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Book Review: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis

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It’s an odd recommendation, but a strong one: the copy of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis is quite the most battered book I’ve ever picked up from the London Library, and the fact that this is down to wide use rather than accident is attested to by the large number of date stamps on the inside cover since its publication in 2001. And having completed the text, I’d entirely concur with that recommendation.

In my political science studies I’d encountered the theory that underdevelopment was a process, not a “natural” state of being of certain countries but a degradation inflicted on them by force and geopolitical circumstances, but what Davis does in this book is brings that reality of the late 19th-century and early 20th world vividly, painfully, awfully to life. But what’s more, he debunks many of the traditional claims of the imperialist apologists – that the crises in India and China were Malthusian in original – the product of uncontrolled human reproduction. And as we hear a lot these days about El Nino and La Nina, he gives them a history back at least to the 17th century (and in a very detailed chapter containing a lot of physics an explanation of them).

Furthermore, much of this history has sharp, frightening relevance today. One of his key points – obvious when you think about it, yet I’ve never previously seen it discussed, is that globalisation of food supplies means globalisation of prices – which means a shortfall in supplies doesn’t just affect one specific area, but the whole of the globe. If prices rise sharply, famine – an inability to buy necessary food supplies – hits the poor everywhere.

So here’s Davis’ picture of India in 1876, a picture that looks in miniature awfully like the world we have today:
“The worsening depression in world trade had been spreading misery and igniting discontent throughout cotton-exporting districts of the Deccan, where in any case forest nclosures and the displacement of gram by cotton had greatly reduced local food security. The traditional system of household and village grain reserves regulated by complex networks of patrimonial obligation had been largely supplanted since the Mutiny by merchant inventories and the cash nexus. Although rice and wheat production of the rest of India … had been above average for the past three years, much of the surplus had been exported to England… The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise, the telegraph ensued that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends. Moreover, British antipathy to price control invited anyone who had money to join in the frenzy of grain speculation. … food prices soared out of the reach of outcaste labourers, displaced weavers, sharecroppers and poor peasants. ‘The dearth,’ as The Nineteenth Century pointed out a few months later ‘was of money and of labour rather than of food’.”

Lord Lytton, in charge of the disaster, when he wasn’t organising the giant pageant that would proclaim Victoria Empress of India, (and suffering from the mental breakdown to which he was prone) was ensuring that no government or even private action was taken to ameliorate the famine’s effects. “He clearly conceived himself to be standing on the shoulders of giants, or at least the sacerdotal authority of Adam Smith … that ‘famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of dearth’.”

So everything possible was done to see what little relief was available couldn’t be claimed. Labourers could only seek help when it was certified that they had become “indigent, destitute, and capable of only a modicum of labour”, and they were made to travel a minimum distance of 10 miles from their home in this reduced state to receive it. Their ration was reduced to one pound of rice a day providing “less sustenance for hard labour than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp and less than half of the modern calorific standard recommended for adult males by the Indian government”. The result was predictable – in the worst months mortality rate in the camps reached the annual equivalent of 94%, and the chief cause of death, post mortems showed, was “extreme wasting of tissue and destruction of the lining membrane of the lower bowel… textbook starvation, with full-grown men reduced to under sixty pounds in weight”.

But the problems of 1873 were far more broadly spread than just British India. “Tens of thousands died from hunger and cholera in the North-West province of Ceylon… comparable horros were reported from north China, Korea, southern Java and Borneo, the Visayas, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Angola, South Africa and northeastern Brazil.”

This is a book that in some ways could simply have descended into a parade of horror, and in some respects that’s just what it is: in eastern Shandong, hit by three years of drought before the full horror of 1876, peasants who’d burnt their homes to keep warm crowded together in giant underground pits. The Welsh missionary reported that in four of these “as many as 240 people huddled for warmth. One-third of these succumbed within six weeks, leaving eagerly sought-after vacancies.” In Sudan, in the Jaalin tribe, described as unusually proud, a Western observer reported “several fathers of families, seeing that escape from death was impossible, bricked up the doors to their houses, and, united with their children, patiently awaited death. I have no hesitation in saying that in this way entire villages died out.”

