Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 98-99
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Late Victorian Holocausts:
El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. By Mike Davis (New York, Verso, 2001) 464 pp. $27.00
"Famines are wars over the right to existence," writes Davis. The horrifying wars of existence fought between 1876 and 1900—the greatest human tragedy since the Black Death, in which 30 to 50 million people all over the world perished—are hardly known to historians and have never received a comprehensive narrative. Geologists, however, have known about them for decades, because the famines at the center of Late Victorian Holocausts resulted from a disastrous collision between political forces and well-known climatic events. Davis spins the extraordinary argument that the most ghastly mass starvation in recorded history coincided with three tightly spaced El Niño droughts and that the actions (and inactions) of colonial governments in response erased the seemingly objective distinction between a crime against humanity and a natural disaster.
A summary of events is difficult to muster, since Davis uses so many cases and covers so much ground. The famines affected the entire Indo-Pacific region all along the equator, including India, China, Korea, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Egypt (through the failure of weather systems that feed the Blue Nile). One British magistrate compared the people of India to a man standing neck deep in water; it only took a ripple to put him under. Yet the people of India not only suffered back-to-back crop failures but high prices in the world's grain markets. Merchants took bread from India and sold it to Europe. The ensuing shortages wrecked the bonds of family and community that ordinarily tie people together. One observer in the region of the Guguan Pass in northern China reported human meat for sale and parents selling their children (and buying others) for food. The narrative as a whole is a stunning rebuke to the idea that liberalism made life better wherever it came ashore. People who believed in human progress permitted unimaginable suffering while railroads and markets operated exactly as they were intended to.
Another part of the story distinguishes it from every other social and economic history of colonialism—the El Niño events. The El Niño-southern oscillation is a periodic redistribution of solar energy resulting in disrupted climatic patterns. Next to the seasons, it is the most important cause of climatic variation. It causes the monsoon season to shift east into the central Pacific, where rains crucial for life throughout Asia fall a long way from the people and places in need. This is the ecological mystery at the heart of the book; figuring out just what caused the El Niño drought and flood forms a story within the story that Davis tells with skill. The problem of the third part is to establish that the underdevelopment of the tropics was not the result of drought and overpopulation (in fact, peasants in China and India enjoyed higher standards of living than most Europeans in the eighteenth century) but was due to the domination of natural resources by colonial rulers, creating all the conditions for starvation before the droughts arrived. [End Page 98]
This is a stunning work of environmental and political history that offers a potent interpretation of crucial global events. The innovation of Late Victorian Holocausts is that it writes the environment into history rather than the history of the environment. Davis has synthesized more than he has discovered by basic research, but the book proves just how important synthesis can be. The point is not that historians have never known about the famines but that they have not conceived of them as a single event. The ecological story allows Davis to measure the damage as Europeans stripped away the traditional safeties that people all over the world developed to cope with drought. Poverty, disease, and starvation became associated with certain parts...