There are no footnotes, nor page citations. Each chapter has its own section in “Sources and further reading section” (pp. 375-388). But if you are trying to find a particular reference be prepared to spend some time and be frustrated. After spending 40 minutes with various search engines, I failed to find either Ridley’s source for the quotation from The Chemist or the original. In another great passage in chapter 3 (“Transport”) — where he questions the wisdom of the (self-anointed?) scientific establishment — Ridley quotes an article in the Scientific American from 1906 doubting the veracity of the Wright brothers’ claim to heavier than air flight: “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted … is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter … would not have ascertained all about them … long ago?” (pp. 100-01). Well the answer to that question is yes, it is possible to believe the high Pooh-bahs of the American scientific establishment were ignorant of what the Wright brothers were doing in 1906, let alone in 1903 at Kitty Hawk. I was successful in tracking down that quotation (Scientific American 1906, vol. 94: 40), it only took 20 minutes and access to a major university’s library and search engines.

Yet Ridley does not fare so well in chapter 6 (“Communication and Computing”) where he quotes Thomas Watson of IBM in 1943 as saying that “there is a world market for maybe five computers” (p. 203). It is a nice story, but it is either totally or heavily fabricated. The only quote from Watson in the public record (appropriately from Geek History: that mentions five computers is from an IBM’s stockholders meeting, which says: “We believe the statement that you attribute to Thomas Watson is a misunderstanding of remarks made at IBM’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. In referring specifically and only to the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine — which had been introduced the year before as the company’s first production computer designed for scientific calculations — Thomas Watson, Jr., told stockholders that ‘IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.’” The problem is that Ridley’s work is replete with wonderful anecdotes. I have no doubt that the vast majority are accurate, but detailed citations are valuable in both verifying and falsifying historical interpretations.

Another deficiency is that Ridley’s knowledge of the literature in economic history is incomplete; he attributes the growth of the American automobile industry to Henry Ford who “revolutionized the industry after 1908” (p. 92). This statement is both incorrect and contradictory to his hypothesis that innovations and economic changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Robert Thomas (1969) explains just what Ford did in the era of the Model T Ford. In 1908 both: “Buick and Ford introduced into the $1,000 price class for the first time automobiles of standard design [engines in the front, French type body work, steering wheel, etc.]. These designs, the Buick Model 10 and the Ford Model T, were similar to cars being sold in the $1,500-$2,000 price class” (Thomas p. 150). What Henry Ford did that made him different from competing producers is to make virtually identical cars year after year while simultaneously lowering prices. The automobile was changing rapidly during those years (selective transmissions replacing planetary transmissions, self-starters, increased horsepower, etc.) yet the Model T remained unchanged. By 1914 the Model T was selling approximately 45% of new cars sold in the U.S., yet it was receiving only 25% of the revenue from new car sales (Thomas, p. 153). What Ford did was to produce outdated cars whose primary competitors were used cars, not new cars. Essentially Henry Ford made a fortune by producing technologically obsolete vehicles at attractive prices. As the technology of the automobile advanced, Ford could not maintain his price/marketing strategy because many (most?) of the used cars for sale in 1920 had more desirable features than the 1920 Model T. At prices that Ford could profitably sell cars, consumers preferred the typical used vehicle to the 1920 Model T. The growth of the used car market forced Ford to change strategies; subsequently the Ford company followed the industry practice of annual model changes and improvements with constant or increasing prices.

Ridley’s deficiencies aside, the insights he provides in the various chapters ((2) Public Health, (3) Transport, (4) Food, (5) Low-Technology Innovation, (6) Communications and Computing, (7) Prehistoric Innovation, (8) Innovation’s Essentials, (9) The Economics of Innovation, (10) Fakes, Frauds, Fads, and Failures, (11) Resistance to Innovation, and (12) An Innovation Famine) are very perceptive and an educational delight. Ridley frustrates any who wish to replicate his analysis without undo effort, still every chapter has multiple non-obvious insights. Focusing on a few insights does not do justice to the book, yet it must be done otherwise the review would be too burdensome to read.

