During the first few months of 1890, thousands of destitute, starving Bija-speaking semi-pastoralists from Eastern Sudan made their way to Sawākin in search of food. Though the region was plagued by both drought and locust swarms during the 1889-1890 cultivaaon year, ecological hazards are insufficient to explain the famine that precipitated this refugee migration. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Eastern Sudanese semi-pastoraluts produced less than half of the grain that they consumed. These communities depended on trading pastoral products for grain imported from India via Red Sea ports. The 1889-1890 famine was not caused by a reduction in grain imports; during this time Eastern Sudanese grain markets were kept well stocked and the price of durra (Sorghum bicolor) remained stable. Rather, at the end of 1889, semi-pastoral communities suddenly lacked the capital to purchase and the goods to trade for diet sustenance, suggesting that a rinderpest epizootic depleted their cattle stocks. Famine continued to plague Eastern Sudan during the 1890-1891 cultivation year. Unlike the famine during the previous year, this famine was, in fact, caused by a grain shortage. By July 1890, the Mahdht garrison at Kassala was unable to provide adequate provisions for both its soldiers and camp followers. Consequently, thousands of malnourished camp followers migrated from the Gash Delta, north of Kassala, to the Tawkar Delta, on the Red Sea coast, thereby increasing the demand for grain in the Red Sea hills. At the same time, the British military leadership stationed at Sawākin decided to starve the population of the Red Sea hills into submission. British officers prohibited all commerce between Sawākin and the interior and ceased all forms of food aid—which resulted in a rapid rise in the price of grain in Eastern Sudan and to widespread starvation, banditry, and death in the Red Sea hills and the Tawkar Delta.

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