Captured by Abenaki Indians from New Hampshire in 1724, the Englishwoman Elizabeth Hanson described how after a disappointing hunt, her captor “with a very angry Look threw a Stick or Corn-Cob at me,” and threatened to kill her and her children. But, Hanson observed, “when-ever he was in such a Temper, he wanted Food, and was pinched with Hunger” (11-12).
Hanson claimed that her captor’s hunger led to anger. Or, to use the twenty-first century term, was it hangriness?
Rachel Herrmann’s “Why Eighteenth-Century Hangriness Might Not Be A Thing” cautions us against looking at eighteenth-century people through the lens of twenty-first century emotions. While “hangriness” today describes how cranky I get if I skip lunch (which is very cranky), people in the early Atlantic World faced much more violent and hungry circumstances.
I agree with Herrmann that we need to historicize hunger. But my own research on scarcity in the war-torn borderlands of early America shows that English colonists like Hanson explicitly linked anger and violence to hunger. Was it hangriness? No, not as we understand it today. But we should not dismiss the connection between a hot temper and an empty stomach. Hunger has a “violent antisocial power,” and that power has had historical consequences.1
Here’s another example of hunger and anger from early North America. Samuel Kirkland arrived as a Christian missionary to a Seneca village in present-day upstate New York in autumn 1764, and was adopted into a Seneca family. Buffeted by the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War and a failed corn harvest, the village began to run out of food in March 1765. Kirkland reported that the food shortage left him “emaciated” with “some loss of bodily strength,” and his family resorted to eating rotten meat to survive. In April, Kirkland joined his family as they journeyed between English forts in search of food. At Fort Brewerton, the commanding officer noticed that Kirkland was very thin and invited him to dinner.
Kirkland was not a courteous guest. “My appetite soon became raging,” he recalled, and he attacked the food on the table: “I cut one slice after another off the [meat] & felt as tho I should soon devour all that was br[ough]t…, & not be satisfied.” Watching Kirkland stuff himself, the officer tactfully suggested that Kirkland take it easy, or risk making himself sick. To the host’s “extraordinary kindness and great politeness,” Kirkland responded rudely, “with some degree of warmth.” Believing that the officer begrudged how much food he was eating, Kirkland snapped, “Sir, I am willing to pay you – for what I eat.” The officer told Kirkland that he had suffered hunger himself, and knew that the missionary should “eat sparingly at first.” It was good advice, but Kirkland did not follow it. Within a few hours, Kirkland vomited up “my excellent dinner,” before returning to apologize to the officer for his “ingratitude.”2
Hunger made Kirkland rude to his host. It also made him forget about his Seneca family, who were not invited to the commanding officer’s dinner, and who were still starving while Kirkland gorged himself.
Hunger produced rudeness, anger, and threats of violence, but it also encouraged English soldiers to steal from civilians during the Seven Years’ War. Obadiah Harris, a private from Wrentham, Massachusetts who was assigned to a crew building roads, reported in 1758 that the soldiers ate through their weekly rations after only four days of heavy labor. The hungry soldiers found themselves “so cross and touchy they can’t speak to one another,” Harris reported. To make up for their short rations, the crew began to steal food from civilians, including one farmer’s entire crop of apples.3
The Psychology of Hunger
These eighteenth-century behaviors corroborate the findings of a clinical study carried out two centuries later, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. From November 1944 to December 1945, scientists from the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota studied the bodies and minds of thirty-six male conscientious objectors. The study aimed to determine the best way to re-feed starving populations impacted by World War II. Over the course of the study, the subjects consumed fewer and fewer calories until they each lost 25% of their body weight. They became skeletally thin, or swelled from edema. They felt cold, weak, and exhausted. These physiological effects did not surprise the researchers. But hunger’s psychological effects were another story.
One subject chopped off his fingers with an ax to get out of the study. Another threatened suicide, became violent, and had a manic episode. A third man stole food and ate out of of garbage cans. Three subjects were admitted to psychiatric care in the course of the study. Four dropped out because they could not adhere to the diet. These were the most dramatic outcomes, but every participant in the study grew depressed, anxious, irritable, and completely obsessed with their next meal. At the end of the study, when the subjects were allowed unlimited food, many of them ate “more or less continuously.”4
Conclusion: Hangriness and History
Violence, anger, theft, self-mutilation. Hangriness is one thing. The psychological effects of prolonged hunger are another. Is it risky to draw parallels between twentieth- and twenty-first century hungers, and those of the eighteenth century? Of course. But there are also risks when we do not learn from the past, when we do not recognize what desperation can make people do. 1 in 6 Americans do not know where their next meal will come from, and 800 million people worldwide live with food insecurity. In Syria, the civil war has left hundreds of thousands in danger of starvation.
Hunger is not the only driver of history, as Herrmann demonstrates. But if predictions of resource wars in the coming century prove correct, scholars and policymakers cannot ignore the way that scarcity pushes people to all kinds of extremes.5
- Peggy Reeves Sanday, Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 102. Return to text.
- Samuel Kirkland, “A Journal of The Reverend Samuel Kirkland, November 1764-June 1765,” in The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, ed. Walter Pilkington (Clinton, NY: Hamilton College Press, 1980), 31-32. Return to text.
- Obadiah Harris diary, 21 Aug. 1758, quoted in Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 87. Return to text.
- Ancel Keys, Josef Brozek, Austin Henschel, Olaf Mickelsen, and Henry Longstreet Taylor, The Biology of Human Starvation, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1950), 2:835-838, 880-904, 843. Return to text.
- Michael Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Owl Books, 2002); Michael Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012). Return to text.