Climate of death in colonial politics

May 11, 2001

Brian Fagan says lessons should be learnt from 19th-century disasters.

Global warming caused by humans, El Niños, monsoon failures and unprecedented rainfall in Europe - we live in environmentally unstable times. We are now discovering that the Victorians did as well. What we know as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (Enso) events - named after seesaw-like oscillations of ocean temperature and air pressure in the east-central Pacific - have long shifted rainfall and wind patterns without warning throughout the tropics, causing monsoons to fail. We know, for example, that powerful late 19th-century El Niños helped to kill millions of tropical farmers through drought, epidemic and famine. Until recently, historians dismissed such episodes as "climatic accidents", as footnotes to greater events. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World shows that the accidents were not so accidental after all.

In 1898, the celebrated Victorian biologist Alfred Russel Wallace compiled a balance sheet for the 19th century. He considered the slum poverty of the industrial cities and catastrophic famines in China and India the "most terrible failures" of the century. Charles Dickens immortalised the Victorian slum, but generations of historians have ignored the global droughts and famines that engulfed much of the world at the height of the Victorian era. Historian Mike Davis calls these disasters the "secret history of the 19th century".

Even the figures are daunting. The great drought of 1875-76 affected northern China, North Africa and the tropical monsoon belt. Renewed famine followed this global subsistence crisis in 1888-89. A third of the population of Ethiopia and Sudan perished. Famine raged over much of Russia, India and Korea. In 1896-1901, the monsoons failed yet again. Catastrophic epidemics decimated tropical populations from northeast Brazil, across the tropics and into northern China.

The European imperial powers moved in, wrestling new colonies from the chaos. The final blaze of 19th-century imperial expansion was built on a funerary pyre of African and Asian farmers. Between 30 million and 50 million people perished in these three vast holocausts, more than in all conventional warfare throughout the century, with the exception of China's Taiping revolution of 1851-64, which claimed between 20 million and 30 million lives.

Davis chronicles the compelling environmental, economic and political forces behind these catastrophes. Parts one and two are conventional narrative history, the story of how catastrophic droughts descended on many tropical regions at a time of major economic change when global grain markets were calling the tune for the first time. Except for Ethiopia in 1899, absolute food scarcity was never the issue. Newly founded international commodities markets, and price speculation, made the difference between life and death. India, for example, exported thousands of tons of grain during times of severe drought when millions starved. This callous, imperial self-interest contrasted dramatically with the example of Ethiopia's Menelik II, who struggled with inadequate resources to save his people from famine.

Davis argues that the poverty-stricken subjects of his book were "ground to bits" between the teeth of "implacable" cogwheels, by the congruence of major climatic fluctuations and the new and emerging Victorian global economy. During the 1870s, the price of wheat in Liverpool and the level of rainfall in Madrid were linked in the same "vast equation of human survival". The first six chapters give examples of this malign interaction. Farmers in Brazil, India and Morocco were already suffering under a global depression when they perished by the millions in the drought of 1877-78. These millions died not because their lands were enmired in famine, but because no attempts were made to provide relief and save lives. The holocaust stemmed from deliberate policies adopted thousands of miles away and implemented at the local level by colonial officials. The new imperialism of the late Victorians thought nothing of exploiting people weakened by natural disaster and epidemic disease. Each famine, each catastrophe, was a green light for the grabbing of more territory, more agricultural land.

Davis believes that monsoon failures and the seesaw-like fluctuations of El Niño and its counterpart La Nina lay behind what he calls "climates of hunger". Part three of Late Victorian Holocausts describes the climatology that is reshaping our knowledge of global weather. The science is laid out clearly and unselfconsciously, just as if it were a discussion of conventional historical sources. But Davis is careful to point out that for all its newfound sophistication, palaeo-climatology has serious limitations. For periods before 1875, historical records such as those used by the climatologist William Quinn will always remain critical in amplifying tree rings, ice cores, coral isotope ratios and other scientific esoterica.

From climatology, Davis moves on to the "political ecology of famine". What historians have often called "climatic accidents" may not, in fact, be accidents at all. Environmental instability caused by Ensos and other climatic events have always been powerful factors in modern tropical history. But such episodes did not, in themselves, cause events such as the global famine of 1898-99. Davis points to the great El Nibo-caused northern Chinese famine of 1786-87. The Chinese authorities of the day organised highly effective famine relief. At the height of the drought, the authorities supported more than 2 million people with imported grain. But they could not do the same in the late 19th century, when a combination of flood control failures in the Yellow River valley and huge price increases because of world market forces caused millions to perish.

In India, the relatively flexible rule of the Mughals and Marathas gave way to the rigid dogmatism of the British Raj. The inexorable demands of the global marketplace and British taxation took precedence over any degree of human suffering. The victims were traditional societies in the countryside that functioned on the basis of ties of kinship and reciprocity. As small-holders were forced into larger commodity and financial circuits, marginal subsistence producers were devoured by the new market realities. Railroads and other infrastructure improvements were introduced not to provide famine relief, but to simplify the export of foodstuffs.

Loss of sovereignty meant increased vulnerability. The result - the creation of a "third world", millions of have-nots. By 1900, the forces of imperialism and a new global economy, reinforced by drought and famine, had created a yawning gap between the industrial nations and the third world, which encompassed much of the tropical globe.

Late Victorian Holocausts is a tour de force of multidisciplinary research, which places climatic change centre stage in recent history. Davis leaves us in no doubt that the vagaries of climate change are a new player on the historical stage, no longer to be dismissed as an irrelevant backdrop. He also offers a sobering lesson in climatic and environmental climatic vulnerability that applies with equal and even more devastating force in today's world. Anyone who doubts the power of climatic change in the past, and the overbearing clout of anonymous political policies executed half a world away, should read this remarkable book. There are compelling lessons here for historian, climatologist and policy-maker alike.

Davis has given us not only a magnificent lesson in broad-brushed history, but a reminder that we ignore the lessons of past climate change at our peril. It would be very easy for us to lose another 50 million people to drought, famine and disease because of draconian, inhumane policies far away.

Brian Fagan is professor of archaeology, University of California, Santa Barbara, United States, and author of Famines and Emperors: El Niño and the Collapse of Civilization .

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