A theme that Ridley repeatedly emphasizes is the conservatism of government and the establishment in reaction to innovation. Patent and copyright law as obstacles to innovation have already been mentioned, but we should not forget our own sacred cows, the intelligentsia and academia. As a graduate student in the 1960s, I remember the future Nobel Prize winner, Douglass C. North, echoing the received wisdom of the time that no more aid or development projects should be directed towards countries (particularly India and Pakistan) because they were “basket cases,” that were too overpopulated and whose only fate was starvation and death for the many. Ridley (p. 134) suggests that this opinion had its genesis in the foreign services and development agencies. If that is the case, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) is not entirely his responsibility. Nevertheless, it is risible that so many academics could have been so wrong about the near-term future of food production in the late 1960s through the mid-70s. In the same vein, government agencies in India tried to suppress the introduction of the hybrid wheats that were among the first products of the Green Revolution: “Indian bureaucrats were adamant that Mexican wheats should not even be allowed in the country, let alone encouraged. The biologists warned of devastation and disease if the wheats failed. The social scientists warned of ‘irreversible social tensions’ and riots if the wheats succeeded — and caused some farmers to make more money than others” (p. 133)

Ridley devotes an entire chapter to a history of the suppression of novelty. Things that were suppressed include coffee, margarine, genetically modified organisms, herbicides, and cellular telephony. Methods of suppression include diktats, regulations, patents, copyrights, legislation, commissions, and litigation. Every change affects someone negatively; if a change can be halted or delayed the costs of the change can be eliminated or reduced. Ridley relates how “land-use” (zoning) planning has reduced the population of San Jose during the Silicon Valley boom. Another, more completely examined example is that of the European Commission, which in 2014 mandated that energy efficiency (a “good” thing to the Commissioners, not so good for energy producers) of vacuum cleaners be tested in the absence of dust or debris. It so happens that the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner is much more energy efficient than vacuum cleaners with bags because the bag cleaners operated less efficiently as the bags got filled with dust and debris. The (German) manufacturers of bagged cleaners had lobbied the Commission effectively. Dyson appealed the regulations through the courts and in November of 2018 he was vindicated. Still the delay cost Dyson sales and increased those of the makers of bagged cleaners. We may not have much reason to lament a billionaire’s decreased sales, but we should deplore the erroneous information produced by public agencies that deluded consumers.

There are many cases of innovations that Ridley examines that are worthy of full-scale economic analyses. Two that particularly intrigue me are the examples of corrugated roofing and bed-nets with insecticide embedded in them. We see corrugated roofing throughout in poor, tropical countries; I typically had given them no thought other than this is how the poor live in the tropics until this book. Corrugated roofs were a substantial improvement over other types of roofing for warehouses and industrial spaces in nineteenth century Britain. In poor countries today in the tropics they are symptomatic of improved living conditions; the alternatives to tin roofs are organic (straw, mud, and wood) that are more costly (including upkeep), less effective, a haven for insects and rodents, and not very useful for channeling rain for storage or irrigation. It would be nice to know the cost/benefit analysis comparing corrugated roofing to the alternatives and what something as innocuous as roofing does.

Bed-netting infused with insecticide is an interesting story. The bed nets were treated with insecticides to see how prophylactic they were in preventing malaria carrying mosquitoes from infecting people. Since the bed nets rarely escaped holes and tears, the people conducting the study kept it going even when the bed-nets were severely damaged. The researchers found that torn bed-nets retain a substantial amount of efficacy and are still effective in reducing the mosquito-borne transmission of malaria with bed-nets accounting for approximately “70 per cent of the six million lives saved worldwide [from death by malaria]” (p. 75).

There are other examples galore; if you have an interest in innovation, how it evolves, and how and why it is obstructed, then you should read this book. I recommend it highly. True it has difficulties — the lack of adequate citations and an index that is somewhat haphazard. Still I urge you to read it; I would recommend buying the e-copy for two reasons: 1) on most e-books you can do a word search and that reduces the importance of an index; and 2) the hard-bound (cloth) copy that I purchased is nearly falling apart after one (close) reading. The binding of this book does no credit to its publisher.


Robert Paul Thomas, “The Automobile Industry and Its Tycoon,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, ser.2:6:2 (1969: Winter).


Copyright (c) 2020 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2020). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Economics of the Second World War: Seventy-Five Years On

Editor(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Harrison, Mark
Reviewer(s):Sahari, Aaro

Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison, editors, The Economics of the Second World War: Seventy-Five Years On. London: CEPR Press, 2020. vii + 122 pp. free ebook, ISBN: 978-1-912179-31-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aaro Sahari, Department of Philosophy, History and Arts, University of Helsinki.


