Yan SlobodkinDec 11, 2023
The Starving Empire
A History of Famine in France's Colonies
Cornell University Press 2023
The Starving Empire: A History of Famine in France's Colonies (Cornell University Press, 2023) by Dr. Yan Slobodkin traces the history of famine in the modern French Empire, showing that hunger is intensely local and sweepingly global, shaped by regional contexts and the transnational interplay of ideas and policies all at once. By integrating food crises in Algeria, West and Equatorial Africa, and Vietnam into a broader story of imperial and transnational care, Dr. Slobodkin reveals how the French colonial state and an emerging international community took increasing responsibility for subsistence, but ultimately failed to fulfill this responsibility.
Europeans once dismissed colonial famines as acts of god, misfortunes of nature, and the inevitable consequences of backward races living in harsh environments. But as Dr. Slobodkin recounts, drawing on archival research from four continents, the twentieth century saw transformations in nutrition, scientific racism, and international humanitarianism that profoundly altered ideas of what colonialism could accomplish. A new confidence in the ability to mitigate hunger, coupled with new norms of moral responsibility, marked a turning point in the French Empire's relationship to colonial subjects—and to nature itself.
Increasingly sophisticated understandings of famine as a technical problem subject to state control saddled France with untenable obligations. The Starving Empire not only illustrates how the painful history of colonial famine remains with us in our current understandings of public health, state sovereignty, and international aid, but also seeks to return food—this most basic of human needs—to its central place in the formation of modern political obligation and humanitarian ethics.
This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.