Drought, Famine and Disease in Nineteenth-Century Lesotho
Every country in the world has suffered from drought, famine or disease or all three at one point or another in history. African countries have sometimes been said to have experienced the most natural disasters in history and 19thcentury Lesotho is no exception to that rule.
Lesotho is a country on the south west coast of the continent and offers much in the way of information on drought and how it often leads to famine and then to disease.
We know that during the 19thcentury, Lesotho experienced a long period of drought in every decade except for one. These droughts encouraged famines both directly and in a roundabout way. Recent research has shown that droughts do not as you might expect cause famines, nor are famines as a rule caused by a complete shortage of food. “Famines invariably coincided with droughts in nineteenth century Lesotho, however, and there were no famines which occurred independently from drought, which suggests that drought was important as a catalytic, if not ultimate, cause of famine. Similarly, after contact with Europeans droughts were invariably accompanied by epidemics, and there were no epidemics which occurred independently from drought”.
Droughts caused famines in Lesotho in two ways – severe droughts occasionally caused an absolute lack of food because the interior of southern Africa was remote in the early 19thcentury and there were no trade organizations to hand out food across the area. Because of the lack of food, the people started to experience hunger and famine. It was only those who had access to remaining food supplies who manage to survive the famine.
In addition to this, “drought more commonly prompted famine indirectly by inducing migration, which intensified territorial competition and prompted open conflict in the context of an ongoing struggle for land. Wars created immediate famine conditions and further led to the reallocation of productive resources, which left the BaSotho increasingly susceptible to subsequent droughts and famines”.
By the end of the 19thcentury, the BaSotho had experience so much drought and famine that they lost the capability to withstand periods of time without food. In addition to this, the droughts had political ramifications – because of the famines they were unable to defend their land during periods of conflict.“In the 1860s the BaSotho were devastated as much by famine and disease as they were by war”.
Eldridge, Elizabeth A. (1987) Drought, Famine and Disease in Nineteenth-Century Lesotho, African Economic History, African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.