Victorian Holocausts & the Tory killing machine

By Daniel Margrain

Author Milan Kundera’s aphorism that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” might well have been written for Britain’s poor, mentally ill and disabled who lately have slipped from the media headlines and hence the consciousness of the wider public. To their credit, shortly before the last General Election, the Mirror newspaper reminded their readers how many ordinary mentally-ill and disabled people who had nothing to do with causing the financial crisis had committed suicide which the Tory government had attempted to cover-up.

Although initially the opposition from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to releasing figures highlighting the number of Incapacity Benefit and ESA claimants who had died between November 2011 and May 2014 was solid, increasing political pressure from below meant that they were eventually forced into releasing the information by the Information Commissioner (IC). The DWP Secretary at that time, Iain Duncan Smith, who admitted that his department has a “duty of care” to benefit claimants, disingenuously insisted that there was no evidence of a ‘causal link’ between the governments work capability assessment (WCA) and the subsequent 590 recorded deaths from suicide, despite the fact that the coroners findings stated that all of the deaths “certainly aren’t linked to any other cause”.

It’s clear that the DWP under Iain Duncan Smith practiced ‘chequebook euthanasia’  in which “WCA assessors used psychological ‘nudge’ techniques to push the mentally-ill towards suicide in order to reduce the ‘burden’ on society caused by these “useless eaters”.  A year down the line, and with Duncan Smith gone, many people hoped that there would be a change in policy direction. But this has been to no avail. After announcing that the government had “no further plans” for benefit cuts in March of this year, Duncan Smith’s replacement, Stephen Crabb has recently said to have gone back on his word.

Crabb has implied that six years of “welfare reforms” (euphemism for £12 billion of cuts) look set to continue for the sick and disabled which will almost certainly result in yet more unnecessary deaths among some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Mike Sivier has correctly, in my view, described this Tory policy as a “war of attrition” that “may clearly be seen as a genocide”. This form of ‘chequebook euthanasia’ would not be possible without the intervention of Chancellor, Gideon Osborne, who oversees the writing of the cheques.

The attempts by the Tories to humiliate and inflict immense suffering on the weakest in society, in what film-maker Ken Loach described as the British governments “conscious cruelty” towards them, would not have come as any surprise to Osborne’s Victorian counterparts. These Victorian politicians would have shared with the Tory Chancellor an ideological commitment towards ending ‘welfare dependency’ which then, as now, lofty sounding morals were regularly evoked.

One of Osborne’s prominent 19th century counterparts was ‘India’s Nero’, Lord Lytton. Queen Victoria’s ‘favourite opium-smoking poet’, vehemently opposed efforts to interfere with ‘market forces’. In 1877-78 he rubber-stamped the export of a record amount of wheat grain to Europe rather than relieve starvation in India. During the late 19th century, India, under Lytton, had effectively become a Utilitarian laboratory where millions of lives were wagered against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets overcoming the “inconvenience of dearth”.

A similar Utilitarian laboratory had been established by Britain in Ireland during this late Victorian period. Under the tutelage of free market zealot, Chancellor Lord Charles Trevelyan, the Irish famine ‘relief effort’ was put into place that resulted in a politically-induced genocide no different in principle to the ‘chequebook euthanasia’ policy of the modern day Tories. The tragedy of the famine is commemorated by people from all over the world who, next Saturday (May 21), will descend on the beautiful County Mayo coastline in the west of Ireland to take part in the annual ten mile Famine Walk from Doo Lough to Louisburgh – the town where on the night of March 30, 1849, hundreds of starving people arrived seeking relief and workhouse shelter.

They were met at the shelter by the local Poor Law guardians whose role was to ‘inspect’them as certification for their ‘official pauper’ status. This would then supposedly entitle them to a ration of food to be eaten the following morning at a fishing establishment called Delphi Lodge owned by the Marquess of Sligo, ten miles away. Many didn’t arrive at their destination having died from exposure to the harsh elements or through starvation. The few that did make it were refused the relief they were told they were entitled to and they died on their homeward journey, with the bodies remaining where they fell.

