Crisis for whom?
In the 1840s, Belgium was in the grip of an economic and social crisis. Esther Beeckaert and Eric Vanhaute (History Department, Ghent University) devote a chapter to this serious crisis in the book “An economic history of famine resilience” (Routledge 2019). They describe the crisis in its magnitude and complexity and show how strongly the consequences differed between regions. They then come to an explanation for the varying impact of the crisis. Their findings are largely based on data from population and agriculture censuses that the Quetelet Center has compiled for them. In addition, employees of the Center produced important maps for this research and the publication.
In this paper, Esther Beeckaert and Eric Vanhaute make a regional comparison to understand the divergent impact of the 1840s potato famine in Belgium. This famine resulted from successive harvest failures in 1845 and 1846. Initially a potato blight destroyed 87 percent of the harvest and the next year the grain harvest was also partly damaged due to bad weather conditions. The authors start from the observation that the mortality rates were much higher in Inner-Flanders (Kortrijk, Roeselare, Tielt) than in Walloon Brabant (Nivelles), the Campine (Turnhout) and the Ardennes (Neufchâteau). They explain the regionally different impact on the basis of two basic characteristics of rural societies: secure and stable household access to land and performant local redistributive mechanisms through extended labour networks or public poor relief systems. In the Campine and the Ardennes considerable numbers of households were able to survive supported by systems of common access to public land. In Walloon-Brabant these common lands had largely disappeared by then, but impoverished families were relatively successfully sustained by local poor relief institutions and employed by large farms in the region. In contrast, in Inner-Flanders these safety nets were largely absent by the 1840s. Subsistence means from land and labour of many households have been reduced in the years preceding the crisis and the local poor relief institutions were not capable to meet the growing needs.
Beeckaert, Esther and Eric Vanhaute. “Whose famine? Regional differences in vulnerability and resilience during the 1840s potato famine in Belgium.” In: Jessica Dijkman and Bas van Leeuwen (eds.) An economic history of famine resilience. Routledge, 2019: 115–41.