The role of drought in agrarian crisis and social change: the famine of the 1890s in south-eastern Africa

  • Kathleen PribylEmail author
  • David J. Nash
  • Jørgen Klein
  • Georgina H. Endfield
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Societal Impacts of Historical Droughts


During the second half of the 1890s, south-eastern Africa was hit by a drought-driven ecological crisis. Using records previously unexploited for climate and climate impact research, and which cover the area from modern-day Zimbabwe and Botswana to eastern South Africa, this study explores the complexity of this crisis through an analysis of the spatial extent, duration and severity of the regional drought and its associated socio-economic and environmental repercussions. This interdisciplinary study stands at the nexus of environmental, economic and social history. The records used include (a) British administrative sources, (b) reports and letters by members of various Protestant missionary societies from diverse environments across the study area, together with (c) local newspapers. Analysis of these materials reveals that generally the period was marked by a sequence of considerably delayed rainy seasons, which in turn negatively impacted upon the rain-fed agriculture. Below-average levels of summer rainfall also adversely affected the development of young crops. The drought was more severe and continuous in the interior of the region than towards the Indian Ocean coast. The prolonged dry conditions were accompanied by, and likely exacerbated, locust outbreaks and the spread of cattle plague (Rinderpest). We demonstrate in this paper that drought, as the original driver of the crisis, triggered a cascade of responses from harvest failure to famine and ultimately led to profound socio-economic change.


Historical climatology Agriculture El Niño Colonial history Economic history Epizootic Nineteenth century 



This research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant number F/00 504/D. We extend our thanks to the ELM archive that holds the records of the Hermannsburg mission.

Supplementary material

10113_2019_1563_MOESM1_ESM.docx (45 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 46 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environment and TechnologyUniversity of BrightonBrightonUK
  2. 2.Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental SciencesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK
  3. 3.School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  4. 4.Faculty of Social and Educational SciencesNorwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)TrondheimNorway
  5. 5.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK

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