Saturday, September 29, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 3 & 4

Clashing Worlds

In the 15th C, the Americas were well developed, with some of the largest cities in the world and well-defined culture, but they had been insulated from developments in Afro-Eurasia - technologies like large sailing ships or the wheel, the use of domesticated animals, and the Afro-Eurasian culture of warfare.  They had not been part of the AfroEurasian global networks as described in Lecture 1 and Lecture 2.  As the lecture title Clashing Worlds indicates, Lecture 3 focused on what this clash meant for both the 'old' and the 'new' world.

The 'Ottoman Blockade' of the traditional paths to the East impelled the Europeans to find a new way. The discovery of the equatorial currents, trade winds and the technology of tacking enabled Europeans to venture ever further.  Columbus himself was old-fashioned, disdaining to use modern sailing technologies, and he never adjusted his world view to acknowledge that he hadn't discovered the East.  However, he ushered in an era of enormous change in the world.  After the initial landfall on Hispaniola, the Spaniards were quickly drawn inland in search of more gold and silver: El Dorado.

Although some tribes held on for 400 years (notably the Sioux in the Western US), the indigenous populations were mostly defeated quickly by the Spaniards and other Europeans.  They were vanquished mostly by disease:  in 1521, when 600 Spaniards along with their 100,000 native allies entered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, over 40% of the population was already dead from disease.  Spaniards described wading through putrefying corpses in the streets.

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange describes the interaction between Europe and the Americas.  It was a highly asymmetric exchange in favour of Europe.

The most important - and devastating - thing the Americas 'got' was an onslaught of European microbes, the most dangerous being smallpox, measles and typhus.  14 separate epidemics ravaged the Americas in the period, taking the native population from somewhere between 100 and 120M, to 20M.  The Europeans also brought crops like cotton, rice, indigo, bananas and sugar.  Sugar would have the most impact; this export crop was a driver of the slave trade.  The Americas  also gained domesticated animals like horses, sheep and pigs.

Apart from syphilis, Europeans benefits vastly from what they obtained in the Americas.  Some crops like tomatoes, maize, cocoa and potatoes were helpful.  But let's face it, the big win was precious metals.  Before 1500, the Europeans were poor sisters to China, having little to trade that the Chinese valued.  Europeans suffered a huge deficit in the balance of payments because of their eagerness to acquire the silk, porcelain and spices that China offered.  By 1600, that trade imbalance had reversed, with China* in deficit because of Europe's gold and silver.

Silver and Slaves

Between 1493 and 1800, 85% of the world's silver and 70% of the world's gold came from the Americas.  Spanish doubloons became the global currency.  The precious metals were originally mined by indigenous Indians.  The Incas had a system of forced labour for the state, the Mita, which the Spaniards adapted as a form of labour servitude verging on slavery.  But soon the dearth of local labour, due to disease, necessitated imported labour.  This came from Africa.

Of the 6.5M people who came to the Americas between 1492 and 1776, 5.5M came from Africa, with 40% going to Brazil, 30% to the Caribbean, and less than 10% to North America.   Adelman terms this the Africanization of America.  It was not until the abolition of slavery in the 1830's and the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that European immigrants started to outnumber African involuntary immigrants.  African chieftains were active participants in the trade, using the revenue to buy weapons for warfare against their neighbours.

The Baroque Period

I think of the Baroque as a style of art.  Adelman contends that this style, which emphasized movement and a sense of imbalance, was a reflection of the changing world.  Intermarriage resulted in people of mixed breed - Mestizos, Creoles, Metis - and the merging of indigenous cultural and religious practices with those of Europe was creating entirely new forms.

In short, the 'discovery' of the Americas transformed the world from a multi-centred global trading system dominated by Arab merchants to a world system centre on Europe.

