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on March 4, 2001
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. Nor will they forget the judgment of the Famine inquiries in the 1880s whom, Davis notes, concluded that with millions of famine dead the main flaw was that too much money was spent on relief. Davis goes into how the famines sparked millenarian movements and political resistance from the Boxer rebellion to the extermination of the Catholic movement at Canudos discussed, inaccurately, in Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World. He also brings a discussion of how scientists found the El Nino phenomenon, and gives a thorough technical account of how it works. He then discusses how the famines solidified European hegemony over the Third World leading to their stagnation and decline.
Based on such scholars as Bairroch, Parthsarathi, Gura and Pomeranz, Davis brings forth many facts that shore up his argument. 1) In 1800 India's share of the world manufactured product was four times that of Britain, and China's share was even higher. By 1900 India was fully under British control and the ration was 8-1 in England's favor. 2) In 1789 the living standards of China and Western Europe were roughly comparable and it appeared that China was making even better progress with its ecological problems. Naturally, a century later Europeans and Americans were much better off. 3) Despite all the many claims made on behalf of British rule in India, Indian per capita income stayed the same from 1759 to 1947. And contrary to the Malthusian argument, its population didn't grow very much. 4) Indian and Chinese rulers actually had before 1800 a good record of mitigating famines, and one British statistician suggested that whereas for the previous two millennia there was one major famine a century, under British rule there was one every four years.
How had things gone so wrong such that the El Nino famines could have such a devastating effect? Here Davis provides a useful and valuable account. Whereas previously anti-imperialists had crudely claimed that Britain had got where it was by draining the wealth of the Third World, Davis' account is much more nuanced. The problem was not so much the absolute share. Instead, by having a captive markets in Asia, Britain in the late 19th century was able to maintain its balance of payments and its complex system of free trade as surpluses in Asia balanced its increasing trade deficits with Germany and the United States. Davis shows not only how India had to bear the military costs of empire, but also how British irrigation schemes were often poorly funded, inappropriate for local conditions and had pernicious ecological effects. China, by contrast did face a severe ecological crisis which, as Davis points out, it could not escape as the Europeans did by colonizing the Western hemisphere. Moreover the West forced China to keep up the opium trade and forced it into inequitable trading arrangements. This encouraged the Chinese government to concentrate on protecting the ports and its sovereignty while underfunding the collapsing irrigation system. Ecological and political crisis fed off each other, leading to revolution and continued ecological crisis to the present day.
The result is a work which provides a valuable alternative to David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. There are some minor flaws (for instance, Czar Alexander III, unlike his father and son, was not assassinated). But it also helps introduce to a larger audience the valuable work of Indian historians that has been too long confined to specialists. It also provides a valuable complement to such works as Sheldon Watts' Epidemics and History and Prasannan Parthasarathi's The Making of a Colonial Economy. In the end this is a very different, but very appropriate sequel to the Ecology of Fear.
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on January 19, 2001
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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on January 3, 2007
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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on March 3, 2006
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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on May 26, 2007
Marx wrote about capital's destruction of the old social organizations of the societies it enters into, either originally or by force, that "the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire". Mike Davis demonstrates that this is, indeed, the case, and not just for Western Europe either. Focusing on the case examples of Brazil, India and China, Davis shows irrefutably how weather fluctuations, known as El Ninõ phenomena, combined with free traderism, colonialism and capitalist organization to create a series of harvest failures, famines, epidemics and regressions compared to which the Biblical plagues are child's play.

The first part of the book describes the various mass famines that occurred in northeastern Brazil, central and northern India, and central and northern China in the period of the apogee of colonialism, namely roughly 1870-1910. This matter is certainly not for the light of heart: the scale of the famines is such that they far exceed anything ever experienced under Mao or Stalin combined, and the indifference and repression of the the British and other colonialist elites in the face of so much suffering is staggering, evoking parallels with nazism. Of course Mike Davis' usual ill-chosen title attempts to make precisely this comparison, which rather weakens instead of reinforcing the effect of his book, but the facts speak for themselves regardless. Nothing can describe the effect it must have had on the Indian population to be forced to pay for British wars in Afghanistan and South Africa as well as a tremendously grand Jubilee for Queen Victoria, while in the meantime tens of millions of peasants were dying, in some district leading to reductions in population of almost two-thirds. Such is the effect of Whiggish history still that these facts are almost not known at all, and are never taught in high school history books. But everywhere capitalism goes, it leaves behind such corpses.

The second part of the book is a rather technical discussion of weather patterns, especially the oscillation known as ENSO, leading to the El Niño phenomena. Davis also delves into the scientific discussions of these phenomena both during the period of capitalist famines and in contemporary meteorology. This part of the book is furnished with strong statistical data, which will primarily be of interest to people engaged in studying weather patterns, as well as agriculturists because of the importance of these patterns for monsoons etc.

