Late Victorian Holocausts Review

A “wall of water” rolled down the James River in May 1771. The sweeping torrents killed about 150 people, destroying everything in its path, including the growing wheat crop and 4,000,000 lbs. of tobacco in warehouses along the river. As the flood subsided, those living near Richmond, Virginia were faced with rebuilding their lives in the wake of a disaster that left many of the poorest citizens homeless, destitute, and hungry. Although this story could be transferred to many times and places around the world, its occurrence a few years prior to the American Revolution situates it at an important juncture.  A few weeks after the flood, Virginia’s Acting Gov. Nelson desperately reached out to the British Parliament and the Crown requesting aid, which was seemingly denied. Instead, on a more local scale, the Virginia Assembly, “managed to muster £30,000 in flood compensation”, which ultimately “fell short of allaying hardship.”[1] By the time of the American Revolution, many still hadn’t recovered.  

The lack of relief from Parliament, while also receiving additional taxes, may have regionally influenced the colonists’ decision to revolt. Historian Dennis Blanton juxtaposed the competing needs of the colonists and the British government describing how the Virginia Governor’s appeals for aid clashed with the “economic decline in Britain” and Parliament’s decision to impose “greater burdens on the colonies for revenue. In that context, neither side appears to have been comfortable with the thought of bearing the other’s burden.”[2]  Parliament’s failure to relieve the flood victims in 1771 while simultaneously increasing economic burdens through taxation foreshadows a pattern that grimly plays out a century later in India during three late 19th century natural droughts and the subsequent human-created famines.

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis exposes several government policies that led to the deaths of millions in India, China, and Brazil, while simultaneously exploring the connection to El Nino events and drought. Davis additionally illuminates patterns of governance and land-management policies that historically exacerbated natural disasters. These decisions created ongoing repercussions that he argues ultimately led to the creation of the “Third World,” hereafter referred to as the “Global South.”

“While the Dickensian slums remains in the world history curriculum, the famine children of 1876 and 1899 have disappeared.”

Late Victorian Holocausts, page 8

Written in 2001, Late Victorian Holocausts is groundbreaking for drawing attention to the understudied history of late 19th century famines. Davis asserts, “While the Dickensian slums remains in the world history curriculum, the famine children of 1876 and 1899 have disappeared.”[3] By illuminating the role that government policy and international trade played in the creation of humanitarian disasters, Late Victorian Holocausts brings to light staggering death tolls, while also reexamining historic interpretations which often blamed the population instead of policy. Particularly in India, Davis shows how the drought diminished available food, which traditionally was offset by surpluses from other regions. Instead, much of India’s grain was exported to feed Great Britain. As a result, market prices rose and starving Indian peasants died from inaccessibility to food due to higher costs and systemic lack of relief. In Madras city, an area “overwhelmed by 100,000 drought refugees, famished peasants dropped dead in front of the troops guarding pyramids of imported rice…”[4] This is a staggering instance of capitalist and government policy placing profits over the lives of millions. Systemic decisions like this which led to the deaths of tens of millions, prompted Davis to choose the title, Late Victorian Holocausts, asserting, “it is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving subjects were often the moral equivalent of bombs dropped from 18,000 ft.”[5]

“It is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving subjects were often the moral equivalent of bombs dropped from 18,000 ft.”

Late Victorian Holocausts, page 22

The book opens with President Grant’s 1877 decadent world tour, vacationing in famine-stricken lands across Asia. Grant’s tour is the initial tie that binds a series of disasters across Egypt, India, and China. However, as Davis makes clear, the droughts across these countries are caused by the El Nino weather pattern. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that the subsequent famine is human-created and derived from a variety of political and capitalist policies that led to staggering humanitarian disasters. This aspect of his analysis is not new, but generally obscured from traditional Western analysis. As a part of this synthesis, Davis notes, “Indian historians have emphasized this staggering death toll was the foreseeable and avoidable result of deliberate policy choices.[6]

“…this staggering death toll was the foreseeable and avoidable result of deliberate policy choices.”

