Monday, May 02, 2011

Book Review: After Tamerlane

At university, my history lecturer's first statement was, 'as you study history, you'll discover that most historians can't write.' Something that you can prove very easily by browsing through the history books at your local bookstore.

What historians have a tendency to do is known as an 'information dump'. They're not writing a book, most of the time, but an extended PhD thesis with all their research in the correct place. In other words, it's dull to all but those most interested in the subject.

John Darwin, the author of After Tamerlane is an exception to this rule. You will not find, except in rare places, all the research he has done, but his conclusions based on his research. If you want the detail of the research you can find it in the 60 pages of notes and other materiual at the back.

Essentially, the book is about the rise and fall of empires in Eurasia since the death of the Mongaol ruler Tamerlane. He covers not only Europe, but also the Middle East, India, China and the rest of Asia and their interactions through trade and conquest. Not only that, he questions some of the historical 'truth' that is currently taught and thought.

In the western world there is this idea that we have grown rich and had empires due to our superior attitudes in science, commerce and politics. He blows several holes in this by showing more advanced commerce, politics and science in the rest of Eurasia right up until the 18th century.

For most of the last 600 years, the Indians produced better cloth than the west and cheaper. China was a vast and mostly open internal market long before Europe, whilst the trade routes of the Indian Ocean were all but closed to the Europeans until the dawn of empire at the end of the 19th century.

In the military sphere, the rest of Eurasia were ahead or equal until the invention of the machine gun, and whilst we commonly think that the Europeans occupied China, the fact is that the western powers have had very few inroads into China at any time.

In short, this book puts into perpective the history of the world and shows the west its true place and its 500 pages of storytelling contain some the best 'world history' you will find anywhere.

What shines out for me, is that western domination is only a short period of world history and that it is reverting to its previous state of equality, and that is looking on the bright side. Given the rise of India and China as major commerical nations, alongside the power that is Japan, we may be seeing the rise of the Far East as the home of commerce, science and politics, to which the west will play second fiddle for the forseeable future.

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