Jan
20

Here’s a part of the intro from Part I —

You tend to read a lot of history books when you’re writing a world history textbook. Many of these are monographs–specialist books written by and for academics. As such, they can be dry and hard to digest. But some stand out and i’m going to tell you a little about these ones, the writers that seemed to offer me something more engaging in a long, long list of books.

Entertaining Historians part one discussed Ian Morris. Of an earlier generation, but also writing in the World History genre, is David Landes. Emeritus Harvard Professor of economics and history, Landes tackled roughly the same question as Morris, though some two decades earlier. His book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor, although riffing off of Adam Smith’s better known title, is culled, like Morris’, from deep research into historical archives, and presents a fascinating panorama of human history—albeit selective, like Morris, and focused on one question: Why The West?

The focusing on one question, however, is a distinct advantage in history books that attempt to take on the vast scope of human experience, otherwise they are undone by the one-damn-thing-after-another issue. A book entitled: A History of the World, following conventions such as A History of France, or a History of Labor, is going to fall flat on its bloated face as the only organizing principle behind it is…the World.

Really with such a long book, his thesis has to be teased out of pages and pages of ifs ands or buts, and yet we keep reading because the stories with which he peppers his thesis—and which often cloud the thesis—are so engaging. In discussing the complex interplay of environment and culture Landes ranges through the history of the French nineteenth-century experience in Algeria (clearing “bad air” by draining swamps seemed to help with malaria—because it actually reduced mosquitoes); the origin of European fairy tales (Euros did not get seriously agricultural until iron tools were widely enough distributed to cut down all that primeval forest—goodbye Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf, Hansel and Gretel, etc); revolutionary Chinese agriculture which “substituted labor for land, using sixty and eighty persons per hectare where an American wheat farmer would use one.”

Ultimately Landes argues that climate and environment aside—both huge players in human life—culture is the predominant factor in why some societies get rich and others do not. Looking at the various successes and failures of post-imperialist societies, he concludes that it is ultimately chaps, not maps, that determine success. And his Neo-liberal bias is clear: “Today, of course, we recognize that such contingency of ownership stifles enterprise and stunts development; for why should anyone invest capital or labor in the creation or acquisition of wealth that he may not be allowed to keep?” And he Quotes Edmunde Burke to back it up: “A law against property is a law against industry.”

But Landes should not be considered a western triumphalist, by any means. He is unsparingly critical of historical actors, (and embraces Ambrose Bierce as much as Morris does), seeing villains everywhere. Hernan Cortes, for instance, the conqueror of Mexico, is described as “Sometime rapscallion student in Salamanca, precocious and prodigious wencher with a weakness for the most dangerous kind of woman—another man’s wife. Cortes had good reason to get out of Spain.” Cortes was the top of the pyramid, but all the way down the command chain it was the same with the Spanish: “They fought, terrorized, tortured, and killed the natives; bedded their wives, daughters, and Spanish-made relicts; and bought many a pagan soul to salvation, often at the same time as they extinguished the body.” Even Las Casas, defender of the Native Americans, comes under the gun: “He wanted to save their souls, because they had souls. He was apparently not sure that blacks did.”

And further south, a little later, Pizarro was no better. His is “a bloody story, full of cruelty and bad faith, condescension and sanctimony.” A point not often made by historians is that we often paint the losers as innocent victims, and yet in many cases had they been the victors we know they would have done the same. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs they simply overpowered a brutal and bloodthirsty regime that was bent on taking over as much of Mesoamerica as possible—and eating their enemies just to scare them into submission. In Peru, says Landes, “one must not judge these events in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly. They all deserved one another. Before Pizzaro arrived on the scene, Huayna Capac, the emperor and father of Atahualpa, set the terms for defeat when he decapitated the members of a rebel tribe and threw their bodies into a lake…We are told that the victims numbered twenty thousand, that this was probably the bloodiest encounter in the history of the pre-Hispanic new world.”

But more criticism is reserved for the Europeans, because with conquering comes responsibility, as the Mongols may have discovered. As for those other Iberians, the Portuguese, again, there was something in their culture, which drove them on, spurring them with greed, determination, religious zeal. Their “achievement testifies to their enterprise and toughness; to their religious faith and enthusiasm; to their ability to mobilize and exploit the latest knowledge and techniques.” Priests amongst them goaded them on: “These men of god legitimated and sanctified greed.” Landes tells many micro-stories, in the unfolding of his grand thesis, such as this one: “The Uncle of Vasco de gama flogged the chief Muslim merchant at Cannaore (Malabar coast) until he fainted, then stuffed his mouth with excrement and covered it with a slab of pork to make sure he ate the filth.” Noting how thoroughly unpleasant the Portuguese must have been in their relentless pursuit of happiness in the Indian Ocean, he asks, “Did ever newcomers try harder to make trouble for themselves?”

The English come in for it too, being in the vanguard of the world-conquering movement, in this case, in Jamaica: “Besides, sugar was uniquely demanding and disagreeable, and too often the planters treated their servants like curs, beating them until the blood ran.”

His iconoclastic tone is matched by a certain levity, however, which is refreshing in a historian, especially one of an older generation, where it might not be expected (and more so than his earlier books, in which he was making his name as a serious historian). Talking of the Portuguese discovery of the wonders of the Indian Ocean: “Here was the kind of place that Columbus had been looking for but had not found. Stick that in your craw.” Or the English merchants in India in the seventeenth century; being aggravated by the Nawab (leader) of Bengal’s milking of their profits: “One vexed Englishman said it straight in 1752: ‘Clive, t’would be a good thing to swinge the old dog [Nawab]…the company must think seriously of it or ‘twill not be worth their while to trade in Bengal’. And Clive thought seriously.”
Such details always make good reading, and without good reading you cannot have good history. History is, after all, one of the humanities, and no matter how well researched, how “objective” the history appears, the historian is only ever telling a story. In both Morris’ and Landes’ work heavy-duty scholarship is at play, but it is used deftly, like the finishing of a luxury sports car that seamlessly hides the brute power under the hood which provides all that effortless torque. Ultimately perhaps what comes through in their writing, and what saves their work from the twin threats of data and theory is their personality, which in neither case is lost to the task at hand. As a reader, a little personality goes a long way.

So that being the case I submit a plea and challenge to historians: tell the best story you can, one that is as true as you can make it, and as engaging as it should be, because we all know about truth’s strangeness relative to fiction. With such a natural advantage, our attention is yours to lose.

Adrian
About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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