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White Man’s Burden: Indian Holocaust 


In trying to buttress his thesis about the death of 32-61 million people from famines in India, China and Brazil in the 19th century, author and political activist Mike Davis poses the question: “How do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died along railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots?” 

Davis, a winner of the $315,000 Mac Arthur Foundation grant given annually to “exceptionally creative individuals,” answers his question in the book Late Victorian Holocausts (Published by Verso, $27). Its second title: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. 

He argues that while the El Nino weather phenomenon contributed to the droughts in the last third of the 19th century, the death of millions was due to the arrogance and callous policies of imperialist powers. He slams the official British explanation that millions were killed by extreme weather. 

The killer, Davis argues, was imperialism. 

If the governments had made serious efforts to use transportation system to benefit the poor, he says, there would not have been a famine holocaust. He notes that the British  rulers launched public work programs to fight famine in India but the workers, already emaciated, got such poor food that their health deteriorated further. 

Davis asserts that what is known as the Third World today was born in the late 19th century; the seeds of underdevelopment were sown during the height of imperialism. The price for capitalist modernization and the industrial revolution was paid in the blood and toil of farmers’ lives. 

Mike Davis, 52, is one of the most controversial political writers in America. The son of a meat cutter, Davis dropped out of high school to follow his father’s profession. 

But he went back to college when he was in his late 20s studying economics and history at University of California, Los Angeles, became active in leftist organizations such as Students for Democratic Society, and moved to London in the early 1980s to edit the New Left Review. 

Among his widely discussed books is City of Quartz, a bitter indictment of the whites who run Los Angeles—and the economic disparity and racial politics. His critics have slammed him for exaggerating racial and political issues confronting the city. But his backers see him as a perceptive critic and a conscience keeper who does not hesitate to speak out his mind. 

Winning the Mac Arthur award helped Davis to continue the research that resulted in the present book. Though Late Victorian Holocausts was published by a small avowedly leftist press in New York, it is getting plenty of attention in mainstream publications. 

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who gave it a page-long review in The New York Times Book Review, found the book “gripping” and “highly informative.” 

Sen, however, also points out that imperialist and capitalist countries are not the only ones who failed in combating famine. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union and China faced famines; in China, an estimated 30 million people died in a famine that raged for three years from 1958.


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