A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey

July 3rd, 2006


In 1801, the Annual Register, a popular book which chronicled the year’s events, declared that the outgoing century had been remarkable. Science and technology, more than in any previous century, had leaped ahead. While Europe was often at war with itself, it was busy spreading science, religion and civilisation into the remotest forests and gorges. Never had there been such exploring ‘of the more remote and unknown regions of the globe’. The thirst for knowledge, claimed the Annual Register, had supplanted the thirst for gold and conquest. Never had long-distance trade so increased. On the familiar sea lanes the sailing ships were much faster than before; and even the long voyage from Europe to India was no longer feared as an ordeal.

The world had shrunk but even rich people did not travel far in search of knowledge or pleasure. A queen rarely travelled outside her realm. Only a few European missionaries crossed the seas to work in strange lands. In eastern Asia a few pilgrims sometimes travelled far to visit the great Buddhist shrines, but few Islamic pilgrims travelled far to worship in Mecca. Scholars–and in every nation they were few–stayed at home and learned of the world through books. When the young London poet John Keats wrote the words, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen,’ he signified that he travelled by reading. At that time he had never moved far from his birthplace.

The most travelled people in the world were not scholars and priests but ordinary European and Arab sailors, who, in their mobility, were the air crew of their day. Between 1700 and 1800 the largest category of long-distance travellers in the world consisted of those who had no wish to travel: the millions of African slaves led as captives across their own continent or shipped across the tropical sea to the Americans.

The world was composed of tens of thousands of small, self-contained localities. Even to sleep one night away from home was an uncommon experience. This was true of China, Java, India, France or Mexico, though not of Australia and its Aborigines. People spent their whole life in one place, and from it came nearly all the food they are, and the materials they used for clothing and footwear. Here originated the news and gossip that excited or frightened them. Here they found their wife or husband.

A holiday by the beach or in the mountains belonged to the future. Spa towns, where people drank the mineralised waters for the sake of their health, were the only specialised tourist towns in Europe. In these ‘watering places’, tourists drank the waters according to a strict formula that prescribed so many jugs or glasses a day. In the early 1800s perhaps the most international of the spa resorts was Carlsbad, a pretty town hemmed in by steep granite hills and pine forests a few days’ ride from Prague and Leipzig. In 1828 an average of no more than 10 visitors arrived each day in order to partake of the medicinal water. Its main spring still rises in a hot perpetual stream, and the water still has an excruciating taste which improves with amnesia.


“This,” Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey writes in his preface, “as an attempt to write a world history that is not too voluminous. It tries to survey history since the time when the first people left Africa to settle the globe. Inevitably, some large themes which I investigated are described so fleetingly that they are like glimpses from the window of a passing train.”

If so, then Blainey manages to route his train through some of the most fascinating scenery to be found in the landscape of world history. Condensed from his already brief Short History of the World, this is a terrific book, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining I’ve read in years. Blainey does an amazing job of squeezing the history of human life on this planet into 450 small pages.

Faced with a task of condensation on this scale, Blainey tends to focus on trends instead of events, but he succeeded in keeping my interest where others (e.g., William McNeill) have failed. He manages to shift from the specific to the general and back again without seeming formulaic, and as a result, there is something new in every few paragraphs.

I kept dog-earing pages with such paragraphs as I read, and by the end, there were nearly a hundred pages so marked. Here is just a sampling:

Virtually all contact between the Americas and the outside world ceased, and maybe for another 10,000 years the silence continued. Migratory birds moved between the two continents, but people lived in isolation. Eventually the inhabitants of America had no knowledge of the place of their origins.

The Mesopotamian lion, which was smaller than the African lion, was the target of countless hunts. It is easy to guess why this species of lion became extinct. A baked tablet surviving from 1100 BC records that one royal hunter while on foot killed a total of 120 lions. When he was hunting from the relative safety of the chariot he killed another 800 lions.

Madagascar and New Zealand were the last two sizeable areas of habitable land to be discovered and settled by the human race [in about 400 A.D.].

A member of the camel family, though lacking the conspicuous hump, a llama could carry a load weighin 40 or 50 kilograms, thereby compensating for the absence of the wheel in Andes civilisation.

It was Venice, the Silicon Valley of its era, which improved on the old Roman methods of making glass. The glassmakers of Venice had become so numerous, and the fires burning in their workshops posed such a danger of setting fire to the whole city, that in 1291 the government moved them to the adjacent island of Murano. The first mirrors or looking glasses of any clarity were made in Venice about 1500, and the Venetians kept secret their novel process of manufacture for more than 150 years.

[In 1900] A skeleton of knowledge about remote lands was now in the curriculum of a thousand schools. Coloured maps of the world became commonplace. It is doubtful whether in the days of Napoleon more than a fraction of the people in Europe had ever set eyes on a map of the world; but a century later most of Europe’s schoolchildren had seen such a map or globe and could even recite the names of rivers and mountains in each continent.

In 1901, in the arid centre of Australia and far from the nearest railway, a miraculous thread was tied between the 20th century and the era of nomads. Professor Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen captured the dances of Aborigines on one of the first movie cameras and recorded their haunting songs on the wax cylinder of a phonograph …. It was a remarkable occasion and time signal. Here were the representatives of a dying way of life that had dominated the entire world in 10,000 BC, standing face to face with the latest step in technology. The dancing Aborigines retained the sense that they and not the strange intruders held the key to the universe.

Blainey manages to squeeze millenia into a few pages by deliberately slighting political developments in favor of technical, economic, and geographic factors. By so doing, he not only avoids dry accounts of regimes and rulers, but enables the reader to feel, sometimes almost viscerally, how the substance of daily life has changed. “Without initially intending to, I gave space to what people ate and how hard they worked in order to earn their daily bread,” Blainey comments reflectively in his preface.

Another refreshing aspect of Blainey’s approach is the attention he pays to the environment and the changes in man’s relationship to it. Here, for example, he touches on something as simple–yet so easily overlooked–as the moon:

The moon, small or large, was usually a commanding presence. The largest object in the night sky, rising and setting some 50 minutes later on each successive day, it moved majestically. A new moon was invisible, for it marched in step with the sun across the day sky. In contrast the full moon could be seen throughout the night. Alive and powerful and personal, the moon was a female to some peoples and a male to others. It was a symbol of life and death, and was said to determine when the rains would fall. It was believed to influence the growth of vegetation; and for thousands of years it was a rural rule that farmers always should plant during the new moon. At a later time, in India and Iran and Greece, it was believed that people after death journeyed to the moon. The cycles of the moon were to constitute the first calendars, after the art of astronomy appeared.

Blainey also overcomes the perennial bias towards the Northern Hemisphere, giving space throughout the book to developments in Polynesia, Africa, and Latin America. His prose is simple and lucid, easy enough for it to be accessible by young teens. Indeed, one could argue that A Very Short History of the World deserves a place on any short list of recommended reading for high school students. There are few places where one can learn so much about human history in so little space–and at the same time, be so richly entertained. Less than two years after its first publication, A Very Short History is already out of print outside of Australia. It’s our loss.

Locate a Copy

A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainer
London: Penguin Books, 2004

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