Manipulators ruled the world

After Tamerlane
June 15, 2007

The gaze of many British and other historians of empire has widened in time and geographical interest, particularly as the American empire has been caught in another quagmire. John Darwin, author and editor of a number of solid studies of the British Empire, has not - like one of his colleagues in this field, Niall Ferguson - furnished elaborate instructions to American empire builders. Rather, he has laboured industriously to produce a detailed history of empire since about 1400 and explored the interaction of Eurasians and non-Eurasians in a productive way.

He is also interested in the steps to globalisation and points to the gradual growth of trade networks and the processes leading to our present stage of globalisation to which, he says, we took a decisive turn around 1980. However, the path started from the age of Tamerlane, widened with the age of discovery, was fired by the Industrial Revolution and, he maintains, saw the achievement a globalised world in the period from the 1870s to the 1940s.

If the 19th century saw the implementation of significant technological advances moving the process forward, so the computer age witnessed yet another stage. Empire, Darwin argues, is interlinked with continuing globalising and is advanced particularly during periods of "conjunctures", when worldwide trends make it more possible.

Eurasians nearly conquered and divided the world from slow and provincial beginnings and then with ever-increasing speed through the Industrial Revolution to imperial triumph in the 1870s. Under his microscope, Darwin has examined just what power Eurasians (and by extension, "neo-Europeans" - his term for Americans and Australians and other Europeans outside Eurasia) actually had and when they had it. Part of his argument is that European empires were never so dominant or easily built as previously thought.

Darwin also argues for central importance of extending and extensive trade networks as crucial for the building of empire. Investigating why the Chinese, Indian and Islamic empires did not conquer the West, rather than the other way around, he points to their withdrawal into insularity. It is a big plus to extend his focus from Europe to Eurasia and explore the achievements and limitations of non-European empires such as the Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal and Chinese empires in Eurasia from Tamerlane to the 20th century. He also highlights the Russian movement to the East, which he sees as an important but neglected chapter of empire-building.

Along with Darwin's achievements there are also shortcomings. In commenting on the ideology of empire, he dismisses Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) as "postmodern extremism" and says elsewhere that Europeans were not much interested in their subjects. This is imperial condescension. The British Library is filled with numerous volumes and endless reports by the conquerors writing about the vanquished. Said's valuable but overstated thesis about these writings has stimulated many fine studies in and outside the Western world, such as Ronald Inden's Imagining India (1990).

Darwin argues that the British from the 19th century to the Second World War were the premier free traders but failed because other imperialists capitulated to protectionism. Earlier he had pointed to Marx's analyses of the hypocrises of free trade. But Darwin does not buy this and is soft on the British. However, the British manipulated the terms of trade throughout this period to benefit themselves, particularly in the matter of textiles.

British politicians of the period knew this. It was only in the 1920s when British officials of the Raj resident in India began to make the Indian case for parity in the terms of trade that things changed.

The British used the empire for their own ends and were not uniquely benign. This leads to a broader point: Darwin describes all too briefly the sins and violence of imperialists as they conquered and divided the world.

Some words are there to recount the virtual elimination of the natives of the Americas, Australia, the Caribbean and so on, but he is so impersonal and dispassionate in his writing that you never hear their cries or feel their pain. Not a single person, nation or event is ever vividly described.

Darwin occasionally quotes a sentence from a primary document, but rarely. This is history intelligently constructed from an impressive list of secondary works but, in the end, without much life. In his bibliographic notes Darwin points to works that have "fizz", but he has not injected any into his own book. He chooses to end the story of the American empire in the 1990s and argues through the last pages of the book that, from about 1990, the US became the one imperial power left standing.

Entering his swift overview of the past two decades, he points to America's impressive economic and military power, which dwarfs the reach and extent of previous imperialists. But he could have gone on to show its limitations, its shortsightedness and its soft underbelly both in economic and military terms. This would have fitted right in with his earlier analyses of European empires. Perhaps Thomas Bender's excellent A Nation among Nations (2006) came too late for him to consult, but a raft of studies of American empire have appeared in the past decade. So he can prepare a postscript for the paperback edition that will bring the history of empires after Tamerlane into the 21st century.

Leonard A. Gordon is professor emeritus, Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire

Author - John Darwin
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 575
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780713996698

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