Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World
An estimated 20, 000,000 starved in India due to Britain’s free market demands in the late 19th century.
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.”
Nestor Makhno replied on Fri, 10/27/2017 – 21:56
Shashi Tharoor; book, Inglorious Empire. What the British Did to India has another number. 31 famines from 1756 the battle of Plassey, the first famine with 10 million dead untill 1947 and the last British caused famine in Bengal in 1942/1943 with 4, 5 million ( by Churchill ) dead. Total number of Indians starved is estimated at 50 million
SamDingle replied on Wed, 10/18/2017 – 14:43
Herbert Samuel repented of his Zionism as he reveals his co-authored work “The Threefold Cord: Science, Philosophy and Religion”. He changed his mind because of the mess that he had helped create in Palestine. He should not be tarred with the same brush as Balfour, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand where Western philosophical thought had gone wrong! His efforts are worthy and need to be investigated by all serious Palestinian rights groups.
David Cronin’s picture
In fact, the similarities
David Cronin replied on Wed, 10/18/2017 – 19:19
In fact, the similarities between Balfour and Samuel are extremely strong. Both were enemies of the Palestinians and the Irish. Herbert Samuel was responsible for incarcerating people suspected of involvement in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. He also approved the execution of Roger Casement, a supporter of Irish republicanism. And, as my article illustrates, he did immense harm in Palestine. He put the Balfour Declaration into effect at a crucial moment.
Balfour and Samuel
SamDingle replied on Thu, 10/19/2017 – 15:12
Fortunately, Samuel came to diverge widely from Balfour’s view – and his own former complicity – after having been High Commissioner of Palestine for 5 years. He also long outlived Balfour, dying only in 1963. His co-authored book Threefold Cord dates from 1961. Samuel’s original line of thought was NOT followed by other elites in Britain. His co-author, Herbert Dingle eventually had his work censored by the British elites. It is a history well worth investigating by supporters of Palestine seeking greater understanding of the depth of the difficulties we face.
rush to judgment
John Costello replied on Sat, 10/21/2017 – 23:13
Beware the words “in fact”. And please forgive this intrusion but a nerve has been struck and it’s only reflex. And I don’t know the facts here but I recognize a familiar at-odds.
It’s my experience that the more committed one is to an ideology certainly, but even to a cause simply, the more likely one is to sacrifice context, empathy and consideration of basic human fallibility, to the exigencies of persuasiveness. It is, in my humble opinion a fatal flaw.
And as usual, irony illustrates why because it’s exactly those two elements of rational thought that are most critical to progressive politics. But it seems the dynamisms of ‘left and right’ or, more subjectively, ‘good and evil’ are so strong that clear, holistic analysis appears weak and foolish in the face of undefined exigencies.
For my part, I will heed Sam’s advice to look deeper before judging. Not that a century old issue is all that urgent.
Good and evil
Nestor Makhno replied on Sun, 10/22/2017 – 01:34
Read Ariel from José Enrique Rodó in which the allegorical conflict between Ariel, the lover of beauty and truth and Caliban the evil spirit of materialism and positivism has come to be regarded as a metaphor for the conflicts and cultural differences between Latin America and the US.
In our context the UK should be read for US and Latin America should be read for ….. ? I don’t know . Maybe the Arab world or Asia?
Tony Greenstein replied on Sun, 10/22/2017 – 23:08
I haven’t read Samuel’s book and don’t know if he repented of his support for the Balfour Declaration. INdeed it was more than support. He was the person who lobbied the strongest and most effectively for it. Perhaps he recanted of murdering Sir Roger Casement who the Home Office under Samuel smeared as a homosexual (in the days when this was something to be ashamed of). Casement, a member of the British aristocracy was held to have been a traitor for supporting Irish Republicanism.
It is easy, when you are a war criminal to repent after the fact. Hans Frank, the Governor General of the Generalgouvernment (Nazi occupied Poland) also repented of what he had done when he was tried at Nuremburg. It didn’t save him from being executed. Unfortunately Samuel wasn’t even incarcerated for his crimes.
SamDingle replied on Wed, 10/25/2017 – 02:12
Samuel very definitely repudiated his Zionist activities as seen in his preface to the Threefold Cord. ‘Repentance’ smacks too much of Christian sentimentality – Samuel was also one of the appeasers of Hitler in the 1930s in the attempt to avoid another world war. What matters is that in his first book “Belief and Action” (Cassell, 1937) he had already realized that the West was immersed in perverted values based upon a perverted philosophical understanding. His original insights so shocked the establishment that he received a reply from none other than that staunch Zionist (and hypocritical socialist) Albert Einstein. He was unsatisfied with Einstein’s replies as they sought to evade the underlying issues. This is why he wrote another book and at last the joint book with Herbert Dingle.
John Costello replied on Sun, 10/29/2017 – 11:09
It’s interesting that Samuel and Casement were on the same liberal side more than a decade earlier when then MP Samuel motioned that Balfour’s conservative government investigate what amounted to massive human rights abuses in the Belgium held Congo. Together, with others, they were successful in forcing Belgium to regularize their colony.
Neither man worked for Congolese independence, nor probably even conceived of it. They were both functionaries of the British Empire and liberals, within that context. True, Casement grew into a revolutionary and died a martyr, while Samuel remained a loyal subject and as such Casement’s executioner but I doubt Samuel relished the task and I expect Casement didn’t even blame him, exactly. Casement had conspired with the Germans at the exact moment WWI was dramatically intensifying and Britain was completely shrouded in a fog of nationalism and paranoia. I don’t believe it’s rational to expect any other outcome.
