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


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.

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.


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.

Jamie Mcfaul

The hidden cost of progress


I wasn't able to give this book a thorough read because I only had it on ILL for a few weeks, but here's my two cents:1) The points Davis brings up about climate as an influence on history are important BUT2) his links between cultures are weak at best. It is clear he is not a historian of China, which makes me think that the other country's sections are also weak (although without background in those other regions I can't say for sure). Additionally, there is at least one example of 'same used to prove opposite points:' he says railroads in India allowed capitalists to move grain to areas paying highest prices, thereby starving people in certain regions, yet flips this argument in China, saying that the Qing Empire caused famine because they had NOT developed a rail system! Which is it, Mr. Davis? Are railroads good or bad for capitalist roaders?Still, I would like to get it again when I can and give it a better read.


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.

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.


Previous Mike Davis books showed a brilliant polemical imagination, but this is a book that manages to combine that polemical fire with a rigorous academic discourse, reinforced with reams of quantitative, demographic, and meteorological data. Certainly, Davis presents a compelling argument for how colonialism and liberal capitalism starved certain regions in particular, stoked social unrest, exacerbated social disparities, and destroyed native techniques for dealing with climactic extremes. I would like if he had drawn out how his "late Victorian holocausts" continue to impact the third world, but it's a good starting point.


A bold interpretation of the interaction of nature and history that ties the impact of El Nino and climate conditions to the globalization of the economy in the late 19th century and how these factors helped create what we now call "The Third World".


Where did the massive and seemingly perpetual poverty of "Third World," or global south, come from? This is the core question of Davis's ambitious and disturbing book. His answer is both as old and as new as his question is perennial. For Davis the Third World came into existence quite specifically between the years 1877 and 1902, the high points of the two greatest famine-droughts of the 19th century, and possibly of the previous 500 years. But nature was not unassisted in these developments. Their baleful impact was immeasurably amplified through their coincidence with the integration of the largest and most affected societies in question - China and India - into the newly-global capitalist economy, and their submission to colonial and semi-colonial regimes. On one hand, this is an old argument, first formulated by Indian nationalists intent, as Davis puts it, on turning the statistics of the British against them. They first made the case for colonial underdevelopment in the late 19th century - in the aftermath, it is no coincidence, of the epochal famines that Davis revisits. It was the very implementation of British rule and its program of classic Smithean-Benthamite economic reform, they argued, that served to transform what had been one of the richest civilizations on Earth in the 17th century into one of the poorest by the 1920s. Britain, in a crude simplification of the argument, skimmed the surplus from the Raj, whisking it away for two centuries in order to to balance the Empire's books and to fund its border wars. The result was a per capita GNP in the Raj that by the 1920s had not changed since 1757. On the other hand, it is an eternally new argument. The history of capitalism has until quite recently concentrated on what went right with Europe and, to quote the title of a related book by Bernard Lewis, "what went wrong" with everyone else. The tradition stretches back to Marx and the post-Enlightenment critiques of "Oriental despotism", and was given its 20th century social scientific chops by Max Weber. More recent thinking, along the spectrum of which I would situate Davis's book, sees the decline of Qing China and post-Mughal India as to a great extent a product of their encounter with Western conquerors and institutions, rather than any preordained internal decay. All the elements of progress that Locke had theorized and Marx had described in the experience of pre-Modern England turned out to be deeply destabilizing when exported elsewhere: the privatization and enclosure of communal lands, the switch to export cash crops, the breakdown of the village commune, the burden of state taxation in the absence of paternalist reciprocities. When combined with intensely racist structures of economic exploitation that knew no equivalent in the Europe of the time, the picture emerges of civilizations that were strategically maimed. The force of the argument rests with Davis's gruesome and often heartbreaking portrayal of the climate disasters that exacerbated these political developments. The demographic destruction, greatest in China and India, but felt as far away as Morocco and Brazil, and as great in its death toll as any of the Holocausts of the 20th century, was a blow to economic resources from which these nations were not to recover until well into the last century. Davis points out that it was from the epicenter of the 19th century Chinese famines, in the northern plains of Shanxi province, that Mao's army marched out to communist victory in 1949; it was not until 1953 that the population of the province reached the pre-famine level of 1870.Davis is most ambitious in his attempt to reconstruct the climate history of the period. In doing so he takes a step closer to a type of interdisciplinary history that allows nature an active role in the story. El Niño is the culprit, and we learn much about it. Perhaps most interesting, and eerily harmonious with the thesis of the book, is that the same forces of global integration that were destabilizing the societies falling under European influence were allowing, for the first time, a truly worldwide climatology. It was the infrastructure of empire that provided the data with which early climatologists first noticed the simultaneity of the weather events of the 1870s and after.Already Davis has accomplished much. By seeking to describe a set of complex feedback loops that involve peasant societies, colonial states, and extraordinarily complex global weather patterns such as El Niño he is taking a step towards a new kind of socio-ecological history that is badly needed in the age of climate change. Where I find fault with his book is that he does not push ahead to make this connection, and to refer to the contemporary irony that, if climate helped make nations vulnerable to the depredations of colonialism in the 19th century, today it is climate change that threatens to affect the poorest nations most severely.


