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
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
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
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.