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In , shortly before the death of Queen Victoria, the radical writer William Digby looked back to the Madras famine and confidently asserted: "When the part played by the British Empire in the 19th century is regarded by the historian 50 years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument.

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis charts the unprecedented human suffering caused by a series of extreme climactic conditions in the final quarter of the 19th century. The death tolls were staggering: around 12m Chinese and over 6m Indians in alone.

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The chief culprit, according to Davis, was not the weather, but European empires, with Japan and the US. Their imposition of free-market economics on the colonial world was tantamount to a "cultural genocide".

These are strong words. Yet it's hard to disagree with them after reading Davis's harrowing book. Development economists have long argued that drought need not lead to famine; well-stocked inventories and effective distribution can limit the damage.

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In the 19th century, however, drought was treated, particularly by the English in India, as an opportunity for reasserting sovereignty. During Lytton, widely suspected to be insane, ignored all efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria's investiture as Empress of India. The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast of lucullan excess at which 68, dignitaries heard her promise the nation "happiness, prosperity and welfare".

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Lytton believed in free trade. He did nothing to check the huge hikes in grain prices, Economic "modernization" led household and village reserves to be transferred to central depots using recently built railroads.

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Much was exported to England, where there had been poor harvests. Telegraph technology allowed prices to be centrally co-ordinated and, inevitably, raised in thousands of small towns. Relief funds were scanty because Lytton was eager to finance military campaigns in Afghanistan.

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Conditions in emergency camps were so terrible that some peasants preferred to go to jail. A few, starved and senseless, resorted to cannibalism. This was all of little consequence to many English administrators who, as believers in Malthusianism, thought that famine was nature's response to Indian over-breeding.

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  • It used to be that the late 19th century was celebrated in every school as the golden period of imperialism. Note, however, that the pace and writing style are for those who like to think and savor a story slowly.

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