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Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World Paperback – June 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While this book will not have the impact of Davis's City of Quartz--a scathing indictment of L.A.'s environmental ravagement, economic disparity and racial divides--in a perfect world, it would. Its subject is nothing less than the creation of what we now call "The Third World," through a complex series of seemingly disparate natural and market-related events beginning in the 1870s. Davis dives into the data and journalism of the period with a vengeance, showing that the seemingly unprecedented droughts across northern Africa, India and China in the 1870s and 1890s are consistent with what we now know to be El Ni¤o's effects, and that it was political and market forces (which are never impersonal, Davis insists), and not a lack of potential stores and transportation, that kept grain from the more than 50 million people who starved to death. Chapters brilliantly reconstruct the political, economic, ecological and racial climate of the time, as well as the horrific deaths by hunger and thirst that besieged the peasantries of the afflicted c0untries. As in City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Magical Urbanism, Davis's synthetic powers, rendering mountains of data into an accessible and cogent form, are matched by his acid castigations of the murders and moral failings that have attended the advance of capitalism, and by cogent detours into the work of journalists and theorists who have come before him, decrying injustice and rallying the opposition. (Feb.)Forecast: Although this book's historical subject seems vastly removed from contemporary American life, it may get some media attention for its El Ni¤o-based arguments. City of Quartz still guarantees review attention for any Davis project, which may draw history buffs who haven't heard of him. His substantial core readership will seek out the book either way, and the book's synthesis of hardcore data will also hold appeal for poli-sci syllabi and university libraries.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Wide ranging and compelling ... a remarkable achievement.”—Times Literary Supplement

“Devastating.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

“A masterly account of climatic, economic and colonial history.”—New Scientist

“A hero of the Left, Davis is part polemicist, part historian, and all Marxist.”—Dale Peck, Village Voice

“Davis has given us a book of substantial contemporary relevance as well as great historical interest ... this highly informative book foes well beyond its immediate focus.”—Amartya Sen, The New York Times

“Davis’s range is stunning ... . He combines political economy, meteorology, and ecology with vivid narratives to create a book that is both a gripping read and a major conceptual achievement. Lots of us talk about writing ‘world history’ and ‘inter-disciplinary history’: here is the genuine article.”—Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence

“The global climate meets a globalizing political economy, the fundamentals of one clashing with the fundamentalisms of the other. Mike Davis tells the story with zest, anger, and insight.”—Stephen J. Pyne, author of World Fire

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 470 pages
  • Publisher: Verso; First Edition edition (July 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1859843824
  • ISBN-13: 978-1859843826
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #96,290 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mike Davis is the author of several books including City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, Planet of Slums, and Magical Urbanism. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in Papa'aloa, Hawaii.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 93 people found the following review helpful By on March 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Mike Davis' new book is a work of singular importance, offering a valuable new perspective on a disaster of horrifying magnitude. In the late 1870s and the late 1890s somewhere between 30 to 60 million people died in famine in India, China and Brazil. This does not count the many more who died from the Philippines to Angola, from Morocco to Indonesia. To the extent that people remember these famines it has been assumed that they were the result of an unfavorable climate. To the extent that larger social factors were involved, they were a classic Malthusian crisis, too many people on too little land, and they represented the failure of the Third World to adapt the industrial revolution.
Davis shows very clearly that the third world was ravaged by the El Nino phenomenon. But that is the only the beginning. They were also ravaged by the new regimes of imperialism and the world market. Had the responsible authorities distributed what food existed, most of the victims would have survived. Davis is well aware of Nobel laureate A. Sen's argument that they key problem with famine is not scarcity but maldistribution. He also point out that whether under the American occupation of the Philippines or the ravages of Mao's Great Leap Forward, the real problem was the lack of democracy and lack of influence of the very poor.
Davis starts off with a fascinating and horrific description of the famines, filled with damning facts. For example Lord Lytton and his bureaucrats in 1876 India were obssessed with the idea that relief would just encourage Indian shirking. Readers will not soon forget that the calorie/work regimen that Lytton did impose was worse than that of Buchenwald.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Henry Misbach on January 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
People who enjoy books that are easy to read, as well as entertaining, will not enjoy this one. But everyone who can read English needs to read this book.
In a single stroke, it explodes all our myths about the origins and causes of the extreme poverty still found in what we know loosely as the Third World. Its thesis, as I get it, is that these areas were not always impoverished and, when impacted by famine, were capable of reasonable survival. Some of those myths we so long believed, rooted as they were in now discarded theories of race and nationality, have long since deserved their coup de grace, and here they receive it.
Although I am not directly familiar with the book's sources for its political-historical claims, they seem to reflect the state of current research, as the author is able to use several secondary sources for many of his assertions.
Those who might jump to any hasty conclusions about Davis' political biases should refer to Davis' excoriation of the communist regime in China during Mao's Great Leap Forward, which puts it in at least as bad a light as some of the astonishingly bad planning of the British colonial governments. The importance of a free press (p. 251) is here highlighted.
What this book desperately needs is an overall conclusion at the end that incorporates its major themes into a geared-down, layman -friendly statement of general inference. Even some normative comments about what should be done in the future with reference to the areas under consideration would be welcome, although I appreciate the difficulty of such a task. If he wrote some sequel to this book, I would certainly be interested in what he had to say.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Linda M. Stutz on January 3, 2007
Format: Paperback
This book recounts in detailed, well documented ways how famines occured in various regions of the world because of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns. This part of the author's message is not difficult to believe, though the science and climatology is complex. The alarming assertion, also extrodinarily well documented, is that British (and other European nations") colonial rule in these areas disrupted the ways in which these cultures traditionally handled famine conditions by focusing the local economies on profit making enterprises benefitting the British, and responded with incredible callousness to the utter misery that resulted. Those who generally think of the British as a civilized, Christian people will be shaken by their deliberate actions which caused millions of deaths. My criticism of the book is the absence of a summary chapter, and the lack of editing for readability. This book is difficult to read, and should be widely read.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By T. Mag on March 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Mike Davis' Victorian Holocausts was to me a real eye opener. This in spite of the fact that I have read about the history of British India, one of the areas treated in the book. It is really an indictment of the way history is presented by mainstream historians and an indictment of journalists, who perpetuate the myth of the beneficial effects of British domination in various parts of the world. Just recently, Niall Ferguson, the noted British historian was quoted as saying that on the whole, British rule has been good for the countries affected. It is probably fair to say that Davis' book makes it clear that any beneficial effects of British rule, in India for example, were accidental. The book is admirably written and researched. It is especially noteworthy that there is no exaggerated language used, such as in more well-known holocaust literature, in describing the horrendous occurences in the various parts of what we now know as the third world. Finally, throughout my reading of the book, I could not help recall the fact that Queen Victoria, the icon of beneficial, benign British rule was presiding over much of these horrific happenings. This book has been long overdue. I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in "real history" rather than national mythologies.
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