The third and final part of the book picks up where the first one left off, and goes into more detail about the social organizations of Brazil, India and China both before the colonialist period and during it. Davis produces interesting evidence to the account that not only was the average standard of living for the majority of the people quite higher in India and China than in Europe during the 18th Century, their degree of productivity in terms of manufacturing was higher as well. This to directly contradict the many Whiggish histories, like Landes and others, who posit the societies of India and China as stagnant and unproductive from the start. Instead, Mike Davis hypothesizes that the real reason for the sudden collapse in effectivity and productivity of India and China is the military involvement of (mainly) the British in these regions. Subjugating India entirely to a system of hyper-exploitation for the sole benefit of paying for the huge British military and for the interests of the factory manufacturers and traders in Manchester and London (whose direct influence over Indian Raj policy is shockingly large); and in China forcing the government into such large-scale wars and interventions against the British as to make the Qing dynasty go entirely bankrupt and unable to pay for the vast infrastructure and reserve funds, as well as destroying the most effective administation the world had ever seen, the Imperial magistrature system, from the inside via opium trade corruption. Davis makes plausible, if not quite proven, therefore that the downfall of India and China as powers in the 19th Century was exogenous rather than endogenous to these societies.

But what is most important about this book is the enormity of what it describes: the incredibly large-scale death of the subjugated and exploited peoples of what would later form the 'Third' or developing world. By even modest estimates the various preventable famines in China during 1850-1900 alone must have killed some 30-60 million people, and in India probably again anywhere between 30 and 85 million. Then if we add to that the deaths in Brazil (not exploited by foreign powers this time, but by their own capitalist plutocracy), of various African nations, as well as the costs of rebellion and civil war caused by the social disintegration resulting from invasion and colonialism, we get quite a pretty picture: indeed the 20th Century can hardly be considered bloodier than the 19th was. And this is called, by historians, the "Belle Époque"! One wonders if those who write so-called "Black Books of Communism" etc. are even aware of the lethality of capital.
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on April 19, 2008
As a resident of Australia and self-taught climate scientist, I am all too well aware of El Nino and La Nina - though its influence pales in comparison with the manner by which enhanced greenhouse gases have destroyed southern Australia's winter rainfall since 1997. (The fact that agriculture never developed in Australia before the Industrial Revolution, however, reflects more on its extraordinarily ancient and low-phosphorus soils than El Nino influence).

In "Late Victorian Holocausts", Mike Davis does an exceptionally original study of the impact during the nineteenth century of El Nino and La Nina upon more fertile regions of the world, including India, China, Brazil and East Africa. His focus is on three major waves of "drought famine" (i.e. drought followed directly by famine) that occurred between 1876 and 1902 in many regions of the world. Davis' description and picture of the famines are incredibly graphic, even gruesomely horrific: we frequently see pictures of people starved to the extent that their skeletons are easily visible. His descriptions of forest fires in Asia and Amazonia during earlier El Ninos are similarly explicit and it is a pity that no pictures from 1877/1878 or 1925/1926 were available to him.

Davis does a very impressive job of explaining how El Nino and La Nina work and why they cause major changes in rainfall across the globe through shifting the location of what he calls, quite figuratively, "planetary heat engines". His diagrams and descriptions of the magnitude of rainfall changes in some of the areas worst affected by famines during the late nineteenth century are done exceptionally well. Davis explains that droughts in North China, northwestern and central India and the Brazilian sertao are related to El Nino preventing the intertropical convergence zone moving as far poleward as it normally does. He also explains the origin of ENSO theory in the early meteorological work of Gilbert Walker, whose name I am extremely familiar with from studying Australia's climate.

What is surprising even to someone familiar with Trotskyist theory is how Davis suggests that these famines, which allowed Europe to gain in population compared to China and India for a long period centred around the Victorian age, and that in fact before European colonisation periodic droughts never led to the level of mortality experienced during the late nineteenth-century famines in which in many places death rates rose to several hundred per thousand per year. He shows that the Qing dynasty had an elaborate system of what we in Australia call "drought subsidies" to protect North China against a very erratic climate, and that the increasing power of the West destroyed the effectiveness of this system and led to catastrophes during powerful El Nino (e.g. 1877) and La Nina (e.g. 1898) phases. In the process, he explains some relatively little-known facts about the social structure of Qing China.

Linking these together in Davis' hypothesis that ENSO-related disasters were an important and overlooked factor in the hegemony of the West that evolved during the late nineteenth century. A large number of interesting movements that aimed to maintain local power in Africa, Asia and the Pacific collapsed under the sheer weight of pressure and by the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of these remind me of religious movements I have read via such authors as Susan Starr Sered and Bill Kauffmann and would certainly be worthy of more detailed study than Davis can give them. However, his ability to show that living standards in the West were actually lower than those in Asia until well into the eighteenth century is most surprising, though as a student of cultural studies I am extremely loathe to measure a society's health by its wealth and living standards and believe other more psychological factors are crucial. Davis shows skilfully that the areas most affected by the late nineteenth century famines were actually once quite rich and that the influence of rich British businessmen was what impoverished these regions through forced devaluation of their commodities.

