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Forget the Numbers: The Case of a Madagascar Famine1

  • Jeffrey C. Kaufmann (a1)

“Famines gather history around them,” we are told, even more so, it seems, with high numbers of dead. These numbers are treated sometimes like monuments for famines, increasing over time according to utilitarian concerns. Sources for a famine on Madagascar show that though high numbers may be useful in drawing attention to a calamity, people closer to the event may not locate this history or situate their memory via numbers. Emphasizing numbers in lieu of other ways of remembering and also forgetting a calamity appear not to be very good guides to this history.

The killing famine that struck southern Madagascar in 1930–31 attracted substantial written comment among the French. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about this famine, which followed the surprising and dramatic killing of the predominant species of prickly pear cactus by cochineal insects in the late 1920s. A large area, a seventh of the island (approximately a sixth of France), with a population at the time of around a half million people and perhaps two million head of cattle, was effected by the biological war on cactus. “Cactus pastoralists” were suddenly without a very resourceful plant. It had provided thick fences of protection to these herders and their cattle; its fruit and water a mainstay for people; its singed cladodes a critical source of water and sustenance for cattle.

The “furnace of contamination”—the rapidly reproducing cochineal choking to death their cactus hosts—started in 1925 at the southwest provincial center of Toliara and spread to the east, north, and south at a rate of 100 kilometers per year.

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Megan Vaughan , The Story of an African Famine (Cambridge, 1987), 1.

Pierre Nora , “Between Memory and History: les lieux de mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989), 725.

Karen Middleton , “Who Killed ‘Malagasy Cactus’? Science, Environment, and Colonialism in Southern Madagascar (1924-1930),” Journal of Southern African Studies 25 [1999], 215–48.

H. Humbert , “Changements siirvcnus dans la végétation du sud de Madagascar,” Revue internationale de botanique appliquée et d'agriculture tropicale 27/301-302 (1947), 442

Robert E. Dewar and Henry T. Wright , “The Culture History of Madagascar,” Journal of World Prehistory 7 (1993), 426

Lucy Jarosz , “Defining and Explaining Tropical Deforestation: Shifting Cultivation and Population Growth in Colonial Madagascar (1896-1940),” Economic Geography 69 (1993), 375–77

Decary , “L'utilisation des Opuntias en Androy (extrême sud de Madagascar),” Revue de botanique appliquée et d'agriculture coloniale 5 (1925), 769–71

Karen Middleton Circumcision, Death, and Strangers,” Journal of Religion in Africa 27(1997), 355

Jennifer Cole , “The Work of Memory in Madagascar,” American Ethnologist 25 (1998), 610–33.

, “,” (), –. David Graeber Painful Memories Journal of Religion in Africa 27 1997 374400

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History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
  • URL: /core/journals/history-in-africa
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