The Economics of the Second World War is a concise overview on the economic history of the Second World War, or the “greatest conflict of an era of mass warfare” as editors Stephen Broadberry (Professor of Economic History, Oxford University) and Mark Harrison (Emeritus Professor, University of Warwick) define it. The book is divided into three sections and consists of sixteen short chapters written by a group of experienced historians of twentieth century economic, military and technology history. First, the origins of the war are discussed from European perspectives. Second, the conduct of war is analyzed. Third, the consequences of the conflict are examined. All chapters summarize earlier research findings. The book is a continuation to a 2019 work on the First World War by the same editors and also available from CEPR Press.

The first part, “Preparations for War,” re-evaluates the struggling German economy, Hitler’s rise to power, the Soviet economy and war preparations, and British economic management during the war. The role of the Great Depression in the NSDAP’s rise to power is a staple of historical literature but concrete economic evidence has been scarce. In the first chapter Hans-Joachim Voth (University of Zurich) presents recent econometric analyses on the linkages between the 1931 German banking crisis, failure of the Danat bank, regional historical antisemitism, and Nazi propaganda. The second chapter by Richard Overy (University of Exeter) continues on to re-evaluate the making of Germany’s war economy. Overy dismisses the myth of a blitzkrieg economy in favor of a transition onto war footing from 1936 onwards. The third chapter, by editor Mark Harrison, focuses on USSR before the war. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a warfare state in the 1930s, and the welfare of the people was sacrificed in favor of military development. Only this singular, brutal focus on external threats prepared USSR for the 1941 invasion. The last article on prewar developments, by editor Stephen Broadberry, analyses the fiscal and financial management of war in the UK. Together these four chapters point out the significance of the Great War in directing national economic policies of these three countries toward the Second World War.

In the second part, “Conduct of the War,” the discussion of war economics opens up to include United States, Japan, and various neutral and occupied countries. Eight articles provide a kaleidoscopic view of the Second World War using individual cases to highlight essential economic phenomena in the conduct of and survival in this global crisis. First, Phillips Payson O’Brien (University of St. Andrews) re-evaluates the vast literature on how the war was won through logistics, material attrition, and costly, novel military technologies in the air and at sea. David Edgerton (King’s College London) then reminds that a national economy isn’t a sufficient unit of study in the age globalization. The UK economy was better integrated to global trade networks than the German one, and thus more capable of shifting to a war-centric model. Price Fishback (University of Arizona) challenges the notion that the war raised the United States, “the arsenal of democracy,” out of depression. Long-term economic analysis provides quantitative proof that centrally directed war spending not only differs significantly from normal economic activities but also fails to explain changes in U.S. domestic economy. Mark Harrison (University of Warwick) uses economist Mancur Olson’s postwar research activities to analyze the impact of strategic bombing in the war to argue that supply-chain disruptions had limited, often indirect effects. Then, Tetsuji Okazaki (University of Tokyo) discusses the essential role of supplier networks in Japan’s wartime production of airplanes and the impact of extending production to new, inexperienced suppliers.

The last three articles in part II delve into the wider economic phenomena of the war. Hein Klemann (Erasmus University) revisits the strain of the German war effort on occupied European countries. He notes that poorer East European countries suffered more from the occupation than West European countries, and that the Nazi policy of “Germany first” led to production inefficiencies in all occupied territories. Eric Golson’s (University of Surrey) article on neutral countries’ economic activities is an essential, if unduly short, part of the overall story. Legal neutrality was typically maintained through economic concessions to offset military weakness. Finally, Alan Bollard (Victoria University) summarizes the essential role of economists to the war effort in key belligerent countries.

In the final part of the book, “Consequences of the War,” big societal phenomena are investigated. Cormac Ó Gráda (University College Dublin) summarizes the many, horrendous famines of the Second World War from a macro perspective. Walter Scheidel (Stanford University) discusses the impact of the war on lowering economic inequality globally and in leading to more equal economic regimes thereafter. Tamás Vonyó (Bocconi University) compares the role of population loss and migration patterns in East Germany, Eastern Europe and USSR to contextualize significant differences in postwar economic recovery. Finally, Pauline Grosjean (University of New South Wales) discusses differences in the societal impact of war – from institutional growth and increased resiliency to conflict traps and persistent public mistrust in institutions. These four articles provide a necessary social framework for the economic analysis of the Second World War.

