Atlantic History Hunger and Food Shortages
Kelly Kean Sharp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0343


Woven into the fabric of history, hunger and food shortage experienced by individuals, communities, or large-scale societies are important historical markers, often used to chronicle significant points in time. As such, the histories of hunger and food shortage in various places and times in the Atlantic world serve as a productive lens with which to study the political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental parameters of Atlantic world history from pre-contact to present day. Within Atlantic history, just as in the early 21st century, hunger and food shortage can be a result of environmental conditions or natural disaster, such as the severe winters and wet summers which caused Europe’s Great Famine (1315–1322). Hunger and food shortage was and is also the result of intentionally orchestrated conditions including any combination of warfare, politics, poverty, and power. In the early decades of cross-Atlantic contact, food shortage and hunger was a common experience for both immunocompromised indigenous populations as well as inexperienced European explorers and early settlers. Control over food as well as limiting access to it came to serve as an important tool in white control over the land and people of the New World, both indigenous and those forcibly migrated from Africa. While food shortage was a common experience in European history due to mercantilist practices and harvest failures, food shortage and hunger in contemporary history largely is focused on western Africa. Despite the enormous expansion of agricultural productivity, extensive networks of transport infrastructure, and the interlinked global economy, hunger and food shortages still persist in all parts of the world, and indeed thrive, in all parts of the world.

General Works

General works on the topics of hunger and food shortage in the Atlantic are divided here into two larger categories. The first, the section Disciplinary Frameworks, is focused on the general study of food and famine and provides a helpful introduction, as well as methodology and historiography, into the genre. The second category comprises Textbooks on aspects of Atlantic history and in these generalized studies are included various experiences of hunger and food shortage.

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