locust plagues -- 12/17/20

Today's selection -- from A History of Algeria by James McDougall. Locust swarms, or "plagues," have devastated farms and communities since the beginning of time. Plagues still occur, though contemporary methods of control have greatly reduced them. In the Sahara Desert, where life has long been precarious, the damage often lasted for years:

Locust detail from a hunt mural in the
grave-chamber of Horemhab, Ancient Egypt,
circa 1422-1411 BC

"Historian Lucette Valensi remarks of early modern North Africa that 'the harsher the climate and the more irregular the resources, the more minute was the management of daily life'. Meticulous social regulation as well as technical ingenuity characterised life in the Sahara. Agricultural production -- in small familial vegetable gardens and sometimes vast, as at Timimoun in the Gourara, date-palm groves -- was made possible by the extraordinarily labour-intensive construction of underground canals (foggaras, or ifeli in Zenati), an ancient technique of tapping the water table and using natural declivities to channel the stream towards the oasis, where a system of allocation was controlled by carefully calibrated comb-like filters under the supervision of the kiyal al­ma, the water-measurer. ...

Locust swarm

"A different ecological situation, and a different social system, existed to the north and east. In the high plains of the Constantinois (the region whose historic centre is the city of Constantine), as the eighteenth-century English scholar Thomas Shaw remarked, 'they have a great command of water during the whole summer' -- at least, in good years. Average rainfall in most of this region is between 400 and 700 millimetres per annum (400 mm being the minimum for cereal growing without irrigation), but as [French historian] André Nouschi pointed out in his detailed history of rural life in the region, 'levels of rainfall in Algeria can vary by up to one hundred per cent from one year to the next, such that the notion of "average" rainfall loses much of its relevance'. Drought or, equally disastrous, storms, heavy rain and flash floods -- especially at the wrong time of year -- were constant threats to the livelihood of the peasantry who constituted the great majority of the population. Hailstorms from December to March, and the dry sirocco wind from May to September, could destroy entire crops in the fields. So could locusts, as the French naturalist Jean-Andre Peyssonnel described during his journey with the Ottoman authorities of Constantine in June 1725:

'For nine years now ... these insects have devoured all the seed of this country. They come from the deserts of the Sahara, and in one or two days they eat all the grain of a countryside, where they then rest. They lay their eggs, and afterwards die in the same spot ... We have seen in Algiers how they devoured the olive trees and every fruit-tree, even the pines ... I was mortified one day to see them arrive in a field that they devoured in under twelve hours ... In vain does one run at them, shout to chase them; nothing can turn them away.'"



James McDougall


A History of Algeria


Cambridge University Press


Copyright 2017 James McDougall


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