Bites of History
“We lost our appetite for food”: Why Eighteenth-Century Hangriness Might Not Be a Thing

“We lost our appetite for food”: Why Eighteenth-Century Hangriness Might Not Be a Thing

In August 2015, Oxford Dictionaries declared that the word “hangry” had entered our common vocabulary. Surely most people living in the twenty-first century have experienced the sense of being simultaneously hungry and angry. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hunger was also everywhere. A recent NPR essay examines how slaveholders withheld food from enslaved people, such as Frederick Douglass, because hunger gave them greater control over people of African descent. Historian Alan Taylor has written about periods of famine after the American Revolution. During some of these years of food shortages that Taylor describes, Iroquois clan mothers pressured other Native Americans into ceding land because they wanted “peace and food relief,” as they did in 1785 at Fort Herkimer.1 Hunger has been, and continues to be, a key facet of power relations.

Hangriness implies that being hungry should engender rage. But historians also know better; they know that for a long time, hunger did not make early modern people angry because they expected it. Carla Cevasco demonstrates that New England colonists could cope with hunger throughout the eighteenth century, but did not do much to stop it.2 Historians half a century ago used to think that people started food riots just because they were hungry, but we now know that rioting was one of many organized, political forms of behavior related to periods of scarcity — particularly from 1740 to 1820, or what John Bohstedt has called the “golden age” of food riots.3

People rioted to critique a government’s failure to prevent hunger — but only sometimes to demand the right to prevent their own hunger.4 James Vernon has suggested that only in the nineteenth century did hunger become avoidable.5 Nick Cullather has argued that it was the twentieth-century quantification of food in the form of calories that enabled the United States to make the state responsible for forestalling food insecurity.6

Arrests in Food Price Riots, St. Quentin, 1911. (Bain News Service/LOC)

So yes, hunger was a problem in the early modern period; crops failed, famine ensued, and people died of starvation as their bodies consumed themselves. But hunger was also unexceptional, and rarely was it a cause for anger. During the American Revolutionary War, hunger meant different things at different times, and lots of people — enslaved people, Native Americans, and ordinary soldiers — had to deal with hunger, ignore it, prevent it, and create it.

In November 1775, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation of freedom to slaves of rebel masters. In the short-term, some enslaved people liberated themselves, but the long-term consequences were still more electrifying.7 Historians estimate that some 15,000 to 20,000 people ran away from masters to join the British cause.8 Almost a fourth of the pre-Revolutionary slave population migrated out of South Carolina and Georgia.9 Women and men also fled from Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.10

Some of these men were responsible for obtaining food for the British army. Former slaves’ food procurement duties allowed them to create hunger among white southern Patriots. Bands of Dunmore’s followers — called “Dunmore’s banditti” — raided the plantations of former masters, carrying off livestock and crops.11 It must have been satisfying (and dangerous) to approach a familiar place of exploitation and to strike a blow against the people who had previously enforced such power dynamics. In addition to black soldiers who pilfered food, built earthworks, and made grapeshot, black men and women also appear in the records procuring and preparing foodstuffs through nonviolent means. Women worked as cooks and maids, men cooked, foraged, and waited on officers in army camps.12

Cropped illustration from “The seashore book: Bob and Betty’s summer with Captain Hawes” (Boyd/Flickr | Public Domain)

William Allen, aged 23, a “Stout Man” bound for Halifax in 1783, cooked for Britons on board the Nancy.13 David George eventually made his way to Savannah, where he butchered and sold pork to the British.14 He and his wife then moved to Charleston, where they raised corn with a man named George Liele, who traveled between the Piedmont and the Lowcountry.15 People of African descent, in other words, provisioned themselves during the war because they were more than capable of obtaining food for other people.

But the British lost the war. Former slaves after Yorktown realized that re-enslavement was a possibility, and they feared that outcome more than they feared hunger. In 1783, when South Carolina-born Boston King heard of a “dreadful rumour” from New York stating “that all slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters” in light of the peace between Britain and the United States, he could not have eaten even had he wanted to. “We lost our appetite for food,” he remembered.16 At times, black soldiers prevented hunger through labor, theft, or migration. At times they placed hunger prevention much lower on their scale of human requirements. It wasn’t hunger that inspired dread, or anger; it was the potential loss of freedom.

