52 pages 1 hour read

Mike Davis

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2000

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Introductory Paragraph

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World is an award-winning environmental and economic history published in 2001 by historian Mike Davis. Davis studies the causes and impacts of three interconnected drought-famines that impacted South America, South and Southeast Asia, and East Asia during the late 19th century. He suggests that colonial administrations were largely responsible for the devastation these droughts caused: Their policies of extraction left local populations newly vulnerable to crop failures, and the relief they offered was insufficient and tied to punitive work requirements. When imperial authorities did make relief available, it was contingent on famine victims’ ability to provide labor. Environmental determinism alone does not explain these events of the late 19th century. Political ecology illuminates the reasons for these catastrophes. Capitalism and imperialism worsened these natural crises, according to Davis, and gave rise to an impoverished “third world” that persists today. The book made the Los Angeles Times 2001 Best Books list and won the World History Association’s annual book award in 2002.

This guide uses the 2017 paperback edition published by Verso.

Content Warning: This book discusses topics that some readers may find unsettling, including genocide, starvation, and cannibalism. It also includes images of famine victims.


Late Victorian Holocausts argues that the modern “third world” (or developing world) is a product of imperial policies arising in Europe—and especially in England—in the late 19th century. Davis focuses on three interrelated drought-famines: from 1876-79; from 1889-91; and from 1896-1902. These disasters impacted much of the non-Western world, though the book focuses primarily on India, northern China, and Brazil’s arid northern backland.

These regions are strongly affected by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)—a weather pattern generated by warming in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperature as warm water currents head east from Australia toward South America. ENSO spawns periodic droughts in these areas, and in the late 19th century, these droughts often led to devastating famines. Davis argues that the famines were not a necessary outcome of the droughts, nor do overpopulation and underdevelopment fully explain them, as Western thinkers commonly assert. Instead, these disasters were the direct result of imperial policies that incorporated the non-West into a new, global marketplace controlled by London and supported by racist, Social Darwinist ideas that blamed famine victims for their own starvation by casting them as incompetent and indolent. The British, for example, imported their exploitative poorhouses to India, which Indigenous people viewed as worse than jail because of the inhumane conditions. The British Raj’s extravagant spending in India for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee stands in stark contrast to the thousands of famine-victims who starved during the same period. This contrast exemplifies Davis’s contention that a shortage of resources was not the exclusive cause of drought-famine. Capitalist accumulation helped drives these disasters.

This global market, Davis argues, was not an omnipotent and independent force of nature, as free market proponents would have one believe. Rather, the West created and fostered this market, exploiting colonized lands in the process. The promotion of cash crops in India and China, for instance, hindered subsistence agriculture that could have otherwise saved lives during the famines. The world’s leading imperial powers “rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tap novel sources of plantation and mine labor” (8). For example, the British Raj enclosed Indian forests as private property, preventing people from collecting communal resources that could have helped them to survive. Davis argues that mass mortality was a “policy choice” (11). He suggests that, “The great Victorian famines were forcing houses and accelerators of the very socio-economic forces that ensured their occurrence in the first place” (16). These purposeful, imperialist decisions have left the globe blighted by social and economic inequality.