Late Victorian Holocausts:
El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World
By Mike Davis
464 pages, $27
Mike Davis is one of the fiercer flamethrowers of the American
left: His influential books City
of Quartz and Ecology
of Fear skillfully dismantled the urban myths of Los Angeles
and the utopian dreams of California. Now, after spending so much
time on the contemporary West Coast, Davis has gone hunting in the
Victorian Holocausts excavates a forgotten and chilling
history: the wave of famines that struck India, China, Brazil and
other tropical countries in the late 19th century, as a result of
which more than 50 million people perished from hunger and disease--a
death toll approximately equal to that of World War II.
Researchers now think that El Niño, the cyclical fluctuations
of temperature and air pressure in the equatorial Pacific so familiar
from recent headlines, was particularly active at that time as well.
As Davis details, this led to repeated failures of the monsoon rains
and to terrible droughts across the tropics. But he's not out just
to talk about the weather. His devastating thesis is that "El Niño
worked in sinister partnership with the world market."
Far from being the unfortunate lot of tropical peasants, these
mass starvations were
directly linked to the policies of European colonialism--reaching
its zenith at that time--and to the emergence of a truly global economy.
The book's main contention is that while droughts can't be avoided,
famines can; they're actually social crises created by the
interaction of climate with socioeconomic conditions, public policies
and land-use practices. Indian and Chinese farmers were victims not
of a malicious Mother Nature, but of "growing social vulnerability
to climate variability."
The colonialist transformation of local agriculture into a cash-crop
export system played an essential role in worsening that vulnerability,
as Davis shows. Small holders were tied to the world market--and
then often strangled by it. Take the example of an Indian farmer
who once produced enough rice and vegetables to feed his family,
and perhaps to sell or barter a small surplus. Financially pressured
to grow crops for export, he became indirectly dependent on trade
quotas and fluctuating commodity prices. When oversupply and competition
pushed those prices down, he was unable to shift easily to alternatives.
Marooned at the peripheries of the world economy, such small farmers
were nevertheless still buffeted by the shocks of distant markets
rippling around the globe.
But the shift away from subsistence farming had a devastating effect
on people's basic ability to survive hard times. In a country like
Indonesia, the move to monocultures (growing a single crop) disrupted
diverse agricultural strategies that had evolved to cope with the
unpredictability of the monsoon. Likewise, the traditional granary
reserve systems of India and China, a safety valve in lean years,
were forced to shut down--mostly to cut costs or placate opponents
of such communitarianism. So when El Niño caused a drought,
people starved in their villages.
And since the rules of political economy were sovereign in a place
like British India, the death toll soared. Shockingly, exporting
surpluses from a hungry nation was a common practice of British
colonial policy; Davis notes that "between 1875 and 1900, years
that included the worst famines in Indian history, annual grain
exports increased from 3 million to 10 million tons: a quantity
... equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25 million people." Lord
Lytton, the British viceroy in India and one of the book's nastier
villains, believed that relief aid only encouraged indolence among
the natives. Davis catalogues the appalling results of such inaction
through gruesome photographs and the graphic accounts of contemporary
travelers and officials.
Famines were a good opportunity to strengthen the colonial balance
weakening local autonomy everywhere from New Caledonia (still a French
possession today) to South Africa. The Dutch used drought periods
to suppress recalcitrant tribes on Borneo and turn them into rattan
exporters. And in the Philippines, where severe El Niño episodes
coincided with the advent of American imperialism, the United States
cut off food sources to subjugate resistance, trying out a strategy
used more than half a century later in Vietnam.
Prior to the 19th century, Asia was nearly as wealthy as Europe.
But instead of developing internal markets and infrastructure, colonialism
spirited profits out of the colonies. India held up the setting
sun of the British empire by providing low-cost raw materials and
absorbing finished goods (it was "the greatest captive market in
world history"), ensuring that free trade for some involved managed
trade for others--what Davis sardonically calls "Victorian structural
Late Victorian Holocausts is powerful and well argued; it's
also an impressive work of scholarship, demonstrating the author's
ability to move fluidly through academic waters, juggling scholarly
articles and period sources with ease. And even while wheeling out
plenty of hard statistical evidence, Davis strives to maintain a
personal element, arguing that "it is necessary to pin names and
faces to the human agents of such catastrophes."
Although he is clearly aware of the long-term effects that the
famines had on contemporary underdevelopment--the book's subtitle
is "El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World"--Davis
does not intend to draw those parallels himself. Unlike his more
contemporary efforts, this book's historical focus may largely confine
it to a specialist audience. That would be a shame, because it's
hard to read such damning stuff without a striking sense of its
For these great interlocking movements of natural disasters, poverty,
hunger and globalization have only intensified in scope. In the
late 20th century, we saw a similarly dramatic increase in severe
El Niño cycles, and related events like floods, droughts
and forest fires; almost all scientists believe that global warming
is worsening their effects. Meanwhile, with the international economy
more tightly bound than ever, trade liberalization, commodity prices
and exchange rates are structurally adjusting the lives of people
around the world. Sustainable agriculture in Asia, Africa and Latin
America continues to be absorbed into a global network of monoculture
plantations that grow cash crops (like flowers or coffee) for export.
"Despite three decades of rapidly expanding global food supplies,
there are still an
estimated 786 million hungry people in the world," writes Peter Rosset,
co-director of Food First/The
Institute for Food and Development Policy. Much-touted increases
in food production, like that achieved by the Green Revolution of
the 1960s, often mask the need for changes in distribution--for it's
the misallocation of food and resources like water and land, not their
scarcity, that perpetuates world hunger. In a depressing update to
one of Davis' case studies, Rosset reports that 5,000 Indian children
are dying of malnutrition each day, despite national grain surpluses.
This further highlights the desperate need for a social ecology that
places environmental crises in the context of socioeconomic disparity--between
rich and poor, but also between North and South.
In today's world, multinational corporations, aided by development
institutions, patent lawyers and, sadly, corrupt local elites, have
replaced colonial bureaucrats. Hunger has become a useful way for
corporations to ratchet up profits. Biotech firms are now busy preaching
the virtues of genetically modified seeds, which they claim will
finally solve the problem of Third World hunger. The U.S. government
recently donated a large shipment of genetically modified food to
alleviate a famine in northern Kenya--using hunger as a vector by
which to create and control markets for a profitable new technology.
Relief aid itself rarely addresses the root causes of famines in
the very nature of the global economy. In the 19th century, natives
were accused of laziness and denied handouts; now aid is used as
a way of easing our consciences while creating new markets--which
hurts local farmers even more, and may lead to further famines down
The debate will continue over whether the solution to the world's
hunger problem is more and better globalization, or the revitalization
of local economies. Meanwhile, as in the colonial era, an enormous
number of people are suffering. And arguing that the hungry must
wait while their leaders make wrenching structural changes dictated
by a particular economic program sounds a lot like the sacrifices
once demanded by Mao or Stalin. One kind of dogma has merely replaced
Like Victorian colonialists, today's globalizing elites may sincerely
believe they're doing the right thing, that free markets will eventually
feed the planet. But to deny the obvious increase in human misery
around the world is to be complicit in it. Davis' book is essentially
one of moral outrage, rightly scathing toward the undue consideration
given to theories--of any kind--over lives.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and environmental activist
in New York. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.