Let's all go to the famine of 1867

I was listening to this song this morning, and got hit with the sledgehammer of vemod, and that's how I ended up writing a long post about a famine.

"Nu haver denna dag" is a Swedish hymn first printed in 1674, here performed by Triakel (a folk group from Jämtland, the county where some of the stories in Jagannath take place). It is a paean to night and sleep, asking God for rest from the day's hard work. You can find the lyrics and an English translation here (no. 10). It's a lovely translation, but it doesn't quite carry the enormous melancholy that the Swedish words do. I can't quite put my finger on why; perhaps it's because I'm programmed in Swedish. I don't know. You listen to it and read the lyrics, and let me know if you get a lump in your throat. So, anyway. It made me want to write about Swedish stuff again. Last year, I got so fed up with media's constant MUCH SWEDISH. SO ABBA. WOW. that I ended up writing stories set anywhere but rural Sweden or with Swedish folklore elements. But, sometimes the need comes back. And there's such rich soil to dig in.

"Nu haver denna dag" made me think back to the last great famine in Sweden, which hit Norrland in 1867. I've mentioned it in passing before, in the short story "Pyret". Sweden in the mid-1800s was a poor country. Norrland, the northernmost part, had been hit severely by failed crops during the last decade, so the situation was already strained. In 1867, spring didn't show up until June. In some places, farmers couldn't sow their crops until Midsummer. Then, in late July, the frost came back. In September, winter. To give an idea of the situation, here's a rough translation of the notes of Zakarias Wallmark from the village Kvarnriset in Burträsk, in the summer of 1867:

May 22, 11.30. At 11.30 AM it was 1 degree below freezing and a north-easterly wind. The trail markers* still stand bolt upright in the marsh, and the snow is 1 1/2 ells deep.

May 25: Cold wind and no thaw, the snow good for sleighing, snow depth 1 1/4 ells. On May 24 we drove on landfast ice and no trail marker had thawed loose.

June 1: Drove across the ice, good sleighing.

On June 17 the marsh was free of ice and in the evening a hard storm blew up and heavy rain.

June 19: Let the cows out. Snow in the forest, no leaves, no bilberry sprigs, nor grass.

Then there's an account by Josefina Eliasson, chilling in its murderous beauty. I can't make the Swedish original justice, but I'll try. It happened during what was later called "Halshuggarnatten", or Beheading Night, on the 17th of July.

We woke at around three, and it was so cold. The whole forest and all the bushes were thick with hoarfrost, and the hay pasture was white as snow. But when the sun rose high enough over the tree tops that it spread some light and warmth, then a gust of wind came and set everything in rocking motion. Then all the hoarfrost on the grass became as thousands of quivering diamonds, and icicles came loose from the tree branches. They fell on top of each other and they shimmered and jingled like the sound of unearthly strings. But when the sun had acted on everything for a while, then nothing was green but the pine forest and some thick-stalked flowers with their flower cups hanging toward the ground. All else was as a grey and broken net.**

People froze and starved. They slaughtered their livestock if they had any, boiled the tar from their boots and ate the leather, made bread from chopped hay and tree bark, their bellies swelling because they couldn't digest it. When people died, however, it wasn't usually from starvation itself but the diseases that their bodies could no longer fight off. Especially the one they called black fever, or hunger typhus. Some people killed themselves in desperation.

Help eventually came, from the southern part of Sweden and from other, richer countries, and the next year was slightly better. People moved on with their lives as best they could. Many emigrated, joining the thousands who had already left (1,3 million Swedes ended up going, most to the USA. That's a lot. A good chunk of my ancestors in the northern parts went, too; according to the fat ancestry book next to me, I have about 600 living relatives in the States now.)

In reality, there was no food shortage - the problem was shitty distribution (sound familiar?). In the southern part of the country, the production of grain was at an all-time high. Sweden exported more grain that it ever had before in history. Even up in the north, the bigger farms were doing alright. Buuuut none of that reached the many poor farmers, those who saw their livelihood wither away in the frost on Beheading Night. That was as it should be, of course. It was as God had made it.

Some must be poor and some rich. It could never be otherwise. Should one even these differences out, it would be unjust, since many thousands would be bereft of that which they have toiled to earn, and their property thrown into the hands of unfit, lazy and wanton men, who did not deserve that gift. So would the earth before long become a wasteland and all men unhappy, destitute and more wretched than ever before. Consider this, you poor, and be content! If you are content, you are also rich.

- Reflections for confirmation candidates, 1861 (my translation)

I haven't found out how my own ancestors in Norrland fared during that time. Jämtland, where they lived, was stricken by the famine, too, but the ancestry tome I mentioned is a bit messy. Will have to investigate further.

And now I have an urge to write something about that time Sweden spearheaded eugenics. It's one of those things we didn't get to read about in school, that's for sure.


*The Swedish word is "stickbuskar", which were young trees or sticks set upright into the snow to mark trails or roads. Couldn't find a good translation.

** The Swedish word, "not", can either mean "note", "seine (a net used for seine fishing", or has a third use I'm not familiar with. I'll go with "net" because she might be referring to tangled branches and grass, like a tangled fishing net.

The main sources of information for this text are the books Ett satans år by Olle Häger, Carl Torell and Hans Villius and Norrländsk folktradition by Ella Odstedt (ed. Bengt af Klintberg)