After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405

Most histories of empire in modern times make the assumption that empires were European creations, and that they were comprehensively dominant. In this remarkable conspectus of world history since the 15th century, John Darwin shows that things were not quite as they are often made to seem by self-regarding, Eurocentric history writing. For example: the Asian empires, particularly that of China, were trenchantly resilient in the face of what was, in effect, not much more than European nibbling at their marine fringes right from the beginning of European imperialist expansion onward. So resilient, indeed, that the vast territorial imperium of the Chinese across Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet survived the fall of the Qing in 1911 and still exists today.

As this suggests, Darwin’s aim is to refocus our view of world history, and especially of the history of empire, since the collapse of Tamerlane’s effort to conquer the whole known world at the end of the 14th century. The fact that the Mongol conqueror started from Samarkand and visited devastation on the rich and busy domains that embraced so much of human history, from the Red Sea to the Black Sea and eastward toward the Indus, demonstrates where the real center of the world then lay — namely, in the eastern stretches of the “world island,” as the great continental mass of Eurasia is aptly sometimes called.

This geographical perspective is instructive. While western Europe was still struggling out of its darker ages following the collapse of Rome, the lands from the Bosporus to the East China Sea were wealthy, busy, ebullient with trade and lively exchanges of ideas and people. When Portuguese sailors began to feel their way into the Indian Ocean much later on, toward the end of the 15th century, they were not bringing light to benighted regions; they were pushing a small and tentative nose into a big, rich world of activity — and for a long time thereafter they and their successors were newcomers, latecomers, and minor players on the margins of something that had been around, and had been big, for a long time.

This is one part of Darwin’s message, and he makes a powerful case for it. A further part of his interest is in explaining how, given this background, Europe and in particular “Greater Europe” (meaning old Europe and its extension into North America) managed to rise to the position of dominance it has enjoyed at least since the mid-19th century. The interest of this, in turn, is the phenomenon of “globalization” — though Darwin is just as keen to point out that in crucial respects forms of globalization long predated what we mean by this term in today’s world. The story so far ends with the sole dominion of the United States as a superpower of staggering wealth and military capability, and Darwin asks — but does not claim to know the answer — how long it can last in this form. The difficulty with giving an answer is that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meteoric economic rise of China, and the literally explosive resurgence of Islam make the medium- and long-term future of the world hard to read, despite the clear patterns that emerge from a study of the pulses of historical change that brought the Greater European empires to prominence over the empires of the middle and east of Eurasia.

As all this shows, Darwin’s stated task is to persuade us to a “mental readjustment” in our view of the world’s latest five centuries, as the pivot of its history moved west from Samarkand to New York and Washington, D.C., by way of western Europe and particularly its Atlantic powers, chief among them Britain. This later part of the story is recent and, in overall time, brief; the “mental readjustment” is to see that the thickest part of history before then belonged to middle and eastern Eurasia. The change of perspective makes a difference to how we understand the contemporary world, which a purely Eurocentric viewpoint can do little to explain properly.

The story is a truly fascinating one, and Darwin tells it with eloquence, lucidity, and a breathtaking sweep of knowledge. Most impressive is the assurance with which he makes case after case for his many claims. Traveling with seven-league boots across such vast stretches of time and territory would make most historians vulnerable to challenges over detail, and doubtless Darwin is not immune to this; but he argues persuasively for his theses, and the result is a wonderfully stimulating and educative read.

It is full of striking insights, too. One example is how Darwin links cotton production in the southern United States to Britain’s refusal to grant self-rule to India, because India was the biggest market for the finished textiles that British mills wove out of slave-picked boles, and self-rule might have been followed by tariffs. Another is his explanation of the pressures that induced European governments to extend direct imperial control over territories which had hitherto needed only trading posts on their margins: “Merchants complained of restraints on trade. Missionaries wanted to save more souls?. Soldiers wanted a strategic hill, sailors yearned for a deeper anchorage. Proconsuls claimed that a larger colony would mean cheaper rule. Each of these groups could count on lobbies at home to harry its government into intervention or conquest.”

There is much here to challenge settled views. Let one example suffice: some might see the Reformation’s achievement in western Eurasia as the breaking of religious orthodoxy’s stranglehold over thought and enquiry, thus fruitfully liberating science and philosophy (to which Darwin always gives proper due) in a way that later Islam, to its cost, did not. Instead, Darwin sees the Reformation as a near disaster because of its destabilizing and fragmenting potential. This kind of unusual reconfiguring of seminal events is characteristic of the book, which is why it is a book that makes one think.

These are mere tastings from a feast, and Darwin’s careful, cumulative examination of the major trends of imperial history is a feast indeed. He ends by saying that the lesson of this tumultuous history is that no single rule, no emergent pattern, has been able to dominate Greater Eurasia in the time of empires, and seems unlikely ever to do so. Tamerlane’s failure to impose an imperium on his world could thus, says Darwin, be prophetic. But as always, it is too soon to tell.