50% off Politics of Climate Change reading list
3 hours left

Late Victorian Holocausts: The Origins of the Third World


Mike Davis writing on history and the city has been celebrated across the world. To mark the significance of his work, we're re-releasing his classic works in these beautiful new editions and we have 40% off all his writing until Jan 22.

Here we present an extract from 
Late Victorian Holocausts, Davis' magisterial melding of global ecological and political history, disclosing the nineteenth-century roots of underdevelopment in what became the Third World.

What historians ... have so often dismissed as “climatic accidents” turn out to be not so accidental after all. Although its syncopations are complex and quasi-periodic, ENSO [El Niño-Southern Oscillation] has a coherent spatial and temporal logic. And, contrary to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s famous (Eurocentric?) conclusion in Times of Feast, Times of Famine that climate change is a “slight, perhaps negligible” shaper of human affairs, ENSO is an episodically potent force in the history of tropical humanity. If, as Raymond Williams once observed, “Nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history,” we are now learning that the inverse is equally true: there is an extraordinary amount of hitherto unnoticed environmental instability in modern history. The power of ENSO events indeed seems so overwhelming in some instances that it is tempting to assert that great famines, like those of the 1870s and 1890s (or, more recently, the Sahelian disaster of the 1970s), were “caused” by El Niño, or by El Niño acting upon traditional agrarian misery. This interpretation, of course, inadvertently echoes the official line of the British in Victorian India as recapitulated in every famine commission report and viceregal allocution: millions were killed by extreme weather, not imperialism. Was this true?

‘Bad Climate’ versus ‘Bad System’

At this point it would be immensely useful to have some strategy for sorting out what the Chinese pithily contrast as “bad climate” versus “bad system.” Y. Kueh, as we have seen, has attempted to parameterize the respective influences of drought and policy upon agricultural output during the Great Leap Forward famine of 1958–61. The derivation of his “weather index,” however, involved fifteen years of arduous research and the resolution of “a series of complicated methodological and technical problems” including a necessary comparative regression to the 1930s. Although his work is methodologically rich, his crucial indices depend upon comprehensive meteorological and econometric data that are simply not available for the nineteenth century. A direct statistical assault on the tangled causal web of the 1876–77 and 1896–1902 famines thus seems precluded.

An alternative is to construct a “natural experiment.” As Jared Diamond has advocated in a recent sermon to historians, such an experiment should compare systems “differing in the presence or absence (or in the strong or weak effect) of some putative causative factor.” We ideally need, in other words, an analogue for the late Victorian famines in which the natural parameters are constant but the social variables significantly differ. An excellent candidate for which we possess unusually detailed documentation is the El Niño event of 1743–44 (described as “exceptional” by Whetton and Rutherfurd) in its impact on the north China plain. Although not as geographically far-reaching as the great ENSO droughts of 1876–78 or 1899–1900, it otherwise prefigured their intensities. The spring monsoon failed two years in a row, devastating winter wheat in Hebei (Zhili) and northern Shandong. Scorching winds withered crops and farmers dropped dead in their fields from sunstroke. Provincial grain supplies were utterly inadequate to the scale of need. Yet unlike the late nineteenth century, there was no mass mortality from either starvation or disease. Why not?

Pierre-Etienne Will has carefully reconstructed the fascinating history of the 1743–44 relief campaign from contemporary records. Under the skilled Confucian administration of Fang Guancheng, the agricultural and hydraulic expert who directed relief operations in Zhili, the renowned “ever-normal granaries” in each county immediately began to issue rations (without any labor test) to peasants in the officially designated disaster counties. (Local gentry had already organized soup kitchens to ensure the survival of the poorest residents until state distributions began.) When local supplies proved insufficient, Guancheng shifted millet and rice from the great store of tribute grain at Tongcang at the terminus of the Grand Canal, then used the Canal to move vast quantities of rice from the south. Two million peasants were maintained for eight months, until the return of the monsoon made agriculture again possible. Ultimately 85 percent of the relief grain was borrowed from tribute depots or granaries outside the radius of the drought.

As Will emphasizes, this was famine defense in depth, the “last word in technology at the time.” No contemporary European society guaranteed subsistence as a human right to its peasantry (ming-sheng is the Chinese term), nor, as the Physiocrats later marveled, could any emulate “the perfect timing of [Guancheng’s] operations: the action taken always kept up with developments and even anticipated them.” Indeed, while the Qing were honoring their social contract with the peasantry, contemporary Europeans were dying in the millions from famine and hunger-related diseases following arctic winters and summer droughts in 1740–43. “The mortality peak of the early 1740s,” emphasizes an authority, “is an outstanding fact of European demographic history.” In Europe’s Age of Reason, in other words, the “starving masses” were French, Irish and Calabrian, not Chinese.

