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

Kathleen Pribyl, David Nash, Jørgen Klein, Georgina H. Endfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2683-2695
Number of pages13
JournalRegional Environmental Change
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 26 Nov 2019

Bibliographical note

This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Regional Environmental Change. The final authenticated version is available online at:


  • historical climatology
  • agriculture
  • El Niño
  • colonial history
  • economic history
  • epizootic
  • nineteenth century
  • Colonial history
  • Economic history
  • Epizootic
  • Agriculture
  • Historical climatology
  • Nineteenth century


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