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Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World is a book by Mike Davis about the connection between political economy and global climate patterns, particularly El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). By comparing ENSO episodes in different time periods and across countries, Davis explores the impact of colonialism and the introduction of capitalism, and the relation with famine in particular. Davis argues that "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 ... by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill."[1] The book won the World History Association Book Prize in 2002.[2]

Late Victorian Holocausts:
El Niño Famines and
the Making of the Third World
Late Victorian Holocausts.jpg
AuthorMike Davis
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectEcology, Economic History
Publication date
December 2000
Media typeHardback & Paperback
Pages464 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN1-85984-739-0 (Hardback), ISBN 1-85984-382-4 (Paperback)
363.8/09172/4 21
LC ClassHC79.F3 .D38 2001

Davis characterizes the Indian famines under the British Raj as "colonial genocide". Some scholars, including Niall Ferguson, have disputed this judgment, while others, including Adam Jones, have affirmed it.[3][4]



This book explores the impact of colonialism and the introduction of capitalism during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation related famines of 1876–1878, 1896–1897, and 1899–1902, in India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and New Caledonia. It focuses on how colonialism and capitalism in British India and elsewhere increased rural poverty and hunger while economic policies exacerbated famine. The book's main conclusion is that the deaths of 30–60 million people killed in famines all over the world during the later part of the 19th century were caused by laissez-faire and Malthusian economic ideology of the colonial governments. In addition to a preface and a short section on definitions, the book is broken into four parts: The Great Drought, 1876–1878; El Niño and the New Imperialism, 1888–1902; Decyphering ENSO; and The Political Ecology of Famine.

"Davis explicitly places his historical reconstruction of these catastrophes in the tradition inaugurated by Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital, where she sought to expose the dependence of the economic mechanisms of capitalist expansion on the infliction of ‘permanent violence’ on the South".[5] Davis argues, for example, that "Between 1875–1900—a period that included the worst famines in Indian history—annual grain exports increased from 3 to 10 million tons", equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25m people. "Indeed, by the turn of the century, India was supplying nearly a fifth of Britain’s wheat consumption at the cost of its own food security."[6] In addition, "Already saddled with a huge public debt that included reimbursing the stockholders of the East India Company and paying the costs of the 1857 revolt, India also had to finance British military supremacy in Asia. In addition to incessant proxy warfare with Russia on the Afghan frontier, the subcontinent’s masses also subsidized such far-flung adventures of the Indian Army as the occupation of Egypt, the invasion of Ethiopia, and the conquest of the Sudan. As a result, military expenditures never comprised less than 25 percent (34 percent including police) of India’s annual budget..."[7] As an example of the effects of both this and of the restructuring of the local economy to suit imperial needs (in Victorian Berar, the acreage of cotton doubled 1875–1900),[8] Davis notes that "During the famine of 1899–1900, when 143,000 Beraris died directly from starvation, the province exported not only thousands of bales of cotton but an incredible 747,000 bushels of grain."[9]


Part 1 : The Great Drought, 1876–1878Edit

Part 1 is further subdivided into three chapters – 1) Victoria's ghosts 2) The Poor Eat Their Homes 3) Gunboats and Messiahs. In this section Davis writes about the drought that occurred in the various parts of the British Empire in the 1870s and the reactions of the colonial government. Britain's free market economic decisions are described as "a mask for colonial genocide".[10]

Chapter 1: Victoria's GhostEdit
Victims of the Madras famine of 1877

The chapter opens introducing a quotation from Florence Nightingale in 1877 stating that, " The more one hears about this famine, the more one feels that such a hideous record of human suffering and destruction the world has never seen before." This section discusses the repercussion that the provinces of Southern India as ell as North Western Provinces such as Madras, Deccan, and Bombay Presidency had to face due to failure of monsoon rain. In 1876, the Madras Observatory found that the annual precipitation for the year as only 6.3 inches compared to the annual average of 27.6 inches that was recorded during the previous decade.[11] Consequently, multitude of laborers and peasants had to flee the dying countryside after trying to survive on roots while awaiting the winter rains.[12] As surplus grains produced were exported to feed England, the prices of the remaining rations were escalating at an exponential rate.[13] This eventually lead to popular outburst against the unnatural price hike in the cities of Deccan district, neighboring Bombay Presidency, especially in Ahmednagar and Sholapur.[14] Furthermore, situations were accentuated through the persistent British antipathy to control the price hike as merchants across the country shipped their inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protecting it from the rioter).[15] Interestingly, the nineteenth century pointed out that the dearth was caused by not the lack of food but the lack of money and labor.[16] This was due to lack of adequate discounting for the fiscal impact of such modernization as the railroad revolution and trade liberalization through the tax of general people.[17] Moreover, such situations were accentuated through the depreciation of the Indian rupee due to the new International Gold Standard which steeply raised the cost of imports. and purchasing power of the local people.[17]

