After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405

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A Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for the post–Cold War era—a brilliantly written, sweeping new history of how empires have ebbed and flowed over the past six centuries.

The death of the great Tatar emperor Tamerlane in 1405, writes historian John Darwin, was a turning point in world history. Never again would a single warlord, raiding across the steppes, be able to unite Eurasia under his rule. After Tamerlane, a series of huge, stable empires were founded and consolidated— Chinese, Mughal, Persian, and Ottoman—realms of such grandeur, sophistication, and dynamism that they outclassed the fragmentary, quarrelsome nations of Europe in every respect. The nineteenth century saw these empires fall vulnerable to European conquest, creating an age of anarchy and exploitation, but this had largely ended by the twenty-first century, with new Chinese and Indian super-states and successful independent states in Turkey and Iran.

This elegantly written, magisterial account challenges the conventional narrative of the “Rise of the West,” showing that European ascendancy was neither foreordained nor a linear process. Indeed, it is likely to be a transitory phase. After Tamerlane is a vivid, bold, and innovative history of how empires rise and fall, from one of Britain’s leading scholars. It will take its place beside other provocative works of “large history,” from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers to David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations or Niall Ferguson’s Empire.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Undoubtedly a great work, a book that goes truly global in chronicling the history of one of our abiding concerns: the pull and limitations of absolute power. It forces the reader to rethink commonly held assumptions about our collective past. For that alone, it should be read." —Vikram Johri, St. Petersburg Times

“Nicely balanced between sweeping overview and illuminating detail, this lucid survey complicates and deepens our understanding of modern world history.” —Publishers Weekly

'In this marvellously illuminating book, John Darwin accepts much but not all of the revisionist analysis. With an awesome grasp of global history, he demonstrates that the continental peninsula of Europe was peripheral for most of the time since the 14th-century conquests of Tamerlane...Darwin sustains an intricate thesis with enormous panache.' —Piers Brendon, The Independent, 4 May 2007

'An astonishingly comprehensive, arrestingly fresh and vivid history of the forces that underlie the world we live in today, After Tamerlane sets aside ideologies in which European power - sometimes seen as liberating and at others as diabolically oppressive - is the driving force of modern development...After reading this masterpiece of historical writing, one thing is clear. The world has not seen the last empire.' —John Gray, Literary Review, April 2007

'A work of massive erudition, After Tamerlane overturns smug Eurocentric teleologies to present a compelling new perspective on international history. Though the subject of empire stirs partisan passions these days, Darwin exudes fairmindedness...Big topics demand big treatments, yet few are brave or knowledgeable enough to hazard them. Darwin has provided an ambitious, monumental and convincing reminder that empires are the rule, not the exception, in world history.' —Maya Jasanoff, Guardian, 12 May 2007

'A wonderful and imaginative addition to the select library of books on world history that one really wants to possess, and dip into, for ever...It is rather wonderful to doff one's hat to a historian who can range across time and space, giving the reader continual cause for pause, in the way that Darwin has done.' Paul Kennedy, Sunday Times

Darwin 'gives us world history on the grand scale, equipping his readers with the knowledge and insights to make their own assessment of what is coming next. If only his book could find its way into the right hands, it might also serve to make the world a less dangerous place.' —Tim Blanning, Sunday Telegraph

Publishers Weekly

Was Europe's domination of the modern international order the inevitable rise of a superior civilization or the piratical hijacking of an evolving world system? A little of both, and a lot of neither, this ambitious comparative study argues-because world history's real "center of gravity" sits in Eurasia. Historian Darwin (The End of the British Empire) contends that an ascendant Western imperialism was a sideshow to vast, wealthy and dynamic Asian empires-in China, Mughal India, the Ottoman Middle East and Safavid Iran-which proved resistant to Western encroachment and shaped the world into the 21st century. Europe's overseas colonial empires as well as the expansions of the United States across North America and Russia across Siberia-was not inevitable, but rather a slow, fitful and often marginal enterprise that didn't accelerate until the mid-19th century. Darwin analyzes the technological, organizational and economic advantages Europeans accrued over time, but shows how dependent their success was on the vagaries of world trade (the driving force of modern imperialism, in his account) and the internal politics of the countries they tried to control. Nicely balanced between sweeping overview and illuminating detail, this lucid survey complicates and deepens our understanding of modern world history. Photos. (Feb)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and Professor of Philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace is currently running Off-Broadway.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596913936
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 2/5/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.79 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.85 (d)

