A review of A Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey
One of the attractions of historical writing is that it is, to use a term of art from software development, "scalable." It is possible to write a very good history book covering the events of less than a week, as John Lukacs did with Five Days in London, May 1940. A single year can offer surprising depth of view, as in Ray Huang's 1587—A Year of No Significance, which gives curious insights into the decline of the Ming dynasty. A war lasting several years, a social development spanning decades, or a state of affairs that continued across many lifetimes, can all be made into good narratives. (One of my favorites, and favorite titles, on the many-lifetimes scale is William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind.) At least one author has taken on on an entire millennium: Geoffrey Bibby's survey of the Bronze Age, Four Thousand Years Ago, begins in 2000 B.C. and ends precisely a thousand years later.
At the extreme of this progression are those books that cover the whole of human history. Some of the earliest historians in the ancient world, like Sima Qian of China, took it as understood that they should try to record everything known, though the geographical scope of their researches was naturally limited. Writers of the Middle Ages, while by then aware that there were other nations elsewhere with stories to tell, were mainly content to chronicle the doings of their own peoples. In modern times, with the whole of the world known and mapped at least in outline, the universalist tradition was revived, Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World being a notable early attempt. (Though an incomplete one—he only reached the Punic Wars.)
The 20th century delivered two English-language best-sellers in this line: H.G. Wells's Outline of History (1920) and Hendrick van Loon's The Story of Mankind (1922). Though both went through several revised and updated versions, only van Loon's book is currently in print. His colorful, anecdotal approach has kept The Story of Mankind a favorite, especially with inquisitive youngsters. It is hard to say why Wells's book has fallen from favor. I myself read it when a college student, and greatly enjoyed it. I recall thinking that Wells was particularly good on early Islam. Possibly the Outline, which sold in two volumes of over 500 pages each, is just too long for today's attention spans. Section headings like "The main races of mankind" probably do not help commend it to modern sensibilities. (Rebecca West recalled Wells working on the passage about the Aryan invasions of India, chanting to himself: "Here we go over the Pamirs, here we go over the Pamirs…," referring to the mountainous range of Tajikistan).
Now here is Geoffrey Blainey with a new entrant in the world history stakes. Blainey is a distinguished Australian historian, who has held chairs at Harvard and the University of Melbourne. He came to the attention of the general non-history-reading public, in Australia at any rate, in the mid-1980s, when he scandalized elite opinion circles by publicly questioning the doctrine of multiculturalism, and the compatibility of traditional "Anglo-Celtic" Australian social norms with high levels of immigration from Asia. (He has since revised his opinions on these topics in a somewhat more optimistic direction.) Blainey has also been critical of what he called, in a very striking phrase, "black-armband history"—history, that is, interpreted as a sequence of cruelties and oppressions visited on innocent nonwhite native folks by amoral and rapacious Europeans. Even earlier in his career Blainey had caused something of a stir with his 1976 book, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia. Anthropological dogma at that time held that primitive peoples in the undisturbed state were gentle and pacific. Blainey showed, by careful analysis, that rates of death from warfare among the Aborigines were actually comparable to, and very likely exceeded, the levels current in the belligerent nations of World War II.
With a narrative text of just over 400 pages, A Short History of the World is indeed short, shorter than either Wells's Outline or van Loon's Story, not to mention Sir Walter's five massy volumes. His decision to thus compress the events of the last two million years presented Blainey with formidable problems of arrangement and selection, which I think he has handled very well. His overall approach is, of course, logarithmic. That is to say, recent centuries are given more space than earlier ones, and recent millennia much more space than earlier ones. By page 60 we have already advanced from hominids roaming the East African veldt to city-builders in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and at the halfway point of the narrative, Hernán Cortés is conquering Mexico. This back-loading is unavoidable, not only because we know much less about remote times, but also because interesting developments—most obviously in technology—have taken place at an accelerating speed, human life and society changing far more in the last 100 years than they did between A.D. 900 and 1000.
Within this overall framework, Blainey takes a fairly steady approach to chronological progression. He backtracks when he has to pass from one continent to another: Europe to China, Australia to Africa. He pauses now and then to ruminate on generalities: disease, slavery, witchcraft, the influence of the night sky on the human imagination. These ruminations aside, he maintains a measured narrative pace and his book hangs together well. It is, in fact, a very good read. A well-informed person will not find much here he does not already know so far as the sequence of events is concerned, but will come away with new insights on the reasons why things happened when they did. I had no idea, for example, that dyes were so important in the opening and development of Brazil. "The juice [of the brazilwood tree], prized by dyers in Europe, was applied to wool, cotton, and silk. …With the aid of numerous boilings and dyings of the wood, various incantations and the adding of a dose of stale urine or ox gall, they brought forth a variety of reds, scarlets, and purples."
