Author: Mike Davis

Published: Verso

Year: 2001


There has recently been a chorus of voices seeking to rehabilitate the legacy of the British Empire and present it as a benevolent and beneficent endeavour  that bestowed liberal values, education and human respect to backward societies suffering despotic rule. In other words ‘Empire’ had a civilizing rather than exploitive imperative.

The  Archbishop of York, John Sentamu on his enthronement speech  in November 2005 offered such a rosy picture: “Not all the Empire was a bad idea”. “English culture” had given the world parliamentary democracy and he was personally indebted to English teachers and missionaries who had come to his native Uganda.  In a recent African tour, Chancellor Gordon Brown observed that “the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward. We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it”.  Gordon Brown – who has a PhD in history – also called for more history teaching in schools as a means of coalescing a common national identity.

Such a one-sided glorification of the past does not stand up to the facts and figures presented in ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’.   Mike Davis provides an account of imperial arrogance and indifference:

“the European empires, together with Japan and the United States, rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tap novel resources of plantation and mine labour. What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century’s final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre”.

The quest for Britishness would be better served through honesty about the past, in particular the brutal racist nature of the British empire.  Jonathan Steele is quite correct in observing that “recognizing our true history is what the Chancellor’s Britishness campaign should focus on” (20th January 2006, The Guardian). 

Davis develops a ‘political ecology of famine’.  In the three years prior to the drought in Southern India in 1876, rice and wheat production in the rest of India had been above average.  Davis provides detailed accounts of the huge grain exports to England from parts of India, even once the famine started – “Londoners were in effect eating India’s bread”.  A troubled observer of that period noted, “It seems an anomaly that, with her famines on hand, India is able to supply food for other parts of the world”.

While crop prices spiraled out of reach of the masses, Viceroy Lord Lytton, recently appointed from his former post as ambassador to Portugal, was preoccupied with a grand durbar to proclaim Victoria Empress of India, and in making Indian public funds available to finance the British war against the Amir of Afghanistan.  A firm price control policy would have averted millions of deaths but this ran counter to Imperial calculations of their cost-benefit:

Although it was bad manners to openly air such opinions in front of the natives in Calcutta, Malthusian principles, updated by Social Darwinism, were regularly invoked to legitimize Indian famine policy at home in England.  Lytton, who justified his stringencies to the Legislative Council in 1887 by arguing that the Indian population “has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food on its soil,” most likely subscribed to the melancholy point of view expressed by Sir Evelyn Baring (afterwards Lord Cromer), the finance minister, in a later debate on the government’s conduct during the 1876-79 catastrophe. “Every benevolent attempt to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation”. In the same vein, an 1881 report  “concluded that 80% of the famine mortality were drawn from the poorest 20% of the population, and if such deaths were prevented this stratum of the population would still be unable to adopt prudent restraint.  Thus if the government spent more of its revenue on famine relief, an even larger proportion of the population would become penurious.

There were official attempt to obscure fatalities: “obdurate Bombay officials meanwhile continued to outrage Indians and incite charges of a cover-up in the press by refusing to publish any estimate of rural mortality.  Even Florence Nightingale was snubbed when she requested figures in early 1871. . . reports from the Madras districts indicated that at least 1.5 million had already died in the Presidency. In the driest Deccan districts like Bellary, one quarter of the population perished…by the summer of 1877, as the famine in Mysore approached its terrible apogee, social order was preserved only by terror.  When desperate women and their hungry children, for example attempt to steal from gardens or glean grain from fields, they were “branded, tortured, had their noses cut off, and sere sometimes killed”.

It is not lightly that Davis uses ‘holocaust’ to describe the experiences of the colonized peoples.  The lives of the Indian poor were expendable.  The impact was to be deeply felt by Indian spokespersons of the time, laying down a hatred of the Raj that would be bequeathed from one generation to the next.  Leaders like Tilak and Dadabahi emerged from this painful crucible, the latter declaring in 1876: “With a pressure of taxation nearly double in proportion to that of England, from an income of one-fifteenth, and an exhaustive drain besides, we are asked to compete with Britain in free trade?. . . [this is] a race between a starving, exhausted invalid, and a strongman with a horse to ride on”.  

