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

ISBN: 1859847390
ISBN 13: 9781859847398
By: Mike Davis

Check Price Now


Currently Reading Economics History Imperialism Non Fiction Nonfiction Politics Sociology To Read World History

About this book

Examining a series of El Nino-induced droughts and the famines that they spawned around the globe in the last third of the 19th century, Mike Davis discloses the intimate, baleful relationship between imperial arrogance and natural incident that combined to produce some of the worst tragedies in human history. Late Victorian Holocausts focuses on three zones of drought and subsequent famine: India, Northern China; and Northeastern Brazil. All were affected by the same global climatic factors that caused massive crop failures, and all experienced brutal famines that decimated local populations. But the effects of drought were magnified in each case because of singularly destructive policies promulgated by different ruling elites. Davis argues that the seeds of underdevelopment in what later became known as the Third World were sown in this era of High Imperialism, as the price for capitalist modernization was paid in the currency of millions of peasants' lives.

Reader's Thoughts

Christoff Youngman

Not the silver bullet against imperialism it seems to think it is. Also has a lot of impenetrable discussion about the physics behind weather fronts you'll need a good understanding of physics to get - unfortunately it all went way over my head.


"City of Quartz" was wonderful, dense and disturbing; "Late Victorian Holocausts" is profoundly fucked up. Davis essentially maps out the casualties caused by various colonial states during the latter half of the nineteenth century, specifically comparing living conditions in various areas before and after the establishment of colonial rule. Most of the man's books are polemical, and this is no exception, but as usual there are reasons to be pissed, and Davis's impeccable writing, research and usual acerbic style bring the crises of history home all too clearly.


Late Victorian Holocausts is a disturbing but fascinating slice of environmental history during the late 1800s. If you can get through the very descriptive first half about famines and the exploitations of colonialism in India, China, and Brazil, Davis' theoretical contributions on the co-production of globalization and environmental degradation are thought-provoking. He argues that while El Nino climatic cycles in the late 1800s were the proximate cause of agricultural losses, that long-term social and ecological conditions causes by colonialism, globalization, and commodity-trade are just as much to blame. These factors led to what we now consider the "third world." Davis' account is a good counter to Jared Diamond's environmental determinism of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse; at the same time, Davis is meticulous about his scientific information on climate and ecology. This historical work is clearly well-researched, thorough, and contributes to multiple academic fields including political ecology, environmental history, and food studies.

Missclark REteacher

Brilliant book combining issues related to climate and culture. The Chapter about Canudos, a city in the State of Bahia, NE of Brazil, is absolutely great, explains how the messianic charismatic religious leader Antonio Conselheiro became a fundamental player on the local struggle for survival and how it was transformed in a major political movement in Brazil in the beginning of the 20th century. A must-read!

Jennifer Plummer

I picked this book up while at the library looking for books dealing with the Rwandan genocide and did 'enjoy' the first part of it...if you can say that you enjoy a book with such grotesque factual content. I wasn't really reading it to delve into the world of El Nino or Political Economics but I did learn a good deal and a few interesting facts. I didn't read the book in its entirety like I normally do with both fiction and nonfiction but read it the way I would a reference book while looking for certain topics to help with a research paper. The author did a great job with the subject matter and it was more of my own personal likes and dislikes that had me only reading about half of the book. This book was very well written and touched upon some very interesting situations. I would recommend it to anyone curious about El Nino and the way weather can effect an entire population...or populations.

Jim Collins

The author divides his book into three sections. The first section comes off as an overheated tabloid expose a la "The Untold Story of El Nino's Global Impacts." That writing style backfires in the context of a scholarly monograph, which this book purports to be, because an expository essay's thesis is supposed to be developed by the evidence, not the temperature of the analysis. Scholarly research should be balanced, contemplative, and it should seek complexity. And while Dr. Davis tones down his hyperbole in the other two sections by discarding the eardrum-shattering verbiage of the earlier section and adopting a more discursive tone, his analysis is anything but balanced, contemplative, and complex. It's too bad because that mediocre analysis compromised his strong integration of some complex material and and the development of a research purpose that was driven by an ingenious hypothesis. Yes, I know, the book won a lot of awards. I am not convinced. Sorry.


One of the most depressing books I've ever read--highly recommended.


This book is filled with interesting information, but it is sort of schizophrenic. It could be an environmental history, or an economic history, or a history of colonialism, or a history of famine. It seems like an environmental history, and Davis spends a lot of time explaining El Nino and how it works, and why it caused these worldwide droughts and food shortages, but really that doesn't have a lot to do with his main point, which is that Britain played a major role in causing these famines and "creating" the third world, through blind dependence on the market to solve all food problems. He mainly has a great argument for how this relates to India, but he also discusses famine in China and Brazil and other places and how that was instigated by El Nino and exacerbated by colonialism too. Some of this is pretty difficult to follow.


"Fantastic" really isn't the correct word to use for this book, since it's dealing with some of the more horrific events in history. But this book is amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone interested. Only giving it four stars because the chapter explaining El Nino is just waaaayyy too detailed and honestly, I ended up only skimming most of it.

Jacob Russell

Here is the historical background of the "global economy" and the distribution of wealth and power. A snapshot of who is going to suffer as global warming and rising seas bring us ever greater not-so-natural disasters. A book I wish I could persuade everyone to read.


I'm still in the thick of this book (and taking a bit of a break from it), but it has been a compelling and readable work of impressive scholarship thus far. The devestating combination of widespread meteorological disasters across agricultural regions with the ascendency of the global "free market" economy is vividly elucidated here.

Lara Messersmith-Glavin

In a stellar (and readable) example of interdisciplinary historical research, Davis lays bare the skeleton underlying many of the popular conceptions regarding the nature of the "Third World" and its economies. Drawing from sources as diverse as scientific accounts of El Nino and La Nina cycles at the turn of the last century, missionary writings, accountancy notes, travelers' journals, newspaper clippings, and other exhaustive primary and secondary works, Davis describes how the British empire, along with other colonial forces, took advantage of periods of what would have been survivable drought in India, China, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Brazil, and used the circumstances of need to crush the local structures of governance and food-sharing networks and create a horror show of poverty, disease, and the starvation deaths of millions upon millions of people, while simultaneously setting the stage for a further century of economic privation and authoritarian control.


Mind blowing.For example: his use of the methods of science. Drought turns into famine under British rule; drought does not turn into famine during home rule in India and China. Question: why? Answer? well read it and find out. For example: makes you wonder if the Nazis had anything on the Brits. Why then do I celebrate London?For example: why didn't I know about the policy driven famines in India and China? Yes of course, we have been fed lies; lie upon lie upon lie. But we have been fed systematically. There is balance in the world, is there not? While others are starved of food, and culture, and, dignity we are fed lies and lies and lies.

Jamie Mcfaul

The hidden cost of progress


If you, like most people, have never heard of the enormous famines that struck India and China in the late 1800's you owe it to yourself to read this. It's not pretty, but essential history reading.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *