James Belich on the Rise of the Angloworld

26 09 2009

Bernard Porter has published a lengthy and complimentary review of James Belich‘s new book, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 (Oxford University Press, 2009).  Belich’s book tells an epic tale, one of the great dramas of last millenium, the story of how a hitherto marginal group, the Anglo-Celtic population of the British Isles, seized and populated two continents, thereby creating much of the modern world.

The Anglosphere
The Anglosphere

I have not yet read Belich’s latest book in its entirety, but I have read chapters in the past, so I am familiar with the broad outlines of his argument.  Let me say at the outset that I am impressed by the breadth of Belich’s learning. Belich, who is one of the leading historians of New Zealand, had to learn a great deal about the histories of North America and much of the rest of the world in the course of researching this book.

I am very sympathetic to Belich’s overall approach to this topic.  First, I strongly agree with his trans-national approach. Rather than seeing western expansion in the United States and the settlement of Australasia as separate phenomena, it is more plausible to regard them as parts of the same phenomenon, the expansion of the English-speaking peoples.  I also like the fact that Belich avoids creating a triumphalist, self-congratulatory narrative.  In the past, writers such as Winston Churchill treated the expansion of English-speakers in celebratory terms.  This is certainly not Belich’s agenda!  Indeed, Belich points out that the expansion of the English-speaking peoples involved a great of cruelty towards the aboriginals whose land they seized.   Rather than writing to condemn or celebrate Anglo-Saxon expansion, he simply wants to explain why it took place. In particular, Belich seeks to explain why it was English-speaking people and not, say the French or the Spanish or the Chinese, who were able to colonize North America and Australasia and thus become the dominant culture on the planet.

James Belich

James Belich

Belich is to be commended for venturing to give us an answer to this important question. I am not however, entirely convinced by Belich’s explanation for the “rise of the Anglosphere”. Belich dismisses the importance of both culture and institutions in explaining why Anglo-Saxon expansion was more successful than it rivals. (At the very least, this was Belich’s position several years ago and Porter’s review suggests that Belich’s views on this point have remained unchanged). I’m a big fan of the New Institutional Economics and Douglass North, and it seems to me that institutions are vitally important in explaining the wealth and poverty of nations, why some countries are rich and some are poor, and why some cultures are able to expand territorially while others are not. One of the things that set the English-speaking world apart from Spain’s overseas Empire was the existence of representative institutions in both the British Isles and their overseas offshoots.  While I am a bit more skeptical of “culturalist” explanations for economic outcomes (see my recent post on the topic), I also think that culture may have played a larger role in the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons than Belich suggests.

Bernard Porter, the author of the review, is himself a very distinguished historian. His major works include: The Absent-Minded Imperialists; Empire and Superempire: Britian, America, and the World (a fascinating comparison of the British and American Empires) and The Lion’s Share, a history of the British Empire that is now in its fourth edition.

Update: I just discovered another fine review of this book by historian Donald MacRaild. See also the review in the New Zealand magazine Stuff.



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