India's NeroEdit
Famine of Deccan, 1877

This chapter focuses on the central government, under the leadership of Lord Lytton vehemently opposed stockpiling the grain or otherwise interfering with market forces only to keep the surplus in India to support their own extravagant lifestyle.[18] Throughout the Autumn of 1876, while the kharif crops were withering in the field due to lack of winter rains, Lord Lytton was absorbed in organizing the immense grandeur for the Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Queen Victoria as Kaiser-i-Hind.[19][11] An English Journalist later estimated that 100,000 of Queen Victoria's subjects had to be starved to death in Madras and Mysore in the course of Lytton's spectacular Durbar.[20] For such, future generations of India would remember Lytton as the Nero of India.[20] In addition, military budgeting was strictly frugal due to the depreciation of the Indian rupee.[20] Adam Smith, a century earlier in his book The wealth of Nations had asserted that, " Famine had never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconvenience of dearth[21] Even the grain merchants preferred to export a record of 6.4 million cwt. of wheat to Europe in 1877-78 instead of relieving starvation in India.[22] Lytton justified his actions, to be somewhat fair, by weighing what still had value-budget against lives that were doomed or devalued of any civilized human quality.

The 'Temple Wage'Edit

The Temple Wage, put forward by Richard Temple, was duly introduced for people who would earn under a certain criteria of both physical and economic deprivation, consisting of rigorous physical labour. Famished people would require a license to travel outside of their community to work in the work camps as labour on railroad and canal projects that wouldn't even feed them a day's meal; furthermore, they were also prohibited to seek refuge unless and until they were categorized as " indigent, destitute and capable of only modicum of labour"[23] Work camps turned into extermination camps with the strenuous manual labour cherry topped with unhealthy sanitation. By the end of 1877, relief officers were shook to the ground with the number of inmates in the work camps that were dead by the beginning of the terrible summer. Dr. Cornish, Temple's most dogged critic, reported that the monthly mortality rate was equivalent to an annual death rate of 94%. Moreover, post-mortem reports showed the chief cause of death to be-"extreme wasting of tissue and destruction of the lining membrane of the lower bowel". Full grown men were starved to a point that their weight reduced below sixty pounds.[24] Ironically, the only exception to this mortality pattern were Jails, where people were better fed than the disease-ridden work camps. People would have been better off getting themselves arrested and go to jail for non-fulfillment of a contract.

In the chief famine districts, some little rain that fell during April–May 1877 was unable to prevent ryots in districts after districts to sell their "bullocks, field implements, the thatch of the roofs, the frames of their doors and windows" to survive the dreadful first year of the drought. As a result, people died in myriads in late August and September that year and more suffered from acute malnutrition characterized by hunger edema and anemia which modern science now refer to as "skeletonization"[25] The only part of the population that was properly fed was the pariah dogs, "fat as sheep", that feasted on the bodies of dead children.[26] Most of the officials, however, denied to share such horrors with the English or educated Indians public; whereas, the vernacular press charged that the deaths and starvation were being deliberately misreported to hide the gravity of the famine[27] About three-fifth of the peasantry was "hopelessly indebted" and paid off their loans through ornaments or cattle. Jairus Banaji commented," A household without cattle was a household on the verge of extinction". Poona with Ahmednagar was the center of the famous Deccan Riots in May–June 1875 that beat up moneylenders and destroyed debt records.[28][29] In response to such situations, Lord Lytton sent Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant government of Bengal, as the plenipotentiary delegate for famine to tame down the "out of control" prices that would pose a potential threat to the financing of the planned invasion of Afghanistan in 1876.[30] The Times deluded by his docile personna stated that " Sir Richard Temple, whether rightly or wrongly, has the reputation of having a mind so plastic and principles so facile that he can in a moment change front and adopt mostly to contradictory lines of policies."[31]

