I just finished After Tamerlane by John Darwin, of whom I know nothing. It’s a 600-dense-page monster and my impulse-bought-but-unread queue bulges behind it. It’s immensely ambitious and I can recommend it for some if not all.
Tl;dr: A history of the last 600 years with a strong economics flavor, which asks: Why did Europe come to dominate the globe?
Why Europe? · The death of Timur (AKA Tamerlane) in the early 15th century makes an interesting jumping-off point because, as Darwin points out in the book’s central insight, at that point the world had three centers of commerce and civilization: Europe, the South Central Asia, and China, and (here it is) their power and wealth were, at that point, about equivalent. The mystery, then — central to modern History — is: How, between 1450 and 1900 or so, did the Europeans gain the global upper hand so completely that they could burn Beijing, own India, and confidently divide up the Arab world after the Great War?
It’s nowhere near obvious, and Darwin certainly doesn’t offer a conclusive slam-dunk answer. But any nibbling around the edge of this question is a worthwhile exercise, and Darwin does more than nibble, he offers up loads of make-you-think hypotheses.
My only conclusion is that no explanation can be simple. Clearly the agricultural and natural-resource plenty of the European land mass was a factor. So was lots of random good luck. And the remarkable scale of the New World, its luckless inhabitants’ economies still basically Neolithic when the honkies sailed up, amplified the positive-feedback loop the Europeans had working for them.
Onward Christian Soldiers · Then there is the matter of culture. This is treacherous territory for social scientists because the Victorians had that answer down pat: The White Races combined Diligence, Christianity, Science, Democracy, and Free Trade and thus Deservedly Triumphed over the Backward Races which is As God Intended because we were on a Civilizing Mission.
Uh huh. I feel real sympathy for professional historians because, you know, one or two parts of that Victorian narrative might have useful explanatory power but if you’re going to say so you have to wrap it with necessary but boring assertions that you’re not pitching the whole package.
Me, I think (and I’m a left-winger) that the development of market capitalism, in a framework governed by courts and contracts rather than the whim of the despot, was a Really Big Deal. As for the rest of the Victoriana: Well, democracy maybe. Because even when you have a moneyed governing class gaming the formal rules, that’s qualitatively different from the despot-and-his-henchmen model.
As a History book · It’s a good one. In particular, I’d never really understood why Colonialism was such good business. Once again, looking at nearly everything through the Cui bono lens works pretty well.
But if you already have a good grip on the Franco-Prussian war, or India’s struggle against the Raj, or Chiang Kai-Shek’s failings, this book is not gonna teach you much that’s new. Which is perfectly OK; There’ll be new insights for almost everyone here, and the world needs good fresh-flavored surveys of history.
Writing · It’s not bad. I got through the book, even the I-already-knew-that parts. Darwin is irritatingly prone to describe anything remotely counter-intuitive in the rear-view as “astonishing”, and that’s one of English’s best words so I wish he wouldn’t.
But mostly I’m glad I finished the damn thing. I have titles from Beukes and Stross and Corey and Kingsolver and Mulley that I haven’t even opened yet. I’ll read another big serious history book next year, I promise, maybe.