Potato Famine

Date: 1880
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This 1880 cartoon depicts the devastation done unto Ireland by the Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849, a severe food shortage caused by a blight on Ireland's potato crop. Ironically, potatoes were often introduced to European agriculture in the wake of earlier famines as a means of diversifying the crops and diet of Europeans yet, by the mid nineteenth century, European nations such as Hungary, Ireland, and Russia had become dependent on this New World staple.

This cartoon illustrates well the complexity of the post-Columbian world: the failure of a crop brought from America and grown in a European country led to massive European emigration, mostly to the Americas. This was just one example of the massive demographic shifts that were integral to the ongoing Columbian exchange, the most obvious of which was the forced migration of African slaves.

Despite periodic demographic declines such as the Potato Famine, the Columbian exchange was responsible for enormous long term population growth, especially among Europeans and their descendants. Yet such growth, coupled with the continuing tendency of people to travel to and settle in places far beyond their home countries, is contributing to the increasing homogenization of human kind and the environment that we inhabit. Similarly, many crop species have become increasingly homogeneous through out the world as a result of plantation agriculture, making them more susceptible to devastating pests. Prior to 1492, for example, all Native Americans from Canada to Tierra del Fuego were incredibly similar genetically, in contrast to Europeans or Africans. Ethnic and racial mixing has reduced the diversity of our genetic pool, a circumstance that makes us more vulnerable to new diseases and a less adaptable species as a whole. In Darwinian terms, we are steadily becoming equally fit to deal with new circumstances, a situation that could prove disastrous for homo sapiens in general.

Reference: Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

CITATION: Nast, Thomas. "The Herald of relief from America / Th. Nast." 1 print : wood engraving. Illus. in: Harper's weekly, 1880 Feb. 28, p. 129. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, ID: LC-USZ62-103220. Original image number: cph 3c03220.