On occasion the author descends from normal cruising altitude to examine some particular brief period in detail. These episodes are, I think, well-chosen, and his summary of the events in them clear and judicious. The birth of the United States, for example, is covered in seven pages, one of them filled with a map. Blainey makes this look easy, which of course it is not, requiring some background information on concurrent events in Britain, France, and Spain, as well as on the state of development of political thought in the late 18th century.
In the emerging of the United States of America, the South American nations, South Africa, Canada, and Australia the unforeseen mixture of events was especially powerful in the final decades of the 18th century. Many of those events pirouetted around the fortunes of France, whose influence was as decisive when it was losing as when it was winning wars.
The early years of Christianity get similarly detailed treatment; likewise the rise of the Mongols, the Reformation in Switzerland, and a few other key events.
Once the story gets very close to the present day, it is of course nearly impossible to pick out single events of enduring significance, with a scattering of exceptions like the moon landings. (I was astonished recently, reading some 19th-century materials, to learn how large the Schleswig-Holstein Question loomed in European minds 150 years ago. It is now utterly forgotten, even by the inhabitants of Schleswig and Holstein.) Blainey wisely restricts himself to a few obviously important developments of these past few decades: the failure of independent African nations, the economic successes of East Asia, nuclear proliferation, the dominance of the English language.
The temptation for the writer of this kind of book is to lapse into some large all-encompassing theory about the development of humanity. History is driven by climate, disease, technology, religion, or "modes of production." Human societies are either "communities of will" or "communities of obedience." (That was H.G. Wells.) The great despotic empires were "hydraulic" in origin, organized around the need to mobilize great masses of manpower for water-management projects in regions of unreliable rainfall. (Karl Wittfogel.) History is the working-out of divine Providence (Raleigh), or it is the unfolding of a metaphysical dialectic (Hegel), or it is slow-rising cycles of civilizational rise and decline (Toynbee), or it is chance encounters between human societies and domesticable fauna (Jared Diamond).
Blainey has kept this temptation at bay very successfully. It is, of course, often possible to detect underlying causes for historical processes, but Blainey has struggled to keep these various factors in proportion and not put forward any one of them as all-dominating. I found myself liking this book a lot. There is a matter-of-fact plainness about it that struck me as bracing, though I can see that another reader might think it dull on that account. In this sense it is very "Australian"—clear, forthright, and unimaginative. (I am using that last word as a term of approval here.) Blainey's style is "flat" and unadorned, of the kind that George Orwell said was his ideal: "transparent as a window-pane." I never felt that Blainey was trying to put anything over on me or sell me a bill of goods. He does not strive for political correctness, but neither does he make a point of shunning it. There are sensible passing comments on, for example, the improving attitude towards women's rights in the 19th-century United States.
There is nothing ostentatiously P.C., either, about Blainey's treatment of lesser players in this great drama. To this aspect of things, he brings the great advantage of long acquaintance with the most primitive of all peoples, the aborigines of his own country, the subject of the 1976 book I have already mentioned. The book gives serious, but not exaggerated, attention to the early populating of Polynesia, Australia, New Guinea, and the Americas, with proper respect for the ingenuity and boldness of these primitive explorers, but no tall tales about their being intellectually superior to modern city-dwellers, of the kind Jared Diamond insulted us with in Guns, Germs and Steel. We get good accounts too of outliers like the Viking settlements in Greenland, the Maya of Central America, and the Indus valley cities of the Bronze Age.
Where Blainey shows a preference for underlying causes, they are mainly geographical. This tendency in his writing goes all the way back to his 1966 history of Australia, titled The Tyranny of Distance. Blainey's argument in that book, repeated more briefly here, is that the main determinants of Australian history were, first, its distance from the colonizing nation, Britain, and second, the immense distances within Australia herself, relative to her population. (Even today, Australia has less than seven people to the square mile. The United States has 78; France, nearly 300.) This geographizing tendency sometimes leads Blainey into questionable judgments.
Madagascar and New Zealand were the last two sizeable areas of habitable land to be discovered and settled by the human race. Perhaps Madagascar was the more important of the two, for in area it was more than twice as large as New Zealand. Triumphs in the history of human seafaring, both were part of a saga of discovery and migration which was virtually completed by AD 1000.
Triumphs, indeed, but Professor Blainey may be the first person ever to describe Madagascar as being important. Until Tananarive or Farafangana produce an Ernest Rutherford, I would give New Zealand preference in this particular comparison.
