Late Victorian Holocausts (2000)

The recent debate over Germany’s decision to legalize publication of Mein Kampf is a sobering reminder that no book should use the word “holocaust” lightly, especially in its title. From the end of 1942 until 1945, over six million Jews were herded into concentration camps where they were systematically exterminated for no reason other than their ethnicity and religion. It shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Most of the war crimes that the Nazis eventually committed in Eastern Europe had already been laid out in the poorly written but ideologically toxic autobiography Adolf Hitler wrote in 1925, but there is book that has been responsible for even more deaths than Mein Kampf. Worse yet, this book is taught to undergraduates at major universities all over the United States by tenured professors who believe that it is still valuable for educating future leaders on how our society should be run. I’m talking of course about The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

Ever since its publication in 1776, the Wealth of Nations has been an ideological blueprint for genocide. In 1847, when a potato blight killed over a million people in Ireland, the British government under Lord John Russell not only refused to provide relief for fear of upsetting the “free market.” It exported food back to England. Even worse than the Irish potato famine of 1847 was the “Great Famine” that, between the years 1876 – 1878, left southwestern India in a state of apocalyptic desolation. According to the most conservative estimates, 5.5 million people died, and it was probably closer to 10 million. Similar to his earlier counterparts in Ireland ,and out of a fanatical devotion to the “free market,” Lord Lytton, the British Governor General of India, exported food back to England while refusing to provide relief to the starving Indian peasants, who were dying by the millions. To this day among the Indian people, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, who was quite possibly addicted to opium, and almost certainly demented, is known as “The Nero of India.”

I can already anticipate your objections. Sure, the British Empire committed crimes all over the world, especially in India, where it pitted Hindus against Muslims, destroyed the native textile industry, and overtaxed the poor to fund the “Great Game” against the Russians in Afghanistan. The behavior of the British government in Ireland was inexcusable, but still, you argue, none of this can be compared to the Holocaust. The “passive resistance” of Mahatma Gandhi, which eventually worked against the British, would never have worked against the Nazis. The Third Reich was a singular evil. The British Raj was just another empire. As bad as he was, Lord Lytton didn’t actually set up a system of industrialized system of mass extermination for people he considered to be an inferior race.

Actually that’s exactly what he did.

When Lord Lytton sent Sir Richard Temple to the famine afflicted Deccan he left him with strict instructions to put saving money ahead of saving lives. Temple, who had actually saved hundreds of thousands of lives during an earlier famine in 1874, and almost lost his career as a result, decided never to make the same mistake again. In 1876, he was the model of a modern laissez faire ideologue. He not only set up famine relief camps that made the Victorian workhouse look humane by comparison — you had to do hard coolie labor on less than 1500 calories a day, fewer calories than inmates received at Buchenwald — he required them to walk at least 10 miles from their homes even to be considered for admittance. The goal, as George Monbiot points out, was to “reduce the surplus population.”

When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”(2). The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

While the hundreds of million people killed by British imperialism and free-market capitalism are still widely known in India and in the “third world,” and used to be discussed in Great Britain and the United States, they largely disappeared from our consciousness during the Cold War, where our propagandists set up a Manichean distinction between the “free world” and communism. Most Americans know all about the 20 million people who died during the Great Leap Forward Famine under Mao and the Holodomor under Stalin, but I doubt 1 in 20 has ever heard the name Sir Richard Temple or Lord Lytton.

Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis probably won’t do anything to change that. Davis is one of the most important American writers on the left, but he’s no Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote. He’s not a great narrative historian with a fair for telling stories who can force consciousness of these appalling events back into the minds of the English speaking world. This is not a book aimed at the general reader. It was tough going for me, and I know Nineteenth Century history. Davis is trying to do a lot in 397 pages, but his intention is not write popular narrative history. Published in the year 2000, three years after the massive El Nino of 1997, Late Victorian Holocausts is an attempt to synthesize history and climatology, to interpret three massive waives of drought/famine in the Late Victorian era in light of the new understanding of ENSO, El Nino Southern Oscillation, that we have gained since the 1960s. For Davis, the leftist attack on the British Empire I opened this essay with would be crude and reductionist. It doesn’t take into account the confluence between the Great Famine and a massive El Nino in the late 1870s that destroyed subsistence agriculture, not only in India, but all over what is now known as “the third world,” causing a worldwide death toll of 20-30 million people. On the other hand, Davis would also argue that the view of the traditional defenders of the British Empire, that the “Great Famine” was caused by climate and only climate, is just as reductionist and simplistic.

