Roger Wells – Wretched FacesFamine in Wartime England 1793-1801
410pp / 191x235mm / paperback
In 1798, the Rev. T. R. Malthus published his explosive thesis arguing that population had a natural tendency to expand with the capacity of any society to feed itself. The most strident component of the Malthusian case turned on the ‘positive check’ to demographic growth, a subsistence crisis generating malnutrition-induced disease and starvation, and thereby inflicting a marked drop in population. Malthus’s argument was based on historical experience, but his vision was conditioned by, and conceived in, a late eighteenth-century context. Historians, while acknowledging that Tudor and Stuart precedents, and contemporary experience in continental Europe, and even in colonial Ireland, could be marshalled in support of Malthus’s position at that time, have ignored any consideration of why an English country clergyman, should have developed such a pessimistic theory. English historians unthinkably, and automatically, take an implied refuge in the optimistic view that English capitalism had, through industrialisation and an agricultural revolution, achieved a ‘maturity’ enabling the country to escape incarceration in a ‘pre-industrial’ vicious circle, turning on a fragile agrarian-based economic environment.
This book reverts Malthus in a thoroughly English context. It proves that famine could, and did
, occur in England during the classic period of the Industrial Revolution. The key economic determinant proved to be the ideologically-inspired war, orchestrated by the Prime Minister, the younger Pitt, against the French and their attempted export of revolutionary principles at bayonet point, to the rest of Europe. This international context, in part, conditioned the recurrent development of famine conditions in England in 1794-6 and again in 1799-1801. Here the multiple ramifications of famine in this country, as it lurched from crisis to crisis in wartime, are explored in considerable depth. These were repeated crises of capitalism, juxtaposed with the autocratic and aristocratic state’s total commitment to war, which contrived to challenge not just the commitment to war, but both the equilibrium and the survival of the state itself. ‘WANT’ stalked the land; intense rioting periodically erupted; radical politicisation, notably of unenfranchised working people, proceeded apace, in part stimulated by the catastrophic events projected on the world stage by the process of the French Revolution. The book finally explains how such an oligarchic, unrepresentative government managed through determined economic interventionism, manipulation of the unique English social security system, and final resort to army rule, to preserve itself and the political structure during a key epoch within the Age of Revolutions.