A Hunger for Imperialism

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

For someone who claims to have been functionally illiterate when he entered UCLA in 1973, Mike Davis has done quite well for himself. A self-described Irish-California Marxist who has worked as a butcher, truck driver, protest organizer, and itinerant academic, Davis writes the kind of books that are routinely lauded as brilliant, passionate, and gripping—the perfect combination of rage, studious detail, and brilliant synthesis. He established his reputation as a prophet of doom with his books on Los Angeles, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, then backpedaled a bit with Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City. But with Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis is once again haranguing the wicked.

His most recent publication is the logical extension of his obsessions with natural history and social injustice, and the way the two work together. Davis narrates the relatively unknown story of massive recurrent famines in India, China, Indonesia, Africa, and Brazil in the years 1876 to 1901 and picks apart the roles played in these famines by weather patterns, imperialism, and free trade.

One of his aims is to redefine “famine.” In the modern world, famine isn’t just a scarcity of food, he explains, because while food shortage “may directly lead to famine in isolated hunter-gatherer ecologies, … it is unlikely to do so in any large-scale society.” The lands he studies didn’t experience food shortage simultaneously: “Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion—often the worst in centuries—there were almost always grain surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims. Absolute scarcity, except perhaps in Ethiopia in 1889, was never the issue.” Instead he argues that the famines “were not food shortages per se, but complex economic crises induced by the market impacts of drought and crop failure.” Prices shoot up, the poor can’t afford to eat, and those with the money must decide to either help the starving or profit, for example by foreclosing on farms.

What made it possible for India and other countries to export food to England, as indeed they did, while their people starved to death? At the risk of oversimplifying an amazing profusion of information, here are some of the ways it occurred in the Indian famine of 1876-1878.

Most significantly, the English had recently succeeded in pursuing what Davis calls “the imperialism of free trade,” on the subcontinent. Farmers weren’t growing food for their own communities any longer so much as they were for the market, the highest bidder. Davis quotes Hans Medick, an expert on proto-industrialism, to show how this worked against the small farmer: “For them even rising agrarian prices did not necessarily mean increasing incomes. [Instead they] tended to be a source of indebtedness rather than affording them the opportunity to accumulate surpluses…. Especially in years of bad harvests, and high prices, the petty producers were compelled to buy additional grain, and, worse, to go into debt. Then, in good years, when cereal prices were low, they found it hard to extricate themselves from previously accumulated debts.” In short, free trade further impoverished the poorest stratum of society, ensuring a hand-to-mouth existence that preconditioned famine.

Another factor in the Indian famines was “the theological applications of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham, and Mill,” the rules that govern a free market as developed by English intellectuals. Davis quotes the contemporary account of an American missionary: “Grain merchants will not sell grain, largely because they know the price will greatly increase, though even now prices are 300 percent above normal.” The hoarding of grain in India provoked riots and so, “the newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters)…. In Madras city, overwhelmed by 100,000 drought refugees, famished peasants dropped dead in front of the troops guarding pyramids of imported rice.” In addition, the English themselves imported grain, and the incorporation of India, China, and other lands into the world economy made it possible for them to outbid the peasantry of these countries for food produced within their own borders.

Finally, the British who ruled India were loath to engage in any meaningful famine relief or even to temporarily ease taxation. As reports of starvation grew clamorous, Sir Richard Temple was selected to administer the relief effort. He stated that, “Everything must be subordinated … to the financial consideration of disbursing the smallest sum of money consistent with the preservation of human life.” He backed up his talk by reducing, against the protests of prominent physicians, the daily allotment of food given to those in relief camps, in an experiment “that eerily prefigured later Nazi research on minimal human subsistence diets.”

In fact, Temple’s food allotment of 16 ounces of rice per day for heavy laborers “provided less sustenance … than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp.” The relief camps, “fetid, disease-wracked boneyards,” killed the vast majority of those who were allowed to enter them. As if that were not enough, Temple imposed the Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which made private relief operations a jailable offense, ostensibly because they interfered with the free market. Meanwhile, the British resorted to a militarized campaign to collect taxes. Those who could not pay had their lands auctioned off, “a windfall for rich peasants and moneylenders.”

Through it all the big landowners continued to export the products of the vast monocultures that the British had set up in India—wheat, cotton, opium, and rice. Monoculture displaced the traditional subsistence crops and sent profits away in the forms of debt payment and taxes, or, if you will, tribute.

In addition, Davis details the equally exotic and dismaying minutiae of concurrent famines in China, Brazil, Indonesia, and Africa and estimates that a staggering 50 million of their inhabitants died from starvation and its related pandemics from 1876 to 1901. He quotes from contemporary records to show how famine breaks people down. This passage is from a westerner observing the results of a famine in China:

Previously, people had restricted themselves to cannibalizing the dead; now they are killing the living for food. The husband devours his wife, the parents eat their children or the children eat their parents: this is now the everyday news….