“Is is bad climate or bad system,” Davis quotes a Chinese historian as saying, and comes to the conclusion that it’s both. What happened in the late 1870s, then twice in the 1890s, was a temporary climate shift caused by El Nino that created the conditions for a worldwide disaster at the precise moment when Europe and the west were strong arming the “third world” into imperial capitalism. Millions of people died in India in the late 1870s, not only because the El Nino caused the monsoon to fail, but because the destruction of traditional Indian society by the British Empire had also destroyed the ability of people to respond to the failure of the monsoon. Millions more died in China because the Qing dynasty had been so weakened, first by the Taiping Rebellion, then by a British and French invasion, that they could not maintain the “ever normal granaries,” the system of relief the dynasty had administered so effectively the century before. It was truly a worldwide disaster, or, rather, two worldwide disasters that, working together, permanently reduced the global south to a standard of living far below the global north. It’s a grim story, all the more terrifying because, as Davis makes clear, it’s not over yet. While we don’t fully understand how the temporary shifts in climate caused by El Nino will be affected by the permanent shifts caused by man-made global warming, we can probably count on future disasters that will make the “Great Famine” of 1876 to 1878 look like child’s play.

Late Victorian Holocausts is not only an angry reappraisal of the crimes of the British Empire. It’s a sober warning about the future.



  1. I just don’t know what to say. Humans can be so appalling.

  2. I recently learned that the mass starvation in North Korea was caused first in the 50’s by purposeful (and war criminal) US destruction of civilian agricultural infrastructure (the vast majority of irrigation canals we bombed to oblivion) and then through the 90’s by a sanctions regime that has stripped North Korea not only of its ability to import food but any ability to modernize food production infrastructure – and similarly most of the material required to provide medical services – and any country willing to trade with them made a pariah and isolated from all of global commerce (yay ‘free market!’): that when officials in the US refer to the Kim regime as having chosen to starve their people they mean that the Kim regime was given an ultimatum to comply with demands or starve and that the regime chose to reneg US demands.

    Which gives me pause for thought. “Free markets” (which look nothing at all like what Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations) may be great cover for imperialism – but that imperialism remains the same as it had been when imperialism had other covers (Christianity, Victorian values, Roman stoicism, Biblical ethnic superiority). The West is highly protectionist of its industries and engages in economic warfare on a daily basis, uses its monopolized global trade system for political and military objectives – and because the dominant public discourse is hedged in terms of freeness of markets and democracy (between the US and Britain has any other power succeeded in destroying and replacing so many democracies with autocratic client states?) it’s swallowed too easily that sanctions, tariffs, exim, exclusive trade blocks, duopolies, rigged forex and subsidies are ‘free markets’ whereas international competition is not.

    1. At its simplest level I think the idea of the “free market” reverses what Jesus said.

      Jesus said “the law was made for man, not man for the law.”

      Free market capitalism says “there’s a market. It’s above you and independent of you, and it’s your God.”

      So it’s perfectly understandable under that kind of system that some like Lord Lytton would value figures on a ledger sheet over human beings. And I think it goes right to the theoretical heart of “classical liberalism.” If you look closely at the careers of most classical economists, at least half worked in the Indian civil service.

      Thomas Malthus, for example, taught at the East India company’s college.

      In 1805 Malthus became Professor of History and Political Economy at the East India Company College in Hertfordshire. His students affectionately referred to him as “Pop” or “Population” Malthus.

      Nice looking place.

    2. Another fascinating thing is that a lot of “free market” economists back then had a theory about how sun spots were causing the El Nino droughts.

