Book of the week: Replenishing the Earth

Donald MacRaild admires a novel account of the rise of the Anglo-world

August 27, 2009

Recent years have seen a growing vogue for examining a vast geographical unit called "the British World", whose primary adhesives are the English language and a shared inheritance of cultural stock from Britain and Ireland. Yet many historians have a problem with the British World as a concept. Whereas the British Empire has a well-established meaning, even if it is impossible to capture its full range in a single volume, does the British World, as a shared anglophone culture zone, have the same purchase? On reading James Belich's massive analytical interpretation, we must conclude that it does have meaning, but only if it is rolled up into a still larger entity: the Anglophone World.

During the period covered by this book, the peoples of the English-speaking world expanded more than fifteen-fold - from something like 12 million in 1780 to 200 million in the 1930s. Belich draws upon Argentina, Siberia and Manchuria for parallel stories of mass migration and colonisation - a comparative hook that makes his arguments about how the Anglo-world won a genuine global competition for domination more impressive. In making the case, he revisits many well-known themes in the story of European expansion overseas: the Portuguese and Spanish pioneers whose early inroads into Africa and the Americas made the Anglophone hegemony unlikely; the prospect that China could have snuffed out European expansion into Asia and Africa had it been so disposed; and well-trodden narratives of emigration, settlement and nation-building.

Large components of this book are based on an exhaustive re-reading of vast quantities of secondary literature, while the overhanging thesis, which gives the book its power, is both original and intelligent.

Before it could spawn an Anglo hegemony in the world, Britain had to overcome ever-present threats from the European powers. Thus, between the 1680s and 1815, the country was almost perpetually locked in a struggle against France. By the end of the period of Anglo-French conflict, Britain had won what was arguably the first genuinely global war, in the 1750s and 1760s, and so wrested India and North America from the French. But then Britain had promptly lost the American colonies. It was this break-up of Britain's first empire that may have led to the historiographical caesura that Belich identifies.

The American Revolution divided the Anglo-world into two zones, Britain and America, which went their separate ways. But it is not quite so simple. Belich is keen to reintegrate these zones in a way that goes beyond merely examining Atlantic World connections or by stressing the Anglo-American special relationship, and thus he offers us a pre-history of all that: a study of parallel and criss-crossing colonisations. "Old Britain", as he characterises it, expanded across the world in different directions; but its expansion was matched, from 1783, by "Old America", the original 13 colonies, which expanded through the American West - a territory with a forgotten twin: the Dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, which together constituted the "British West".

Belich rejects Anglo-Saxonism as a primary explanation of the settler revolution, but he does recognise vital cultural imperatives. One of the most important was the rising approbation for emigration and settlement: a characteristic of mentalities from the later 18th century. At that time, emigration was no longer "social execration". Through the influence of writers, agents, the press, emigrants' letters, remittances, and via both the increasing ease and cheapness of transfer and the positive effects of state policy in Britain and America, it became a good thing to go west. For Belich, big ideas around economics, transport, population regimes, farming techniques and so on explain the settler revolution. Human movement on the scale we are talking about would have been impossible without advances in transport and the reduction in costs brought about by technology and the economics of demand. But here is an important twist: not all of those developments can be lumped together as by-products of the Industrial Revolution and modernisation.

But before all that happened, Belich points out, there was a non-industrial revolution in the use of wind, water and draft animals. This is what set the making of the Anglo-world in motion. What he calls "mass transfer" - of people, money, ideas, skills - began before modern technologies had become mass technologies. Integrating the Anglo-world did not require steamships or telephones. In the early 1800s, with the Napoleonic blockade affecting Britain's supply of Scandinavian wood for sailing ships, North America entered the market in a hitherto unknown way. At the beginning of the 19th century, 6 per cent of British timber imports hailed from there. Between 1819 and 1823, the proportion was 74 per cent. As Belich says: "This was a mega-shift indeed."

So what did the Industrial Revolution actually contribute if a non-industrial revolution had already set connectivity off to such a degree? The major focus of the real Industrial Revolution, which postdated the original one (with its twin foci of power sources and textiles) by decades, was mass-produced metals. Belich argues that after the initial settler explosions, there was a change in direction. Colonisation, which was marked by staggering booms, was then replaced by almost equally massive bangs. The settler ethos of farming and self-sufficiency was replaced by urbanisation, markets and the integration of the economies of the East and West. In Belich's words, "oldland and newland economies adapted to fit each other". Staple goods travelled from the hinterland to the core, and cultures and manufactured goods went in the other direction. New territories became satellites of the old heartlands. This was re-colonisation, a thesis that Belich has tested out on New Zealand's relationship with Britain and which he now rolls out to the whole of the Anglo-world.

Of course, in the phase of re-colonisation, technology was important. In the 1870s, the Anglo-world had more miles of railroad per capita than any other territory, occupying the first five places in the rankings. Telegraphy, steel ships, international finance, refrigeration and a host of other developments ensured that Americans on the East Coast could eat West Coast produce just as the British enjoyed meat and butter from New Zealand.

But there remains one final twist: the re-colonisation of Old America by Old Britain during the 19th century. In reality this was a two-way relationship, an exchange in goods such as food, tools and even (among society types) marriage partners. In the 20th century, the British settled down to a subordinate role to the Americans. But rewind to the mid-Victorian years, and British capital was helping to open up America's West; English culture was consumed voraciously in the US; and Sheffield had an unhealthily powerful hold over American industry because it could deliver fine steel for machine tools.

This important book offers a novel explanation of the rise of the Anglo-world. As Belich says in conclusion: "The day of the English-speakers may be passing, but, for the moment, the world's leading superpower still speaks English." Perhaps these English speakers will go the same way as the Greeks, Arabs and Mongols, whom Belich sees as their natural predecessors. Whatever the future holds, their past is compellingly told here.


James Belich is research professor of history at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He has held visiting positions at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Melbourne and Georgetown. He claims that his addiction to history leaves little time for hobbies.

Belich is particularly proud to have survived the international research for Replenishing the Earth because he is navigationally challenged. His ancestors came from the Adriatic island of Korcula, which was allegedly also the home of Marco Polo.

This has led Belich's friends to quip that Polo must have been aiming for England on his famous journey. On one road trip in western Canada, Belich temporarily mislaid the Rocky Mountains. Needless to say, the maps in Replenishing the Earth were drawn by someone else.

Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939

By James Belich

Oxford University Press

592pp, £25.00

ISBN 97801992976

Published 25 June 2009

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