When another failure of the mansoon rains occurred in the late 1890s, the Imperial response was equally heartless, driven now by considerations to fund the Boer war from Indian tax revenues.  Davis writes about the “immense grain stores piled up at the Bombay docks”, while the ordinary Indian starved:

 What surplus had been harvested in 1898 had been punctually confiscated by the moneylenders and tax-collectors. In the Punjab, for example, the agreeable harvest of kharif of 1897 and rabi of 1898 had been largely drawn on to pay up arrears of government dues and to pay the banias (moneylenders) for their overdrawn accounts of the famine years…..the British reaction was again as inflexibly ideological as any fundamentalist regime in history…when an incautious member of the Legislative Council in Calcutta, raised the problem of over-taxation, he was (in Boer War parlance) promptly ‘Stellenboshed’.  Although [Viceroy] Curzon’s own appetite for viceregal pomp and circumstance was notorious, he lectured starving villages that ‘any Government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any Government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralised the self-reliance of he population would be guilty of a public crime.

The Lancet recorded an excess mortality of 19 million for the period 1896-1902.

Davis offers insights in the way India had dealt  with mansoon failures before the age of Empire.  “The Mogul state”, he writes, “regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation.  Like their Chinese contemporaries, the Mogul rulers relied on a quartet of fundamental policies – embargos on food exports, antispeculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without a forced labour counter-part”.  He also notes “in contrast to the rigidity and dogmatism of British land-and-revenue settlements, both the Moguls and Marathas flexibly tailored their rule to take account of the crucial ecological relationships and unpredictable climate fluctuations of the subcontinent’s  drought-prone regions”.

‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ not only considers the political ecology of famines in India, but draws on experiences of colonized peoples in China, North Africa and Ethiopia.   Davis also offers a little known account of the role of British financial and commercial interests in Brazil in the nineteenth century. Through to the 1900s, London retained “quasi-veto power over major capital flows within the Brazilian economy”. Davis concludes that

“British control over Brazil’s foreign debt and thus its fiscal capacity [likewise] helps to explain the failure of either the [Braganca] empire or its successor republic to launch any antidrought developmental effort in the sertao. The zero-sum economic conflicts between Brazil’s rising and declining regions took place in a structured context where London banks, above all the Rothschilds, ultimately owned the money supply.  In common with India and China, the inability to politically regulate interaction with the world market at the very time when mass subsistence increasingly depended upon food entitlements acquired in international trade became a sinister syllogism for famine”.

Britain’s use of a country’s debt burden for leverage was not isolated.  Though outside the scope of Davis’ study, this came to the fore in the plight of Ottoman Turkey –  in the 1870s it surrendered administration of the state debt to a commission representing foreign investors. The debt commission collected public revenues and transferred the receipts directly to creditors in Europe, particularly Britain and France.

It is so ironic that in time Britain was itself to be subject to a war debt – a massive £70 billion war loan from the United States that was finally paid back only as recently as 2000. The effect of this debt on British foreign policy, particularly during the mid-1970s when the country had a severe balance of payments problem and was in trouble with the International Monetary Fund – remains to be fully told.

Davis’s study is limited to the Victorian era, but the pattern was to continue post-Victoriana.  The extent to which India financed Britain in World War I was a cause for concern even for a staunch Empire supporter like  Abdullah Yusuf Ali. A former under-secretary of Finance in the Government of India during British rule, he could write with some authority in 1917:

The dazzling gifts in cash and kind poured into the War pool of the Allied cause and into the War charities and loans by Indian princes and magnates, the Indian provinces, cities and corporate bodies must not blind us to the fact – the ever insistent fact in peace and war – that the mass of the people live in extreme poverty, and have no reserves to tide them over difficult times….In estimating India’s contribution to the military financing of this War we must not merely look at the figures of the extra expenditure she is now incurring, but also her military Budget for years past, compared to her local needs and to her own resources, in aid of imperial defence. If we place side by side the military budgets of Great Britain, India and the Dominions, and the proportion they bore to heir total budgets, we shall realize at once the enormous contribution which India has been making for years past towards the defence of the Empire, and which alone has enabled India to be first in the field, next to Great Britain, with a well-trained veteran army, complete with its equipment, immediately on the outbreak of the War.

