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Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

A magisterial melding of global ecological and political history, disclosing the nineteenth-century roots of underdevelopment in what became the Third World
Examining a series of El Niño-induced droughts and the famines that they spawned around the globe in the last third of the 19th century, Mike Davis discloses the intimate, baleful relationship between imperial arrogance and natural incident that combined to produce some of the worst tragedies in human history.

Late Victorian Holocausts focuses on three zones of drought and subsequent famine: India, Northern China; and Northeastern Brazil. All were affected by the same global climatic factors that caused massive crop failures, and all experienced brutal famines that decimated local populations. But the effects of drought were magnified in each case because of singularly destructive policies promulgated by different ruling elites.

Davis argues that the seeds of underdevelopment in what later became known as the Third World were sown in this era of High Imperialism, as the price for capitalist modernization was paid in the currency of millions of peasants’ lives.

Winner of the World History Association Book Award.

Reviews

  • “Davis has given us a book of substantial contemporary relevance as well as great historical interest … this highly informative book goes well beyond its immediate focus.”
  • “Davis’s range is stunning … He combines political economy, meteorology, and ecology with vivid narratives to create a book that is both a gripping read and a major conceptual achievement. Lots of us talk about writing ‘world history’ and ‘interdisciplinary history’: here is the genuine article.”
  • “The global climate meets a globalizing political economy, the fundamentals of one clashing with the fundamentalisms of the other. Mike Davis tells the story with zest, anger, and insight.”
  • “Davis, a brilliant maverick scholar, sets the triumph of the late-nineteenth-century Western imperialism in the context of catastrophic El Niño weather patterns at that time ... This is groundbreaking, mind-stretching stuff.”
  • Late Victorian Holocausts will redefine the way we think about the European colonial project. After reading this, I defy even the most ardent nationalist to feel proud of the so-called ‘achievements’ of empire.”
  • “Devastating.”
  • “Generations of historians largely ignored the implications [of the great famines of the late nineteenth century] and until recently dismissed them as ‘climatic accidents’ … Late Victorian Holocausts proves them wrong.”
  • “Wide ranging and compelling … a remarkable achievement.”
  • “A masterly account of climatic, economic and colonial history.”
  • “A hero of the Left, Davis is part polemicist, part historian, and all Marxist.”
  • “The catalogue of cruelty Davis has unearthed is jaw-dropping … Late Victorian Holocausts is as ugly as it is compelling.”
  • “Controversial, comprehensive, and compelling, this book is megahistory at its most fascinating—a monument to times past, but hopefully not a predictor of future disasters.”
  • “Devastating.”

Blog

  • The Imperial Archive and Form: Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, and J.G. Ballard in the British Empire (Parts I and II)

    In The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, published by Verso in 1993, Thomas Richards analyzes the proliferation of information systems in the British Empire, and the ways in which this link between state power and the measurement of fact were expressed in literature.

    "Most Victorian epistemologies presupposed a superintending unity of knowledge," Richards writes. "A comprehensive knowledge of the world was for most of the century the explicit goal of all forms of learning." Later in the introduction, he continues: "this system-building impulse was the imperial archive's greatest inheritance from a philosophical tradition that posited a universal and essential form of knowledge, the tradition of Leibniz and Kant and von Humboldt, but it also took much the same ideas from a source nearer to hand, English Romanticism."

    In the excerpt below, Richards considers three narratives of monstrosity — Lewis Carroll's Alice novels, Bram Stoker's
     Dracula, and J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World  in the context of the evolution of the science of morphology.   


    Detail from Georg Dionysius Ehret's illustration of Linnaeus's sexual system of plant classification, 1736. via the Linnean Society of London.

    This chapter is about the place of monstrosity in the nineteenth-century imperial imagination. Until Bram Stoker's Dracula, there are few monsters in Victorian fiction. In Victorian literature ghosts, those images of a nether world replete with human significance, are more common than monsters, and it is worth asking why. Victorian travellers like Richard Burton and Henry Stanley never saw monsters. In his Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) Darwin travelled around the world without seeing one. Thomas Henry Huxley doubted whether monsters ever existed, even in the distant past. In Poe “monstrous” is always an adjective, never a noun, and monstrosity resides in the behavioral perversions of the self, as it does in Lombroso, where the monster is the criminal. In Victorian gothic it is the natural landscape that is monstrous. Even in the murky world of imperial gothic, as in Haggard's She (1887), there are no monsters of nature save for a woman who lives on eternally in a dead city. Why are there no monsters in Victorian literature?

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  • The Imperial Archive and Form: Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, and J.G. Ballard in the British Empire (Part III)

    Continued from Parts I and II.



    III.

    In the science of form, the ancient distinction between forma and materia remained in force well into the twentieth century. Aristotle had held that there could be form without matter, though no matter without form. As late as the 1940s Joseph Needham was still criticizing morphologists for devoting themselves to the study of living form “without much consideration of the matter with which it is indissolubly connected.” The classic texts of morphology do focus almost exclusively on the stately progress from form to form. Whether they deal with continuous or discontinuous change, the morphologists all end up by positing a structural stability in which forms join at specific junctions to compose the pattern of a whole. In On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Thompson devotes almost no space to the particular forces that cause forms to change. Nor does the scientist in Dracula take any interest in the material composition of his monster of mutation; Dracula exists for Van Helsing not as a chemical substance but as a continuum of changing forms. Form in morphology is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics, and the assumption joining all morphological thought is that all forms must turn out in the end to be beautiful, however violently they may at first jar the conventions of perception (even vampires appear at beautiful ease in their final moment of destruction). Over time the science of form has supplied a variety of aestheticisms with a basic lexicon of beauty, the vocabulary of ideal design, even as it extended the domain of the aesthetic to include new shapes of life and death.

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  • Nationalism and Imperialism: The Premises of Hobson's Definition

    Giovanni Arrighi's The Geometry of Imperialism was published by New Left Books in 1978, in a translation by Patrick Camiller. "I was disturbed, at the time," Arrighi later told David Harvey, "by the terminological confusions that were swirling around the term ‘imperialism’. My aim was to dissipate some of the confusion by creating a topological space in which the different concepts, which were often all confusingly referred to as ‘imperialism’, could be distinguished from one another."

    In Marxist debate, Arrighi argued, such confusions could be traced to Lenin's classical theory of imperialism, which at times fails to clearly distinguish it from "the monopoly stage of capitalism" or "finance capital." Arrighi's study would then be neither 
    "a simple reproduction of the thought of this or that theoretician" nor the development of a new theory of imperialism, but rather an examination of "the presuppositions of the theory of imperialism in order to explicate, specify, and delimit them." Those presuppositions were to be located not in Lenin's own theory, but in that of J.A. Hobson, which preceded it.

    In the excerpt below, the book's first chapter, Arrighi identifies 
    four primary elements of Hobson's conception of imperialism and isolates them in the form of Weberian ideal types, which them serve as the coordinates for his "topological" reconstruction. 



    It is no easy task to define the concept of imperialism. The same term is customarily used to designate diverse, and in certain respects antithetical, concepts. Indeed, theoretical controversy is often based on nothing more than a failure to grasp what is the object of reference.

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