American History, Revised

It’s natural, I suppose, that we place ourselves in the center of history. Generations of American school kids have learned history as if Isabella and Ferdinand, Elizabeth I and George III, the French traders who founded Detroit and the Dutch who colonized New York all were obsessed with the land that would become the United States. The story we are taught revolves around us.

The reality, though, was rather different. Until well into the nineteenth century, North America lay on the fringe of the world economy and was a minor concern of the various European powers that claimed parts of it. The real action was elsewhere.

Howard French’s wonderful book Born in Blackness, which I’ve just finished reading, challenges our understanding by placing Africa at the center of modern history. It was African gold, he shows, that drew European powers, starting with Portugal in the fifteenth century, into colonial adventures — at a time when several African kingdoms were strong enough to dictate terms to the Europeans. That gold, moreover, provided European royals the wherewithal to finance exploration and settlement, including sugar plantation in places like Brazil, Barbados, and Saint Domingue (now Haiti) that would be populated by enslaved Africans. These sugar colonies became the major source of wealth for Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French asserts, while the main role of North America was to provide the foodstuffs that kept the slaves in the sugar colonies alive. It was only the boom in cotton in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, grown by slaves whose forebears came from Africa, that made the United States essential to Europe.

In contemplating French’s argument, I got to thinking about another terrific book, William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. The content of Dalrymple’s book has nothing to do with Africa; it’s mainly about how the British East India Company ravaged India. The commonality is that eighteenth-century India, like Africa in earlier times, loomed far larger in European minds than North America. One reason those disgruntled colonists in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania failed to get George III to strike a deal in the early 1770s may have been that the king’s attention was on India, which he correctly thought mattered more to Britain’s prosperity.

Both of these well-written books shed new light on how the world economy developed. They’re well worth reading.

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