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

ISBN: 1859847390
ISBN 13: 9781859847398
By: Mike Davis

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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

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.


This book is essential reading for understanding the true nature of colonial regimes that pushed the development model that holds sway on most of the planet (i.e. steal everything that's not nailed down and blame the locals for all the problems which ensue).Davis's range of references is staggering, as is his command of too many disciplines. This book is packed with incredible historical information (and more data than you can shake a large tree at) and well worth reading.It's an important book resource for understanding the current global food crisis, put it on the shelf next to Raj Pahtel's Stuffed and Starved.


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.


"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.


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.

Erica Gibb

Davis does a really great job of challenging the ideas of benevolent British empiricism as he looks at the ways colonial policy inflamed casualty numbers of natural disasters and ultimately led to the creation of what we now call the "third world."Davis' argument is strongest when he is discussing British India, this is where his research really shines through. His conclusions on China and Brazil, in my opinion, are a bit lacking, and the book's overall absence of a conclusion leaves the reader wanting. For the most, part the first half of the book is organized well. The first two sections are great and really make his point. The third section is all about the science of El Nino(ENSO) and seem, to me, to be a bit out of place. The final section is where he claims he is going to argue his point about how new imperialism made the third world, although his arguments in the first two sections do a better job than in the last section, especially for China and Brazil. Organization aside, Davis clearly has done his research and the book stands as a horrific testament to the realities of British Imperialism.


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.

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.

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.


I can't really say I "liked" this book, since it is terrifying and depressing. This book gives pretty graphic historical description of famines from the end of the 19th century. Davis argues pretty well, in my opinion, that famines are not caused by natural disasters but are economic and political problems that can be prevented. The book is a taxing read emotionally, but is a serious eye opener in how the "third world" got the way it is.

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.


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.

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.


The British get away with a little less, when Mike Davis is in town!

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