And in Palestine; again, one must remember that Samuel is a still rising British imperialist. He is invested in the notion that The Empire can be made right and goes to the Holy Land with the intention of beginning its reform there and then. He undertakes initiatives to relieve distrust and find a just path. He envisions Israel/Palestine as a bi-national state within his empire and so entitled to everything he is. Just the fact that he would undertake such a task, as a Jew amid growing Arab mistrust, tells me he was naïve and given the facts that he gained nothing and pleased no one, I’m convinced of it.
He was a good liberal man who wanted peace and justice but didn’t know how to get there. He was not a hard brutal man like Balfour. And what gets people like Samuel on hit lists like yours, is the fact that he tried and so got his hands dirty.
Samuel and Casement
Tony Greenstein replied on Tue, 10/31/2017 – 16:38
Oh I don’t doubt that Roger Casement didn’t bear Samuel any grudge but I don’t accept your apologia for the judicial murder carried out at the behest of British imperialism by its faithful servant the Viscount Samuel.
Of course having been a functionary of the British state, albeit at nearly the pinnacle of it, Samuel operated as any other cog would have done in similar circumstances. however as Home Secretary he did have the power to pardon Casement and did not. Instead he presided over the Establishment’s deliberate besmirchment of him as a homosexual, using that as an additional justification for his murder. His body was cast into quicklime in order that it would disappear as quickly as possible and there would be no trace or remains with which to remember him by.
This argument is one that could equally be used of Nazi executioners such as Hans Frank in Poland or even Eichmann. They were just cogs in a machine that was not of their creation. It assumes that there is no human agency. the fact is that Samuel was one of the main lobbyists for the Balfour Declaration. I’m not saying it would not have come about even if he were not in a position of power. Indeed the alliance between British imperialism and Zionism would have come about even if there were no BD. There was e.g. no BD in South Africa and the Boer settlers even went to war twice against the British but that did not stop the eventual alliance. The BD is in many ways symbolic of the convergence of interests of the existing settlers and British imperialism. Of course it was helpful to the settlers but there is no doubt that Zionism would nonetheless have established itself regardless
Sean Breathnach replied on Wed, 10/18/2017 – 15:27
Thanks for telling us about Balfour’s dealings in Ireland. As you say, he was not a very nice man.
to be precise-
tom hall replied on Thu, 10/19/2017 – 14:00
Balfour was, in the language of his peers, a rotter.
Tony Greenstein replied on Fri, 10/27/2017 – 11:13
I don’t agree with the attack on Einstein. By the late 1930’s he was no longer a staunch Zionist and was very sceptical.
In 1939, he wrote: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people….we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people…. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.” (Einstein and Zionism by Banesh Hoffmann)
To quote Albert Einstein from his testimony before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in January 1946 when he was asked whether refugee settlement in Palestine demanded a Jewish state, he replied: “The State idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad. I have always been against it.”
There is no point in trying to make out that Einstein was a dedicated Zionists when he wasn’t. Let Zionism have its idols Einstein was not among them
Einstein as a Zionist
SamDingle replied on Sat, 10/28/2017 – 00:05
Einstein refused the presidency of Israel; he cursed Menachem Begin as a Fascist and condemned the Deir Yassin massacre. However he remained a dedicated Zionist, not in some spiritual but a clear earthly sense since in “Our Debt to Zionism” (April 17, 1938), written after the Anschluss, he states “Fields cultivated by day must have armed protection… against fanatical Arab OUTLAWS. … Everyone knows that BANDITRY would cease if foreign subsidies were withdrawn” – by which he means that anyone aiding Palestinians in their struggle to hold onto their land against Zionist domination is illegal by definition (& therefore BDS would be included). That is, Einstein was a consummate hypocrite, criticizing Zionism’s means, but never the goal, never Zionism generally; see “A Letter to an Arab” (March 15, 1930) where he tries to manipulate mainly wealthier Arabs into a subordinate role. Einstein was, as you show, also anti-nation-state, proposing some sort of international agreement, but this is an empty gesture evading the increasing national religious conflict of his and our day. Thus will Einstein remain a preeminent idol for Zionists of all stripes.
In contrast it is a tribute to Herbert Samuel that he broke from this Einstein-aura, his intermediate works (Essay in Physics, Basil Blackwell, 1951, and In Search of Reality, ditto, 1957) showing that he well understood that mankind was on the road to disaster – and that Einstein’s reply to him served only to obscure the situation.
John Costello replied on Sun, 10/29/2017 – 11:16
Einstein wasn’t there. He was here and wrung his hands while supporting unlimited Jewish emigration to Palestine. At a time in history, the verge of Israel’s establishment of itself, when he was one of its most influential characters, India emblematic of democratic independence from oppression, when the ovens were still warm in Aushwitz, he pleaded with Nehru for Indian support for “a home for Jews”.
What would it be but a state? He didn’t implement the Balfour declaration, he didn’t have to. He wasn’t there remember. But what he did do was commend it as a way to find justice for the Jews. India recognized Israel just as soon as it could, given its sizable Muslim minority and business relationships with Arabs. Einstein asked that of India with Gandhi (staunchly opposed to an Israeli state), while Gandhi had not yet grown cold, he may even have been alive, I’m not sure.
Beyond our own, I’m not sure whether there’s a more worrisome alliance than the one that exists between Israel and India today. Do I blame Einstein for that? Naw, and I don’t blame him for the Bomb either…still, he was there.
How is it that liberal Zionists are so roundly criticized on these pages but the good doctor gets a pass?
David Cronin’s picture
David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada. His books include Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel and Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation.