Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wide Angle 46 - Late Victorian Holocausts - Part 1

Interesting things happening in the world, Japan, Libya, the Royal Wedding and then the daily recriminations for the Central Government of India, very interesting indeed. The weather here has turned warmer which means happier times. Writing this amidst reading certification material and cooking (all those skills picked up during the 7 months of forced bachelorhood are helping with wife falling ill, pat on self back). Today’s WA is about a controversial topic (at least in these globalized and politically correct times), it is about a book I read last month called “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the making of the Third World” by Mike Davis. I have attached the cover of this book (courtesy that will more or less give you the idea of what lies beneath. It was a huge emotional struggle reading this book – I am pretty much inured to human suffering having seen enough poverty and death (thankfully on TV but it is so regular in India), yet there were times when I stopped reading to calm down. That is also the reason I am writing about it after a while to write objectively.
Mike Davis is an American scholar and historian who has done significant study on the underprivileged around the world and generally traces the origins of these as well. He is also a leftist which makes him question the methods of the West (I am a left baiter but tip my hat to him on this one). The premise of the book is this – the late Victorian period is that from about 1870 to around 1910 was a time when European Imperialism was at its peak – the British rule in India was stable and under the crown, China was subdued, the Latin American countries were under the colonial toes and Africa was being rapidly conquered and carved up amongst the European powers. This was also the time when there were 3 major multi-year droughts that were worldwide in nature i.e. there was a failure of rains simultaneously in several countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America which led to deaths of millions of people and the impoverishment of swathes of populations across the world. The years of the droughts that led to famines and deaths were 1876-78, 1896-97, 1899-‘1902. I won’t go into specifics of how many died and when, read the book for it but it was simply millions in each of the affected countries, the descriptions by travellers of the starving, the dying and the dead shake you. What I will do here is outline the causes of these famines i.e. the El Nino phenomenon (ENSO to be precise), the colonial policies and then draw into why Indian government is the way it is right now. For simplicity sake, I will keep the discussion limited to India but what happened here was pretty much what happened in China, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and a host of other countries.
At the end, I will also establish that the colonial rule was NOT GOOD for India, if anyone says otherwise to you, throw this book in his face, you can also take a printout of this WA and throw it. To maintain brevity of reading at a time but ensure coverage, I will split this write up into two parts.

ENSO or the weather:
This phenomenon took a while to be discovered but what people finally know about the reason behind the worldwide failure of rains i.e. El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The world weather is essentially a result of winds and ocean currents that arise out of the Tropical Pacific ocean. This region absorbs and retains bulk of the solar energy. If you picture the Pacific Ocean on a flat plane, then Australia and Asia are on its West and the Americas are on its East. During the normal weather cycle, the warmer waters move westwards due to which moisture moves up into the atmosphere which the trade winds bring to Asia and Africa. This is also caused by the higher pressure on the East of the Pacific which causes the winds to move westwards towards Asia. The ocean is cold on the Americas coast (called Cold Tongue) and it is warm in the Indo Australian Convergence Zone (IACZ).
What happens during ENSO is that the trade winds that carry the heat westward in the Pacific suddenly reverse direction and flow eastward thus shifting the heat reservoir in the IACZ towards the central pacific. This reverses the direction of the pressure which is called the Southern Oscillation. The Eastern Pacific seaboard becomes warmer (hence the name El Nino – it is Spanish for Christ Child – this warming of water is observed by Fishermen around Christmas) and more winds flow towards it bringing it all the rain. Obviously, the IACZ countries don’t get this rainfall which brings in drought. It took about 150 years to find out that this is what happens and it has not been firmly established yet why this happens – meanwhile the colonial era scientists conjured up theories like sun spots to explain the droughts.
El Nino is also followed by La Nina which bring more than usual rainfall for a long period of time like the droughts which are also multi year.

Droughts and Famines:
Before going further, let me explain the difference between a drought and a famine. A drought is when rain fails, crops don’t grow and there is a dearth of grains available for the population – droughts are regular occurrences and do not necessarily cause deaths. A famine on the other hand is drought 10x where not only do the crops fail and grain is scarce but people die because they cannot afford to buy food due to high prices. What caused these famines and the many deaths as against the past (similar droughts were recorded during the Mughal and earlier times as well) was that most of the grain surplus was diverted for other purposes, government did not carry out any relief efforts due to indifference and dogma and the incessant demands on tax revenue (the movie Lagaan seems to be very historically accurate apart from the cricket). Apologists of the empire simply blame the weather for the deaths saying they were helpless, the facts say otherwise.

Worldwide effect:
Before I delve into the Indian context, let me give a round-up of what happened around the world. These types of famines and the descriptions of death were common in most of the countries. The pattern was also common. I will pick China and Brazil. China was too difficult for the British to conquer directly so they softened the population by infusing opium and then weakening them (more on this later), the emperor had become a puppet in Western hands due to which they had to yield to exorbitant tributary demands that led to continuous heavy taxation of the people. When the droughts struck, due to the taxation and the broke down local governments, food distribution ceased to exist leading to middlemen hoarding and selling grains at inflated prices. Mortality estimates show 9.5 million dead during 1877-78 and about 1 million during 1892-94. Similar fate struck the Sertao region of Brazil, which forms 2/3rd of the country. Rains failed for years, taxation continued, people ran out of food and couldn’t buy any, started dying or killing each other as well as migrating to the coasts. Areas that were lush green in 1868 had become dry deserts ten years later, death toll in millions again.
Some scenes as described by travellers and missionaries in China and Brazil. “Many towns and villages were almost empty...nothing but echo of our own footsteps as we hurried through...cities of the dead. We had the curiosity to enter into one of these houses, but the sight that awaited us there gave us both so terrible a shock that we went into no more. The misery was too deep to be discussed. Only in some homes were the dead in coffins or bricked in by their foil the certain alternatives of being exhumed and eaten by starving neighbours.” “The sad procession paraded along the streets of the capital at all hours...Real animated skeletons, with skin blackened by the dust from the roads and stuck to their skeletons, with skin blackened by the dust from the roads and stuck to their bones, held out their hands begging from everyone they met.”

Spoils of famine:
The misfortune of Asian and African countries came in handy for the predatory European colonial powers and their sweet tongued tail – the missionaries. Independent African nations so far were weakened due to the droughts which gave the Europeans opportunities to expand and that they did. A lot many African nations lost their independence during these times on the back of the famines and Maxim guns. China and Korea were further humbled by imposition of more unfair trade practices and taxation burden because of weakened populations. These tragedies were also god-sent (pun intended) for the Christian missionaries who elevated their “targets” and harvested souls in millions. The lasting effects of this bout of colonialism and conversions is still seen around the world (especially Africa where natural peoples and their nations were first conquered and later re-made which has resulted in ethnic strife in the now independent nations).

Fight back:
Local populations did not take this lying down at all – there were multiple revolutions especially in China. One of the movements which lasted for years and had many recruits was the Boxer Revolution. Blaming the problems on the foreigners, this movement of peasants killed foreigners or their local collaborators before being crushed finally by a consortium of European and Chinese forces. It was fearing this nationalist backlash in India (which had manifested in V.B.Phadke’s rebellion in the Deccan as an example) that A.O.Hume influenced the British government and formed the Indian National Congress to provide a safeguard for such “feelings”.
So much for today, will conclude this article in the next part where I will write specifically on what our “ex-masters” did to us in India – apologize for this rather boring write up today but I wanted to set the context and go round the world before writing the “fun” stuff i.e. India. What will follow will be horrifying and illuminating in equal measure. More than anything, this is a story that has to be told to every generation to help them realize what happens when you hand over your destiny to people whose interests don’t align with yours.