The Economics of the Second World War provides a quick and convenient introduction into the topic of war and economy in the twentieth century. The book is a well written throughout, if a bit too short. Most of the discussed phenomena would have benefited from a more thorough examination. Fortunately, all authors have provided well curated lists of further reading for the inquisitive reader. A few omissions remain from the overall story. Essential trade networks remain abstract without a description of the logistics of war. Also, an economic foray into the global impact of the Second World War would have contextualized the articles well. Still, as it is The Economics of the Second World War provides a useful primer into the economic history of a complex, global conflict.


Aaro Sahari defended his PhD on Finnish industrial technopolitics (1918–1954) in 2018. He is a member of the editorial council for the Finnish Journal for the History of Technology — Tekniikan Waiheita — and the Finnish National Council for the History of Science and Technology. Sahari currently works on technology professionals’ tacit knowledge strategies and generational narratives.

Copyright (c) 2020 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2020). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Author(s):Dalrymple, William
Reviewer(s):Tabarrok, Alex

Published by EH.Net (November 2019)

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. 528 pp. £27 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1635573954.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alex Tabarrok, Department of Economics, George Mason University.

In The Anarchy, historian William Dalrymple recounts the remarkable rise of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. It’s an amazing story and Dalrymple tells it with verve and style drawing, as in his previous books, on underused Indian, Persian and French sources. Dalrymple has a wonderful eye for detail. After the Company’s charter is approved in 1600 the merchant adventures scout for ships to undertake the India voyage: “They have been to Deptford to ‘view severall shippes,’ one of which, the May Flowre, was later famous for a voyage heading in the opposite direction” (p. 10).

So how was a humble group of British merchants able to take over one of the great empires of history? The answer is found in the title. The Anarchy refers not to the period of British rule but to the period before that time. Under Aurangzeb, the fanatic and ruthless Mughal emperor (1658-1707), the empire grew to its largest geographic extent but only because of decades of continuous warfare and attendant taxing, pillaging, famine, misery and mass death. It was a classic case of the eventual fall of a great power through military over-extension. At Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, a power struggle ensued but none could command. “Mughal succession disputes and a string of weak and powerless emperors exacerbated the sense of imperial crisis: three emperors were murdered (one was, in addition, first blinded with a hot needle); the mother of one ruler was strangled and the father of another forced off a precipice on his elephant. In the worst year of all, 1719, four different Emperors occupied the Peacock Throne in rapid succession. According to the Mughal historian Khair ud-Din Illahabadi … ‘Disorder and corruption no longer sought to hide themselves and the once peaceful realm of India became a lair of Anarchy’” (pp. 31-32).

Seeing the chaos at the top, local rulers stopped paying tribute and tried to establish their own power bases. The result was more warfare and a decline in trade as banditry made it unsafe to travel. The Empire appeared ripe to fall. “Delhi in 1737 had around 2 million inhabitants. Larger than London and Paris combined, it was still the most prosperous and magnificent city between Ottoman Istanbul and Imperial Edo (Tokyo). As the Empire fell apart around it, it hung like an overripe mango, huge and inviting, yet clearly in decay, ready to fall and disintegrate” (pp. 36-37).

In 1739 the mango was plucked by the Persian warlord Nader Shah. Using the latest military technology, horse-mounted cannon, Shah devastated a much larger force of Mughal troops and “managed to capture the Emperor himself by the simple ruse of inviting him to dinner, then refusing to let him leave.” In Delhi, Nader Shah massacred a hundred thousand people and then, after 57 days of pillaging and plundering, left with two hundred years’ worth of Mughal treasure carried on “700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones” (p. 44).

At this time, the East India Company would have probably preferred a stable India but through a series of unforeseen events it gained in relative power as the rest of India crumbled. With the decline of the Mughals, the biggest military power in India was the Marathas and they attacked Bengal, the richest Indian province, looting, plundering, raping and killing as many as 400,000 civilians. Fearing the Maratha hordes, Bengalis fled to the only safe area in the region, the company stronghold in Calcutta. “What was a nightmare for Bengal turned out to be a major opportunity for the Company. Against artillery and cities defended by the trained musketeers of the European powers, the Maratha cavalry was ineffective. Calcutta in particular was protected by a deep defensive ditch especially dug by the Company to keep the Maratha cavalry at bay, and displaced Bengalis now poured over it into the town that they believed offered better protection than any other in the region, more than tripling the size of Calcutta in a decade. … But it was not just the protection of a fortification that was the attraction. Already Calcutta had become a haven of private enterprise, drawing in not just Bengali textile merchants and moneylenders, but also Parsis, Gujaratis and Marwari entrepreneurs and business houses who found it a safe and sheltered environment in which to make their fortunes” (pp. 73-74). In an early example of what might be called a “charter city,” English commercial law also attracted entrepreneurs to Calcutta. The “city’s legal system and the availability of a framework of English commercial law and formal commercial contracts, enforceable by the state, all contributed to making it increasingly the destination of choice for merchants and bankers from across Asia” (p. 74).