Such tragedies were common in Ireland in the mid-19th century. By 1871 the population of Ireland had halved, with at least 1.5 million dead. Two million fled to America, many of them dying during the voyage or on arrival. The historian and critic, Terry Eagleton, describes the famine as “the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe, an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack.”  In echoing the kind of detached but scornful class-based attitude the contemporary ruling elite have towards their working class minions Trevelyan, in a rather casually racist manner, said of the Irish:

“The great evil with which we have to contend, is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Lord Clarendon, an establishment Anthony Wedgewood (Tony) Benn, of his day, pleaded with the Liberal PM, Lord Russell to intervene, stating:

“Surely this is a state of things to justify you asking the House of Commons for an advance. For I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in such a policy of extermination.”

Clarendon’s call for Russell to intervene wasn’t heeded and neither were similar calls to prevent famines in other nations during the Victorian colonial era – China, India, Egypt, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia and Sudan. In the latter two countries alone, an estimated one-third of the populations died. The European empires, together with Japan and the United States, rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tap novel sources of plantation and mine labour. As Mike Davis points out:

“What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century’s final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre. The total human toll…could not of been less than 30 million victims. Fifty million dead might not be unrealistic.”

The famines of the Victorian era continue to resonate today. Then, as now, they are a symptom of social and economic policies that result in unnecessary deaths. Even in the 19th century this was well understood. The radical journalist and humanitarian, William Digby, principal chronicler of the 1876 Madras famine, as well as famed naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, both viewed mass starvation as an avoidable political tragedy not ‘natural’ disaster. Published in 1898, Wallace characterized the famines in India and China, together with the slum poverty of the industrial cities, as “the most terrible failures of the century.”

Millions died, not outside the capitalist system but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. Indeed, they were murdered by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Locke, Hobbes, Bentham, Malthus and Mill in much the same way as hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of today’s poor, mentally ill and disabled have, under the Tories, died as a result of the neoclassical economic Chicago School’s application of the sacred principles of Friedman and Stigler. The consensus view among the ruling class of the Victorian era was that famine was deemed to be morally justifiable as a “salutary cure for over-population.”

Today, over 3 million of the world’s children die (needlessly) from hunger. Indebted countries are forced to export food as a ‘free-market’ commodity while the producers are denied their own produce and many of them go hungry, and their children starve. That is what happened in Ireland and India. In Trevelyan and Lytton’s day it was known as Liberalism. Today it is known as ‘neoliberalism’. “England made the famine”, wrote the Irish socialist, James Connolly, “by a rigid application of the economic principles that lie at the base of capitalist society.” In essence, nothing has changed. The ruling class attitude towards the poor and sick who suffer as a result of the political consequences and actions of those who rule over them, is as embedded today as it was a century and a half ago.

18 thoughts on “Victorian Holocausts & the Tory killing machine

  1. Thankyou for writing such a refreshingly honest peice that doesn’t seek to justify the horrors colonialism forced upon the indigenous populations. What also often seems to be omitted is the appalling conditions suffered by the population of this country. You need only to read Dickens to discover the squalor of the working class here. Empire benefitted the elites the rest of us paid the price. Much like today’s globalism little has changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tina. Yes, I agree with you about Dickens but also Engels was a very important chronicler.


