Friday, May 25, 2007
Late Victorian Holocausts
Title: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001)
Author: "Marxist environmentalist" Mike Davis, he of Ecology of Fear (2000), City of Quartz (1990), and a million other books with subjects including slums, car bombs, avian flu, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Believer mag called him "LA's sole public intellectual." He sometimes teaches at UC/Irvine, but doesn't hold an "official" PhD. He has sometimes been assailed for lack of accuracy, but this story in the Nation says that a lot of these attacks come from people who have interests in development in LA (NB: Davis sometimes writes for the Nation).
Argument (in 150 words or fewer): This is, self-consciously, a work of "political ecology." Famines in India, China, Brazil, the Philippines, and Africa, which hit hard in the end of the nineteenth century, had as their proximate cause the variations of a climatological phenomenon called "ENSO" ("El Nino - Southern Oscillation"), but were exacerbated and prolonged by the mismanagement of governments which were either colonial (India), or facing huge pressures from imperial powers (China, Brazil). People in these nations were being forced to integrate into a global capitalist system, and as a result, there was a tragic breakdown of traditional structures - both material, as in well irrigation systems, planned grain storage, and systems of sustainable farming; and social, as in protective governments, patrimonial obligations, and mutualism - which had been in place to mitigate earlier ENSO-related events. Imperial powers, which in Davis' argument means "Britain," turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the people who died in gruesome numbers - not only from hunger but from epidemic diseases preying on weakened refugees (Davis estimates 30 to 50 million dead) - refusing substantial relief and sometimes even exacting increasingly onerous taxation. Davis writes that the pictures he uses in the book - most of which were taken by missionaries - were intended as "accusations, not illustrations" (22).
Chapter-by-Chapter: The first section of this book - parts I and II - "take up the challenge of traditional narrative history," describing in detail the processes of the famines of the late nineteenth century, "providing dozens of examples of malign interaction between climactic and economic processes" (12). Colonialism, Davis shows, followed and exploited famines and social disruptions, meaning "each global drought was the green light for an imperialist landrush" (12). Davis also, in this section, points out that many uprisings and rebellions of the late nineteenth century, including the Boxer Rebellion and the Brazilian War of Canudos, were precipitated by these famines.
Part III is almost entirely scientific, explaining the process of discovery of the ENSO system. There is a short moment when Davis explains the stakes of a scientific explanation for famines - if, as Victorians believed, sunspots caused stoppage of monsoons, how could the British be responsible for crop failure? - but the chapter is generally technical.
Part IV returns to the historical, grounding itself mostly in a review of the most current scholarly literature about nineteenth century economic processes, attempting to situate this structural information within the context of the ENSO events. These chapters cover "the perverse logic of marketized subsistence, the consequences of colonial revenue settlements, the impact of the new Gold Standard" (I never even thought about how that would affect global markets...) "the decline of indigenous irrigation, informal colonialism in Brazil, and so on" (15). And so on! This section also covers the ways in which new crops and ways of cultivation created massive ecological problems, especially in northern China.
There's no conclusion. Consequently, this book feels incredibly emotionally front-loaded.
Illo from Kipling's short story "William the Conqueror," published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1896. Note the rosy, happy Indian children.
Reviews (significant flaws?): Holocausts won the World History Association Book Award for 2002. The Journal of World History gave it a positive review, while acknowledging that historians of India, China, and Brazil may find flaws in the highly sprawling synthetic treatment of those histories. The Pacific Historical Review noted that "the notion that Britain governed India in its own interest, with scant regard for Indian peasants, will surprise few readers" and wrote that although it's crucial to Davis' argument to establish that indigenous governments managed famine better than imperialist ones, Davis has trouble directly proving this (and didn't even try to do so in the case of Brazil). The Journal of Economic History praised Davis for his ambitious world perspective, and added, "Although Davis necessarily relies on secondary sources, he has the ability to identify the best of the recent scholarship." This reviewer, like myself, wished that Davis had added a conclusion in order to tie all of the pieces together, characterizing the work that the reader is forced to do as "heavy lifting" (this, at least, makes me feel like I'm in good company in my confusion - if an Economic Historian had difficulty, I am not going to feel badly about my own constant back-flipping of pages to figure out where in the world was Carmen San Diego). Science called the book "ideological and misleading" and said that Davis tried too hard to pin the blame for all of this suffering on "a small band of theologically zealous and murderously scheming Londoners", when in actuality China, for example, bore a lot of the "blame" for its own suffering. To my mind, this reviewer was overly invested in simplifying Davis' argument - it was clear to me that Davis tried very hard to show how the pressure that the Chinese government was under from imperialism was partially what caused their system to fail. Science calls this government "an imploding, spent, and irresolute civilization," a definition which smacks to me of the very same Western racism which Davis describes.
