Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 577-579
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Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. By Mike Davis. London: Verso Books, 2001. x + 464 pp. $27.00 (cloth); $20.00 (paper).
While writing Ecology of Fear about natural and political disasters in Los Angeles, maverick historian Mike Davis stumbled across a reference to famines in Asia that were related to El Niño (ENSO) weather patterns. Researching further in both scientific and humanities literature, Davis began to unravel a relationship between the El Niño phenomenon, climate change, capitalism, imperialism, and global famines during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Following the footprints of concomitant famines in India and China, Davis began searching for other food shortages during this time. The results were staggering. As the body count of famine victims mounted into the tens of millions in India, China, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Korea, New Caledonia, and so on, Davis knew that he was on to one of the "darkest secrets of the Victorian Age."Between thirty and fifty million people perished and a new, disturbing division of wealth was created: the so-called "developed" and "undeveloped" or "third" worlds.
LateVictorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World paints a haunting and sweeping portrait of these human-made famines and the making of these global class divisions. The book begins with a colorful narrative about Ulysses S. Grant's bobbling and glutinous sojourn around the world in 1877. Citing reports of the New York Herald's journalist John Russell Young, Davis notes that from the Nile to Bombay to Beijing, everywhere the Grants "supped" they stumbled upon famines.
From there Davis launches into the first two quarters of the book and spotlights famines in India, China, and Brazil. In each case, he illustrates how laissez-faire capitalists, colonial officers, and corrupt local administrators often took advantage of El Niño-induced droughts and floods by using maxim guns, railroads, the telegraph, and policies of the New Imperialism to wrench what they could from the producing populations of the Deccan, Yellow River Basin, and Sertao, most [End Page 577] notably. Armed with an eye for paradox and a penchant for hard-hitting accounts, Davis delivers a gruesome and compelling rendering of three separate but interrelated global famines in 1877-1878, 1888- 1891, and 1896-1902. Skeletanization sets in on human bodies, but dogs and wolves fatten up on the corpses; women and children are sold and served in markets for their flesh; cannibalism and suicide are commonplace. Among the most egregious atrocities committed during these famines were the actions of Lord Lytton, one of Queen Victoria's favorite poets and later viceroy of India. From Calcutta, Lytton went out of his way to ensure that famine relief programs were effectively curbed and sabotaged, for example, because they interfered with the "economic laws" of Adam Smith. Lytton graces the front cover of the book with Indian servants at his side. Beneath Lytton, emaciated famine victims from India pose for an awkward photo shoot. Why the grim juxtaposition? Davis writes that the "photographs used in this book are accusations [of capitalist market induced holocausts] and not illustrations." Local populations were not mere victims, however. He takes painstaking care to show how populations resisted these "London-centered" market policies, from local food and medical relief efforts to small riots to "millenarian revolutions," such as the 1897 War of Canudos in Brazil where "tens of thousands of humble followers of Antonio Conselheiro" were massacred.
Following the "standard" historical narrative, Davis then progresses into the third section: an elaborate discussion of the scientific understanding of ENSO, monsoons, meteorology, and climate change. Charting the intellectual history of how scientists came to understand this weather pattern with sections such as "Sunspots versus Socialists," Davis argues that nature should not be "blamed" for these disasters; to do so would echo "the official line of the British in Victorian India as recapitulated in every famine commission report and...