  Military budget 1913-1914 Millions of £ Percentage to total budget revenue
Great Britain 28.2 14.5
India 18.2 22
Australia 2.5 10
Canada 1.5 5
South Africa 1.15 7.7

The figures for India refer to British India only, and do not include the cost of the Imperial Service troops maintained by the Indian States which are also a true contribution from year to year to the military strength of the Empire.  If British India had paid for her pre-war army the same percentage of her total revenue as Canada, she would only have paid about £4 million for her army, and saved £14 million.

In addition to this accumulated ‘Spandau  treasure’ of the British Empire, which has been contributed by India, India pays direct to the central Exchequer all the expenses, direct and indirect, of the troops she has furnished for fighting beyond the Indian frontiers… sum up [India’s] financial resources, public and private, such as they are, are being thrown into the pool.  She is clearing the decks fo ran unlimited War Loan.  Besides her direct contributions, India has given or released millions in short-term loans, and has helped most substantially, by refraining from borrowing in any available markets at the sacrifice of her needs and interests. . . ”

Recent scholarship has unraveled British actions in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Caroline Elkin’s account is significantly titled ‘ Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya’ (Jonathan Cape, 2005).  She has documented the huge scale of atrocities committed by British forces – the 320,000 Kikuyu held in concentration camps, the 1,090 hangings, the terrorization of villages, electric shocks, beatings and mass rape – and well over 100,000 deaths.

Yet historians like Niall Ferguson writes about the Empire in these terms, “No organisation, has done more to impose western norms of law, order and governance around the world”.  This is some fable, not serious history and is connected with the need to justify Pax Americana as heir to a glorious Pax Britannica.  Yet, as Jon Wilson of King’s College has pointed out, such “retro chic defence of new imperialism has alarmingly seeped out of the confines of its conservative redoubt into the mainstream”.  In his speech at the Fabian Society in January 2006 Gordon Brown offered a ringing account of the British genius for liberty (“Voltaire said that Britain gave to the the world the idea of liberty”) and he exhorted us to “to rediscover and build from our history”.  Let this then be a balanced account of the past, warts and all, including the horrors perpetrated under a façade of offering freedom and liberty.  How can second or third generation Muslims square up a whitewashed version of history with the oral history they hear at home?  Even the present reviewer, who came to Britain at the age of 14, has been brought up hearing family histories of grand-uncles placed in front of cannons and blown up, in retribution for the insurrection in Delhi in 1857, or of other relatives exiled to the dreaded Andoman Island, from where no one returned. In particular, let us remember this from Seamus Milne:

Britain’s empire was in reality built on genocide, vast ethnic cleansing, slavery, rigorously enforced racial hierarchy and merciless exploitation.  As the Cambridge historian puts it. “We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress – the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings”. (Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2005)

Finally, Mike Davis and his publishers are to be commended for the title of the book. It reminds us that holocaust is an inclusive term and cannot be appropriated to any one tragedy.  Davis explains:

In her somberly measured reflections, Reading the Holocaust, Inga Glendinnen ventures this opinion about the slaughter of innocents: “If we grant that ‘Holocaust’, the total consumption of offerings by fire, is sinisterly appropriate for the murder of those millions who found their graves in the air, it is equally appropriate for the victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden”.  Without using her capitalization (which implies too complete an equation between the Shoah and other carnages), it is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving “subjects” were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.

A historical study of the Victorian period is thus made immediately relevant to our own times.

M. A. Sherif, February 2006