Former slaves were not the only people to confront what white private Joseph Plumb Martin called “the monster Hunger” during the War for Independence.17 During the war, changing British perceptions of hungry Indians allowed the Iroquois (also known as the Six Nations, or Haudenosaunee) to challenge the state of power relations. In 1779, when the Americans embarked on a campaign of food destruction sanctioned by future President George Washington, the rebels’ burning of tens of thousands of bushels of Native corn had an unexpected consequence: the Iroquois said they were less hungry.18

By August 1779, British officials began to report Iroquois complaints about their British allies. Indians started voicing annoyance that the British “talked of nothing but Provisions.”19 Refugees from the campaign had fled to British forts, and the British were concerned about expenses.20 They tried to convince the Six Nations that they couldn’t stay because the British couldn’t feed them. Indians declared that they would simply withstand hunger.

House of Red Jacket in Buffalo. Red Jacket was a leader of the Seneca Indians, a member of the Iroquois confederacy. (Barber & Howe/Flickr Commons)

The Cayuga Twethorechte told British officials, “We of the Six Nations have been much cast down by the great Loss we have sustained in the Destruction of several of our Villages and Corn-Fields.” He appreciated “what has been said on the Score of Provisions,” but said that the Indians “cannot think of separating.” If the Indians had “to suffer for Provisions we cannot help it.”21 Iroquois abilities to endure hunger made it impossible for their British hosts to claim the upper hand in the alliance. British soldiers may even have been embarrassed about their relative lack of stoicism.

Several notions of hunger emerge from these two examples of formerly enslaved and Native military service. Sometimes ex-slaves likely did hunger, often in ways that gave white people power over them. Patriot forces, similarly, hoped to shift power relations in their favor by destroying so many bushels of Iroquois corn. Sometimes people took revenge by creating hunger, as former slaves did when they attacked plantations. During other moments hunger was not even among the concerns that people considered; Boston King ignored it in 1783, as did Twethorechte in 1779.

When we think of hangriness today, we think of cranky people who need a Snickers before they do something irrational. Hangriness, in other words, connotes privilege, or the state of rarely having hungered. It erases the hundreds of thousands of people — inside of the United States and outside of it — who go hungry every day. Hangriness is a less useful concept for the eighteenth century because although many more people went hungry, those who did hunger often avoided anger. There are lots of explanations for why they didn’t get angry. Maybe they had more experience dealing with and ignoring hunger, and maybe they knew they could prevent it in innovative ways. I’m not suggesting that we do away with trying to analyze historical descriptions of hunger; I hope it’s clear that I’m deeply invested in examining these different meanings. What I would say is that it would behoove us to be careful about using notions of hunger as uni-causal explanations for anger and violence.