But what Davis makes clear is that the severity of the suffering was almost everywhere linked to colonial depredations, the new ties to the world economy, and the forcible destruction of traditional support mechanisms. He finally estimates the weather-related, but economically and politically driven, toll of the late 1870s to 20 to 25 million. But “the Great Drought of the 1870s was merely Act One in a three-act world tragedy”.  It couldn’t last and it didn’t. “We now know that an extraordinary clustering of El Nino events – 1896/7, 1899/1900 and 1902 – was largely responsible for global agricultural catastrophe. The wet intermission of 1898, perhaps the 19th centuries most powerful La Nina, brought its own horror in the form of devastating floods in the basic on the Yellow River. Perhaps one quarter of the world’s population, mostly in what would become known as the ‘third world’ was directly affected.”

In 1901 The Lancet gave a conservative estimate of excess mortality in India in the previous decade (not including plague deaths) at 19 million, which Davies says is a figure most modern historians would agree is of the right magnitude. They were the victims of market ideology, of colonial depredations and sheer, unmitigated cruelty and greed of Britain. Yet astonishingly, an official report in 1901 concluded, despite barely a fifth of victims having received any assistance at all that “relief distributed was excessive”.

Elswhere the story was much the same – China, and Korea, which was still relling from the repression of the Tonghak Revolution by the Japanese in 1894-5. In Java, rice consumption locally fell, and a backlash in the Netherlands from socialist and Calvinist parties led to the famous investigation into “the declining prosperity of the Javanese people” (1902-5) that led to the ‘Ethical Policy’ supposed to make education, irrigation and emigration priorities.

In the Philippines, a rinderpest epidemic that killed most draught animals led to the spreading of mosquitos and malaria, and 112,000 invading American troops brought new diseases, including hookworm, smallpox and venereal diseases. It’s a horrendous but now familiar story:
“The Americans… exceeded even the cruellest Spanish precedents in manipulating disease and hunger as weapons against an insurgent but weakened population. Beginning with the outbreak of war in February 1899, military authorities closed all ports, disrupting the vital inter-island trade in foodstuffs and preventing the migration of hungry labourers to food-surplus areas. Then, as drought began to turn to famine in 1900, destruction of rice stores and livestock in areas that continued to support guerrilla resistance… Increasingly unsure who was enemy and who was friend, American soldiers on patrol did not agonize over such distinctions. They shot and burned indiscriminately… As one soldier wrote back home to Michigan: ‘We burned every house, destroyed every carabrao and other animals, all rice and other foods.’… As peasants began to die of hunger in the fall of 1900, American officers openly acknowledged in correspondence that starvation had become official military strategy. .. De Devoise concludes: “it appears that the American war contributed directly and indirectly to the loss of more than a million persons from a base population of about seven million”.”

Davis seeks to put this in context – in the middle of the 18th century living standards in Europe were a little lower than in most of the rest of the world. India produced one-quarter of the world’s manufactures, Chinese life expectancy (and nutrition) was higher than European even in the late 1700s. (And Chinese fertility rates were lower than Europe’s between 1550 and 1850). Until 1850 China and India generated around 65% of global GDP, declining with increasing rapidity for the rest of the century – to 38% in 1900 and 22% in 1960.

So why didn’t they match European competition, when they started ahead. Davis’ answer? “The looms of India and China were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs… from about 1780 or 1800 onwards, every serious attempt by a non-Western society to move over into a fast lane of development or to regulate its terms of trade was met by a military as well as an economic response from London or a competing imperial capital.”

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    Well written introduction to a great book.
    What puzzles me is why the peasants didn’t rebel against the Imperial Govt. What did they have to lose?
    There’s another book ‘the Benefits of Famine’ which chronicles the manner in which the Dinka people of South Sudan were subjected to famine as a means of depriving them of their wealth in cattle.