On the Verge of Starvation: Impacts and consequences of the 1860s crop failures across the Baltic Sea region

Henrik Forsberg's picture

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Call for Papers
June 12, 2023 to June 13, 2023
Subject Fields: 
Economic History / Studies, Demographic History / Studies, Rural History / Studies, European History / Studies, Russian or Soviet History / Studies

Conference venue: Umeå University, Sweden

Time: June 12 - 13, 2023

The 1860s was a transformative period politically and economically, but also from the perspective of societal efforts to combat hunger in the Baltic Sea region. Crop failures, especially the one in 1867, caused widespread distress around the Baltic Sea although with regional differences and outright famines in the Grand duchy of Finland, Governorates of Estonia and Livonia, and in northern Sweden.  The crop failures in 1867 were caused by an unusually cold spring that delayed the sowing season combined with early onset of autumn weather and night frosts that brought the final blows to an already meager harvest output. As a result, in 1868 food prices soared across northern Europe with minor rises being seen in central European market-towns. Meanwhile, at least in southern Sweden agricultural production saw a setback due to droughts.  In some regions this escalated to famine which governments and others tried to combat through a range of relief measures, some more successful than others.

The famine that has gathered most scholarly attention is the Finnish famine, also called the last peacetime famine in Western Europe.  However, much of the scholarship on famines is dominated by methodological nationalism, where each historical famine is often studied as an event mainly affecting its own national history. We accept that Finnish scholars have a relatively clear understanding of the famine process in Finland in the late 1860,  but we would like to broaden our understanding of this crisis process in a broader regional context of crop failures shaping and rearranging social and economic relations across the Baltic Sea region. Thus, instead of splitting the Baltic Sea region into conventional national units of analysis,  we are interested in studying regions that split the state. Here we define regions either as provincial regions below the state’s jurisdiction or as transnational contact zones shared by various states.

This project argues for a regional understanding of the famine processes. An understanding that begins from the regional or local experience of crop failure, or of the market radar of the region, which is then followed by an assessment of the demographic and economic consequences for the region and beyond. How did crop failures in the 1860s affect societies across the Baltic Sea region? How did extreme weather phenomena in a broad geographical region, such as the Baltic Sea region, manifest itself in the local context? How did food shortages in one region affect its own population and the economies of its surrounding regions? Could some regions benefit from the increased food demand and soaring prices, while other regions were faced with food supply deficiencies and a mortality crisis? Could some regions balance their food/population -ratio through increased outmigration, while others could not? Regional disparities did not follow state borders, for instance, while northern Sweden was starving in 1867 and 1868 grain exports increased from southern Sweden. How were the harvest failures and ensuing famines perceived from the grain market hubs in Saint Peterburg, Riga and Copenhagen? How were communities in the southern Baltic Sea region affected by these events? Did they suffer harvest losses and/or population losses, or could they profit from higher prices? How entangled were the various regions across the Baltic Sea in these times of distress in the 1860s?

To fill this gap of knowledge we are organizing a conference at Umeå university and welcoming scholars with similar interests to join us. The main purpose of this conference is to gather a team of scholars that can contribute article-chapters for a forthcoming book. We especially welcome contributions that analyse a chosen region’s natural and socioeconomic conditions in the 1860s, provide estimations on harvest outputs and their impact on the demography and overall wellbeing, with an added discussion of the region’s contacts and contrasts to other regions. A topic can be (but is not limited to):

-    The weather event in the Baltic Sea region in the 1860s
-    The Baltic Sea as an integrated market region? 
-    Cities and their surroundings
-    The Gulf of Bothnia
-    Southern Sweden
-    Inner Finland
-    Coastal Finland 
-    The archipelagos and/or island communities
-    Other administrative, geographical and/or cultural regions.

Please send your abstract (max. 500 words), contact details and a short CV to henrik.forsberg@umu.se by March 15, 2023. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be sent by no later than March 31. Thanks to the generous support from Jan Wallanders och Tom Hedelius stiftelse and Tore Browaldhs stiftelse the conference organizers are able cater for participants lunches, coffees, and a dinner, and to subsidize some of the travel and/or accommodation costs. 

Contact Info: 

Henrik Forsberg, Umeå university

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