The Company benefited by another unforeseen circumstance, Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal, was a psychotic rapist who got his kicks from sinking ferry boats in the Ganges and watching the travelers drown. Siraj was uniformly hated by everyone who knew him. “Not one of the many sources for the period — Persian, Bengali, Mughal, French, Dutch or English — has a good word to say about Siraj” (p. 82). Despite his flaws, Siraj might have stayed in power had he not made the fatal mistake of striking his banker. The Jagat Seth bankers took their revenge when Siraj ud-Daula came into conflict with the Company under Robert Clive. Conspiring with Clive, the Seths arranged for the Nawab’s general to abandon him and thus the Battle of Plassey was won and the stage set for the East India Company. Many further battles and adventures would ensue before the British were firmly ensconced by 1803 but the general outline of the story remained the same. The EIC prospered due to a combination of luck, disarray among the Company’s rivals and good financing.

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.

As late as 1803, the Marathas too might have defeated the British but rivalry between Tukoji Holkar and Daulat Rao Scindia prevented an alliance. “Here Wellesley’s masterstroke was to send Holkar a captured letter from Scindia in which the latter plotted with Peshwa Baji Rao to overthrow Holkar … ‘After the war is over, we shall both wreak our full vengeance upon him.’ … After receiving this, Holkar, who had just made the first two days march towards Scindia, turned back and firmly declined to join the coalition” (p. 367).

Overlaid on top of luck and disorder, was the simple fact that the Company paid its bills. Indeed, the Company paid its sepoys (Indian troops) considerably more than did any of its rivals and it paid them on time. It was able to do so because Indian bankers and moneylenders trusted the Company. “In the end it was this access to unlimited reserves of credit, partly through stable flows of land revenues, and partly through collaboration of Indian moneylenders and financiers, that in this period finally gave the Company its edge over their Indian rivals. It was no longer superior European military technology, nor powers of administration that made the difference. It was the ability to mobilize and transfer massive financial resources that enabled the Company to put the largest and best-trained army in the eastern world into the field” (p. 329).

Dalrymple has written a history with only the occasional implicit analysis. He seems particularly incensed at “corporate violence” and in a (mercifully short) final chapter alludes to Exxon and the United Fruit Company. It is an interesting question to ask: How might the actions of these corporate raiders have differed from those of a state? It’s not clear, for example, that the EIC was any worse than the average Indian ruler and surely these stationary bandits were better than roving bandits like Nader Shah. (See Mancur Olson 1993 on the distinction.) The EIC may have looted India but economic historian Tirthankar Roy (2012, p. 215) explains that: “Much of the money that Clive and his henchmen looted from India came from the treasury of the nawab. The Indian princes, ‘walking jeweler’s shops’ as an American merchant called them, spent more money on pearls and diamonds than on infrastructural developments or welfare measures for the poor. If the Company transferred taxpayers’ money from the pockets of an Indian nobleman to its own pockets, the transfer might have bankrupted pearl merchants and reduced the number of people in the harem, but would make little difference to the ordinary Indian.”

Moreover, although it began as a private-firm, the EIC became so regulated by Parliament that Hejeebu (2016) concludes, “After 1773, little of the Company’s commercial ethos survived in India.” Certainly, by the time the brothers Wellesley were making their final push for territorial acquisition, the company directors back in London were pulling out their hair and begging for fewer expensive wars and more trading profits.

Although short on analysis, economic historians and readers will find in The Anarchy a page-turning history of the rise of the East India Company with plenty of raw material to enjoy and to think about.


Santhi Hejeebu. 2016. “The Colonial Transition and the Decline of the East India Company, c. 1746-1784.” In A New Economic History of Colonial India, edited by Latika Chaudhary, Bishnupriya Gupta, Tirthankar Roy, and Anand V. Swamy. Routledge.

Mancur Olson. 1993. “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.” American Political Science Review 87 (3): 567–76.

Tirthankar Roy. 2012. The East India Company: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation. Penguin Books India.

Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is the author (with Shruti Rajagopalan) of “Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State,” The Independent Review (Fall 2019).

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Subject(s):Business History
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century