Some have said "Late Victorian Holocausts" is too influenced by Marxist doctrine and that Davis whitewashes the famines of the Great Leap Forward under Mao Zedong. It is true that he could have done a better job than he has about these famines, but though drought famines they were unrelated any ENSO influence as weather in the Pacific Dry Zone conclusively demonstrates. Davis also might have looked at Mao's regime from a Marxist perspective like Tony Cliff did, but the book's length makes this a minor quibble.

All in all, "Late Victorian Holocausts" is a most original and unique synthesis of history and climate that far surpasses anything by more famous authors like Tim Flannery. Its illustration of how climate combined with other social factors to produce catastrophes both social and economic is most refreshing and the excellent sourcing gives plenty of opportunity for further research.
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on January 3, 2002
An extraordinary exercise in erudition. The breadth of Davis's scholarship to put this picture together is amazing. From his synthesis of meteorological science, historical geography and history over five continents Davis prosecutes the case of mass murder against the British ruling class. The callousness of the British rulers of India, (& the racism which underpinned it) extracting their surplus to keep themselves supreme in world finance which sentenced 10s of millions to death from famine and its aftermath are horrifying. British rule in India and the great powers' intervention in China, Davis argues are the origins of third world underdevelopment and mass poverty.
Davis's account is overwhelmingly convincing but the real sting is the similarity of the behaviour he depicts to the ruthlessness of the G8 and their determination to impose their "free trade" on the rest of the world through the WTO. Today's great powers care no more about mass starvation, death from disease and institutionalised poverty resulting from their detemrination to dominate world trade than the Bristish in India. And they will raise the same arguments about the poor's lack of initiative and self reliance and the demoralising effect of welfare as the British in India. Read this book and know how the future will unfold if we do not resist it.
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on March 11, 2008
It has been known since the 1920'ies that the surface temperatures of the Eastern Pacific influences the rainfall in many parts of the world.
In this book the author describes this phenomena and also tells the story of the important famines caused by these weather patterns. In addition it is described how the famines were made worse rather than better by English imperialist and the "free market". Railways were of no use here because the colonial administrators and the grain merchants saw no reason to have the grain transported to where it was needed the most. It is a good read though the meteorological parts are heavy going for a layman.
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Late Victorian Holocausts is a double investigation, first of the role played by ENSO, the El Nino Southern Oscillation which affects much of the world's weather in the devastating famines which marked the late nineteenth century, and secondly of the role European (primarily British) imperialism took in deepening those famines. Thus part of the book is a scientific study of ENSO, while the rest is a chronicle of the horrendous suffering in India, China, and Brazil. Even if you are familiar with the typical nineteenth century European Social Darwinist free trader ideology, the callousness of the attitudes of British viceroys and plentipotentiaries towards the suffering Indian and Chinese peasants is breathtaking. Similarly, the arrogant disregard of the sufferings of the Brazilians by their government is beyond belief.
In contrast with the insouciance of the Europeans when faced with disaster, Davis provides some fascinating information proving that earlier famines in India and China before imperialism weakened their societies were dealt with swiftly and humanely, with a fine regard for easing suffering and preserving human life.
The most important message of this book is that much of today's Third World is the direct result of natural disaster augmented by human indifference.
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on May 22, 2001
From the substantive topics of LATE VICTORIAN HOLOCAUSTS, namely El Nino induced droughts and famines that brought on agricultural collapse and socioeconomic disintegration in the tropics, there can be no doubting that the real subject of this book is misery. It's presented here in such a well reasoned, thought provoking, and professional way that we don't notice how deeply we've dived into the miasma before we are too far gone and by then we can't put the book down.
To put misery into context consider that between 1876 and 1900 there were a series of El Nino events that Mr Davis estimates caused between 32 to 61 million deaths in China, India and Brazil. It was not all climatalogical (i.e floods and droughts), but also diseases such as malaria, smallpox, dysentry, and cholera. Mr Davis, in building the theoretical underpinnings for his book posits two explanations:
(1) These societies had pre-existing agricultural and social systems that were capable of ameliorating the effects of the natural disasters. To the extent that the systems were now failing in the late Victorian era, Mr Davis traces this to the policies adopted by the governments of imperial China, colonial India, and Brazil. In short the trade, finance and economic practices of Europe, Britain and America, had, - long before it became a buzz-word - effectively achieved globalization.
(2) This is not to say that Third World poverty is solely a result of imperialism. It is not, and that isn't Mr Davis' argument. It is instead, he says, an issue of "political ecology." This concept as developed by Mr Davis interestingly shows how individual actions are ultimately the principal causes but also how intricately they are linked to geopolitical factors.
In summary Mr Davis seems to be saying that neither the market (or the lack thereof), nor government influence, are solely sufficient in explaining the Third World. Political ecology offers a holistic approach and sees the individual as responsible, but with a nod to the influence of geopolitics. The political element of the equation is all the more important when you realize that in the the Third World, poor also means, poor in power.
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