  1. Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 2006), 163, 165 (quote). See also Alan Taylor, “‘The Hungry Year’: 1789 on the Northern Border of Revolutionary America,” in Alessa Johns, ed., Dreadful Visitations: Confronting Natural Catastrophe in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 1999), 145-81. Return to text.
  2. Carla Cevasco, “Hunger Knowledges and Cultures in New England’s Borderlands, 1675-1770,” forthcoming in Early American Studies (Winter 2018). Return to text.
  3. The foundational work signaling this shift is E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, no. 50 (Feb. 1971): 76-136. Subsequent authors built on or reworked Thompson’s model. See Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society (University Park: the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); John Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets & Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment (Cambridge: John Wiley & Sons, 1994); Barbara Clark Smith, “Food Rioters and the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 51, no. 1 (Jan. 1994): 3-38; Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); John Bohstedt, The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1550-1850 (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), 266 (quote). For a recent essay on fears of hunger in the Caribbean, see Bertie Mandelblatt, “‘A Land where Hunger is in Gold and Famine is in Opulence’: Plantation Slavery, Island Ecology, and the Fear of Famine in the French Caribbean,” in Lauric Henneton and L. H. Roper, eds., Fear and the Shaping of Early American Societies (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 243-64, esp. 258. Return to text.
  4. For people demanding the right to form their own government that prevented hunger, see Rachel B. Herrmann, “Rebellion or riot?: Black Loyalist Food Laws in Sierra Leone,” Slavery & Abolition, 37, no. 4 (December 2016): 680-703. Return to text.
  5. James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 2, 11. See also Nick Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” American Historical Review, 112, no. 2 (Apr. 2007): 360. Return to text.
  6. Nick Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” American Historical Review, 112, no. 2 (April 2007): 337-64; Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (New York: Harvard University Press, 2010). Return to text.
  7. On the relationship between Dunmore’s proclamation and its effects on rebels’ sentiment against Great Britain, see Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 326; Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 10. See also Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961), 18; Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2006 [2005]), 7; Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 71; Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks (New York: Capricorn Books, 1976), 24-5; Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 238. Return to text.
  8. For 15,000 see Egerton, Death or Liberty, 6. For 20,000 see Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 8. Return to text.
  9. Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 666. Return to text.
  10. Alan Kulikoff, “Uprooted Peoples: Black Migrants in the Age of the American Revolution, 1790-1820,” in Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 1986 [1983]), 144. Return to text.
  11. “WILLIAMSBURG, December 2,” Virginia Gazette, December 2, 1776, no. 1269; Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 29. Return to text.
  12. Frey, Water from the Rock, 169. For blacks’ roles in the war see also Cassandra Pybus, “Henry ‘Harry’ Washington (1750s-1790s): A Founding Father’s Slave,” in in Karen Racine and Beatriz G. Mamigonian, The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, 1500-1850 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010), 106. Return to text.
  13. Book of Negroes Registered & certified after having been Inspected by the Commissioners appointed by His Excellency Sr: Guy Carleton K.B. General & Commander in Chief, on Board Sundry Vessels in which they were Embarked Previous to the time of sailing from the Port of New York between the 23d April and 31st July 1783 both Days Included, photostat 10427, box 43, British Headquarters Papers, New York Public Library. Return to text.
  14. “An Account of the Life of Mr. DAVID GEORGE, from Sierra Leone in Africa; given by himself in a Conversation with Brother RIPPON of London, and Brother PEARCE of Birmingham,” (London, 1793-1797), in Vincent Carretta, ed., Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 336. Return to text.
  15. John W. Pulis, “Bridging Troubled Waters: Moses Baker, George Liele, and the African American Diaspora to Jamaica,” in John W. Pulis, ed., Moving On: Black Loyalists in the Afro-Atlantic World (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999), 194-5. Return to text.
  16. “Memoirs of the Life of BOSTON KING, a Black Preacher. Written by Himself, during his Residence at Kingswood-School,” (London, 1798), in Carretta, Unchained Voices, 356. Return to text.
  17. James Kirby Martin, ed., Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, Second Edition (St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1999 [1993]), 109. Return to text.
  18. For the extent of this destruction see Robert W. Venables, “‘Faithful Allies of the King’: The Crown’s Haudenosaunee Allies in the Revolutionary Struggle for New York,” in Joseph S. Tiedemann, Eugene R. Fingerhut, and Robert W. Venables, eds., The Other Loyalists: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1763-1787 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009), 149. See also Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, 1972); Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in North American Communities (Cambridge, UK, 1995); Edward Countryman, “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53, no. 2 (April 1996); Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution (New York, 2006); Karim M. Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011); Edward Countryman, “Toward a Different Iroquois History,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69, no. 2 (April 2012), 347-60. Return to text.
  19. Lieutenant Colonel Mason Bolton to General Haldimand, Niagara, 16 August 1779, vol. 11, no. 72, photostat 2202, box 10, British Headquarters Papers, NYPL. Return to text.
  20. For refugees see Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country, ch. 5, esp. 136-37. Return to text.
  21. Proceedings with the Indians at Niagara, 3 November 1779, f. 61, Add. MS 21779, BL. Return to text.

Rachel B. Herrmann is a Lecturer in Early Modern American History at the University of Southampton. She is revising her first book, No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the Revolutionary Atlantic, which is under contract with Cornell University Press.