The decade became known as the Hungry Forties, not just in Ireland but all over Europe. Wouter Ronsijn and Eric Vanhaute explain how starvation threatened European stability - and how different regions reacted to the food shortages.

The Irish clearly suffered worst during the Hungry Forties, but many people elsewhere in Europe faced severe distress as well. The impact of the crisis varied widely depending on the local and regional social, economic and political circumstances.

Like other famines, the crises (in plural) of the 1840s in Europe were regional phenomena. Certain vulnerable regions were affected much more than others. The immediate cause of the European famine of the 1840s was the potato blight. The Hungry Forties were first and foremost caused by the massive failure of potato crops in the years 1845-1847.

The blight, imported from the Americas, was first seen in June 1845 in the region of Courtrai in Belgium. It spread to the surrounding countries in a matter of weeks. By the middle of September 1845, potato fields in the whole of Ireland, as well as parts of Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia were affected.

Potato Blight in Europe map
The spread of the potato blight across Europe. Map by Mike Murphy from the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine.

Blight and poor harvests

In 1845 Phytophthora infestans, the mysterious fungus that caused the blight, was most destructive in the Netherlands and Belgium, due to its early appearance in these countries. In Belgium, almost 90 per cent of the potato harvest was lost. By comparison, about 30 per cent of Irish harvest was lost in that year, mainly because the blight arrived some weeks later.

Harvest losses were more dramatic in 1846, because not only potatoes but also cereals and other crops failed. Several countries recorded their worst potato harvest in a long time. In Prussia half of the crop and in Ireland over three quarters were lost. That same year, wheat and particularly rye harvests were exceptionally bad. In Belgium, more than half, perhaps almost two thirds of the rye harvest was lost.

The combined loss of two basic staple foods – potatoes and bread grains – led to severe food shortages and a steep rise in food prices. In Irish, English, Flemish, Dutch and northern French markets, food prices reached peak levels in the first half of 1847.

In the following years, potato harvests gradually improved, but the acreage planted with potatoes was often smaller, due to a lack of seed potatoes but also a growing mistrust in the success of the crop. Grain harvests were good in 1847, and food prices consequently dropped.

Rotten potato
A potato infected by the blight. Photo: Getty Images

A multi-layered crisis

The food crisis of the mid-1840s soon led to a financial and industrial crisis. As food prices went up, more resources, both private and public, were used to buy and import food. Industry suffered as demand for its products dropped and credit for new investments became harder to get.

Several European countries experienced a deep industrial slump, except the most industrialised country of the time, England. Furthermore, when food prices collapsed in late 1847, many who had speculated that dearth would continue, incurred huge financial losses. This contributed to the British banking crisis of 1847.

A wave of food riots hit in Europe in 1846 and 1847, mostly in towns and cities and in grain exporting rural areas. Elsewhere, especially in regions with more peasant-based economies, collective actions remained rare. Here, famine-related crime was mostly limited to small acts of petty crime and theft.

In 1848, political turbulence struck France, Switzerland, Italy, many German states and several parts of the Habsburg Empire. Some historians believe that the hardship caused by the food and industrial crises was the main trigger of the political upheaval, even though some of these places had suffered rather mildly. Several states where the crisis had a much stronger impact, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, averted revolutionary violence by introducing constitutional reforms early on.

Political upheaval was widespread all over Europe in 1848, which may have been triggered by the foot shortages. Revolutionaries erected barricades in cities all over the continent, as seen in this artwork, The Amazon on the barricade at the Small Ring in Prague, 1848. Found in the Collection of National Gallery, Prague. Artist Andel, Bedrich (1821-1895). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Regional and national differences

The regions and countries most affected by the crisis of the Hungry Forties are located along a line from Ireland, Britain, and the Low Countries to East Prussia. North and south, in Scandinavia, France, Southern Germany and further towards the Mediterranean, the crisis had at most a mild impact.

Different indicators show the effect of hunger. Most telling are changes in the number of deaths, births and marriages. The famine killed about 1 million Irish. In the rest of Europe, the excess death toll was several hundred thousands. Belgium and Prussia, for example, each had over 40,000 famine-related deaths, while France counted about 10,000 cases. With mortality three times higher than normal, the crisis was nowhere as harsh as in Ireland.

