If you have any illusions that British rule in India had any positive side,Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis will totally relief you of that opinion. I recently read a very good history of the Irish famines in which the author said in terms of sheer numbers it was not as bad as the famines in Russia and China in the 20th century but never mentioned that there was a far worst famine in India famines in the 1870s in which 60 million people died I think what shocked me so much in this book was that it exposed the depth to which my view of history has been shaped by historians who see the process of "westerning" the world as progress.
If I were to divide my five decades plus of near compulsive reading, one decade at least would have been devoted reading history but I was completely stunned by the revelations in this book. Most people have no knowledge of these famines and those few who do, as Davis shows us, attribute them to bad weather. Davis explains that very few of the great famines of modern history were caused by a lack of food. It is caused by the poor not having the means to buy the available food. (There was plenty of food to feed the Irish but social planners thought giving out free food would encourage idleness. ). Indian troops with English officers stood guard in front of huge granneries while millions starved. Indian land was planted in cotton to be either shipped to the UK or sold in India. This was part of the cause of the famines. I know now Gandhi knew this. Davis explains how El Nino weather patterns worked to limit the rainfall in India, China and Brazil. He also talks of large scale famine deaths in the Philippines in the 1870s under Spanish rule (I live in the Philippines and have read many books on it history and this not in any of the standard histories.. The old ones were all written by Spanish clerics.)
Davis begins his book with a horrifying description of the famines. I do not want to get into a "whose famine was worse" contest but my first impression was that that in India was worse than Ireland in terms of human suffering and in terms of the moronic and immoral way the country was administered by the British. At the height of the famine Lord Lytton, ruler of Indian, and his staff were only concerned with not turning Indians into idlers by giving them free food. When he did give free food to those in work houses, he gave less than was given in German concentration camps. The rulers of Indian puppet states were all lackeys of the English and were often worse then them in terms of their indifference to human suffering.
Davis explains how much of the suffering was caused by the transition of India, China and Brazil from small subsistence farmer economies to capitalistic societies. The famines had large scale social consequences. The spawned the Boxer rebellion in China and created many religious cults. Before around 1776 the average Indian peasant lived better than an English or European slum dweller or tenant farmer . This began to shift as England took more and more of the resources of India.
Davis expands history to explain how these famines brought in the poverty of the third world and contributed to their stagnation and decline. Davis in one the most shocking parts of the book explains that from 1759 to 1947 when India was freed the per capita income stayed the same. Before colonial masters took over, Indian and China had a good record in dealing with famines, better than Europe. Under British rule in India there was a famine every four year, but in the previous two thousand years there was only one famine a century.
Davis shows how Indian was made to pay for the cost of the British army and when their planners tried to impose European systems of agricultural management the results were disastrous.
Davis backs up everything he says. I was amazed by how much I did not know but even more amazed by how much of what I though I knew was wrong. Davis also gave me lots of good reading ideas about Indian history. He also talks extensively about famines in Africa and Brazil.
This a very serious book which destroys the myths prevalent in western societies about the causes of poverty in the third world. I am quite sure that many western politicians including recent American presidents and presidential candidates subscribe to the idea that people in the third world are "poorer" than westerners because they are somehow lazy, decadent and in many cases non-Christian. Davis also explains the terrible way China treated its people during the great leap forward period so he is not just a "left historian".
If you want to understand much of what is going on the world today, this book is a good place to start.
My great thanks goes out to Max u for providing me with a gift card that allowed me to read this book.
|Named a Macarthur Fellow in 1998, he was also honored for distinguished achievement in nonfiction writing this past fall by the Lannan Literary Foundation. Professor Davis is the author of more than 20 books and more than 100 book chapters and essays in the scholarly and elite popular press. His scholarly interest span urban studies, the built environment, economic history and social movements. Perhaps his best know book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles was named a best book in urban politics by the American Political Science Association and won the Isaac Deutscher Award from the London School of Economics and has been translated into eight languages|