Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
My Rating: ★★★★☆
The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for the “geography is destiny’ cry of the determinists, he also quickly pulls that argument down.
In Armesto’s vision, the geography a civilization finds itself in, or the latitude to be more accurate, is not a determining factor in its history, but a limiting factor in their growth. It is something to be overcome, a basic tenet of the ‘civilizing impulse’ that Armesto believes is a part of all of mankind – the desire to modify the environment as much as possible. To show that geography can be transcended thus, he takes us on a long tour that encompasses all the major geographic niches that the earth has to offer – spanning the frigid snow-lands, the arid deserts, the sultry tropics, the gloomy marshes, the cloudy highlands, the loamy riversides, the stormy coastal areas and the lonely islands – and shows magnificent examples of stunning civilizational attempts that flourished and faded on those vastly different habitats in every latitude of the world. The current predominance of certain civilizations is less than a few centuries old, and could just be a freak of history; after all quite a few civilizations that were less strategically placed geographically have had longer reigns in the past. Armesto makes a compelling case and argues that a lot of things go into the cauldron that spawns civilization and to limit the explanation to any single ingredient is clearly an over simplification.
But then, Armesto too is a historian and like all historians, unfortunately, he cannot avoid trying to construct a story that can explain the present from the past. Why write a history book if it has no thesis to offer on how things got this way? So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that “geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages.”
He says that even though civilizations might have grown out of their environments of origin, they have been borne by the wind. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. I would have liked him to stop there and I really don’t buy his causation arguments that make up the last 100 odd pages of the book. But, they are still compelling and thought-provoking and deserves to be presented too.
The crux of Armesto’s final argument then is that instead of the 10,000 BC that Diamond takes to be the point of divergence that led to the current state of the world, Armesto chooses 1490 AD (or the 1490s) as the diverging year that scripted the story of modern colonizations and formed our present. Armesto claims that the unique location of the ‘Western Civilization”, which he prefers to call the “Atlantic Civilization” along with their extremely fine timing to choose their moment for civilizational expansion was what contributed to their world domination – a case of luck and industry going hand in hand. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. This was due to the fact that the civilizations that rimmed the Indian Ocean enjoyed the Monsoon winds which helped in promoting trade and making travel safe, fast and orderly, with its cyclic nature and seasonal reversal – aiding ships to and fro in their travels.
The unidirectional and turbulent winds of the Atlantic were much harder to decode, especially by sailors anxious about how they would ever make it back if they hitched a ride on these winds that never returned. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. Armesto says:
That may be the simple reason why Vasco da Gama appeared in Calicut, before an Indian or Arab or Chinese or Indonesian merchant “discovered” Europe by sea, despite the superior equipment and longer tradition enjoyed by the seafarers of the East. It was not because of any superiority on the Europeans part but, on the contrary, because of the urgings of a kind of inferiority: laggards have to catch up. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, “the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off”
This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards. The consequence was the creation of a single Atlantic civilization which spanned both shores of the ocean. In the seventeenth century, this inchoate civilization came to embrace North as well as Central and South America, and Africa as well as Europe, steadily seeping into the rest of the world as well.
That then is Armesto’s thesis, except for the concluding chapter which sketches a possible future in which the power base shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, thus altering everything again. This is not as believable since the world we know today is not shaped by marine trade as much as the world of the East India Companies.
This scholarly and poetic work tries to give us the history of civilization by giving us glimpses of the images that were the high-watermarks of each of the great civilizations that has graced this world. It is evocative of the splendor of these ancient wonders, even while being more descriptive than narrative. The sheer ease with which Armesto manages to make us feel that we are traveling with a Marco Polo or an Ibn Batutta of our own, enjoying the rise and fall of Rome, pondering the mysterious disappearances of the central American cultures, navigating the glory of Venice in its prime and shuddering at the all-conquering Ottomans bearing down on us – all these experiences ensures that the laborious and careful reading that a book like this demands is entirely worth the effort. Armesto’s masterpiece leaves you with a sense that you have witnessed history in all its nebulousness and that there is no history, no single narrative that can ever be told. It can only be glimpsed and appreciated, never understood.
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