… The 1890s were a time of starvation and revolt. It was a decade of environmental catastrophe, economic depression and savage colonial wars. It was also the golden age of liberal capitalism and global imperialism, a time when the combination of industrial manufactures and Western arms had penetrated almost every corner of the world. In the 1890s, most people still lived on the knife-edge of subsistence, stalked by the threat of drought and flood, boom and bust. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis argues that the El Niño-driven famines that characterized this era, exacerbated by political forces, helped to create the Third World. Climate oscillations put millions in jeopardy, while new technologies reduced them to the status of laboring machines and made armed resistance seem futile. In response, people pursued politics by other means. Messiahs and prophets walked the land offering fiery predictions and magical cures. Their movements confronted despair with millenarian longing. Their methods combined mysticism with violence.
In the United States, the 1890s are an almost forgotten time. The whole stretch of American history between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s is gray area in popular memory, but the 1890s are especially blank, occupying a dead zone in between “Deadwood” and “Boardwalk Empire.” The decade lacked wild frontiers to mythologize or heroes to emulate (which might be why no one remembers it). Instead, the 1890s were marked by ferocious class hatreds and savage industrial strife. In Pittsburgh, a strike at the Homestead Steel Works turned into an all-out war between union members and the Pinkerton detectives sent to break them. In Johnson County, Wyoming, big ranchers fenced off lands which had once been held in common. When small farmers refused to leave, the ranchers hired mercenaries to kill them. In 1893, a banking panic set off a four-year depression, the worst the country had known until that time. One in five industrial workers was unemployed. Groups of men in the West banded together into tramp armies, overpowering railroad guards and riding trains for free in search of food. In the East, they rallied around a man named Jacob Coxey, who led an army of them to Washington to ask for work.
Michael Lesy captures this world in his book Wisconsin Death Trip, which uses photos and newspaper snippets from Black River Falls, Wisconsin to tell the story of a rural community consumed by disaster, epidemic, and despair. As agricultural prices fell and farmers could no longer pay their mortgages, families moved out or succumbed to destitution. Lesy writes: “By the end of the nineteenth century country towns had become charnel houses and the counties that surrounded them had become places of dry bones. The land and its farms were filled with the guilty voices of women mourning for their children and the aimless mutterings of men asking about jobs.”
Some people hung themselves, some went insane, and some fled to the cities, but for the most part, the American response to these blows was political. Working people agitated for full employment and loose silver. They organized in unions and voted for the Democrats. But then, they had practice. Politics was an American habit.
In other parts of the world, places where literacy was rarer and rights newer, politics took on different forms. In Sicily, socialism was received by the landless peasants of the interior as if it was the true teaching of Jesus Christ. A peasant woman from Corleone (where Vito came from in The Godfather) told a delegation: “We want everybody to work, as we work. There should no longer be either rich or poor. All should have bread for themselves and for their children. We should all be equal…,” she said: “Jesus was a true Socialist.”
Further afield, the response of local people had less to do with parties and more with prophecy, magic and war. In Northern Sudan, Arab people rallied around their own Messiah, Muhammad Ahmad—the Mahdi—whose army drove out the Egyptians before killing General Gordon at the Siege of Khartoum. His followers believed that he could turn enemy bullets into water. A few years later, the Maji-Maji in Tanzania became convinced that their war medicine (a mixture of water, castor oil, and millet seeds) had the same power, as they did their best to slaughter the German settlers who had taken their land. In Zimbabwe, the spirit mediums of the Mwari cult promised that the rains would return as soon as the white men were driven out. In the Philippines, thousands of sugar plantation workers fled into the hills, led by charismatic miracle workers, which included an eighty-year-old woman who called herself the Virgin Mary and a transvestite who claimed to control the weather.
In China, the forces of famine, folk religion and hostility to foreigners coalesced to create the most spectacular conflagration of all. At the end of the 1890s, in the drought-stricken provinces of Shandong and Zhili, bands of landless peasants organized together in martial arts societies. They became convinced that Christians, both Chinese and foreign, were harming the geomantic currents in the earth, causing drought and floods. The churches had bottled up the sky. Fearing starvation, at odds with the government and outgunned by the Western powers, the Boxers turned to the only instrument at their disposal—their bodies. They believed in the discipline of body and of breath. With sacrifices and spells they invited spirits to possess them. Once possessed, they behaved as if they were drunk or in a dream state. They felt themselves to be invulnerable to bullets. Like the dervishes and Maji-Majis, they fought courageously and recklessly, winning many victories on the road to total defeat.