The Relief StrikeEdit
The relief strike

The relief strike or otherwise known as the "passive resistance" was embraced in 1877 when families on village relief refused orders to transfer to the works camps where the men were separated from their wives and children. Thousands more, who left the camps in protest of starvation wage and mistreatment by the overseers of the camps, joined the resistance afterwards .This section of the chapter introduced the harsh policies that reduced "the wages of general working people which reduced the wages drove away the smaller children from the works, who till then , had been receiving their small compensation return for their nominal labour".[32]

Part 2 : El Niño and the New Imperialism, 1888 to 1902Edit

Part 2 is further subdivided into three chapters – 1) The Government of Hell 2) Skeletons at the Feast 3) Millenarian Revolutions. This section deals with the impact of the colonial famine policy and its effects on the colonial subjects.

Part 3 : Decyphering ENSOEdit

Part 3 contains two chapters – 1) The Mystery of the Monsoons and 2) Climates of Hunger. It describes the effect of the ENSO on the lives and livelihood of the people around the world.

Chapter 1: Mystery of the MonsoonsEdit

This section of the book gives insight about the causes of the worldwide droughts of the 1870s and the 1890s. There were strong implications that although the natural cause for the drought was for ENSO but the East India Company had heightened the condition as a direct result of their occupation of the land and their actions.

An Imperial ScienceEdit

As a result of the devastating Indian famines, a young physician named William Roxburgh investigated and got to the conclusion that because of deforestation and rejecting many people a permanent title to their land only intensified the droughts.[33] Subsequently, the 1880s Famine Commission report by Henry Blanford distinctly mentions that due to the excessive pressure over the Indo-Malayan and Eastern Australian region was at fault for the disruptive droughts.[34] However, the dogma around the fact that climate was the main cause of the droughts were very pertinent according to the words of William Hunter and Norman Lockyer.[35]

Sunspots versus SocialistsEdit

Many upcoming scientists by the turn of 1870 were recommending that sunspots had ties with the frequency of cyclones and that of the monsoon season.[36] Afterwards by the year 1878 William Hunter showed a study called "The Cycle of Drought and Famine in Southern India" which indicated in turn that there was a relationship between sunspots and rainfall in Madras.[37] Although they were met with some opposition but in the end everyone in the scientific community were in agreement.[38] On the other hand, SIr Stanley Jevons a contrary Marxist , wrote a paper describing how solar variance can ascertain the price of grain.[39]

Part 4 : The Political Ecology of FamineEdit

The final part of the book has four chapters: 1) The Origins of the Third World; 2) India: The Modernization of Poverty; 3) China: Mandates Revoked; 4) Brazil: Race and Capital in the Nordeste.

Publication historyEdit

This book was first published in Illustrated Hardcover edition in December 2000. It was later issued in paper back format in May 2002.[40] An extract was published in Antipode in 2000.[41]


This book won the World History Association Book Prize in 2002.[2] It was also featured in the LA Times Best Books of 2001 List.[42]

