Three great global droughts, in 1876-1879, 1889-1891, and 1896-1900, afflicted much of the most populous part of the tropical world in the late nineteenth century. These droughts were the result of what we can now recognize as a more or less regular succession of mega-climatic events known as El Niño. These phenomena occurred previously, notably in the late eighteenth century, but the late nineteenth century events were extraordinarily severe, and death by starvation and disease was on a staggering, unprecedented scale. Estimates of the number who perished range from thirty-one million to sixty-one million people. The sheer magnitude of what can rightly be called a holocaust of non-Western peoples has generally been obscured by a persistent metropolitan perspective, by the social distance from mass suffering of colonial administrative elites and by historians incurious about, or dismissive of, such “cycles of Cathay.” It is a signal service of this impressive, eloquent study that the dimension of this human suffering on a global scale has been both exposed and foregrounded in the operation of late-Victorian formal and informal imperialisms.
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