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

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,144 ratings  ·  109 reviews
Examining a series of El Niño-induced droughts and the famines that they spawned around the globe in the last third of the nineteenth 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 and to sow the seeds of underdevelopment in what later bec ...more
Paperback, 474 pages
Published June 17th 2002 by Verso (first published November 19th 2000)
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Apr 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: empire
Mike Davis focuses on the last quarter of the nineteenth century, looking at the extreme climatic conditions of the times which led to droughts, floods and famines. He looks at the El Nino events and there is a good deal of meteorology in the book. Davis focuses on India, China and Brazil in particular, but also partially on Southern Africa, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Sudan. The death tolls are immense 12 million in China and 6 million in India in 1876-8 alone. Davis provides a detailed analysis wh ...more
If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India's per capita income from 1757 to 1947.

This is a harrowing tome, one dense with statistics and cutting with testimonial. The first section details the effects of drought and famine on India, China and Brazil in the late 19C. Their are accounts from notables of the time. The second section examines the science of El Nino. The final section surveys the global economies of the
David M
Jun 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies toward starving "subjects" were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet. The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations not illustrations.

This book helps to put looming climate catastrophe in perspective. The apocalypse has already happened, many times over, and we're hardly even aware of the fact.

When you consider that a combination of European imperial policies and extreme
Aug 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: empire
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
The Brilliant:
What Liberals don’t tell you, i.e. History 101 of the modern world:

--Liberalism and Imperialism, 2 sides of the same coin... On one side, the winners bask in their spoils; on the other side, the losers wallow in desecration. This book is not meant to simply cross to the other side and pick through the bones; it is meant to rebuild historical context. Why? Liberal propaganda relies on illiteracy and mutilation of any remnants of history, where “Imperialism” is unnamed, ambiguous, an
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is devastating and beautiful. Davis explains world-wide mass famines as not just acts of God, but as political decisions made by colonialists who did not see the starving people as humans. This is an excellent companion to books like Orientalism and recently Hickel's The Divide and How to hide an empire--poverty in developing countries has a lot more to do with the actions of the developed world than their own actions.
Jun 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Though I agree with other reviewers that Davis is at his best when discussing India, the sections on Brazil, China, and numerous other places (to which he pays insufficient attention, truly) are generally informative. Perhaps it's fair to say that he establishes his argument on the basis of the British genocides in India, and then produces schematic outlines of varying depths for the imperial genocides in China, Brazil, Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and so on. That slight flaw not ...more
One of the most depressing books I've ever read--highly recommended.
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing

In the late 19th century, in the years 1876-79, 1889-91 and 1896-1902, severe drought and famines lashed across Asia, Africa, and South America. An estimated 12-29 million people died in India, 20-30 million in China, 2 million in Brazil and about one-third of the population in Ethiopia and Sudan. Apart from this, drought and famine were reported to have severely affected people in Java, Phillippines, New Caledonia, Korea, southern Africa and the Maghreb. In India, nearly half of all the deaths
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 w ...more
Nov 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
explains how the Victorian Empire created the Third World, using mass starvation as a tool
Jim Collins
Aug 05, 2009 rated it did not like it
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 h ...more
Randall Wallace
Dec 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Between 1889 to 1891, in Ethiopia and the Sudan, “perhaps one third of the population died” from famine. In the 1800’s, 12.2 to 29.3 million people in India perished during just two droughts due to starvation. All these famines were avoidable and there were grain surpluses nearby at the same time but as this book amply shows, for Britain, business spoke louder than basic moral qualms. Imagine Americans being taught that China’s Taiping Revolution of 1851-1864 was the bloodiest civil war in histo ...more
Jacob Russell
Sep 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Richard Reese
Mar 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 between 12.2 and 29.3 million died of famine in India. In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1900 between 19.5 and 30 million died of famine in China. In the same period, an estimated 2 million died in Brazil. Famine hit these three nations the hardest, but many other nations were also affected. In the US, churches organized to send relief to hungry farmers in the Dakotas and western Kansas.

Mike Davis wrote about these famines in his book Late Victorian Holocausts.
Jul 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 system
Cheryl Klein
Oct 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really great read. I’m a [redacted] dunce so it took me ages to finish, but that isn’t a reflection on the book. Very information dense but not in a dry way; however I needed to take lots of breaks for it to process. Davis has a great way of getting to the point with his ideas and was absolutely impeccable backing them up, but as I mentioned, it’s a lot to take in at once. Something I appreciated was how in-depth he went with explain the science behind the atmospheric changes— as a layperson, he ...more
Sep 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Required reading for anyone who wants to understand the changes in global capitalism in the late 19th century that led to the new imperialist era. Don't just read Lenin and Luxemburg, read this too. You'll want to take breaks though, it's a pretty brutal read.
Jan 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most difficult, yet enlightening books I’ve ever read.
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, ...more
In case you've been wondering why the Indians wanted to boot out the British...A fascinating read, would have finished it but I was only a houseguest for the weekend, plus Davis's writing is a bit dense and academic.
Aug 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Excellent; horrifying. Absolutely lays bare the absurd myth of "colonial beneficence" that somehow still gets toted around. One of the best historical books I've read recently.
Apr 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A compelling take on the role of environmental and political factors during the late nineteenth century. I was stunned to find that Qing China and the Mughal Empire had a large welfare state that ensured famines before the Victorian era did not result in a high death toll at all. In fact average quality of life and life expectancy in those regions even in the late eighteenth century was much larger than that of Europe. Thus a utopian socialist state predated Marx. And despite the introduction of ...more
May 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really stellar! Not only is it a great work of political economy describing the historical development of the material conditions in the modern third world, I think it's the best work of Marxist science studies I've seen. It does a great job outlining the ways in which scientific knowledge and engineering expertise can be important for the maintenance of material existence as well as the ways in which the implementation of the expertise and production of the knowledge are constrained by the soci ...more
Jeffrey Cavanaugh
Oct 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An indictment of liberal colonialism as practiced by Britain and other European powers during the 19th century. When the right argues that all communism did was produce famine and oppression, the left should turn to this book to demonstrate that capitalism, too, can produce famine and misery rivaling anything Stalin or Mao did.
Aug 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
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. T ...more
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
A disturbing and painful portrayal of the 'high-noon' of Victorian imperialism.
Alison Swearingen
Mar 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Read this book for a class on the history of climate change, and to be fair there were 2 chapters I didn't read because they weren't assigned. Overall I think Davis did a good job of arguing for consideration of both climate and politics in famine in what we consider the Third World today. There were both interesting parts and slow parts, and I think a lot of the most interesting stuff was when he wrote about colonialism in India. Lots to think about in this book.
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Mike Davis is a social commentator, urban theorist, historian, and political activist. He is best known for his investigations of power and social class in his native Southern California. He is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in San Diego.

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“If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed into a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947.” 0 likes
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