Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 166-168
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Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers his readers a cocktail of curiosities in this learned, delightful, instructive, and irritating book, Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years. As he explains in the preface, he favors a "pointillist technique, picturing the past in significant details. ...Western world domination, which books on world history usually try to describe or 'explain,' is seen in what follows as neither fore-ordained, nor enduring; I argue that it was later, feebler, and briefer than is commonly supposed. Therefore more space is given to the rest of the world...according to a novel bias in favor of the unusual, which helps to even the score" (p. 13).
"Picturing the past in significant details" means bits and pieces taken from the pages of innumerable adventurers and memoirists. The author is not especially concerned about the accuracy of what they had to say since, he asserts, "history is moulded more often by the falsehoods men believe than by the facts that can be verified" (p. 532 and repeated almost verbatim on p. 586). The byways he explores are almost always both novel and fascinating, like the career of a dynasty of Irish merchants based in Tenerife, until recently "almost unknown to scholarship." But surely it is preposterous to claim that "the com-plexities...of the Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century can best be appreciated from their perspective" (p. 354).
Arresting details—true or not—like the sexual fantasies of an English castaway in China (pp. 530-31) may make this book a popular success. Indeed, it is like an extended television documentary, presenting its readers with a cabinet of curiosities; an impressive array of de-lightful and unfamiliar illustrations enhances the resemblance. Assuredly, Fernández-Armesto has an acute eye and quick imagination. Who will not melt in amazement at the photograph of a life-sized prince of Wales and his horse carved out of Canadian butter for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (p. 538)? Or do a double take when seeing Anwar Sadat attired as a Sufi (p. 595) or when meeting a Chinese merchant publicly enthroned in Salem, Massachusetts (p. 312)? Re-grettably, the copy I received for review was poorly printed, so details of photographs discussed in the text are sometimes undecipherable. But most are readily intelligible, and many are truly memorable.
Bons mots and telling phrases also decorate this book. Yet the author's deliberate effort to write vividly occasionally obscures more than it reveals. For example, "Dunedin is a miraculous mirror, reflecting [End Page 166] Victorian and Edwardian Britain from as far away as it is possible to get, through almost the whole length and density of the core and carapace of the earth" under "skies, bright with an almost painful clarity unknown in the northern hemisphere" (p. 423). As it happens, I once spent several weeks in Dunedin, New Zealand, where I encountered mist and rain that looked very like the skies over Edinburgh, and never imagined that the town's resemblance to Scotland depended on magic mirrors reflecting anything at all through the earth's core.
But the real defect of this amusing and attractive "hitchhike through a thousand years" (p. 722) is that the author is so interested in novelties and in challenging conventional views that he distorts the central historical changes of the millennium beyond recognition. What most mattered was the opening of the oceans of the world to sustained communication between 1490 and 1550, followed after about 1780 by the massive exploitation of inanimate energy for transport, communication, and production that we call the industrial revolution. Both, of course, were initially based in western Europe and gave that part of the world a primacy over other peoples that is now beginning to wear out.
A serious history of the millennium surely ought to focus on these two transformations, as our historical scholarship in...