*The course has spent a lot of time on China up to now.  The integration of the Americas and its riches into Europe leaves China on the periphery of history during this period.  The major discovery of America happens in a period when China has withdrawn into itself at the behest of the Confucian scholars who argued that Chinese culture was being adulterated by their explorations and trade.  While European maps by 1507 are incorporating the Americas, although the dimensions of America were greatly distorted), Chinese maps persist with wheel maps, showing China at the centre of everything, with people's of lesser and lesser civilization in concentric circles around China.  Very symbolic.
Adelman promises the next lecture will turn to further discussion of what's been going on in China during this time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A World Elsewhere

The book may be called A World Elsewhere, but Wayne Johnston's book drew me right into that world of loyalty and treachery, of dark family secrets, and deep puzzles.  I'll be anxious to enter other worlds of Johnston's in his other books, because I just loved this book.

A World Elsewhere chronicles the relationship between two unlikely friends who met at Princeton, Landish Druken and Padgett Vanderluyden.  The youngest son of the fabulously wealthy Vanderluyden family, Vanderluyden, or Van as he is know, is distinctly damaged goods.  Van strikes up a friendship with Landish and tries to seduce him into his dream of building a fantastic mansion to be called Vanderland.  When Druken declines, Van betrays him and Landish leaves Princeton without graduating.

Landish Druken is an unlikely person for Van to befriend.  He is the son of a nasty, wealthy sealer from Newfoundland who is reviled for his heartless desertion of crew members on an ice floe.

Landish is disowned by his father for not continuing in the sealing business.  Allowed to keep only his clothes, Landish dubs the arrangement The Sartorial Charter.  Landish is trying to write a book but is so dissatisfied he burns everything he writes.  Despite his circumstances, Landish adopts Deacon, the sweet and fragile son of the crew member who lost his life off Captain Druken's ship.  Landish likes to speak his own mind and follow his own path, even though his actions alienate others and drives him and Deacon into deeper penury.  Landish's last resort is to appeal for help to Van, and so he ends up at Vanderland after all.

The book's eccentric characters are so finely drawn that they are totally believable.  You might be charmed by the young orphan Deacon, chronically irritated with Landish for being unable to restrain his tongue, and disgusted by the malicious Van, but I defy any reader to be indifferent to these characters, or indeed any of the lesser players in the story.

The other great character in the book is the vast and eerie Vanderland estate itself.  Vanderland evokes an atmosphere reminiscent of two Neverlands:  the fantasy of J. M. Barrie's and the menace of Michael Jackson's.  Johnston has written a non-fiction about Biltmore*, the largest estate in the US, built by George Vanderbilt, the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Hmm, looks like a case of making your research do double duty!

Johnston's vibrant prose is full of delightful word play that had me chuckling out loud.  Even the final puzzle to be unveiled in the book rests in word play.  This verbal dexterity added to an already enjoyable book.

* Biltmore was used in a recent Economist article about income inequality to personify the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the US.  The article is well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 2

I've been learning interesting things in my course on the History of the World Since 1300.  Since this blog is about ideas, and since recapping the lectures will be useful to my own learning process, I'll be giving a quick summary of each lecture here.  Lecture 2 started with a description of The Black Death.

The Black Death

After a 12th Century  of growth and relative stability, the Black Death of the 13th Century changed all that.  Carried by rats and fleas transported along the global trade routes, the plagues killed millions - mostly in the very important trading centres with dense populations.  Thought to have started in China, where the population plummeted from 120M to 80M, the Black Death left huge power vacuums in its wake, and several empires filled the holes. 

The Muslim Empires

Three Muslim empires emerged: the Mughal in India, the Safavid in Iran and Iraq, and the Ottoman Empire in the middle East.  Tamerlane, a descendant of the Mongols and now a Muslim, started the Mughal empire consolidated by Babur by entering into alliances with the local principalities.  Muslims had also integrated the Swahili Coast of East Africa into global networks, and were starting to trade African slaves.  

But the most important and largest was the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453.   Refugees who fled to Venice and other Italian states helped spark the Renaissance in the West.  

