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War, pestilence, famine

War, pestilence, famine

by William H. Benson

March 30, 2020

Voltaire, the French philosopher, stated his creed in his Philosophical Dictionary. “I believe that theological disputes are at once the most ridiculous farce, and the most dreadful scourge on the earth, after war, pestilence, and famine.”

If we set aside Voltaire’s “theological disputes,” three scourges remain: “war, pestilence, famine.”

Throughout human history, people have lacked crucial pieces of knowledge to understand why certain events transpire, and the reasons that underlie them. The inception of a battle, of an insect or microbial infestation, of widespread hunger remain humankind’s most deadly of mysteries.

For example, the 60 Englishmen, out of 500, who lived through the “starving times” in Jamestown, in Virginia, during the winter of 1609-1610, knew nothing of what the Native American populations had endured throughout the previous century.

Millions had died, across North and South America, because of the diseases that the Europeans had brought with them, including small pox, cholera, and tuberculosis, among a host of others. The native population did not have the same immunity to the diseases that Europeans had acquired over centuries.

As recent as 50 years ago, anthropologists insisted that the Native American population at the time of Columbus’s arrival was about one million, but Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, suggests that the Native American population stood at “around 20 million.”

Entire villages along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Mississippi River Valley were wiped out.

Yet, the governor at Jamestown, said, “Indians killed as fast without [outside the fort] as Famine and Pestilence did within.”

Another example. The year 1816 is now called, “the year without a summer.” In Europe and North America, spring failed to arrive. “Temperatures in New York in May were below freezing almost every day; on June 2, snow fell in Albany, New York; on July 7, it was so cold, crops had stopped growing.”

Harvests failed to yield the usual wheat, oats, and potatoes in Britain, Ireland, and Germany. People rioted, they stole, they starved. “It was the worst famine of 19th-century Europe.”

Most people at the time did not know that a volcano, Mount Tambora, in modern-day Indonesia, had erupted twice in early April of 1815, that caused “a volcanic winter.”

Called “the most destructive explosion on earth in the past 10,000 years,” it “blasted twelve cubic miles of gases, dust, and rock into the atmosphere,” obscuring the sun for two years.

A third example. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany, and Congress agreed. The Great War in Europe had already killed millions of young men fighting in trenches, and it would continue its killing spree for another year and a half.

Wilson and the Congressmen were unaware in 1917, that the war would unleash a deadly pestilence, the Spanish flu epidemic, that would kill between 20 and 50 million people, perhaps as many as 100 million, through 1918, 1919, and 1920.

The pandemic may have begun in France, in Kansas or Boston, or in China. Scientists are unsure, but most agree that the Allies’ soldiers were “the main disseminators.” They caught it, transported it to the battlefields, and then carried it back home. It spread like a prairie wildfire.

A possible location for where this strain of influenza first began was a British hospital camp situated near Étaples, in France, where 100,000 soldiers—chemical attack victims—passed through everyday. For food, the hospital’s cooks daily slaughtered chickens, ducks, turkeys, and pigs.

One theory put forth is that the virus began in “the poultry, mutated, then migrated to the pigs,” and then jumped into the concentrated human population.

A fourth example. On April 2, 1979, spores of anthrax escaped from a biological weapons plant near the city of Sverdlovsk, in Russia, causing the deaths of about 100 victims. Years later, scientists determined that workers in the plant had “forgotten to replace an exhaust system filter.”

The Russian people suffered much throughout the twentieth century. First, there was Lenin, then the Russian famine of 1921-1922, then Stalin, then the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, then Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, then the German siege on Leningrad that starved to death 800,000 of its citizens.

One wonders, “did the Russian people suffer more from war and famine than most of the world’s other people?” To top it off, their biological weapons slipped out of control and killed themselves.

War, pestilence, and famine, Voltaire’s choices for the three most dreadful scourges known to humankind. Most tragic is when they coincide, occur at the same time. The sadness then compounds.