IN THE late Victorian era, two successive great waves of drought and famine swept much of the world. First in 1876-79, then in 1896- 1900, huge swathes of India, northern China and Brazil were devastated. At least 30 million, perhaps 60 million, people died in those countries alone. Lesser but still murderous crop failures hit many other parts of the tropics and south - from Java to southern Africa, Korea to Ethiopia. The total global death-toll can only be guessed, but was almost certainly greater than for any other disaster in recorded history, except perhaps the Black Death. The word Holocaust - though some people dislike its use for anything except the Nazi Shoah - seems entirely appropriate.
The immediate cause was El Nino (the Christ-child): a periodic over-heating of the southern Pacific which, in a pattern only discovered in the late 1960s, creates a potentially disastrous complex of side-effects including failure of the monsoon rains. Nature's fury, though, produced only potential disaster. As always, it was human action and inaction that turned it into hideous actuality.
As Amartya Sen was the first to show, people very rarely die simply because there isn't enough food to go round. When shortages strike, it is economic structures, social networks and political decisions that produce famine. That, Mike Davis argues, was powerfully true of the late Victorian "El Nino famines". In the short run, people died in their millions not just because their crops failed but because their rulers were incompetent, uncaring and suffused with racist, colonial contempt.
But broader forces were at work too: those that contemporary critics called "the New Imperialism". As the great powers of the day - with Britain at their head - completed carving up the globe into colonies and (as in China) less formalised spheres of influence, they also cemented a new world financial system and a new international division of labour. Many parts of the non- European world, previously self-sufficient in basic foods, were now forced into being suppliers of cheap raw materials for the rich countries.
Their governments, whether mere colonial appointees or nominally independent indigenous rulers, would not or dare not follow policies - like large- scale famine relief - which challenged that new world order. Some, indeed, grasped at the devastation wrought by famine as an opportunity to …