Moreover “the intervention carried out in Zhili in 1743 and 1744 was not the only one of its kind in the eighteenth century, nor even the most extensive.” Indeed, ... the Yellow River flooding of the previous year (1742/43) involved much larger expenditures over a much broader region. ... Although comparable figures are unavailable, Beijing also acted aggressively to aid Shandong officials in preventing famine during the series of El Niño droughts that afflicted that province (and much of the tropics) between 1778 and 1787. The contrast with the chaotic late-Qing relief efforts in 1877 and 1899 (or, for that matter, Mao’s monstrous mishandling of the 1958–61 drought) could not be more striking. State capacity in eighteenth-century China, as Will and his collaborators emphasize, was deeply impressive: a cadre of skilled administrators and trouble-shooters, a unique national system of grain price stabilization, large crop surpluses, well-managed granaries storing more than a million bushels of grain in each of twelve provinces, and incomparable hydraulic infrastructures.

The capstone of Golden Age food security was the invigilation of grain prices and supply trends by the emperor himself. Although ever-normal granaries were an ancient tradition, price monitoring was a chief innovation of the Qing. “Great care was exercised by the eighteenth-century Emperors in looking over the memorials and price lists in search of inconsistencies.” On the fifth of every month hsien magistrates forwarded detailed price reports to the prefectures, who summarized them for the provincial governors who, in turn, reported their content in memorials to the central government. Carefully studied and annotated by the emperors, these “vermillion rescripts” testify to an extraordinary engagement with the administration of food security and rural well-being. “In the 1720s and 1730s,” R. Bin Wong writes, “the Yongzheng emperor personally scrutinized granary operations, as he did all other bureaucratic behavior; his intense interest in official efforts and his readiness to berate officials for what he considered failures partially explain the development of granary operations beyond the levels achieved in the late Kangxi period.” Yongzheng also severely sanctioned speculation by the “rich households [who] in their quest for profit habitually remove grain by the full thousand or full myriad bushels.”

His successor, Qianlong, ordered the prefects to send the county-level price reports directly to the Bureau of Revenue in Beijing so he could study them firsthand. The emperors’ intense personal involvement ensured a high standard of accuracy in price reporting and, as Endymion Wilkinson demonstrates, frequently led to significant reform. This was another differentia specifica of Qing absolutism. It is hard to imagine a Louis XVI spending his evenings scrupulously poring over the minutiae of grain prices from Limoges or the Auvergne, although the effort might have ultimately saved his head from the guillotine.

Nor can we easily picture a European monarch intimately involved in the esoteria of public works to the same degree that the Qing routinely immersed them- selves in the details of the Grand Canal grain transport system. “The Manchu emperors,” Jane Leonard points out, “ had since the early reigns involved them- selves deeply in Canal management, not just in broad questions of policy, but in the control and supervision of lower-level administrative tasks.” When, for example, flooding in 1824 destroyed sections of the Grand Canal at the critical Huai–Yellow River junction, the Tao-kuang emperor personally assumed command of reconstruction efforts.

In contrast, moreover, to later Western stereotypes of a passive Chinese state, government during the high Qing era was proactively involved in famine prevention through a broad program of investment in agricultural improvement, irrigation and waterborne transportation. As in other things, Joseph Needham points out, the eighteenth century was a golden age for theoretical and historical work on flood control and canal construction. Civil engineers were canonized and had temples erected in their honor. Confucian activists like Guancheng, with a deep commitment to agricultural intensification, “tended to give top priority to investments in infrastructure and to consider the organization of food relief merely a makeshift.” Guancheng also wrote a famous manual (the source of much of Will’s account) that codified historically tested principles of disaster planning and relief management: something else that has little precedent in backward European tradition.