    1. I tried to illustrate an historical continuum, Kate. As far as the ruling class are concerned we really are, and have always been, considered to be utterly disposable and they treat us with utter contempt. I’m convinced that most are sympathetic to Nazi-fascist ideology.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Not yet read this completely Daniel but it’s worth bearing in mind that the Mughal rulers of pre British Colonial India also did nothing to relieve famine either … and there is modern evidence to show that the single largest famine ever to hit the Sub Continent was actually some time before major British Commercial Incursions there …( I’ll try and get details on that I know it’s somewhere on line ) but even more important is to be aware that inscriptions on stones and cast metal plates going back into the midst of times suggest that major famines happened every 40 or so years in India and over the whole sub continent with even greater frequency of occurrences after the beginning of the twelfth century ….hardly an excuse for the Colonialists morals and decisions but worth bearing in mind nonetheless. Good whole Wikipedia page on Indian Famine


  3. for example The Chelisa Famine ( 1783 ) and The Doji Bari Famine ( 1789-1795 ) which took place in then non British Influenced areas of India ) combined – killed an estimated 22, 000, 000 people . In Mike Davis’s book ‘Llate Victorian Holocausts , the first gets a passing mention , the second none at all . Also he conjures up a death rate of 11 Million for the 1896 / 7 famine based on an uncited remark given by viceroy Lord Elgin at the time but the accepted figure approved by the contemporary Indian critic Romanesh Dutt accepts the official estimates of One Million . ( One Million is bad enough but why exaggerate ?)


    1. Davis’ book focused on the late Victorian era of the mid 19th century onward so the famines you mentioned were not relevant within this time frame. In April 1897 Elgin conceded that 4.5 million had perished although – quoting Filon – Davis argued that the real number was said to have been closer to 18 million The Missionary Review of the World denounced the British governments downplaying of the severity of the crisis. Moreover, the Indian National Congress charged, and the British later conceded, that revenue extractions threatened the subsistence of the poor. By the winter of 1896-97, in one Indian district alone (Gantur) an incredible 40% of residents perished unnecessarily. The contrast with capitalist famines to pre-capitalist famines is that the latter were largely not preventable.


      1. No – the Famine of 1899 / 1900 was the one that killed between 1, 000 , 000 and possibly 4,500,000 at the upper level of estimation . . The 1896 / 7 one is now kind of accepted as being closer to a Million generally . How were pre capitalist famines so totally non preventable ? Were the Maretha and Mughal Emperors not rich ? – did they not command large groups of executives, servants , and peasants who did their bidding ? Or maybe they as simple Muslims unsullied by Western Capital did’nt yet possess the agency required for such efforts …..


      2. You asked why Davis didn’t mention the famines you highlighted. I explained that the reason was because it’s irrelevant to the remit of his book. The famine of 1899/1900 is not the one I was referring to. I’ll quote directly from Davis’ book (p.152) to help clarify matters for you:

        “The next month [April 1897] Elgin…conceded that 4.5 million people had perished. Behramji Malabari, the nationalist editor of the Indian Spectator, countered, plague victims included, that the real number was probably closer to 18 million.”

        19th/20th century capitalism, unlike the class-based economic systems that preceded it, had the productive capacity to feed the world.


      3. Yes it is highly likely that as as many as 18 Million people died from ‘ famine related causes ‘ in the total period 1896-1902 …I’ll respond to this at slightly more length shortly as I studied this at ‘A ‘Level back in the 80’s and it was (like much of the British Colonial story ) much more of a mixed bag than I believe your’e making it sound . A great deal of famine relief was actually brought into play in this time but many variables ( including some cultural ones ) such as late Monsoon’s bringing Malaria on a sudden and massive scale were simply hard to address .

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on canisgallicus and commented:
    Fear – absolute fear. Shamefully people with mental illness in all its manifestations including neuroscience, are easy Prey to cut their Incapacity entitlements … Recently the House of Lords decided not to cut the £30 reduction put forward by the Tories and the House of Commons. This is an excellent article; it contextualises and highlights the travesties of justice visited upon the colonies of Empires. We must learn from experience and be thankful to an 80 year old Mr Ken Loach for his film – we should stand ashamed and responsible for those who have died or committed suicide because of benefit cuts so savage that starvation is probable and suicide becomes a necessity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with every syllable of that. Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute. Much appreciated.


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