01 November 1915 – The Third Horseman

And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. Despite later controversies — is the first horseman Conquest or Pestilence? — this verse from the Book of Revelations demonstrates that awareness of the spin-off effects of human conflict goes back millennia. Without exception, the rider on the pale horse always rides with death, famine, and disease.

Although food insecurity and attendant resource competitions are some of the most common causes of wars, the wars themselves are universally destructive of those same food systems. Armies do not grow crops; they ‘march on their stomachs,’ to paraphrase Napoleon. Soldiers have spent most of human history burning fields, requisitioning or seizing supplies, and denuding the land of everything edible like a plague of locusts, and in the long view it is only quite recently that armies have taken any responsibility for the care and feeding of civilian populations in a conflict zone. War and Famine are thus constant companions.

The consequences of wartime disruptions to agriculture and trade go far beyond the reach of armies, too. Making that point today are news reports of long bread lines and empty shelves in Petrograd, the renamed capital of the Russian Empire, where the Tsarist system is steadily declining. With reformist forces stymied in the parliament and the monarch far away from court, a vacuum of power is leaving tremendous challenges unresolved. Train schedules suffer from creaking infrastructure and a shortage of coal, degrading distribution, and the productive farmlands of Poland were recently lost to the Central Powers. Civil society organizations have tried to collect and distribute food donations, but their efforts have been limited and local.

Since June, Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov has led the Zemstvo Union, an organization that brings local governments, businessmen, working class organizers, and aristocrats together to provide relief for the families of soldiers, care for refugees and wounded solders, etc. Over the next sixteen months, the prince will construct a virtual state-within-a-state trying to solve the deepening crisis and stop hungry workers from abandoning the vital factories to return to their villages. He will fail, and as the country descends into radicalism and revolution, the hunger will only redouble.


Bread lines in Petrograd mark a spiral of hunger, reduced productive output, and insolvent state finances

The famine in Ovamboland, on the other hand, is the end result of decades of colonial Portuguese and German rule on either side of a boundary that overlaps the traditional Ovambo range. Mercantilist policies turned cattle into the primary mode of economic exchange, and made the omalenga, councilors to tribal kings, into tax collectors and raiders. Weakened by the resulting slave-taking and cattle theft, a new class of diminished Ovambo has been trickling south for years to the center of Namibia in search of wages and calories. This year began with the third drought in as many years, leaving the population most vulnerable at the very moment that war arrived to make things even worse.

First, the Germans disrupted the Ovambo region with incursions into Portuguese territory a year ago, and the response from Lisbon was to mobilize thousands of troops to the Angola border, further dislocating native communities and forcing migration. When the South African Union invaded the colony of German Southwest Africa in force during January, Major Erich Franke resorted to a scorched-earth campaign, fouling and destroying hundreds of wells and ‘pans’ (small retaining pods) used to store the seasonal rainwater into the dry months. In recent weeks, the trickle of Ovambo refugees has become a flood of starving, yet hope-filled people.

Taking over as the new colonial governor yesterday, today Sir Edmond Howard Lacam Gorges is reading reports from administrators at the railhead town of Tsumeb that the fifty-seven miles of road between Namutoni and Otjikoto is lined with bodies. Free to resupply their own needs for food and water over an extensive rail and road network, South African military units have been handing out their supplies of ‘dry mealie’ field rations to refugees, but Gorges decides to restrict this relief to men who are looking for work. Too many refugees are arriving, and too many are already sick with dysentery, often dying in the streets. Hospitalization rates in the camp established at Karibib during September reach fifteen percent and keep climbing; new arrivals keep putting stress on temporary sanitation and supply systems, requiring the establishment of more permanent facilities.

As the German settler population took to the hills, so did many of the Herero and Nama laborers return to their homelands. In desperation to simply hold the land together until a postwar peace can award South Africa the necessary mandate to actually govern the conquered colony, the Gorges administration makes a concerted effort to replace the missing laborers and servants in the south and central parts of the country with Ovambo. A century later, the Ovambo people can proudly claim a standout heritage in the development of modern Namibia, but that must wait until after the apocalypse has passed from the land.


Ovambo men and women in a ritual dance during the 1920s. White townsfolk in Karibib took offense to upper-body nudity