Late Victorian Holocausts, by Mike Davis

The kind of book that comes along and blows away all your expectations about what a book can do for your understanding of a thing, whether an idea (Graber’s Debt), or a philosophy (Harman’s Prince of Networks) or a period of history, is few and far between. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts has just blown out of the water my mental picture of the 1800s, the level of evil (lets not hedge bets here) was propagated during the first century-or-so of global capitalism. Looking at the three global famines that occurred along with the El Nino events of 1876-79, 1891-92 and 1896-1902 in which just the first and last (aka the 1870s and the late 1890s) estimations of the number of deaths from famine in just Brazil, India and China ranges from 30-60million. Davis looks at the role of capitalism, imperialism and the newly implemented global grain markets (crucially, free markets), with his’ thesis distilled into the two following paragraphs:

“At issue is not simply that tens of millions of poor rural people died appallingly, but that they died in a manner, and for reasons, that contradict much of the conventional understanding of the economic history of the nineteenth century. For example, how do we explain the fact that in the very half-century when peacetime famine permanently disappeared from Western Europe, it increased so devastatingly throughout much of the colonial world? Equally how do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died alongside railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots? And how do we account in the case of China for the drastic decline in state capacity and popular welfare, especially famine relief, that seemed to follow in lockstep with the empire’s forced “opening” to modernity by Britain and the other Powers?

We not are dealing, in other words, with “lands of famine” becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy.19 Millions died, not outside the “modern world system,” but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” p.8-9