From China to Peru

By Carr, Raymond | The Spectator, March 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

From China to Peru


Carr, Raymond, The Spectator


From China to Peru

Raymond Carr

1688: A GLOBAL HISTORY by John E. Wills

Granta, 20, pp. 345, ISBN 1862074135

It would seem that economic globalisation has engendered a vogue for global history. The writing of what was once called universal history has always been a profitable enterprise. H. G. Wells's History of the World made him a millionaire. Amateur compiler though he was, he confronted the problem that faces all would-be global historians: how to make sense of the mass of information provided by the specialised studies of academics, which, when Wells wrote in 1920, was a mere trickle compared with the present flood. For Wells, as the ,outlook broadens', this `clustering multitude' would dissolve into general laws.

Modern professional historians and Professor Wills is a professional to his fingertips - are chary of general laws, nor can they share Wells's optimistic belief, as an heir of the Enlightenment, that world history would expose a common humanity. Their emphasis is on the diversity of cultures and civilisations. How then does Wills tackle the problems of writing global history? He asks what was happening throughout the known world in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. He fully realises that this will appear an arbitrary choice. Other historians might choose different points of departure. The year 1688 does not exist in the Muslim calendar and to select 1688, the year when the Protestant hero Dutch William drove the Catholic James into exile, might seem to project a Eurocentric vision. But by freezing time to one year, Wills liberates global space. He can range from the silver mines of Potosi to the Dutch trading empire in Java; from the kingdoms of the Congo and the slave trade to the Jesuit missions in the barren lands of northern Mexico; from the emperors of China and India and the dog shoguns of Japan - Japan is one of the few countries with a national monument to a dog - to the court of Louis XIV and the Russia of Peter the Great; from the native Khoikhoi of South Africa, exploited by the Dutch, to the aborigines of Australia who had been conveniently, for his purpose, encountered and described by William Dampier in his voyage of 1688.

His favoured technique is to discover a person or an event on which to pin skilfully crafted potted histories. Sor Juana, the cloistered nun and one of the greatest baroque poets of the Spanish world, in 1688 is lamenting the return to Spain of her lover, the wife of the Viceroy. This opens up a description of the tensions of colonial Mexico. In the same year, the Confucian scholar and poet, Wang Fuzhi, is trying to come to terms with the collapse of the Ming dynasty. In 1688, the Manchu Quing emperor goes into mourning for his mother. This enables Wills to embark on a fine description of the examinations for the civil service, in which the Emperor took a personal interest, and the in-fighting of courtiers over the solution to the permanent problem of floods of the Yellow River. The funeral of Father Verbiest in 1688 provides a peg on which to hang the achievements of Jesuit missions to China and the `rites controversy'. Did the Jesuits overstep the mark and sacrifice the essentials of the faith in their efforts to convert the Chinese elite by seeking to find a common ground between Christianity and traditional Confucianism? Vividness is secured by the use of contemporary sources. When these fail, as in the case of the Ottoman empire, Wills invents what would have been observations of an imaginary European visitor in 1688. It is a forgivable fiction.

It comes as no surprise that, in religion and politics, similar manifestations erupt across the globe. …

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