In the third section of the book, Davis exercises his interest in natural history by investigating the discovery of the climatological event known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, which was responsible for the droughts of the late 1800s. In the fourth and last section, Davis ties together his grand theses, arguing that the Third World was born in these times of drought and famine, that Britain and other imperialists ripped off the areas they controlled so thoroughly and ran them so negligently that their former subjects still haven’t recovered today. “When the sans culottes stormed the Bastille,” he writes, “the largest manufacturing districts in the world were still the Yangzi Delta and Bengal,” with other areas of China and India right behind. That’s why Marco Polo wanted to get there in the first place. Davis quotes the economic historian Paul Bairoch as saying that as late as 1850 “the average standard of living in Europe was a little bit lower than the rest of the world.” Some 150 years later everything is radically different, but Davis argues that Asia didn’t merely stand still while the Industrial Revolution transformed Europe and the U.S. “From about 1780 or 1800 onward, every serious attempt by a non-Western society to move over into a fast lane of development or to regulate its terms of trade was met by a military as well as an economic response from London or a competing imperial capital…. The Victorians resorted to gunboats on at least seventy-five occasions,” the most infamous being the Opium and Arrow Wars in which the English forced China to buy opium.

“If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed to a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947,” writes Davis. But, of course, India did generate great amounts of revenue during this period. “Britain earned huge annual surpluses in her transactions with India and China,” says Davis, and those surpluses were crucial to delaying the decline of English supremacy. But being force-marched into the global economy on the prejudicial terms demanded by England drained the wealth of India and China and burned out their infrastructure.

Once again, Davis has proven himself to be a master of synthesis. In so doing, he provides an alternative answer to the question of how “the West,” (i.e., Western Europe and more specifically, England), surged ahead of the rest of the world in the nineteenth century. At a time when we are being bombarded with cultural explanations a la Samuel Huntington about clashing civilizations, Davis’s provocative history goes far to show why the world looks the way it does today. It also proves that famine in modern history is largely a matter of economics. His dire warning is that humans will be to blame for the next one.

Brant Bingamon is a writer living in Austin.


Mike Davis – Flaneur of Libraries

Although he dislikes using the Internet for research, author Mike Davis consented to a brief e-mail interview with Brant Bingamon for the Observer.

Texas Observer: How many hours and days of research does Late Victorian Holocausts represent?

Mike Davis: I began research on LVH in late summer 1998 and finished the manuscript two years later. It incorporates three or four thousand hours of work. Like most pen hacks past middle age I write best in the morning. With teaching and publishing (I am a senior editor at Verso Books), I probably put in an average American work week of 45 hours.

TO: Are you still living in Hawaii? Do you miss Southern California?

MD: I am married to the Mexican artist, Alessandra Moctezuma. Our permanent residence is in Papaaloa, 25 miles north of Hilo and 3000 miles west of LA on the Big Island. We have a utopian porch and wonderful neighbors. Of Southern California, I miss most the union demonstrations downtown, Tommy’s hamburgers, and the smell of the chaparral after a rain.

TO: How did you become interested in Indian history?

MD: My best friend, Mike Sprinker, who died two years ago, decolonized my understanding of world history by introducing me to the spectacular work of South Asian Marxists.

TO: How is Marxism different from Utopianism?

MD: Utopian thought is essential to all humanist resistance against the carnage of history. Marxism is about necessary utopias.

TO: Do you enjoy being referred to as a Prophet of Doom?

MD: Prophet of Doom? Too silly for words.

TO: Who are you favorite historians and what are your favorite books?

MD: My LA books draw their deepest inspiration from Emile Zola, Carey McWilliams, Raymond Chandler, Walter Benjamin, Carlos Monsivais, and an incredible Welsh historian, Gwyn Williams. If any book has been my real compass, it is Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory is a close second.

TO: Are you interested in Mexican history?

MD: Mexican history exerts a considerably greater fascination for me than U.S. history. Of recent work, I especially admire Fredrich Katz’s magnificent biography of Villa.

TO: Did being a butcher bother you?

MD: Why would being a butcher bother me? Unlike so much of academia, it is socially important, skilled labor.

TO: Do you have long-term goals?

MD: My long-term goal is to be faithful to Joe Hill’s death wish. [“Don’t mourn–organize!”]

TO: What is your opinion of Noam Chomsky?

MD: I have never read Noam Chomsky.

TO: What is your favorite library?

MD: My favorite book temple is the Southern California Library for Social Research in South Central LA, although I am unhappy that they have recently removed the huge nude statue of Karl Marx that used to greet (and astonish) visitors.

TO: How much useful information do you collect online?

MD: I dislike the net almost as much as the telephone. I am a flaneur of libraries: which is to say, I love nothing better than to roam randomly and luxuriously through the stacks. What treasures I have found!

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Published at 12:00 am CST