The book that I have chosen to report on is After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 by John Darwin. This is a nonfiction book in the history genre. The book was a very difficult read because there were so many references to people and places that were new to me. I read about the book online and thought that it sounded interesting. Once I had a better handle on some of the geography, individuals, and history, I found the book to be simply fascinating. It is not light reading but is worth the effort if you are willing to put in the time to learn new things.
The thesis of this work by John Darwin is an intriguing one. He argues that the great Eurasian Empires of the past are the norm, not the exception to history. The modern experience of having powers on the “fringe” of the global landmass (Western Europe and the Americas) is an anomaly that will soon be rectified by the processes we collectively call Globalization.
Darwin delves into past empires first to show how their central location on the Eurasian landmass gave them a great advantage. He ends this introduction by writing about Tamerlane. Tamerlane was a descendant of the great Khans of the Mongol Empire. Darwin identifies Tamerlane as the last individual to make a concerted effort to conquer all of the Eurasian landmasses and unify it as one empire. He notes that Tamerlane was different than conquerors in the past because he realized that in order to truly control settled populations, you had to also establish settlements yourself. You could not rule them from afar out on the steppe. This worked for his ancestors but proved to be unsustainable.
Darwin then establishes a narrative that explains how we often perceive European expansion into the Americas; the subcontinent of India and Asia is not entirely accurate. He shows that even three hundred years after the discovery of the Americas and new routes to India, these places were still largely unsettled and explored by Europeans. He does this to show that the European dominance of the Americas and Asia has only been happening for about 300 years. The clear implication to his writing seems to be that expecting China and India to remain economically, politically and militarily inferior to the West is unthinkable given the long history of Asia being the real seat of globalization and empire building.
From this narrative, Darwin then goes on to show how economics have played a role in the building and dismantling of empires in the past and what the implications of that might be for the future. He examines the difficulty the British and Portuguese had in breaking into the Indian textile markets. Mercantile exchanges were established for luxury goods to fulfill the needs of the wealthy in Western Europe. Once industrialization developed in the west, the old mercantile system based on luxury goods began to break down. Europe was able to produce cheap cloth for India. This turned the empires of India into net exporters of goods to importers from Europe. This trade imbalance leads to increased hegemony from Europe, culminating in the subcontinent becoming a colony of the British.
Beyond the example of India and the British, Darwin goes on to show how globalized trade established world prices for goods and commodities instead of there being local markets. Global financial institutions were established to provide the funds for major projects such as canals and railways. All of these global institutions and technologies greatly disrupted the empires of Asia and Africa that came into contact with the Europeans seemed able to just arrive anywhere in the world and set up their own system of governance, economics, production, and finance. This lead to many governments in the 1870s and 1890’s being on the verge of collapse.
The scope of the book goes well into the 20th century and poses questions for our modern leaders to ponder. I found this book to be an extraordinary read. It is well researched and gives you the sense that there is nothing left out. Darwin’s explanations for the rise and fall of an empire and the future of unipolar world power are convincing and thoroughly supported. He is capable of taking the broad scope of history and applying it to our current financial, economic and political structures in the West. I find it especially interesting that this book was published at the dawn of the current global financial crisis we still are experiencing four years later. Darwin’s explanation of how globalization creates winners and losers is almost a prophecy of the times in which we currently live.
Darwin, John. (2008) After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405. Bloomsbury Press, New York.