Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Changing Perceptions - Part 1

Films, books, people, events, many things change our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Over the next few blogs I'm going to share some of the things that have changed my perceptions. Today I'm going to start with books on history.

I have always been fascinated by the past. In my younger days it was via soldiers and war films (thanks dad), but eventually grew into learning about social history and ordinary people. Out of the hundreds of history books that I have read down the years, three stand out.

1. Africa in History/Basil Davidson
I came across this book twenty years ago and is, to date, the best one volume history of the whole of Africa I have come across for not only does it cover the whole continent, but also its whole history. The European colonisation takes up less than a quarter of its 400 pages, the rest being devoted to its rich past and reminded me that one of the most glorious empires of history was African, that of Egypt.

The first part takes the story up to 2000BC and includes sections on the 'green sahara' and Africa's early peoples. After dwelling on the long history of Egypt, it diverts to the other parts of Africa, its peoples, trade and empires, such as that based around Timbuktu in what is now Mali.

What struck me most about the book was its descriptions of first contact with Early Modern Europeans, and the fact that until 1880, we Europeans were stuck on the coast, not daring to expand further inland. For up to that point, no European state could expect to conquer any part of Africa. It was only the advent of repeating rifles, machine guns and breech-loading artillery that changed the balance of power.

In short, the book changed my perception of Africa and its place in world history.

2. The Medieval Machine/Jean Gimpel
As its title suggest this book is about the machines of the medieval period in Europe, from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. Nor is it just about machines and technology, but about the ideas that changed the way we lived.

The book starts with mining and farming, showing how it developed from odd groups of people banging axes into stone into organised quarries and mines run by merchnats and the machinery they used to extract water and ore. It also highlights the increasing sophistication of the plough, land use and the crop rotations theory that helped yields to grow, sustaining an increasing population. Not forgotten are the scientific methods used to develop new strands of plant, by grafting two other together or new species of animals by cross-breeding.

The machines covered include the water wheel, the windmill and marine technology that increased the size and safety of ships in the period. There is also a section on the development of clocks.

This book showed me that the past was not one, unindustrialised period of ecologically aware people farming in jollity, but was full of change and development of the mind, the land and the machines that people used to make life easier.

3. Seeds of Change/Henry Hobhouse
The subtitle tells you what you need to know about the book: 'five plants that transformed mankind'. This book tells the story of humanity's use of five plants and how they have shaped the society we live in.

First up is quinine, for the simple reason that it enabled the 'white man' to stay in tropical climates without dying of the various diseases they could catch. it wasn't foolproof and people still died, but it did reduce the rate substantially. The discovery of quinine lead, in part to the second important plant, sugar. If Europeans hadn't been able to stay in tropical climates, then sugar plantations may not have taken off in the way they did, and it was for the needs of sugar plantations that the Atlantic slave trade became so big.

The third plant was tea and its impact on western and oriental trade, especially how the trade nearly destroyed China when in order to stem the tide of silver heading East, Britain forced opium on the Chinese. Then comes cotton, its impact on the American South and how the labour intensive prodcution kept slavery going when otherwise it may have died out. Lastly we have the potato and how it took hold in Ireland and elsewhere in the world, and the consequences of dependence on one plant. (In later editions of the book, Hobhouse has added coca to the list)

From this book I learnt that often times it's the small things that make the difference, things that are almost unnoticed or unheralded by most people, often only acknowleged in hindsight.

It wasn't easy to select those three and other honourable mentions go to 'A Social History of the Third Reich' by Richard Grunberger that opened up the lives of ordinary Germans in Hitler's Germany; 'The World The Romans Knew' by NHH Sitwell which showed how far the trade networks of the ancient world were and 'The Great Wave' by David Hackett Fischer which told the story of the economic waves that have followed humanity throughout recorded history and tend to come in sixty year cycles.

My thanks go to all those historians for their help in changing my perceptions of the world.

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