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Fast Forward thru 600 years
on 17 January 2013
I must admit I was sold on the hype and bought the book on the title which must have been a publishers wet dream to hook fools like me. What you get is close on 500 pages purporting to be on the rise and fall of empires since 1400. You have to question John Darwin's sanity (or his desire for money) taking on this publishers brief (by the look of it) because 500 pages to cover 600 years of empires building and crumbling throught the world!! is some mighty task that necessarily has to involve a lot of skimping and fly-bys. Still, he's an Oxford Fellow of Imperial and Global history so he must know what he's doing.
By page 100 we are not only up to 1560 but have included a large chunk on the nature of empire building and the distribution of power in the pre-Colombian world (a decent enough discussion as it happens). That covers Islam, Russia, China, early Portugese investigation, early Iranian and North Indian. By p150 the Mughals have been and gone. And by p200 we're up to 1800 pretty much and talking global trade and Industrial Revolutions world-wide.
You get the picture. Its broad. Its vast. Its fast. bang bang bang.
Now my views. Throughout this book, Darwin in my view changes his position and his arguing strategy to suit his case. He uses exceptions to prove his rule and then decides well...'that can't be the case because of THESE exceptions'. In other words Darwin cuts his cloth to suit his tastes and his argument/thesis. He's taking on race, creed, colour, religion and ideology over 600 years for god sake. Its just way way too broad a brush stroke for this. From page 250 onwards - half the book we are talking about the 20th century.
In fact after you've whizzed all the way through to the late 20th century, he gives us a final chapter to take stock. Whilst railing against grand straight-line theory of history, Mr Darwin appears to have given us, bar his yes-but-no-but-yes's throughout the book, precisely that in order to be able to make some accommodation of 600 years of human development.
I found the flash through the Spanish colonization of Central and South America precisely that - a flash through which is rarely referred to later other than stating that its production of gold and silver and use of slave labour was fundamental in increasing the pace and value of later colonizations and empire building - so you think it might have been important then enough to have covered it in better detail. But no, the production of silver in China, which is referred to often is considered more important.
More often than not, given the emphasis on the 20th century (half the book as noted above) there is little emphasis or analysis of political structure and ethos or how this defined various attempts at empire building and crumbling. What there is of it is really quite infantile and somewhat contentional.
References. Other places and people have pointed out that the majority of sources cited and presumably used are European and most are in English.
But did I enjoy it? Well it DID make me think and my copy is now written through with pencil marks, underlinings, NO!!!!!s and footnotes of my own. So it did make me think and engage. and that's what a good book should do.
So if you want a broad view then give it a go. But take it in with scepticism and questionning and be prepared to go and find individual histories of these empire building episodes. This is a 'modern' type book. It will never replace studied single subject histories but these 'rapid-racethroughs' appear to be gaining in popularity as the dumbing down continues at pace.
Perhaps the last chapter should have been on the Rise and Rise of the Empire of Dumbdown.