Thursday, June 2, 2016
Book review: Late Victorian Holocausts - the famines that fed the empire
Mike Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World
Reviewed by: Sukhdev Sandhu
Recording the past can be a tricky business for historians. Prophesying the future is even more hazardous. In 1901, shortly before the death of Queen Victoria, the radical writer William Digby looked back to the 1876 Madras famine and confidently asserted: "When the part played by the British Empire in the 19th century is regarded by the historian 50 years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument." Who now remembers the Madrasis?
In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis charts the unprecedented human suffering caused by a series of extreme climactic conditions in the final quarter of the 19th century. Drought and monsoons afflicted much of China, southern Africa, Brazil, Egypt and India. The death tolls were staggering: around 12m Chinese and over 6m Indians in 1876-1878 alone. The chief culprit, according to Davis, was not the weather, but European empires, with Japan and the US. Their imposition of free-market economics on the colonial world was tantamount to a "cultural genocide".
These are strong words. Yet it's hard to disagree with them after reading Davis's harrowing book. Development economists have long argued that drought need not lead to famine; well-stocked inventories and effective distribution can limit the damage. In the 19th century, however, drought was treated, particularly by the English in India, as an opportunity for reasserting sovereignty.
A particular villain was Lord Lytton, son of the Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night...") after whom, today, a well-known bad writing prize is named. During 1876 Lytton, widely suspected to be insane, ignored all efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria's investiture as Empress of India. The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast of lucullan excess at which 68,000 dignitaries heard her promise the nation "happiness, prosperity and welfare".
Lytton believed in free trade. He did nothing to check the huge hikes in grain prices, Economic "modernization" led household and village reserves to be transferred to central depots using recently built railroads. Much was exported to England, where there had been poor harvests. Telegraph technology allowed prices to be centrally co-ordinated and, inevitably, raised in thousands of small towns. Relief funds were scanty because Lytton was eager to finance military campaigns in Afghanistan. Conditions in emergency camps were so terrible that some peasants preferred to go to jail. A few, starved and senseless, resorted to cannibalism. This was all of little consequence to many English administrators who, as believers in Malthusianism, thought that famine was nature's response to Indian over-breeding.
It used to be that the late 19th century was celebrated in every school as the golden period of imperialism. While few of us today would defend empire in moral terms, we've long been encouraged to acknowledge its economic benefits. Yet, as Davis points out, "there was no increase in India's per capita income from 1757 to 1947". In Egypt, too, the financial difficulties caused to peasants by famine encouraged European creditors to override the millennia-old tradition that tenancy was guaranteed for life. What little relief aid reached Brazil, meanwhile, ended up profiting British merchant houses and the reactionary sugar-planter classes.
The European "locusts" did not go unchallenged. Rioting became common. Banditry increased. In China, drought-famine helped to spark the Boxer uprising. In Europe, the fin de siècle was largely an opportunity for pale-faced men to wear purple cummerbunds and spout rotten symbolist poetry; for colonized peoples it genuinely seemed to presage mass extinction. It was, says Davis, "a new dark age of colonial war, indentured labour, concentration camps, genocide, forced migration, famine and disease."
Davis's attention to the importance of environment may recall the work of the Annales school of historians, but he is far more radical than any of them. His writing, both here and in such classic books as City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, is closer to that of Latin American intellectuals such as Ariel Dorfman and the Urguayan, Eduardo Galaeno, who for decades have spotlighted capitalism's casual abuse of the third world and who have sought to champion the poor and dispossessed. Such commitment, forcefully and lucidly expressed, is unfashionable these days.
"Class" may be passé in academic circles, yet the catalogue of cruelty Davis has unearthed is jaw-dropping. A friend to whom I lent the book was reduced to tears by it. Late Victorian Holocausts is as ugly as it is compelling. But, as Conrad's Marlow said in Heart of Darkness : "The conquest of the earth, which means the taking away from those who have a different complexion and slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much."