the horrifying global famines of the british empire -- 3/05/19

Today's selection -- from Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis. In a global calamity still largely unnoticed by historians, in the late 1800s, 30 to 50 million people died of famine in Egypt, India, and China, due in part to British imperial practices:

In a global calamity still largely unnoticed by historians, in the late 1800s, 30 to 50 million people died of famine in Egypt, India, and China, due in part to British imperial practices:

"[When President Grant toured the globe in the late 1870s after his presidency, his party had] successive encounters with epic drought and famine in Egypt, India and China. It was almost as if the Americans were inadvertently following in the footprints of a monster whose colossal trail of destruction extended from the Nile to the Yellow Sea.

"As contemporary readers of Nature and other scientific journals were aware, it was a disaster of truly planetary magnitude, with drought and famine reported as well in Java, the Philippines, New Caledonia, Korea, Brazil, southern Africa and the Maghreb. No one had hitherto suspected that synchronous extreme weather was possible on the scale of the entire tropical monsoon belt plus northern China and North Africa. Nor was there any historical record of famine afflicting so many far-flung lands simultaneously. Although only the roughest estimates of mortality could be made, it was horrifyingly clear that the million Irish dead of 1845-47 had been multiplied by tens. The total toll of conventional warfare from Austerlitz to Antietam and Sudan, according to calculations by one British journalist, was probably less than the mortality in southern India alone. Only China's Taiping Revolution (1851-64), the bloodiest civil war in world history with an estimated 20 million to 30 million dead, could boast as many victims.

"But the great drought of 1876-79 was only the first of three global sub­sistence crises in the second half of Victoria's reign. In 1889-91 dry years again brought famine to India, Korea, Brazil and Russia, although the worst suffering was in Ethiopia and the Sudan, where perhaps one-third of the population died. Then in 1896-1902, the monsoons again repeat­edly failed across the tropics and in northern China. Hugely destructive epidemics of malaria, bubonic plague, dysentery, smallpox and cholera culled millions of victims from the: ranks of the famine-weakened. The European empires, together with Japan and the United States, rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tap novel sources of plantation and mine labor. What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century's final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre.

"The total human toll of these three waves of drought, famine and dis­ease could not have been less than 30 million victims. Fifty million dead might not be unrealistic. Although the famished nations themselves were the chief mourners, there were also contemporary Europeans who understood the moral magnitude of such carnage and how fundamentally it annulled the apologies of empire. Thus the Radical journalist William Digby, principal chronicler of the 1876 Madras famine, prophesized on the eve of Queen Victoria's death that when 'the part played by the British Empire in the nineteenth cen­tury is regarded by the historian fifty years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monu­ment.' A most eminent Victorian, the famed naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the codiscoverer with Darwin of the theory of natural selection, passionately agreed. Like Digby, he viewed mass starvation as avoidable political tragedy, not 'natural' disaster. In a famous balance-sheet of the Victorian era, published in 1898, he characterized the famines in India and China, together with the slum poverty of the industrial cities, as 'the most terrible failures of the century.'

The Great Famine of the 1870s had devastating effects in India.

"But while the Dickensian slum remains in the world history curric­ulum, the famine children of 1876 and 1899 have disappeared. Almost without exception, modern historians writing about nineteenth-century world history from a metropolitan vantage-point have ignored the late Victorian mega-droughts and famines that engulfed what we now call the 'third world.' Eric Hobsbawm, for example, makes no allusion in his famous trilogy on nineteenth-century history to the worst famines in perhaps 500 years in India and China, although he does mention the Great Hunger in Ireland as well as the Russian famine of 1891-92. Like­wise, the sole reference to famine in David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations -- magnum opus meant to solve the mystery of inequality between nations -- is the erroneous claim that British railroads eased hun­ger in India. Numerous other examples could be cited of contemporary historians' curious neglect of such portentous events. It is like writing the history of the late twentieth century without mentioning the Great Leap Forward famine: or Cambodia's killing fields. The great famines are the missing pages -- the absent defining moments, if you prefer -- in virtually every overview of the Victorian era. Yet there: are compelling, even urgent, reasons for revisiting this secret history.

"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 produces were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy. 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. Yet the only twentieth-cen­tury economic historian who seems to have clearly understood that the great Victorian famines (at least, in the Indian case) were integral chapters in the history of capitalist modernity was Karl Polanyi in his 1944 book The Great Transformation. 'The actual source of famines in the last fifty years,' he wrote, 'was the free marketing of grain combined with local failure of incomes.'



Mike Davis


Late Victorian Holocausts


Verso Books


Copyright Mike Davis 2001, 2002, 2017


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