Islam was also the dominant religion on the Swahili Coast of East Africa.  African gold injected liquidity into the world economy and African slaves were found as far away as China.


Meanwhile, in China, the vacuum was filled by the Mings who ousted the Mongols from Beijing in 1368.  The Mings rebuilt the army and a huge administrative elite formed of people who had passed rigorous exams.  

To finance their army, the Mings sought for new revenue sources.  Their most famous warrior and explorer was Zheng He, a captured Muslim boy who was castrated and joined the powerful eunuchs of the court.    Zheng He led seven voyages of exploration between 1405 and 1433.  Zheng He's powerful naval ships, including stupendous 400' warships and 100' supply ships that dwarfed other ships of the time, would enter ports in flotillas of 300.  Instead of bombarding the ports, he would exchange gifts and enter into complex negotiations about the prices of commodities.  The Mings did not seek to overturn the existing rulers; their interest was in developing subordinate relationships with these states who would return revenues to China.

A student in one of the class forums posted a picture from the Dubai Airport showing a model of Zheng He's ship compared to Columbus'.  Other students doing research have pointed out that most of Zheng He's ships were undoubtedly smaller and used for commerce like Columbus', and were more stable for navigation.  For someone like me who had never heard of Zheng He, this picture was very powerful.

After the death of the Ming emperor, two factions fought for control: the Eunuch administrative elite who argued for continued exploration, and the Confucian scholars who argued for retreat into deeper Chineseness.  The scholars won and so ended Chinese explorations to the outer world.  In fact, any vessel of over two masts were outlawed as of 1500.


At this time, Europe is fragmented.  Even the Holy Roman Empire is a pastiche of smaller, antagonistic principalities.  As Professor Adelman put it, "this disequilibrium bred militarism, aggressive political cultures and expansionism." As the Ottoman presence in the middle East blocked European access to Asian markets, Europeans looked west and we see the motivation for the great Atlantic crossings and explorations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

The first lecture of History of the World Since 1300 was wonderful.  The course promised a world view of history, and it's already showing in the readings and the lecture.

I was impressed with the perfect technology.  I started to view the first lecture shortly after 6 pm when it first became available, and it was great - no problem with buffering on the beautiful high definition video.  The first lecture was divided into five segments, with a quiz question after each segment.  You can download the video in MP4 format, and there is a text version of the lectures as well (called subtitles, but really just a separate written text).

The first lecture focused on the growth in trade as the driver of linkages around the world.  In the back story about earlier times, Professor Adelman talked about early trade between the countryside and villages, which allowed the villages to grow because of the agricultural produce from the rural areas. As people become able to produce more than required just for survival, 'luxury' items  start to move great distances along overland trade routes like the Silk Route.  Such trade is driven by products with a high value to bulk ratio.  Camels can't carry all that much and so you want to ship light, valuable goods like spices, cinnamon and pepper.  The emergence of maritime trade routes, enabled through improved maritime technology like bigger ships, the compass and charts, meant that heavier goods like teak, ivory, sugar, earthenware, lead and glass could flow along the trade routes.  

We see the beginning of the great entrepot centres like Aleppo (in the news about Syria lately) and Samarkand (in today's Uzbekistan) that served the overland routes and the maritime entrepots of Calicut (Kozhikode in Kerala in Southern India), Melaka (in present-day Malaysia), Aden (in present-day Yemen) and Venice.  In all cases, it's Arab merchants who dominate trade, using close, trusted family connections to carry out trade, and they become the first money lenders to facilitate trade.

The lecture and the readings brings together the spread of religion and the interlinking of the world.  Buddhism spread along trade routes, and in turn facilitated trade by developing bonds between people.  From the above mention of maritime technology, Adelman foreshadows future world trends caused by technology changes.  He had already spoken of China's strength and power largely driven by their harnessing of water through irrigation, dams, land reclamation and sewage handling.  But a key theme has been the development of wealth and the trading of wealth driving world development.  Indeed, Adelman's first introduction pointed to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:  Smith argued that wealth was an engine of social interaction, and clearly Adelman subscribes to this notion.

