Scandia debatt: A Famine Difficult for Historians to Digest. Research on the 1860s Famine in Sweden


  • Henrik Forsberg



famine, relief, Västerbotten, historiografi, morality, Sweden, Finland


The last famine in Sweden was not a national famine, but a regional one. It mainly affected the sparsely populated northern parts of the country (Norrland) in 1867–1869. It occurred simultaneously with the last great famine in Finland and was largely caused by the same disruptive weather event, an unusually cold spring delaying the sowing season that subsequently resulted in extremely high mortality in 1868. Yet, even if the death toll doubled in Västerbotten in 1868 (compared to 1866), it never reached the magnitude of the fourfold increase in mortality seen in Finland. On a national level, Sweden’s mortality increase was very modest, although the rise in emigration was more substantial and would have a more long-term demographic impact. However, this emigration did not originate from the north, which experienced an almost total crop failure, but from the southern regions. Understandably, this has led Swedish economic historians to ignore the famine aspect in their analyses of the industrializing and formative period during the later part of the nineteenth century. After all, it was only a regional and modest famine in the national periphery that did not change the ultimate economic trajectory of the country as a whole, unless the push and exit of some hundred thousand workers in the country’s labor force in the following decades may qualify as a distinctive outcome. 

Meanwhile, Swedish popular historians have successfully capitalized on the historiographical vacuum left by academics on this topic, portraying the 1867–1869 famine as a ”national famine” with little evidence to substantiate their claims. Interestingly, the small amount of available research points out that if there actually were a famine, its epicenter would have been Västerbotten county, with its comparatively worst harvest failure in 1867 and its highest mortality increase in 1868. 

Fortunately, a new research project Famine in Norden: Contacts and contrasts between Västerbotten and Ostrobothnia during the 1860s' decade of misery concerns studying a new interest in this period, region and event in Swedish history, which is important for several reasons. The primary reason is to produce new information to give us a better understanding of Swedish social and economic developments and their counterforces. Second, as Sweden possesses ample demographic and qualitative sources for famine studies, it would be a shame not to use them, especially as most historical famines have occurred in circumstances where similar sources are often lacking. Sweden’s history of famines may contribute to and advance research in other areas of famine studies, not least in previously mentioned demographic studies, assessments of effective relief measures, administrative coordination mechanisms, the interplay between markets and public actors, the role of the free press and so on. Third, there are also comparative benefits associated with understanding famine in Sweden as a whole, but also in Västerbotten in particular. This not least concerns famine scholarship in Finland and Estonia, where both countries suffered from the same weather-related crop failures as northern Sweden but had a much higher death toll. Why was that the case? By improving our understanding of the famine event and process in Sweden, we may make new and hopefully better comparative assessments of what went wrong in the regions suffering from severe famines.