From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Dec 31 2004 - 13:16:11 EST
Building on accounts from the first part of the book, Davis addresses this question by pointing to Silent Violence by Michael Watts and planting himself firmly in the political ecology camp. "I argue that ecological poverty-defined as the depletion or loss of entitlement to the natural resource base of traditional agriculture-constituted a casual triangle with increasing household poverty and state decapitation in explaining both the emergence of a 'third-world' and its vulnerability to extreme climate events." http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jwh/14.4/br_11.html From the Journal of World History Vol. 14, Issue 4. Viewed December 31, 2004 12:15 EST Presented online in association with the History Cooperative. http://www.historycooperative.org ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Book Review ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. By MIKE DAVIS. London: Verso Books, 2001. x + 464 pp. $27.00 (cloth); $20.00 (paper). While writing Ecology of Fear about natural and political disasters in Los Angeles, maverick historian Mike Davis stumbled across a reference to famines in Asia that were related to El Niño (ENSO) weather patterns. Researching further in both scientific and humanities literature, Davis began to unravel a relationship between the El Niño phenomenon, climate change, capitalism, imperialism, and global famines during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Following the footprints of concomitant famines in India and China, Davis began searching for other food shortages during this time. The results were staggering. As the body count of famine victims mounted into the tens of millions in India, China, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Korea, New Caledonia, and so on, Davis knew that he was on to one of the "darkest secrets of the Victorian Age." Between thirty and fifty million people perished and a new, disturbing division of wealth was created: the so-called "developed" and "undeveloped" or "third" worlds. 1 Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World paints a haunting and sweeping portrait of these human-made famines and the making of these global class divisions. The book begins with a colorful narrative about Ulysses S. Grant's bobbling and glutinous sojourn around the world in 1877. Citing reports of the New York Herald's journalist John Russell Young, Davis notes that from the Nile to Bombay to Beijing, everywhere the Grants "supped" they stumbled upon famines. 2 From there Davis launches into the first two quarters of the book and spotlights famines in India, China, and Brazil. In each case, he illustrates how laissez-faire capitalists, colonial officers, and corrupt local administrators often took advantage of El Niño-induced droughts and floods by using maxim guns, railroads, the telegraph, and policies of the New Imperialism to wrench what they could from the producing populations of the Deccan, Yellow River Basin, and Sertao, most notably. Armed with an eye for paradox and a penchant for hard-hitting accounts, Davis delivers a gruesome and compelling rendering of three separate but interrelated global famines in 1877-1878, 1888-1891, and 1896-1902. Skeletanization sets in on human bodies, but dogs and wolves fatten up on the corpses; women and children are sold and served in markets for their flesh; cannibalism and suicide are commonplace. Among the most egregious atrocities committed during these famines were the actions of Lord Lytton, one of Queen Victoria's favorite poets and later viceroy of India. From Calcutta, Lytton went out of his way to ensure that famine relief programs were effectively curbed and sabotaged, for example, because they interfered with the "economic laws" of Adam Smith. Lytton graces the front cover of the book with Indian servants at his side. Beneath Lytton, emaciated famine victims from India pose for an awkward photo shoot. Why the grim juxtaposition? Davis writes that the "photographs used in this book are accusations [of capitalist market induced holocausts] and not illustrations." Local populations were not mere victims, however. He takes painstaking care to show how populations resisted these "London-centered" market policies, from local food and medical relief efforts to small riots to "millenarian revolutions," such as the 1897 War of Canudos in Brazil where "tens of thousands of humble followers of Antonio Conselheiro" were massacred. 3 Following the "standard" historical narrative, Davis then progresses into the third section: an elaborate discussion of the scientific understanding of ENSO, monsoons, meteorology, and climate change. Charting the intellectual history of how scientists came to understand this weather pattern with sections such as "Sunspots versus Socialists," Davis argues that nature should not be "blamed" for these disasters; to do so would echo "the official line of the British in Victorian India as recapitulated in every famine commission report and vice-regal allocution: millions were killed by extreme weather, not imperialism. Was this true?" 4 Building on accounts from the first part of the book, Davis addresses this question by pointing to Silent Violence by Michael Watts and planting himself firmly in the political ecology camp. "I argue that ecological poverty-defined as the depletion or loss of entitlement to the natural resource base of traditional agriculture-constituted a casual triangle with increasing household poverty and state decapitation in explaining both the emergence of a 'third-world' and its vulnerability to extreme climate events." The last three closing chapters return to India, China, and Brazil and highlight how strong-arm tactics were used to secure land to grow cotton and wheat, for example, and how localized production power was slowly eroded. "The looms of India and China were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs." Both population pressures and displacement from export crops pushed increasing numbers of people onto less productive soils that were vulnerable to ENSO climate cycles -improvements in irrigation, drainage, or reforestation were not implanted to ensure sustainability. 5 Trained in American history at UCLA and labor history at Edinburgh University, Davis considers himself a "Marxist-Environmentalist, not an Environmentalist-Marxist." This work embodies his passion to bring together the intellectual concepts of Rosa Luxembourg, the French Regulationist School, Ferdinand Braudel, and Kenneth Pomeranz, Davis told me in a personal conversation. He humbly added, "I didn't get it right." Historians of China, India, and Brazil and elsewhere may find much to quibble about and point out what Davis "did not get right." However, there is no dismissing the importance of this work in terms of its refreshing and brilliant synthesis and explanation of global climate and global politics. Given the scope and synthesis of this book and the contemporary tenor of globalization, Late Victorian Holocausts may come to serve as a mantle work for graduate education in world and environmental history as well as a host of other holistic disciplines for decades to come. 6 CHRISTOPHER COTTRELL University of Hawai'i at Mnoa ------------------------------------------------------------------------ ©2003 The University of Hawaii Press Content in the History Cooperative database is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the History Cooperative database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
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