      In a relatively minor work, “Commercial Crises and Sun-Spots”, Jevons analyzed business cycles, proposing that crises in the economy might not be random events, but might be based on discernible prior causes. To clarify the concept, he presented a statistical study relating business cycles with sunspots. His reasoning was that sunspots affected the weather, which, in turn, affected crops. Crop changes could then be expected to cause economic changes. Subsequent studies have found that sunny weather has a small but significant positive impact on stock returns, probably due to its impact on traders’ moods.

      It’s as if these people were primitive sun worshippers. You see the same thing occasionally these days in newspaper comments sections. Sun spots supposedly cause global warming. It’s like the Koch Brothers fed their trolls talking points from the 1870s.

  3. mystic gitana · · Reply

    Thank you for writing this,I wasn’t aware of the second book.And I agree that passive resistance wouldn’t work in case of dehumanised Nazis.It is a diplomatic method but have to meet requirements of equal – level attack. Would passive resistance be helpful if German society ,on time of holocaust would stand against it ?

    1. Davis goes into some, but not enough, detail on the types of resistance the people in the Deccan showed the British. The term “passive resistance” actually has its origins in “The Great Famine,” and it meant people in Lytton’s various concentration camps refusing to get up and be marched to their deaths. In other words, passive resistance works no better against free marketeers than it does against Nazis. It only worked in the 20th Century because the British Empire had exhausted itself fighting two world wars.

  4. wao!!!! can imagine the work done before starting to write this down…. _/\_
    and well i have studied about the famine and the after effects as it’s included in our History textbooks but i guess they forgot to tell the reasons behind the same……… 🙂

    1. The Great Famine used to be studied pretty extensively.

      Florence Nightingale was one British figure who tried to call it to the attention of the public back in England. She concluded that most of the relief money was spent on the war in Afghanistan (some things never change).

      Florence Nightingale pointed out that the famines in British India were not caused by the lack of food in a particular geographical area. They were instead caused by inadequate transportation of food, which in turn was caused due to an absence of a political and social structure.

      Nightingale identified two types of famine: a grain famine and a “money famine”. Money was drained from the peasant to the landlord, making it impossible for the peasant to procure food. Money which should have been made available to the producers of food via public works projects and jobs was instead diverted to other uses. Nightingale pointed out that money needed to combat famine was being diverted towards activities like paying for the British military effort in Afghanistan in 1878–80.

      1. umn……okay!!! so the situation was created….
        so now i’m feeling bad as i never tried knowing more than i was told about my own country…..btw thanks 🙂

        1. The El Nino droughts and British imperialism worked together synergistically. The droughts were among the severest on record but the death toll was made even worse by the British exporting food to the UK as in this very famous photo of bags and bags of grain being carried off under guard.

          Davis’ main contribution is to point out how the traditional Indian nationalist view (that it was mainly the British under developing the country) and the traditional British imperialist view (that it was only climate) both only get half of the story.

          Probably the worst thing the British did was to impose a tax for “famine insurance” on the Indian peasantry when it was all over. The money went, not to storing grain or irrigation projects, but to pay for the war in Afghanistan.

  5. The crimes of the British empire are vast and far reaching. When Cameron went to India a few years back and attempted a half hearted apology he was roundly mocked by people of his own party. The apology was vague and it was focused on the partition of India and Pakistan but the fact that he got mocked for just a half assed apology just shows the arrogance of the British establishment today.

  6. Very thought-provoking. One can only hope that the human race learns from their mistakes. It is important not to focus solely on certain institutions though- genocide is something which happens all over the world under many different circumstances. You cannot compare the Rwandan Genocide to the Nazi holocaust, or the Irish potato famine etc. because they were all incredibly different. Nonetheless, this was a very compelling read!

  7. […] Source: Late Victorian Holocausts (2000) […]

  8. […] Spain it was called the Spanish Requirement. In reality colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas were plundered and subject to systemic abuse including genocide, their women subject to rape, and their cultures subject to […]

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