In Belgium, the Netherlands and Prussia, mortality was between 30 to 40 per cent above normal. Yet these national averages hide strong regional differences. In parts of the linen-producing areas of Flanders and the coastal clay areas of the Netherlands, for example, mortality was notably higher. Elsewhere in Europe, excess mortality during the crisis years was lower or even non-existent.

In 1847, population growth came to a standstill in several European countries, and in Ireland population numbers fell dramatically. This was due not only to mortality, but also to the drop in the number of births in the hardest-hit areas. Emigration only played a part in Ireland and to a lesser degree in Scotland. In comparison, on the continent very few people left their home region for good.

Population growth stalled all over Europe in the 1840s, but only in Ireland and Scotland did population numbers sink because of emigration. This image shows Irish emigrants at Ballinasloe station on their way to Galway to board boats to America, after the painting by Erskine Nicol. From The Century Edition of Cassell's History of England, published c. 1900 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Expanding economies, growing vulnerabilities

The 1840s famine hit Western Europe after a century of growth and expansion on many fronts. After the middle of the eighteenth century, population started to grow, even more so in urban areas than in rural areas. Urbanisation increased, as did industrial production. Yet except for England, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Belgium, most of the European population remained rural, with agriculture as the largest economic sector.

Agricultural production grew due to land reclamations and modest technological improvements. Large-scale famines were becoming less common in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Even so, agricultural production merely kept pace with population growth. Per capita, production remained stable, while Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium increasingly needed food imports.

In addition, several areas in Europe witnessed divergent processes of social polarisation. Rising food prices and falling industrial prices benefitted wealthy farmers, who produced more food for the expanding towns and cities. At the same time, the number of rural dwellers with little or no land multiplied almost everywhere. They lived from wage labour, cottage industries and what they could grow on their tiny plots of land, if they had any.

Courtyard of a Peasant Dwelling, 1846. Artist Charles Emile Jacque. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Courtyard of a Peasant Dwelling, 1846, by the French artist Charles Emile Jacque. Image: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Potatoes often figured most prominently on these small patches, because of their high caloric yield per hectare. The income of people active in rural industries, using traditional tools, dropped together with industrial prices. Especially the wages of rural spinners fell drastically as mechanised spinning took over. Wage labourers in the growing towns and cities needed higher wages, to keep up with rising food prices.

The poorest part of the population was structurally undernourished. In addition, a growing part of the population became more sensitive to market fluctuations and sudden jumps in food prices. Regions with large-scale commercial agriculture and many rural wage workers were indeed among the hardest hit, such as East Elbia and the coastal areas in the Netherlands. The same goes for areas with a large share of the population active in traditional textile production such as Upper Silesia and inland Flanders.

Tackling the crisis

Historians who have studied the 1840s believe that local community networks and actions of local elites were best able to bring relief. Local institutions organised support for their poor, intervened in markets, employed people in public works and prohibited begging and vagrancy.

In some areas however, most notably Ireland, the strength and resilience of these local communities had been largely eroded. Where local elites had only limited interest in maintaining local village networks, the poor were much more exposed to the effects of the food crisis.

Whether national governments in the middle of the nineteenth century were able to address a crisis of this magnitude is doubted. The governments of Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain tended to adhere to free trade, and developed only a limited interventionist policy.

Crowds gather outside a workhouse in Ireland, begging to be allowed to enter, in this engraving created circa 1846-1847. Source: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Other governments did intervene, such as Belgium, France, Sweden and Prussia. They did so either by providing financial support to local communities or by intervening in international trade by changing customs policies and banning food exports.

Between two worlds

The 1840s food crisis was a 'classic’ famine, in the sense that it was caused primarily by a substantial drop in the amount of food that was physically available. In several parts of Western Europe, it affected broad groups of society and caused a significant increase in social distress and in the number of dead.

At the same time, it contained elements of a ‘modern’ crisis, especially in the later years, as it affected large numbers of people dependent on insecure forms of wage labour who were confronted with job uncertainty and wage instability. The latter was particularly the case in areas undergoing rapid economic and social transformation.

Yet only in Ireland was the crisis harsh enough to devastate the existing way of life. On the continent, the crisis struck hard in places, but in the short run it did not disrupt the basic mode of survival.

This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy . Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.