Empire laid bare [Through my ratings, reviews and edits I'm providing intellectual property and labor to Inc., listed on Nasdaq, which fully owns and in 2013 posted revenues for $74 billion and $274 million profits. Intellectual property and labor require compensation. Inc. is also requested to provide assurance that its employees and contractors' work conditions meet the highest health and safety standards at all the company's sites].Mike Davis attacks the reader with a firestorm of brutal epiphanies, and even if you're not so smart, or have a degree in economics, you get to grasp the idea. But after discharging his bombs, as in an air strike, the Red Baron veers off, leaving you on the ground, lost amidst smoke and debris. There's no conclusion to the sequence of blows, no further readings, no wrapping up.The book trains the reader in the unpleasant discipline of Empire Pattern Recognition (EPR), and implicitly, after 400 pages spent analysing the most extreme examples of nation states exploiting other nations and their peoples, the reader is expected to continue by themselves, moving from India, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Brazil between the 1870s and 1900s, to any place in the present day. Do not think - not even for a second - that the holocausts are over. Millions died of hunger because of market ideology in bad faith under Queen Victoria, millions continue to die from market ideology in bad faith today. What resistence is possible? The book's main lesson is that empire first and foremost reengineers societies to make them more vulnerable to volatility (of climate, purchasing power, health conditions). Any attempt at dismantling those institutions that for a given society represent solidarity, i.e. security of livelihood for all, has to be counteracted.The perfect companion to Polanyi's The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.

Cheryl Klein

Davis is a classic muckraker who does an admirable job of combining social and ecological history while debunking many Western myths about how poor countries got so poor. He’s also an academic who includes more obtuse shout-outs to other historians and economists than I care to read. I have to admit that I skipped 13 pages of the middle section on El Niño patterns and at times wished I was reading a New Yorker-article version of this book. Still, Late Victorian Holocausts is a great counterpoint to pretty much everything you thought you knew about world history.

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.


This was a thorough and illuminating book, illustrating what many of us already know: that famines do not "just" happen. They are not caused by natural disasters alone. There is much here about El Nino itself, the weather system that changes weather patterns across much of the world but can cause devastating anomalies in monsoon-dependent areas, as in India. But the crucial focus is on the human causes of the famines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in India, China, and Brazil: the involuntary shackling of erstwhile subsistence economies to the world market, the British disregard for "native" life, and the insistence that "free" markets, complete with opportunities to make money through speculation, must prevail over life-saving relief for the poor. Davis argues that the natural and deliberate underdevelopment of British colonies of the time are largely responsible for the continued underdevelopment of what we call the "third world" today. This is a depressing book, with its unflinching treatment of unnecessary human misery, but one that has tremendous relevance today. Greed and callous economic "liberalism" still carry the day at a time when climate change and persistent and growing inequality of wealth and living standards are less and less able to ignore.


"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.

Share your thoughts

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