Late Victorian Holocausts, page 51

Divided into four parts, this work begins with several case studies that lay the foundation for pattern recognition of recurring types of famine response (or lack thereof). Parts one and two examine the 1876-1878 and 1888-1902 droughts in India, China, Brazil, and parts of Africa. Rather than bombarding the reader with comparative statistics, Davis writes a compelling narrative that describes the unique factors and shared patterns for each location. These sections also illuminate how starvation was often used as a policy for colonial expansion and religious conversion. After generating knowledge of drought and famine response during this time, part three turns to the meteorological history of what has come to be known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This section helps the reader understand the correlation of ENSO to drought in tropical regions, while also establishing historic limits to that knowledge and cautioning reader to be wary about correlations without extensive study and data. Part four returns to an examination of the historic policies that exacerbated drought, such as the relationship between deforestation, erosion, and lowering the water table. Using political ecology to examine the making of the modern world using the lens of climate and humanitarian disaster, Davis ties historic infrastructure and land-use policies, like the elimination to common lands, to the creation of the “Global South.” Davis posits that there’s a causal triangle of “ecological poverty” (a dearth of natural resources) that increases “household poverty” (reducing non-state resources) and “state decapacitation” (reducing the capacity of state’s resiliency to economic, environmental, and other issues) in places such as India, China, and Brazil which led to the creation of “Global South.”[7]

Late Victorian Holocausts traverses the globe in a way that yields robust examples of famine policies from a variety of perspectives. Davis is particularly interested in collective organizing and the ways marginalized groups came together to advocate for their lives and sustenance. For example, Chapter 2 includes a story about 100 Chinese women gathering outside a magistrate’s house with their meat cleavers and cutting boards. Their spokesman asserted, “The magistrate who steals the money of the poor instead of giving it when they are dying of starvation deserves to be chopped into little pieces like this!”[8] The narrative evokes a compelling image of women rhythmically chopping to intimidate the local magistrate.  Davis’s inclusion of how populations resisted policies which could adversely impact their well-being demonstrates their agency and serves as a foil to victimhood.  

“The magistrate who steals the money of the poor instead of giving it when they are dying of starvation deserves to be chopped into little pieces like this!”

Late Victorian Holocausts, page 68

Davis’s approach of weaving together and illuminating the web of differing trade goals, allows the reader to more fully see the impact of damaging policies, such as British cotton exports decimating native weaving villages, the resulting commodity shifts, and ultimately the realignment of local economic and ecological landscapes.  It’s not dissimilar to the introduction of an invasive species or the elimination of a piece of the ecological food change. Major shifts caused the surrounding dominoes to fall, which often had devastating impacts on a region, especially at a time of ecological crisis.

Davis also dispels popularized myths of subsistence issues in pre-colonial China and India. By teasing out the various factors that contribute to subsistence issues, such as grain price, lack of irrigation or other failed infrastructure, deforestation, the exploitation and depletion of natural resources, poor soil, climate, etc., Davis builds the foundation for examining the modernization of poverty and his argument for the creation of the Global South, successfully showing how imperial policies, including the neglect of infrastructure and the privatization of common lands, historically led to the deaths of millions.

Organization may be the biggest weakness of this book. The tone abruptly changes between parts two and three (and three and four). Although the deep dive into the history of how El Nino was understood in part three is interesting, it breaks the narrative flow of the rest of the book. These chapters could have been better incorporated to match the tone of the other sections or allow some of it to be relegated to an appendix. Davis is painstakingly clear about the nuances of El Nino, which contrasts to his assumption of knowledge in other areas, such as the doctrines of Thomas Malthus, who is introduced on page 32, referenced throughout the book as “Malthusian” policies, etc., but doesn’t get a robust explanation until page 306. Although the book generally holds up well, some of the language and preferred terminology has also changed since 2001. Specifically, the term “third world” is dated and is now most often referred to as the “global south.”

This book should be relevant to anyone interested in global disaster history, humanitarian relief practices, and 19th century capitalist trade and colonial policies. Additionally, as a microcosm of climate change, this research presents a window into how devastating the disruption of expected weather patterns can be. As a result, anyone interested in the environment and climate change will get something out of Davis’s research. Further, the broad-strokes examination of global history through the lens of land-use policies, infrastructure, and the environment should be useful to a variety of educators, environmentalists, and public policy makers.

[1] Dennis Blanton, “The Great Flood of 1771: An Explanation of Natural Causes and Social Effects.” In Historical Climate Variability and Impacts in North America, edited by Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux and Cary J. Mock, (Springer, New York,  2009), 17.

[2] Blanton, “The Great Flood of 1771”,  19.

[3] Miki Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World  (New York: Verso, 2001), 8.

[4] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts. 45.

[5] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 22.

[6] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 51.

[7] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 310.

[8] Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 68.