Adelman ended with a segment on Genghis Khan.  Did you know that in 25 years the Mongols conquered an area larger than the Romans conquered in 400 years?  The Mongols came from the Northern Asian plains, with little opportunity to develop beyond subsistence level.  With so few resources of their own, their approach to developing wealth was to plunder it through conquest.  They travelled light and conquered quickly, depending on surprise, terror and their superior horse-based warfare for victory.  They wiped out the rulers in conquered areas and replaced them with Mongol rulers (often sons of Genghis Khan), they left the common people in place and living much as usual.  They needed these people in place to provide the goods for their support.  You can't plunder much from a society that isn't producing any more.  Trade flourished under the Mongols, bringing lemons and carrots from Persia to China and noodles and playing cards to Europe.  But there were exchanges beyond goods.  German miners found their way to China to improve mining practices there and Chinese doctors found their way to Persia.

Past  related blog posts:
  • discussion of Coursera as a disruption innovation in eduction here
  • post on the way the course will run - a fascinating view of the advantages of an online course here
  • talking of The Wealth of Nations, I reported on a fascinating chart article from The Economist, on the first effort to actually measure the wealth of nations, as opposed to their income which is captured in GDP

Sunday, September 16, 2012

22 Britannia Road

For newlyweds Sylvana and Janusz, World War II takes them to the limits of human experience.    Sylvana spends the war foraging in the forest with her son Aurek, after fleeing rape by German soldiers in her home in Warsaw.  Barely surviving, she needs every ounce of her courage and ingenuity to feed and protect herself and her son.

Meanwhile, Janusz joins a Polish unit that is routed and wiped out by the Germans.  He walks across several countries before finding refuge with a French family and making his way to England to join the army against the Germans and ultimately to settle at 22 Britannia Road in Ipswich..

22 Britannia Road opens as Sylvana and Aurek arrive in England from a refugee camp to rejoin Janusz.  Sylvana's obsessive protectiveness of Aurek and Aurek's paranoid distrust of Janusz make for a troubled household, but Janusz persists in constructing his dream home and family just as he meticulously cultivates his flowers in the back garden.

This is a story of three people trying to rebuild their life after the trauma of the war.  Dark secrets hang over their lives, threatening their new life in England.  Their progress toward understanding and acceptance is erratic.

The novel alternates between present day Ipswich and gradually unfolds the back story of their lives during the war.  The characters are well drawn and the description of their ordeals is most engaging, albeit not particularly credible.  This is Amanda Hodgkinson's first novel and I hope to see more of her writing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

In a previous post I described signing up for a course at Coursera and why I think MOOCs (massive open online course) are going to revolutionize education.  The first lectures will be posted next Sunday and today I received a message from Professor Adelman about how the course will be organized and what will be expected of me - and 70,000 other students!!!  If I want to take this seriously, it's going to be lots of work.

Here's what is on offer and what's expected of me:


