Tag Archives: British imperialism

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.