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After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 Hardcover – February 5, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Was Europe's domination of the modern international order the inevitable rise of a superior civilization or the piratical hijacking of an evolving world system? A little of both, and a lot of neither, this ambitious comparative study argues—because world history's real center of gravity sits in Eurasia. Historian Darwin (The End of the British Empire) contends that an ascendant Western imperialism was a sideshow to vast, wealthy and dynamic Asian empires—in China, Mughal India, the Ottoman Middle East and Safavid Iran—which proved resistant to Western encroachment and shaped the world into the 21st century. Europe's overseas colonial empires as well as the expansions of the United States across North America and Russia across Siberia—was not inevitable, but rather a slow, fitful and often marginal enterprise that didn't accelerate until the mid-19th century. Darwin analyzes the technological, organizational and economic advantages Europeans accrued over time, but shows how dependent their success was on the vagaries of world trade (the driving force of modern imperialism, in his account) and the internal politics of the countries they tried to control. Nicely balanced between sweeping overview and illuminating detail, this lucid survey complicates and deepens our understanding of modern world history. Photos. (Feb)
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“Undoubtedly a great work, a book that goes truly global in chronicling the history of one of our abiding concerns: the pull and limitations of absolute power. It forces the reader to rethink commonly held assumptions about our collective past. For that alone, it should be read.” ―Vikram Johri, St. Petersburg Times
“Nicely balanced between sweeping overview and illuminating detail, this lucid survey complicates and deepens our understanding of modern world history.” ―Publishers Weekly
“In this marvellously illuminating book, John Darwin accepts much but not all of the revisionist analysis. With an awesome grasp of global history, he demonstrates that the continental peninsula of Europe was peripheral for most of the time since the 14th-century conquests of Tamerlane...Darwin sustains an intricate thesis with enormous panache.” ―Piers Brendon, The Independent, 4 May 2007
“An astonishingly comprehensive, arrestingly fresh and vivid history of the forces that underlie the world we live in today, After Tamerlane sets aside ideologies in which European power - sometimes seen as liberating and at others as diabolically oppressive - is the driving force of modern development...After reading this masterpiece of historical writing, one thing is clear. The world has not seen the last empire.” ―John Gray, Literary Review, April 2007
“A work of massive erudition, After Tamerlane overturns smug Eurocentric teleologies to present a compelling new perspective on international history. Though the subject of empire stirs partisan passions these days, Darwin exudes fairmindedness...Big topics demand big treatments, yet few are brave or knowledgeable enough to hazard them. Darwin has provided an ambitious, monumental and convincing reminder that empires are the rule, not the exception, in world history. ” ―Maya Jasanoff, Guardian, 12 May 2007
“A wonderful and imaginative addition to the select library of books on world history that one really wants to possess, and dip into, for ever...It is rather wonderful to doff one's hat to a historian who can range across time and space, giving the reader continual cause for pause, in the way that Darwin has done.” ―Paul Kennedy, Sunday Times
“Darwin `gives us world history on the grand scale, equipping his readers with the knowledge and insights to make their own assessment of what is coming next. If only his book could find its way into the right hands, it might also serve to make the world a less dangerous place.' ” ―Tim Blanning, Sunday Telegraph
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But this is not a book a casual reader will enjoy. Rather, it is for the serious student or scholar of the history of economics, for example- someone who already has a great deal of knowledge about the history of the world, and would like to read a new perspective on some meta-level causes and effects from a revisionist standpoint.
I was less happy about the way he structured his analysis and presented his conclusions. Making sense of six centuries worth of data covering much of the Eurasian heartland would probably take a dozen volumes of narrative history and there would still be social historians complaining that their people had been left out. And deciding to go with "Imperialism since 1400" gives him a story he can tell in one volume. Who won and who lost has been pretty much the heart of the human drama since the Greeks invented history.
Most of history's winners are now deemed by the post-Vietnam academic mainstream to be the villains behind everything bad that has happened, particularly since the Soviet Union expired (with neither whimper nor bang) in 1989. Millions of lost academic sheep were left without, like the emperor, naked and feeling foolish. Perhaps the utopias promised by Rousseau, Marx, and Lenin would have reversed the west-east tide with better management from the East. Perhaps not. And perhaps all that romantic theorizing was in some part responsible for the disastrous misrule of Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, and the North Korean oligarchy. Sadly, much of academe and the mass media seem in thrall to post-modern theories of history that hold that the Enlightenment was the first false step taken by the West.
To my mind, Darwin seems to believe that Western imperialism could do no right and those who lost out to it could do no wrong . With the exception of Japanese exploitation of China, aggressions by non-western imperialists from Tamerlane to Lenin are pretty much treated as "that's the way people like that do things". The Mughal Empire in India is one example. Mongolian domination of Han China is another.
Also, he doesn't appear to give much thought to the way western imperial powers disposed of their possessions after the Second World War. For example, one wonders if there are lessons to be learned by contrasting the way the U.K. eased out of their empire with the stubborn determination by the French to hang on to their possessions in North Africa and Indo-China and all that went with it. And while he rightly describes the slave trade to the west as a barbarous holocaust, he barely mentions the slave trade that sent just as many Africans north to Arab countries as were sent west to the Americas. He mentions enslaved European children brainwashed into Janissary servitude as the chief weapon and chief problem of the Ottoman sultans but with little moral reflection.
By the end of the book Darwin seems to be going into overdrive as he tries to get his narrative up to speed with post-modern (read Marx lives) interpretations of history. He considers the popularity of Western films and consumer lifestyles now part of the imperialist tide. Stuff that was getting old in the 80's. A good case can be made for the fact American politicians did the world a huge service by rejecting nativist isolationism and opting instead to shoulder the burdens of world leadership.
I suppose it all comes down to perspective. Was there a monolithic colonialist West or were there qualitative differences between the way the various European powers expanded? Isn't it entirely possible that the different developmental levels of North and South America is related to the way Britain and Spain themselves developed? Would the world be a better place if Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, Newton, Darwin, Blackstone, Mill, Wilberforce, and the hundreds of Parliamentary workhorses of representative government not been able to do their work?
By all means read this book. Darwin has more right to offer opinions than I have to offer criticisms. He did, after all, do all the work of writing it. But also consider reading Francis Fukuyama's, "The Origins of Political Order" for a more measured analysis of the way things happen in the real world. First volume takes us to the French Revolution and the second, out not long ago, finishes his analysis.
Looking for a little optimism? Try Steven Pinker's, "The Better Angel's of Our Nature". He writes as least as well as Darwin, displays a lighter touch at times, and lays out literally dozens of empirical studies that collectively suggest that humankind has reached a plateau of progress and that we might even have reason to hope for better days ahead. Need I add, in spite of all those Western sins.
Second, the narrative rejected the traditional European definition of modernity, which had obscured the assessment and study of extra-European societies. Darwin's worldwide survey did not support the primacy of the European model. In pre-industrial revolution, both the Ottomans and Chinese held superior ability to mobilize resources and people for a given task. One example was the sultan's vaunted devshirme, who inspired fear in much of continental Europe. Consequently, the swift rise and collapse of European imperialism in Near and Far East exposed a local identity and culture with an inner strength that made European control far from redoubtable. After Tamerlane posed the question: `Is there one modernity, or are there `many modernities'?'
In the conclusion, Darwin challenged readers to see the future without the distortion of conceptual lenses and held a conservative outlook on globalization: `if there is one continuity that to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia's resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules.' This Foucaultian analysis defied the craze over the ineluctability of globalization. Those extra-European modernities remain to be plumbed and understood.