Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World
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Indeed the Grants’ idyll was soon broken by the increasingly grim conditions along the river banks. “Our journey,” reported Young, “was through a country that in a better time must have been a garden; but the Nile not having risen this year all is parched and barren.” Although so far the Grants had only basked in the warmth of peasant hospitality, there had been widespread rioting in the area south of Siout (capital of Upper Egypt) and some of the fellahin had reportedly armed themselves and headed into the sand hills. At the insistence of the governor, the Americans were assigned an armed ...more
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Daniel Moore
not flogged. They only regard these monuments [meanwhile] as reservoirs from which they can supply their own museums and for that purpose they have plundered Egypt, just as Lord Elgin plundered Greece.” Young noted the crushing burden that the country’s enormous foreign debt, now policed by the British, placed upon its poorest and now famished people. The ex-President, for his part, was annoyed by the insouciant attitude of the local bureaucrats confronted with a disaster of such magnitude.
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A year later in Bombay, Young found more evidence for his thesis that “English influence in the East is only another name for English tyranny.” While the Grants were marveling over the seeming infinity of servants at the disposal of the sahibs, Young was weighing the costs of empire borne by the Indians. “There is no despotism,” he concluded, “more absolute than the government of India. Mighty, irresponsible, cruel …” Conscious that more than 5 million Indians by official count had died of famine in the preceding three years, Young emphasized that the “money which England takes out of India ...more
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En route from Tianjin to Beijing, the Americans were wearied by the “fierce, unrelenting heat” compounded by depressing scenery of hunger and desolation.11 Three years of drought and famine in northern China—officially the “most terrible disaster in twenty-one dynasties of Chinese history”—had recently killed somewhere between 8 million and 20 million people.
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What is germane is a coincidence in his travels that Grant himself never acknowledged, but which almost certainly must have puzzled readers of Young’s narrative: the 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.
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The total toll of conventional warfare from Austerlitz to Antietam and Sedan, according to calculations by one British journalist, was probably less than the mortality in southern India alone.15 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 ...more
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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. (Table P1 displays an array of estimates for famine mortality for 1876–79 and 1896–1902 in India, China and Brazil only.) 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, ...more
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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 ...more
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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 ...more
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Parts I and II of this book, accordingly, take up the challenge of traditional narrative history. Synchronous and devastating drought provided an environmental stage for complex social conflicts that ranged from the intra-village level to Whitehall and the Congress of Berlin. Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion—often the worst in centuries—there were almost always grain surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims. Absolute scarcity, except perhaps in Ethiopia in 1889, was never the issue. Standing between life ...more
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Daniel Moore
implacable cogwheels of modern history. In the first instance, there was the fatal meshing of extreme events between the world climate system and the late Victorian world economy. This was one of the major novelties of the age. Until the 1870s and the creation of a rudimentary international weather reporting network there was little scientific apprehension that drought on a planetary scale was even possible; likewise, until the same decade, rural Asia was not yet sufficiently integrated into the global economy to send or receive economic shock waves from the other side of the world.
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Most of the Indian, Brazilian and Moroccan cultivators, for example, who starved in 1877 and 1878 had already been immiserated and made vulnerable to hunger by the world economic crisis (the nineteenth century’s “Great Depression”) that began in 1873. The soaring trade deficits of Qing China—artificially engineered in the first place by British narcotraficantes—likewise accelerated the decline of the “ever-normal” granaries that were the empire’s first-line defense against drought and flood. Conversely, drought in Brazil’s Nordeste in 1889 and 1891 prostrated the population of the backlands in ...more
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The New Imperialism was the third gear of this catastrophic history. As Jill Dias has so brilliantly shown in the case of the Portuguese in nineteenth-century Angola, colonial expansion uncannily syncopated the rhythms of natural disaster and epidemic disease.26 Each global drought was the green light for an imperialist landrush. If the southern African drought of 1877, for example, was Carnarvon’s opportunity to strike against Zulu independence, then the Ethiopian famine of 1889–91 was Crispi’s mandate to build a new Roman Empire in the Horn of Africa. Likewise Wilhelmine Germany exploited ...more
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The key theoretical breakthrough did not come until the late 1960s, when Jacob Bjerknes at UCLA showed for the first time how the equatorial Pacific Ocean, acting as a planetary heat engine coupled to the trade winds, was able to affect rainfall patterns throughout the tropics and even in the temperate latitudes. Rapid warmings of the eastern tropical Pacific (called El Niño events), for example, are associated with weak monsoons and synchronous drought throughout vast parts of Asia, Africa and northeastern South America. When the eastern Pacific is unusually cool, on the other hand, the ...more