Names and dates and places and important battles are easy to remember and put into a multiple choice test. Knowing names and dates and places, however, isn’t what history is about. The point of the study of history is to figure out why a particular person was in a particular place to fight a particular battle or make a certain discovery or whatever. That particular bit of understanding tends to be rather involved and it’s why there are a lot of people out there who can write books extending to several hundred pages about things most people can’t be arsed to read even an article abstract on.
We know a great deal about history, though, because of all of those historians who spend their days writing about crap that most people don’t care to know or understand. The simple truth is, in fact, that although we don’t and can’t know everything there is to know about history, there’s very little out there that can completely re-write the history books. This is why when some kook comes out with a new book about how so-and-so did such-and-such and there’s been a gigantic cover-up real historians shrug and then go on with their business. It’s self-evident to actual historians that such a thing isn’t possible, so they tend to ignore it.
It is, in fact, trivially easy to disprove the kooks in most cases. The problem is, though, that it requires an assertion of historical knowledge that most historians have or will readily accept but that isn’t exactly common knowledge amongst non-historians. It’s much easier, really, to say, “Yeah, that’s not how that worked,” than it is to actually explain why it is that it didn’t work that way. The difference in effort, too, explains part of the reason why trained historians don’t spend a lot of time debunking the kooky theory. They just go back to their real interest, which is incrementally changing the history books to incorporate new knowledge and remove outdated theories based on our understanding of the world before that knowledge came to light.
There is one way that historians end up rewriting history books, however. It’s not about pulling new information out of the ether. It’s not about making some mind blowing discovery that negates everything we thought we knew before. It’s about taking what we already knew and looking at it from a different perspective. Historians do that all the time.
One of the most magnificent examples of re-writing our understanding of history came out in 2008. English historian John Darwin published a massive tome called After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405. I actually picked up a copy of the book back in the summer or fall of 2008 because the book looked fascinating. His goal, as the subtitle suggests, was to break down the history of global empire for the previous six centuries. He did so in just over five hundred pages, which means that the book is both densely packed with information and argument and shallow in how deeply it deals with the background information behind any single idea or argument. In short, it’s the sort of book that only a historian can truly appreciate, since it requires a deep underlying understanding of many things.
I first read the book shortly after I bought it and I remembered appreciating it but not getting too much out of it beyond an appreciation for what Darwin’s arguments were. I pulled it out again well over a month ago and started re-reading it, this time much more slowly than in the past. The second time around I think I managed to appreciate just how truly magnificent and breathtaking the book is in its breadth and scope.
Darwin’s argument, basically, is that traditional western interpretations of history are wrong in that they’re written with a certain air of inevitability and cultural superiority. This is truly important, since we’re sitting on the back end of the legacy of European colonialism and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that legacy. More importantly, though, we’re still dealing with the ingrained cultural notions that are the inevitable outcome of that colonial ideal. Europeans and Americans still function under the misapprehension that there’s something inherently superior in Caucasian culture and genetic makeup when compared to non-Caucasian culture and genetics.
Darwin’s work also butts up against the most common non-Western notions of history. Since Westerners had an understandable tendency to attempt to erase the history and culture of their colonial possessions and replace it with their own, supposedly superior, culture and history, we do have pretty wide gaps in the historical records of the people colonized by Westerners. Those gaps have been subsequently filled in by partisans who have tried to play up their culture and downplay or outright villainize the involvement of Europeans. Interestingly enough, though, in many cases these histories either implicitly accept Western framing of the notion of history or attempt to completely obliterate Western history in an attempt to de-legitimatize Western historians. Both approaches are highly flawed and lead to conclusions that are far from accurate.
This time around I was most fascinated by Darwin’s treatment of world history from 1880 or so through the early days of the Cold War. I realized while rereading the book that we seem to be basically replaying large parts of world history in the years leading up the World War I. His arguments brought the world of today into greater focus.
As such, consider this the introduction of a series on John Darwin’s magnificent work and what it means to genuinely overturn standard notions of history. Before I get to the 1800s, however, I feel it’s a good idea to make a baseline comparison between Darwin and someone else who thought he’d overturn all of history as we know it. That’s right, we’re going to go look at Gavin Menzies.
Up to a certain point. The geopolitical realities of the world in 2012 are far, far different from those of 1912. The United States has no military or economic peer and there is no uneasy détente between equally balanced European powers who have their claws dug into colonies all over the world. I do not, in short, expect that we’ll end up plunging into World War III at any point in the near future. That said, it’s fascinating to see how people talk about the world today and compare it to how they talked about the world a century in the past.