European Potato Failure

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The European Potato Failure was a food crisis caused by potato blight that struck Northern Europe in the mid-1840s. The time is also known as the Hungry Forties. While the crisis produced excess mortality and suffering across the affected areas, particularly affected were the Scottish Highlands and even more harshly Ireland. Many people starved due to lack of access to other staple food sources.

In 2013, researchers analysed biological collections in museums with DNA sequencing techniques to decode DNA from the pathogen in stored samples from 1845 and compare them to modern genetic types. The results indicated the "strain was different from all the modern strains analysed".[1]

Potatoes Rye Wheat Oats
arable land consumption 1845 yield 1846 yield
(%) (kg/capita daily) (% change on normal)
Belgium 14% 0.5/0.6 kg −87% −43% −50% −10% n/a
Denmark 3% 0.2/0.3 kg −50% −50% −20% −20% n/a
Sweden 5% 0.5/0.6 kg −20–25% −20–25% −10% −10% n/a
France App. 6% 0.5 kg −20% −19% −20% −25% n/a
Württemberg 3–8% n/a −55% −51% −15% −24% n/a
Prussia 11% 1.0/1.1 kg n/a −47% −43% −43% n/a
Netherlands 11% 0.7 kg −71% −56% −47% −6% n/a
Spain 2% low n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Highlands of Scotland n/a high n/a −80% n/a n/a n/a
Ireland 32% 2.1 kg −30% −88% n/a n/a −33%
Source: Eric Vanhaute, et al., The European subsistence crisis of 1845–1850: a comparative perspective

The effect of the crisis on Ireland is incomparable to all other places, causing one million deaths,[2] up to two million refugees, and spurring a century-long population decline. Excluding Ireland, the death toll from the crisis is estimated to be in the region of 100,000 people. Of this, Belgium and Prussia account for most of the deaths, with 40,000–50,000 estimated to have died in Belgium, with Flanders particularly affected, and about 42,000 estimated to have perished in Prussia. The remainder of deaths occurred mainly in France, where 10,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of famine-like conditions.[3]

Aside from death from starvation and famine diseases, suffering came in other forms. While the demographic impact of famines is immediately visible in mortality, longer-term declines of fertility and natality can also dramatically affect population. In Ireland births fell by a third, resulting in about 0.5 million "lost lives". Declines elsewhere were lower: Flanders lost 20–30%, the Netherlands about 10–20%, and Prussia about 12%.[4]

Emigration to escape the famine centred mainly on Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom and on the continent, conditions were not so harsh as to completely eradicate the basics of survival so as to require mass migration of the sort experienced in Ireland and Scotland. Over 16,500 emigrated from the Scottish Highlands (out of a population affected by famine of no more than 200,000), many assisted by landlords and the Highland and Island Emigration Society, mainly to North America and Australia, this forming part of the second phase of the Highland Clearances.[5](p481)[6](p307) Over one million[7] left Ireland to the same locations, further fueling nationalist antagonism to Britain, and is sometimes perceived as an Irish holocaust.[8] The global consequence of this was the creation of a substantial Irish diaspora.

Annual population change
1840–45 1845–46 1846–47 1847–48 1848–49 1849–50 1850–60
Belgium +1.1% +0.9% +0.9% +0.0% +0.5% +0.2% +0.7%
Denmark +1.1% +1.0% +0.8% +1.0% +1.0% +1.0% +1.2%
Sweden +1.1% +0.8% +0.6% +1.0% +1.3% +1.2% +1.0%
France +0.5% +0.7% +0.4% +0.1% +0.3% +0.0% +0.5%
Germany (total) +1.0% +1.0% +0.5% +0.2% +0.1% +0.9% +0.7%
Prussia +1.3% +1.4% +0.8% +0.5% +0.4% +0.9% +1.0%
Netherlands +1.1% +1.1% +0.3% −0.2% +0.1% +0.3% +0.7%
United Kingdom* +1.2% +1.2% +0.7% +0.7% +0.7% +0.7% +1.3%
Ireland +0.4% −0.2% −4% −4% −4% −4% −1.7%
Notes: *excluding Ireland
Source: Eric Vanhaute, et al., The European subsistence crisis of 1845–1850: a comparative perspective

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Briggs, Helen (21 May 2013). "Irish potato famine pathogen identified". BBC News. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  3. ^ Eric Vanhaute, et al., The European subsistence crisis of 1845–1850: a comparative perspective
  4. ^ Eric Vanhaute, et al., The European subsistence crisis of 1845–1850: a comparative perspective
  5. ^ Devine, T M (1999). The Scottish Nation: a Modern History (2006 ed.). London: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7181-9320-1.
  6. ^ Devine, T M (2018). The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 978-0241304105.
  7. ^ The famine in Ireland: Emigration and Migration
  8. ^ Ireland mass graves: Unearthing one of the darkest chapters in Irish history, The Independent, "The "Irish Holocaust" saw hundreds of babies left to die," "Each new detail of what is being called the Irish Holocaust brings fresh horror - [...] Many [babies] died of malnutrition, at a mortality rate suspiciously well above the national average. They were stacked on top of each other, in shrouds not coffins, their bodies consigned to the septic tank over a period of decades."