So far as errors are concerned, a Short History of the World passed the only test an average reader can apply: when it dealt with topics I myself know very thoroughly, it did so accurately. It does seem a little unfair that the only Chinese poet mentioned by name is Hsieh Ling-yun, remembered by Chinese readers mainly for a passing reference to him in a poem by the far greater genius Li Po. A case can be made for this kind of thing, though: literary excellence is not the same thing as historical significance. (And Blainey subscribes to the common fallacy that the expression "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my gun" was Göring's. No: it was first uttered by a character in a play by Hanns Johst, Hitler's court dramatist.)
Omissions are negligible, given the ruthless selection Blainey had to apply to get his subject matter into the space allotted. I wish he had said something about the contribution made to the development of Chinese Buddhism by Greeks, or at any by rate Hellenized Bactrians and Sogdians, at the far eastern extremities of Alexander's empire. Also, the explosion of the Mediterranean island of Thera in 1628 B.C. had tremendous consequences all round the world—it may have ushered in the Shang dynasty in China. This would have made an interesting point, and would have fit well with the geographical theme. I should have thought, too, that the Crusades deserved at least a paragraph, if only for the lasting impression they left on the minds of the Arabs.
My only complaint on points of style is to wish Blainey had given freer rein to his wit, which is very effective in the few occasions it appears. Here it is, for example, in his account of the French Revolution: "By July…a mob was running loose in Paris. In the next month the French assembly issued a declaration of 'the rights of man.' Such declarations, to be almost a monthly event in some years of the late 20th century, were a rarity…in the 18th…."
"The tyranny of distance"; "black-armband history"; as these examples show, Blainey has a knack for coining memorable phrases. One I particularly liked in this book was "the pale empire of ideas." This is the term he uses for the spread of a nation's influence by means other than brute conquest—through religion, technology, styles of art, and intellectual fashions. Blainey employs it to describe the world-wide impact of the United States in the 20th century.
The power of the United States depended heavily on its pale empire of ideas, attitudes, and innovations. Its ideas alighted effortlessly on foreign ground, irrespective of who owned the ground. …Its influence came through jazz, cartoons, Hollywood, television, and popular culture. Its influence came from an excitement about technology and economic change, and a belief in incentives and individual enterprise. It was also the most ardent missionary for the creed of democracy. While military and economic might was vital to the success of the United States, the power of its pale empire of ideas was probably even more pervasive.
True, of course, but I wish Blainey had found space to describe the other side of this particular coin, one very much on our minds nowadays. The overwhelming influence of American culture and attitudes on the rest of the world has, perhaps inevitably, generated its own dark companion: an anti-Americanism far stronger and more menacing than the incoherentYanqui Go Home! truculence of 50 years ago. This hostility in foreign places is fortified by, and in a few cases actually allied with, certain poisonous intellectual fads here at home, of which "black-armband history" is only one manifestation.
Ever the geographer, Professor Blainey concludes his survey with some speculations on the possibility of a single world government. (It is interesting to note that H.G. Wells ended The Outline of History on the same note, though coming from different premisses and with a different attitude to the desirability of this outcome.) Rome in its heyday, Blainey tells us, might have conquered India or even China, but could not possibly have held them for long. "Hitler, if he had been victorious, probably could not have controlled the whole world… Today, as never before, it is possible for one strong nation to control the whole world."
I am not sure that this is true. Respectable sinologists speculate in the pages of our newspapers as to how long the People's Republic of China (essentially a re-assembling of the old Manchu empire) can hold together in its present form. This, and the recent fate of the USSR, do not suggest that a modern style of despotism would have much success at governing the entire world. For the prospect of the thing being done democratically, one need only glance at the mounting difficulties being faced by the European Union, and indeed at the slow diminution of democratic accountabilty therein. I doubt that we are any closer to World Government than we were in H.G. Wells's time, and I hope that we are not.
What we are closer to is a world in which the mixing of peoples has gone far beyond anything seen in past ages. In Europe, North America, and Australia there are now settled large numbers of immigrants from places whose cultures have nothing in common with the host nation's. It is not unlikely that, for reasons of demography, countries like Japan and China will likewise have to import millions of aliens in coming decades. Population mixing on this scale is not altogether new, as witness the black African component of countries like Brazil and the U.S. as far back as the 18th century; but it has never before occurred when the dominant ethic everywhere is one of human equality and civil rights. It is possible that we shall manage this well, and end up with a world of coffee-colored meritocracies. I should be very glad to see that happen. Not all the signs are good, though. Some of the news coming in from the human and biological sciences suggests that the differences between human populations long isolated from each other may go deeper than mere culture. The biological diversity of the human species, to which all right-thinking moderns are taught, from the cradle, to turn a blind eye, may turn out to be the great determinant of human progress in this new century.