Finally, there is plentiful evidence that the northern China peasantry during the high Qing was more nutritionally self-reliant and less vulnerable to climate stress than their descendants a century later. In the eighteenth century, after the Kangxi emperor permanently froze land revenue at the 1712 level, China experienced “the mildest agrarian taxation it had ever known in the whole of its history.” Dwight Perkins estimates that the formal land tax was a mere 5 to 6 percent of the harvest and that a large portion was expended locally by hsien and provincial governments. Likewise, the exchange ratio between silver and copper coinage, which turned so disastrously against the poor peasantry in the nineteenth century, was stabilized by the booming output of the Yunnan copper mines (replacing Japanese imports) and the great inflow of Mexican bullion earned by China’s huge trade surplus. Unlike their contemporary French counterparts, the farmers of the Yellow River plain (the vast majority of whom owned their land) were neither crushed by exorbitant taxes nor ground down by feudal rents. North China, in particular, was unprecedentedly prosperous by historical standards, and Will estimates that the percentage of the rural population ordinarily living near the edge of starvation – depending, for example, on husks and wild vegetables for a substantial part of their diet – was less than 2 percent. As a result, epidemic disease, unlike in Europe, was held in check for most of the “Golden Age.”

Still, could even Fang Guancheng have coped with drought disasters engulfing the larger part of north China on the scale of 1876 or even 1899? It is important to weigh this question carefully, since drought-famines were more localized in the eighteenth century, and because the 1876 drought, as we have seen, may have been a 200-year or even 500-year frequency event. Moreover, the late Victorian droughts reached particular intensity in the loess highlands of Shanxi and Shaanxi, where transport costs were highest and bottlenecks unavoidable. It is reasonable, therefore, to concede that a drought of 1876 magnitude in 1743 would inevitably have involved tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of deaths in more remote villages.

Such a drought, however, would have been unlikely, as in the late nineteenth century, to grow into a veritable holocaust that consumed the greater part of the populations of whole prefectures and counties. In contrast to the situation in 1876–77, when granaries were depleted or looted and prices soared out of control, eighteenth-century administrators could count on a large imperial budget surplus and well-stocked local granaries backed up by a huge surplus of rice in the south. Large stockpiles of tribute grain at strategic transportation nodes in Henan and along the Shanxi–Shaanxi border were specially designated for the relief of the loess provinces, and an abundance of water sources guaranteed the Grand Canal’s navigability year-round. Whereas in 1876 the Chinese state – enfeebled and demoralized after the failure of the Tongzhi Restoration’s domestic reforms – was reduced to desultory cash relief augmented by private donations and humiliating foreign charity, in the eighteenth century it had both the technology and political will to shift grain massively between regions and, thus, relieve hunger on a larger scale than any previous polity in world history. 

‘Laws of Leather’ versus ‘Laws of Iron’

What about famine in pre-British India? Again, there is little evidence that rural India had ever experienced subsistence crises on the scale of the Bengal catastrophe of 1770 under East India Company rule or the long siege by disease and hunger between 1875 and 1920 that slowed population growth almost to a stand-still. The Moguls, to be sure, did not dispose of anything like the resources of the centralized Qing state at its eighteenth-century zenith, nor was their administrative history as well documented. As Sanjay Sharma has pointed out, “The problems of intervening in the complex network of caste-based local markets and transport bottlenecks rendered an effective state intervention quite difficult.”

On the other hand, benefiting perhaps from a milder ENSO cycle, Mogul India was generally free of famine until the 1770s. There is considerable evidence, moreover, that in pre-British India before the creation of a railroad-girded national market in grain, village-level food reserves were larger, patrimonial welfare more widespread, and grain prices in surplus areas better insulated against speculation. (As we have seen, the perverse consequence of a unitary market was to export famine, via price inflation, to the rural poor in grain-surplus districts.) The British, of course, had a vested interest in claiming that they had liberated the populace from a dark age of Mogul despotism: “One of the foundations of Crown Rule was the belief that ... India’s past was full of depravity.” But, as Bose and Jalal point out, “The picture of an emaciated and oppressed peasantry, mercilessly exploited by the emperor and his nobility, is being seriously altered in the light of new interpretations of the evidence.” Recent research by Ashok Desai indicates that “the mean standard of food consumption in Akbar’s empire was appreciably higher than in the India of the early 1960s.”
The Mogul state, moreover, “regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation,” and there are numerous examples of humane if sporadic relief operations. Like their Chinese contemporaries, the Mogul rulers Akbar, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb relied on a quartet of fundamental policies – embargos on food exports, antispeculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without a forced-labor counterpart – that were an anathema to later British Utilitarians. They also zealously policed the grain trade in the public interest. As one horrified British writer discovered, these “oriental despots” punished traders who shortchanged peasants during famines by amputating an equivalent weight of merchant flesh.
In contrast to the Raj’s punitive taxation of irrigation and its neglect of traditional wells and reservoirs, the Moguls used tax subsidies to promote water conservation. As David Hardiman explains in the case of Gujarat: “Local officials had considerable discretion over tax assessment, and it seems to have been their practice to encourage well-construction by granting tax concessions. In the Ahmedabad region, for example, it was common to waive the tax on a ‘rabi’ crop raised through irrigation from a recently constructed well. The concession continued until the tax exemptions were held to have equalled the cost of construction.”

