Finland’s Great Famine (1867-1868)

At the beginning of the 19th century agriculture in Finland was based on small independent farmers – large ranches were few and far between. Moreover, a rural proletariat hardly existed before that time. As the mid century arrived, however, there was a large increase in the landless class, such as agricultural labourers. It was this class that suffered most during the great famine – perhaps they had not yet found any proper place in society and so they were left without any established defences when the crisis struck them.

Finland’s great famine was the result of difficulties compounded by a series of poor harvests. A sudden frost as summer ended was the usual cause of the failure of the corn harvest. The storm clouds had begun to gather over the country as far back as 1856 when the first poor harvest in years occurred. From then on not a year passed without a harvest failure somewhere in the country and mortality increased locally as a result. The people – especially the well off who had no reason to fear hunger, famine or not – began to regard this as normal. In 1862, for example, the harvest failed in the south of Finland. Three years later it was the east that copped it and it was the turn of the west the year after. When the demons of hell were unleashed in 1867 and the harvest failed all over the country the authorities failed to notice any substantial difference between this famine and the earlier setbacks.

I have referred above to the sudden growth of a rural proletariat – the landless class. Since they did not have even a patch of scrub land of their own they had no way to live but to depend on the farmers to give them work. If no farmer hired them what choice did they have but to become thieves or beggars?

During the localised mini famines many farmers mortgaged their holdings to buy seed for the following year’s sowing. When the next harvest showed no improvement the farmer went even deeper into debt. Often enough even farmers had to resort to eating ‘pettu’ (the inner bark of fir trees) as a supplementary food, not to mention the plight of the poor as food supplies faded. However, not everyone was able to cook their ‘pettu’ properly because it was essential to remove the tannic acids in a particular way before it was possible to eat it without incurring severe intestinal injury.

Part of the blame can be put on Johan Vilhelm Snellman. He was Financial Senator for Finland at the time and was trying to bring about a currency reform as part of his drive to achieve greater independence for Finland. Up to that time the value of the Finnish Mark was linked to that of the Russian Rouble. (Russia being the colonial mother country at the time). Snellman was trying to change the Finnish Mark from the Rouble standard to the silver standard. Deflation followed this change and as the value of the Mark rose farmers found it harder to clear their debts with money they had to earn more dearly. They were getting lower prices for their produce while the mortgage remained as high as it had been initially. They were left with no option but to lay off their labourers and sell stock and equipment in order to pay the mortgage.

In 1867 the harvest failed in all parts of the country except for the coastal regions and Lapland. Distributing surplus corn from these more fortunate areas was of little benefit because in the country as a whole there was so little to spare.

The authorities were slow to realise what was coming. Snellman himself was very reluctant to waste a lot of money on importing corn because he thought it would endanger his currency reform. When he eventually consented to borrow money to buy corn it was too late. Corn was scarce all over Europe. Moreover, the winter came early in 1867 and the frozen seas kept the corn ships out.

The authorities had no wish to distribute relief to the hungry for nothing. In Snellman’s view the over generous relief of the early sixties had encouraged laziness among the lower orders as they came to believe that the Tsar would provide for their needs without their having to earn them. “Let what is rotten fall down” Snellman would say – and the way these words were to come true was pitiable.

In the autumn of 1867 the famished people began to flee from their native places and the roads were black with them. They became an endless throng making for the south of the country which had survived the failure of the harvest relatively unscathed. They came with their diseases, diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, and typhoid fever. Efforts were made to stop this flight and to send the people back to their homelands, but in vain. There were too many, and those who were turned back, if they did not die on the way, they set out once more for the more prosperous areas. Some other solution had to be found.

The workhouses were not successful either. Many had been opened in the province of Ostrobothnia. Their aim was to provide soup in return for work but the people were too starved to complete any task not to speak of the sheer numbers that took the authorities by surprise. The poor crowded into the workhouses until they resembled concentration camps and diseases ran wild in them. In the spring of the following year (1868) the Governor of the province gave orders to stop keeping the poor in these houses. Instead they became public soup kitchens where soup was distributed entirely free of charge.

In April and May of 1868 the number of deaths soared – during these two months deaths were five times greater than births. It has to be said, however, that this peak passed quickly. As autumn came the number of deaths had begun to fall again and the diseases decreased after they had taken their toll. The corn harvest was good and some of the coffins the poor had made in return for relief were cast aside unused!

After the failure of the workhouses the authorities adopted wiser counsels as they introduced so-called “emergency works”. The most notable of these schemes was the construction of the railway from Riihimaki to St. Petersburg. Attempts were made to persuade the poor to go for work of this kind rather than sending them back to their own districts. These were not resettlement schemes – the emergency workers had to leave their families behind and part of their wages was kept back to support them.

The Icelandic moss scheme was not so successful. The authorities became obsessed with this moss, which grows all over Finland in different varieties, as a form of supplementary food and they tried to promote it among the people. The only result of this display of enthusiasm was a further disaster. Much of the official publicity claimed that all that was necessary was to wash the moss in water. This was a dangerous statement because the moss can be eaten only if the acids it contains are neutralised with an alkaline substance such as potash or soda. Some of those who ate Icelandic moss developed intestinal bleeding and died. Deaths like these encouraged suspicion of the powers-that-be among the poor who concluded that they were being misled deliberately in order to get rid of them.

For all that I have said, I am not sure that Finland’s great famine can be compared with Ireland’s Great Hunger. What happened in our country was a sudden blow that passed fairly quickly. The number of deaths is estimated as between 20,000 and 60,000 (depending on which historian you read). It was not a severe blow to the language for example, even though it was the speakers of Finnish who came off worst. Indeed, it was after the famine that Finnish, the language of the ordinary people in the greater part of Finland, came to the fore as a language of literature and high culture.

Snellman, too, for all his faults, strongly supported the cause of the Finnish language and culture and had even discussed the matter with the Tsar (the language of administration and of the gentry was Swedish – Finland had belonged to Sweden before the Russians moved in).

It should also be noted that although potatoes were cultivated other crops, especially cereals, were widely grown, so there was no fatal dependence on just a single crop as had happened in Ireland.

©: Panu Petteri Höglund. This article was sent to us from Finland in Irish.

Translation: The Wales Famine Forum.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998.

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