New words: "sublated" ("to remove or take away" or "to disaffirm or contradict"); "brigandage" (highway robbery, pillage, piracy); "rinderpest" ("a virulent, infectious disease affecting ruminant animals, esp. oxen, characterized by fever, dysentery, and inflammation of the mucous membranes"); "sand jiggers"; "bastinado" (verb, meaning "to beat with a stick, thrash, or thwack"); "transhumance" ("the seasonal transfer of grazing animals to different pastures, often over substantial distances"); "hecatombs" ("a great public sacrifice (properly of a hundred oxen) among the ancient Greeks and Romans, and hence extended to the religious sacrifices of other nations; a large number of animals offered or set apart for a sacrifice" - Davis uses this to indicate the number of famine victims, interestingly); "Noachian" (from the age of Noah - Dying Planet uses this word too, in a fine example of synchronicity); "loess" ("a deposit of fine yellowish-grey loam which occurs extensively from north-central Europe to eastern China, in the American mid-west, and elsewhere, esp. in the basins of large rivers, and which is usually considered to be composed of material transported by the wind during and after the Glacial Period"); "geomantic" (from "geomancy", or "the art of divination by means of signs derived from the earth, as by the figure assumed by a handful of earth thrown down upon some surface...hence, usually, divination by means of lines or figures formed by jotting down on paper a number of dots at random"); "calumny" ("false and malicious misrepresentation of the words or actions of others, calculated to injure their reputation; libellous detraction, slander"); "ultramontane" ("a strong adherent or supporter of the Papal authority"); "entrepot" ("temporary deposit of goods, provisions, etc."); "dipole" ("a pair of non-coincident equal and opposite electric charges or magnetic poles (usu. but not necessarily close together); an object, esp. a molecule, atomic particle, etc., having such charges or poles; dipole moment, the product of the distance between the two charges or poles of a dipole and the magnitude of either of them; the electric or magnetic moment of a dipole"); "orographic" ("relating to the physical features and relative position of mountains"); "thermocline" ("a temperature gradient; esp. an abrupt temperature gradient occurring in a body of water; also, a layer of water marked by such a gradient, the water above and below being at different temperatures"); "multidecadel" (belonging to several decades); "antipodean" ("of or pertaining to the opposite side of the world"); "chernozem" ("black earth or soil (see BLACK a. 19), a type of soil, rich in humus, characteristic of natural grassland in cool to temperate semi-arid climates, as in central and southern Russia, central Canada, etc"); "swidden" ("an area of land that has been cleared for cultivation by slashing and burning the vegetation cover"); "autarkic" ("(economically) self-sufficient"); "debenture" ("a certificate or voucher certifying that a sum of money is owing to the person designated in it; a certificate of indebtedness"): "monopsony" ("a state of the market in which there is effectively a single buyer or consumer for a particular product, who is therefore in a position to influence its price; a consumer in this position"); "littoral" ("of or pertaining to the shore; existing, taking place upon, or adjacent to the shore"); "dreadnaught" ("a fearless person").
Facty bonbons: Lord Lytton was accused of plaigarism twice - once by his own father (45). Conspiracy theories about Westerners during famines included the idea (this from Korea) that Westerners would cut off women's breasts to fill the cans of condensed milk that they lived off of (125). A "Maxim gun" was the first self-powered machine gun.
Leads to follow up on: 1) Missionary photographers used advances in photographic technology to take pictures of famine victims (pp 52, 147). 2) There was a lot of talk about the selling and eating of children during famines, but Davis does not analyze British or American use of this information - was it intended to condemn the victims for their actions, or to highlight the difficulty that the victims faced? 3) Many correspondents said that a particular horror of the famines was that wild animals, themselves starving, came out in droves to eat victims (pp 132, 137, 202). 4) Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reported on famines in India in 1897 for Cosmopolitan magazine (155). 5) Included among American organizations that sent famine relief: Native Americans, Kansas populists, and black church groups (165). 6) In 1965, a scholar named Esther Baserup "inverted Malthus," arguing that population growth was an engine, not a brake, to economic success (307).
Books to look for: Secondary: Gilbert Fite - The Farmers' Frontier, 1865-1900 (1987; Amazon link); Richard Grove - Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (1995; link to Google Books).