Occasionally, the British paid appropriate tribute to the policies of their “despotic” predecessors. The first Famine Commission Report in 1880, for example, cited Aurangzeb’s extraordinary relief campaign during the (El Niño?) drought- famine of 1661: “The Emperor opened his treasury and granted money without stint. He gave every encouragement to the importation of corn and either sold it at reduced prices, or distributed it gratuitously amongst those who were too poor to pay. He also promptly acknowledged the necessity of remitting the rents of the cultivators and relieved them for the time being of other taxes. The vernacular chronicles of the period attribute the salvation of millions of lives and the preservation of many provinces to his strenuous exertions.”

Food security was also probably better in the Deccan during the period of Maratha rule. As Mountstuart Elphinstone admitted retrospectively after the British conquest, “The Mahratta country flourished, and the people seem to have been exempt from some of the evils which exist under our more perfect Government.” His contemporary, Sir John Malcolm, “claimed that between 1770 and 1820 there had been only three very bad seasons in the Maratha lands and, though some years had been ‘indifferent,’ none had been as ‘bad as to occasion any particular distress.’” D.E.U. Baker cites a later British administrative report from the Central Provinces that contrasted the desultory relief efforts of the East India Company during the droughts of the 1820s and 1830s (“a few thousand rupees”) with the earlier and highly effective Maratha policy of forcing local elites to feed the poor (“enforced charity of hundreds of rich men”). Indeed the resilient Maratha social order was founded on a militarized free peasantry and “very few landless laborers existed.” In contrast to the British-imposed raiyatwari system, occupancy rights in the Maratha Deccan were not tied to revenue payment, taxes varied according to the actual harvest, common lands and resources were accessible to the poor, and the rulers subsidized local irrigation improvements with cheap taqavi (or tagai) loans. In addition, Elphinstone observed, the “sober, frugal, industrious” Maratha farmers lived in generally tolerant coexistence with the Bhils and other tribal peoples. Ecological and economic synergies balanced the diverse claims of plains agriculture, pastoralism and foothill swidden.

In contrast to the rigidity and dogmatism of British land-and-revenue settlements, both the Moguls and Marathas flexibly tailored their rule to take account of the crucial ecological relationships and unpredictable climate fluctuations of the subcontinent’s drought-prone regions. The Moguls had “laws of leather,” wrote journalist Vaughan Nash during the famine of 1899, in contrast to the British “laws of iron.” Moreover, traditional Indian elites, like the great Bengali zamindars, seldom shared Utilitarian obsessions with welfare cheating and labor discipline. “Requiring the poor to work for relief, a practice begun in 1866 in Bengal under the influence of the Victorian Poor Law, was in flat contradiction to the Bengali premise that food should be given ungrudgingly, as a father gives food to his children.” Although the British insisted that they had rescued India from “timeless hunger,” more than one official was jolted when Indian nationalists quoted from an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that contrasted thirty-one serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.

India and China, in other words, did not enter modern history as the helpless “lands of famine” so universally enshrined in the Western imagination. Certainly the intensity of the ENSO cycle in the late nineteenth century, perhaps only equaled on three or four other occasions in the last millennium, must loom large in any explanation of the catastrophes of the 1870s and 1890s. But it is scarcely the only independent variable. Equal causal weight, or more, must be accorded to the growing social vulnerability to climate variability that became so evident in south Asia, north China, northeast Brazil and southern Africa in late Victorian times. As Michael Watts has eloquently argued in his history of the “silent violence” of drought-famine in colonial Nigeria: “Climate risk ... is not given by nature but ... by ‘negotiated settlement’ since each society has institutional, social, and technical means for coping with risk.... Famines [thus] are social crises that represent the failures of particular economic and political systems.”

 Extracted from Late Victorian Holocausts. All our books by Mike Davis are 40% off when you buy 2 or more. Activate your discount by clicking here.

Includes free shipping (worldwide) and free bundled books (where available) when you buy the print edition.