Akele Guzay

Famines in Ethiopia

Traditionally the Economy of Ethiopia was based on subsistence agriculture, with an aristocracy that consumed the surplus. Due to a number of causes, the peasants lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess harvest; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest.

Despite the extensive modernization of Ethiopia in the last 120 years, as of 2006 the overwhelming majority of the population are peasants who still live from harvest to harvest, and are vulnerable to crop failures.

Year Description
First half of 9th century

Followed by epidemic

Famine and epidemic in Tigray. As described in the Futuh al-Habasha, this took a heavy toll on Imam Ahmad Gragn's army: "When they entered Tigray each Muslim had fifty mules; some of them even one-hundred. When they left, each one of them had only one or two mules." (Paul Lester Stenhouse translator, The Conquest of Abyssinia [Hollywood: Tsehai, 2003], p. 367) Amongst the dead was the Imam's young son Ahmad al-Nagasi. (p. 373)

Contemporary accounts describe this famine as "worse than that which occurred at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple" (Pankhurst).

Pankhurst provides no details
1567 - 1570

Famine in Harar, combined with plague and Oromo expanstion. Nur ibn Mujahid, Emir of Harrar died. As J. Spencer Trimingham describes, "The Amir Nur exerted every effort to help his people to recover, but after every respite the Oromo would again descend like locusts and scourge the country, and Nur himself died (975/1567-8) of the pestilence which spread during the famine." (Islam in Ethiopia, p. 94)

The heavy rains that fell this year and extreme cold caused extenisve crop failures in the northern provinces.
This same year a plague called mentita also afflicted Ethiopia.

Jesuit sources

Reports of locusts in Tigray 1633-1635.
An epidemic of kantara or fangul (cholera) also afflicted Dembiya, spreading into Tigray.

Pankhurst supplies no details

Epidemic of kabab

Cost of grain inflated; this led to the death of many mules, horses, and donkeys.

This may have been the famine that struck Shewa between the reigns of Negasi Krestos and Sebestyanos mentioned by Donald Levine (Wax and Gold, p. 32).

Starving peasants appealed to Emperor Iyasus I, crying that if he did not feed them they would die. In response the Emperor and his nobles fed an uncountable number of the destitute for two months.

Famine attributed to locusts in Royal Chronicle.
There was also an epidemic of fever (gunfan), possibly influenza, in 1747.

Remedius Prutky, residing at Gondar, ignores (unaware of?) famine.

Famine called "my sickness" (həmame) in Royal Chronicle.

Famine afflicted "all the provinces"

This famine was particularly serious at Gondar, and blamed on an infestation of locusts.

From the Royal Chronicle

Soldiers died on campaign due to famine.

Famine in Shewa, followed by a cholera outbreak 1830-1.

Rains failed, leading to famine and "great mortality" throughout Shewa and possibly Eritrea
1880 - 1881

Cattle plague (1879) spreads from Adal region, causing famine as far west as Begemder.
1888 - 1892

Rinderpest introduced from India kill approximately 90% of cattle.
Lack of rainfall as early as 16 November 1888 led to famine in all but southernmost provinces; locusts and caterpillar infestations destroy crops in Akele Guzay, Begemder, Shewa and around Harrar.
Conditions worsen with cholera outbreaks (1889-92), a typhus epidemic, and a major smallpox epidemic (1889-90).
Conditions forced the coronation of Menelik II to be a subdued event.
1913 - 1914

Famine in northern provinces

Famine amongst Yejju Oromo, which led to local revolt when tax collectors refused to reduce taxes accordingly.

Famine in Tigray claimed 100,000 lives. (Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1974 [London: James Currey, 1991], p. 196.)

Famine in Wollo affects a number of districts. (Bahru Zewde, p. 196.)

Famine returns to Wollo, spreads through northern provinces; failure to adequately handle this crisis contributed to the fall of the Imperial government and led to Derg rule.
1984 - 1985

See 1984 - 1985 famine in Ethiopia.

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, information is based on the following sources:

  • For the period before 1800, Richard R.K. Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (London: Lalibela House, 1961), pp. 236f; information about related epidemics taken from Pankhurst Introduction, pp. 239f.
  • For the period after 1800 through 1935, Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press, 1968), pp. 216-222.

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