  •  There are two 1-hour lectures a week.  These will be posted on Sunday night.  Each lecture will be available until the end of the course.  The lectures will be interpolated with quizzes that test assimilation of facts and also demand analysis.
  • There was an earlier statement that there would be a progress metric - I'm assuming there will be an automated way of ascertaining if I actually watched the lectures and answered these quizzes.
  • The text Worlds Together, Worlds Apart has 11 chapters, and one chapter will be assigned each week, with one chapter spanning two weeks.  I've been sporadically reading this book for a couple of weeks now, and have completed a 'prequel' chapter and am most of the way through the first chapter.  Time to step up the pace.
  • When I was shopping for the text in August, there was no e-book version, the hardcover cost $120 in Canada, $80+ in the US and there was a loose leaf version for $60+ in the US.  I opted for the loose leaf version, based on cost and the convenience of carrying around a smaller weight. Today, the book was ranked #203 on Amazon in the US and the text is out of stock in Canada.  We can certainly see one motivation for Adelman to do this course, as he's a co-author of the book.
  • It's a long time since I read a text book.  This doesn't look anything like a text I might have had 'back in the day'.  Glossy pages, oodles of maps, text boxes of interesting excerpts from letters and diaries of the period, guiding questions for chapters and sections.  It feels a bit spoon-fed compared to my educational past, but very nice indeed.
  • There will be assignments every two weeks, six in all.  Students will have a choice of three different essay questions on which to write a 650-word essay.
  • For a good essay, you must have strong evidence, a compelling argument and clear exposition.  Each student will be asked to evaluate five essays, assigning a score of 1 to 3 on each of evidence, argument and exposition.  When I heard there were assignments, I assumed we'd have to mark each others'.  There's a nice guideline to writing and evaluating essays.  I like the simplicity of the evaluation approach.  There's also a field for putting in comments.  I expect to learn a lot from reading other students' essays, as well as their feedback on mine.
Global Dialogues
  • Each week there will be a live discussion between Princeton on-campus students and visiting professors.  Adelman will choose from questions submitted by on-line students to pose during the dialogue.  The discussions will be recorded and made available on the site.
Discussion Forums
  • Students are invited to join in discussion forums.  Up-votes for the most useful posts will help students sift through the vast material.  Already, there are lots of posts there.  The first one I read provided links to the BBC radio series on the history of the world through 100 objects from the British Museum.  I hope they're all as relevant as that one.  Adelman responded to that one, so I expect we'll see him from time to time on the discussion forums.
  • The site has an introductory video by Adelman, describing roughly what I've described above (and what's available in writing on the site).  I was happy to see him self-identify as a Canadian right off the top.  (Readers of this blog will know I'm Canadian myself).  The video was gorgeous high definition and the sound was perfect.  Really impressive.
  • Hosting a course like this with so many students - did I mention 70,000 were registered? - is challenging.  There were a couple of moments today when I noticed the site was unavailable, and I suppose there will be a few more glitches before all is said and done. (added note:  there was a message from Coursera today saying that their domain name server Godaddy was down for a few hours yesterday but that Coursera had just switched to Amazon for domain name services and were now back up.  It would be fascinating to know just which off-the-shelf services Coursera is using to lick the technology challenge.)  But the experience so far is marvellous: nice organization, good navigation, intuitive and clear, and high quality.  It's great that such a great shared platform will be shared, not only by the students in this course, but the many other courses being offered.
I'm excited about the start of the course next week, and also filled with a bit of trepidation.  I'll keep posting on the subject.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but economists have done precious little to measure the comparative wealth of nations.  We have GDP as the main economic comparator among nations, but that is only about 'income'; there's been no metric for retained wealth.  Until now.  That gap has been addressed by a recent UN publication which lays out a metric for the wealth of nations and even analyzes what part of that wealth arises from Human, Physical and Natural capital.  In business terms, this gives us a balance sheet, as opposed to an Income Sheet.

Here is an extract from the report, as published recently in an article in The Economist chart section - boy I love that section!  As a Canadian, it's comforting to see our country ranks high on the list of wealthy countries, - very high indeed on wealth per person.  But the chart also emphasizes what we as Canadians already know: we are desperately dependent on our natural resources for all our wealth, and haven't been very good at developing our human or physical resources.

The authors of this report consider this a first cut at such an assessment and recognize that the process of measuring wealth will need many refinements before it has anywhere near the validity of GDP.

There is another Economist chart special (didn't I say I loved these charts?) that is all about measuring national well being instead of just financial strength.  This time the work was done by the OECD.

Once again, Canada is in the upper cluster on this metric, again confirming something we already knew.

Another interesting part of this chart is the indication of the difference in economic well being between the top 20% and the bottom 20%.  The US has a huge gap, confirming what we already know.  But South Korea's gap between rich and poor was startlingly large too.