Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Human suffering


German soldiers walk past fallen British soldiers, following heavy street fighting in the village of Moreuil; ca. 1918.



Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.



The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.

Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.

In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.

The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.

McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.


So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.

The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?

So, what could the ships tell us?

When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.

Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.

More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.


[*History got a little breaking news this morning that one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition has been discovered in the Canadian arctic.]

British ship found

Did celebrity efforts like Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” actually help alleviate famine in the 1980s?

In 1994 South African photojournalist Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer for this photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in the Sudan. Later that year Carter committed suicide.

Some people will say that the musicians selflessly raised large amounts of money to help the world’s neediest. Others – myself included – would say that when projects like this don’t involve professional humanitarianism and the beneficiaries (i.e. the people who are supposedly being helped), the law of unintended consequences allows for the best of intentions to pave a road straight to H-E-double-hockeysticks.

There’s three broad ways that Celebrity Aid is often asserted as a success, or conversely, criticized as a failure. Namely they are (1) the amount of aid that actually hit the ground, (2) the stereotypes of Africans it created in the media, and (3) that they may have actually been complicity in ethnocide in the Sub-Saharan African context. I’ll address each separately.

(1) The amount of aid that hit the ground.

Band Aid famously started when Bob Geldof led the charge to raise money for famine in Ethiopia. Naturally, it was done with the best of intentions. The problem is that whereas most people think of famines as natural disasters they are in fact socio-political disasters. To put it another way, there are two models of famine, “food availability decline” and “food entitlement decline” (this is most famously discussed by Amartya Sen). In most cases of famine – for example Ethiopia in the 1980s – there was plenty of food available – the problem is that the poorest people didn’t have access to it, i.e. they weren’t “entitled” in the sense that they couldn’t afford it. When crops fail, there is usually still enough food around to feed people, however the reduced amount of food creates inflation, thus driving up prices. Dumping more money into a hurting economy doesn’t help this (see Dambisa Moyo or Paul Collier’s discussion of aid and Dutch Disease), it worsens things by putting more money in the hands of the wealthy. Additionally, don’t forget that a huge amount of the money raised goes to covering costs of holding these events (honorariums for the artists are a part of this). Much is further siphoned off on the way (including by governments, I’ll get to that in part 3). This is assuming that the aid that arrives is delivered professionally. Humanitarian actors have learned in the last two decades that projects not directly involving local beneficiaries are doomed to failure, and this is still rarely put into practice. Therefore, though millions of dollars are raised, much of it doesn’t hit the ground, and what does hit the ground is more likely to cause further damage and upset the local economy, than to actually save lives.

(2) Media portrayals of Africa

By showing lots of images of starving children with flies on their faces, the image of Africa becomes one of suffering and backwardness, rather than being a continent of diversity of life, culture, religion and experience that rivals that of any other. This video of a tract by Binyavanga Wainana (read by Amistad’s Djimoun Hounsou) describes this issue much better than I can. Basically, the image of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ full of savage warriors and starving babies is not an accurate depiction, and events like Band-Aid and We are the World perpetuate these not only false but outright racist depictions of life in the developing world. The interaction that most people have with “Africa” as a concept therefore becomes the starving child with the flies on its face, rather than learning of the history of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Great Zimbabwe, Shaka Zulu, or of learning the literature of Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, or even learning the inspiration recent struggles of anyone from Nelson Mandela or Zackie Achmat amongst countless others. Instead, when you ask people what happens in Africa, you get the image of the starving child. Band Aid played a more central role than anything else in constructing this image.

(3) Complicity in mass murder and ethnocide

This is the most controversial aspect of Band Aid and related endeavours that there are. Many (including Tim Allen, Alex de Waal) have argued that Band Aid was directly complicit in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is a highly contentious point. A brief history lesson: Ethiopia was ruled by the West’s darling Haile Sellasse, before he was ov3ertrhown by a nominally-Marxist ruler called Mengistu Haile Mariam. His party, known as the Derg, received support from the USSR. In the early 1980s, a group of Ethiopian ethnic minorities rose up against his rule (a larger one was the Oromo Liberation Front, although Eritrean groups were very active). When crops began to fail (this occurred cyclically, with the worst year being 1984), Mengistu blocked aid to the region, blocked refugees from leaving, as while limiting the international assistance that arrived. What assistance did arrive was taken by the regime, and not sent to the minority areas. Though the regime definitely didn’t cause the famine, they undoubtedly made it worse, using it as a cheap form of counterinsurgency (similar uses of famine as a form of counterinsurgency occurred in the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1970s, and in Darfur in the 2000s). Support for “Ethiopia” became support for the Derg, and the famine it perpetuated in minority areas of Gojjam, Eritrea, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo. Basically, in their attempts to raise money for starving children, fundraising ended up providing legitimacy to the Ethiopian regime, while also sending it lots of money that was inevitably re-directed to other areas (especially corrupt politician’s pockets).Along with Operation Lifeline Sudan, and assistance in the Biafran War, the Live Aid / Band Aid exploits are held up as the three most famous examples of humanitarianism gone wrong, and the best of intentions being manipulated by local actors to pursue policies of ethnocide.

The idea that we must “do something” and that we must “save the world” is dangerous if you don’t deliver aid professionally, through professionalized humanitarian channels no embodied in organizations like MSF, Oxfam, etc., with the involvement of the beneficiaries on the ground. The rather embarrassing Band Aid saga speaks to this point as well as anything else. Good intentions and cash simply aren’t enough; we need to do better.

How much did Band Aid/ We are the World/Live aid help? The optimistic answer would be “not much”, while the cynical answer would be “it actually made things worse”. But the silver lining would be that it helped professional humanitarians (i.e. not musicians, but actual trained NGO staff) sharpen their game and improve their delivery, to avoid the disasters that come when you deliver aid in an unprofessional manner.