In his review of the book, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, while generally approving the historical presentation of the facts, took slight issue with the black-and-white conclusions drawn by Davis. In response to Davis' approval of Karl Polanyi's hypothesis that "Indian masses in the second half of the 19th century . . . perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished", Sen retorts that "this is an enormous exaggeration. In exploding one myth, we have to be careful not to fall for another"; however, "it is an illustrative book of the disastrous consequences of fierce economic inequality combined with a drastic imbalance of political voice and power. The late-Victorian tragedies exemplify a wider problem of human insecurity and vulnerability ultimately related to economic disparity and political disempowerment. The relevance of this highly informative book goes well beyond its immediate historical focus."[43]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-85984-739-8.
  2. ^ a b The World History Association Book Prize Past Winners Archived 11 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Jones, Adam (16 December 2016). "Chapter 2: State and Empire". Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 9781317533856.
  4. ^ Powell, Christopher (15 June 2011). Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. pp. 238–245. ISBN 9780773585560.
  5. ^ Callinicos, Alex (2002). "The Actuality of Imperialism". Millennium – Journal of International Studies. 31 (2): 319–326 See p. 321. doi:10.1177/03058298020310020601., :
  6. ^ Davis 2000, p. 59
  7. ^ Davis 2000, pp. 60–61
  8. ^ Davis 2000, p. 65
  9. ^ Davis 2000, p. 66
  10. ^ ""Chapter One" Late Victorian Holocausts". Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  11. ^ a b McFreely, William (1981). Grant: A biography. New York. pp. 453, 457–60, and 471.
  12. ^ Ibid., pp.458-71
  13. ^ Young, John Russell. Around the World with General Grant. New York 1878-79. pp. 242 & 246.
  14. ^ Ibid., pp.266-7 and 274
  15. ^ Ibid., pp. 278 and 284-5
  16. ^ Ibid., p. 622
  17. ^ a b Davis, Mike. (2001) p.27
  18. ^ Young., pp. 624
  19. ^ Lytton quoted in McFreely, p.473
  20. ^ a b c Headley, J.T. The Travels of General Grant. Philadelphia 1881. p. 444.
  21. ^ Smith, Adam (1930). An inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations (5th ed.). London. pp. 27–8.
  22. ^ Derived from Bhatia, Table 5, p.38
  23. ^ Cf.Rao, p.118, and Curie, p.47.
  24. ^ Digby, vol.2, pp.203-4
  25. ^ Singh, K. Suresh. The Indian Famine. New Delhi 1975. p. 242.
  26. ^ Digby, William. The Famine Campaign in Southern India. vol.1 unless otherwise noted. London 1878. p. 505.
  27. ^ Digby, p.105
  28. ^ The Nineteenth Century. Famine and Debt in India. September 1877. p. 184.
  29. ^ Banaji, Jairus (1992). "Capitalistic Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century". In Prakash, Gyan (ed.). The World of the Rural Labourer in Colonial India. Delhi. p. 124.
  30. ^ Digby, pp.46-7 and 265
  31. ^ The Times, 5 Feb. 1877.
  32. ^ Quoted in Digby, pp.341-2. Lytton's granite face toward India's starving children in these months- like Temple's repudiation of his own "excessive charity" in 1874- perhaps his father's (Bulwar Lytton's) cruel attack on his "unmanly repining' after the death of his little son in 1871 (Harlan, p.2015)
  33. ^ Richard Grove, "The East India Company, the Raj and the El Nino: The Critical Role Played by Colonial Scientists in Establishing the Mechanisms of Global Climate Teleconnections, 1770-1930," in Richard Grove, Vinita Damodaran, and Satpal Sangwan, Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia, Delhi 1998, pp.301-23.
  34. ^ The first use of the term teleconnection was apparently A.Angstroem, "Teleconnections of Climate Changes in Present Time," Geogr.Ann.17(1935), pp.242-58.
  35. ^ J. Norman Lockyer and W. Hunter, "Sun-Spots and Famines," The Nineteenth Century, Nov.1877,p.601
  36. ^ Douglas Hoyt and Kenneth Schatten, The Role of the Sun in Climate Change, Oxford 1997,pp.36 and 144-5.
  37. ^ See the discussion by Lloyd's expert Henry Jeula in Cornelius Walford's The Famines of the World: Past and Present, London 1879 pp.94-96
  38. ^ E.Archibald, "W. W. Hunter: The Cycle of Drought and Famine in Southern India," Calcutta Review 131 (1878), p.129; and for an account of Strachey's paper "On the Alleged Correspondence of the Rainfall at Madras with the Sun-spot Period, and on the True Criterion of Periodicity in a Series of Variable Quantities," read before the Royal Society in May 1877, see letter of B. Stewart to W. S. Jevons, 5 June 1877, in Papers and Correspondence of William Stanley Jevons, vol.4, ed. R. Collison Black, London 1977 p.203.
  39. ^ Cornelius Walford, The Famines of the World: Past and Present, London 1879,pp.94-96
  40. ^ Verso Books Publication Page Archived 15 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ Davis, M. (2000). "The Origin of the Third World". Antipode. 32 (1): 48–89. doi:10.1111/1467-8330.00119.
  42. ^ Fagan, Brian (2 December 2001). "Late Victorian Holocausts". Nonfiction: The Best Books of 2001. Los Angeles Times.
  43. ^ Sen, Amartya (18 February 2001). "Apocalypse Then". Books. New York Times.

External linksEdit