Meet the Author

John Darwin is a university lecturer and a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. Britain’s preeminent scholar of global history, he is the author of Britain and Decolonization, The End of the British Empire, and Britain, Egypt and the Middle East.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     viii
List of Maps     ix
Preface     x
Orientations     1
Eurasia and the Age of Discovery     47
The Early Modern Equilibrium     101
The Eurasian Revolution     157
The Race against Time     219
The Limits of Empire     295
Towards the Crisis of the World, 1914-1942     365
Empire Denied     425
Tamerlane's Shadow     487
Notes     507
Further Reading     558
Index     569
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2008

    Invitation to Thoroughly Rethink European and Western Expansionism

    John Darwin explores three themes in ¿After Tamerlane:¿ 1. The growth of global connectedness that results in the globalization as it is known today. 2. The key role that Europe and later on the West played in that process. 3. The resilience of many of Eurasia¿s other states and cultures in the face of Europe¿s expansionism. Darwin pushes his audience to rethink the history of Europe¿s expansion by making four assumptions: 1. Europe did not progressively rise to preeminence, then fall and rise again as part of the West. The pace of European advance was spasmodic at best in the 250 years following the arrival of Christophe Columbus in the Americas in 1492 C.E. The subjugation of the Americas did not offer Europe a decisive advantage over the rest of Eurasia during that period. Asians were not interested in most of what the Europeans had to offer, resulting in a flow of American silver to South and East Asia. After 1750 C.E., this pattern progressively changed with the subjugation of India and the advent of the industrial revolution that allowed Europeans to impose a trade of manufactured products against raw materials and foodstuffs in the region. The great expansion of trade in the 19th century C.E. and the globalization that it helped to promote were possible for two main reasons. Firstly, there was no general war between the major European powers between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 C.E. and the outbreak of the WWI in 1914 C.E. Secondly, industrialization allowed culturally self-confident Europeans to colonize far faster and on a far larger scale than was previously possible. For example, think about the scramble for Africa among European powers at the end of the 19th century C.E. In contrast, Asian empires showed a remarkable cultural and political resilience in the face of Europe¿s expansionism. Despite all foreign encroachments, China ultimately lost only Outer Mongolia. A fast-industrializing Japan became quickly a match for its Western alter egos before losing all its colonies at the end of WWII. The victors of WWI failed to partition the Anatolian core of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s C.E. Finally, Iran comprises to this day most of ¿historic¿ Persia. The great exception to that rule was India because of its openness and accessibility, and because of the sophistication of its financial and commercial life. 2. A global proto-economy came into existence in the 16th century C.E. once the Americas had been connected to Eurasia and Africa. Without the exploitation of American resources, and the commercial integration of North East America and North West Europe to form an ¿Atlantic¿ economy, the eventual creation of a global economy in the late 19th century C.E. might not have happened at all. The increased protectionism against free trade that started in the 1880s C.E. did not stop the growth in international commerce before the outbreak of WWI. Globalization remained mostly in limbo during the Europe¿s second Thirty Years War. The second wave of globalization that started after the end of WWII under the leadership of the U.S. has gone far beyond the limited promise of the pre-1914 world. The ¿great divergence¿ in wealth and economic performance between the Euro-Atlantic West and most of the rest of Eurasia has given way instead to the ¿great convergence,¿ which should, if it continues, restore the balance to the rough equilibrium of half a millennium ago in the next fifty years. 3. Reducing the history of Europe¿s global expansion to that of Britain, the Low Countries, northern France, and western Germany is misleading for three reasons. Firstly, the quarrels and conflicts of the European states were a constant limiting factor on their collective ability to impose Europe¿s domination on the rest of the world. Secondly, this reductive approach ignores the territorial expansionism of tsarist Russia that was a European power. Finally, that analysis ignores t

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