James Belich, Replenishing the Earth

25 06 2010

I recently got into a discussion over email about James Belich`s recent book Replenishing the Earth, which is a good book that everyone should read.

Here is a description of the book from the Oxford University Press website.

“Why are we speaking English? Replenishing the Earth gives a new answer to that question, uncovering a “settler revolution” that took place from the early nineteenth century that led to the explosive settlement of the American West and its forgotten twin, the British West, comprising the settler dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Between 1780 and 1930 the number of English-speakers rocketed from 12 million in 1780 to 200 million, and their wealth and power grew to match. Their secret was not racial, or cultural, or institutional superiority but a resonant intersection of historical changes, including the sudden rise of mass transfer across oceans and mountains, a revolutionary upward shift in attitudes to emigration, the emergence of a settler “boom mentality,” and a late flowering of non-industrial technologies–wind, water, wood, and work animals–especially on settler frontiers. This revolution combined with the Industrial Revolution to transform settlement into something explosive–capable of creating great cities like Chicago and Melbourne and large socio-economies in a single generation.

When the great settler booms busted, as they always did, a second pattern set in. Links between the Anglo-wests and their metropolises, London and New York, actually tightened as rising tides of staple products flowed one way and ideas the other. This “re-colonization” re-integrated Greater America and Greater Britain, bulking them out to become the superpowers of their day. The “Settler Revolution” was not exclusive to the Anglophone countries–Argentina, Siberia, and Manchuria also experienced it. But it was the Anglophone settlers who managed to integrate frontier and metropolis most successfully, and it was this that gave them the impetus and the material power to provide the world’s leading super-powers for the last 200 years.

This book will reshape understandings of American, British, and British dominion histories in the long 19th century. It is a story that has such crucial implications for the histories of settler societies, the homelands that spawned them, and the indigenous peoples who resisted them, that their full histories cannot be written without it.”

My view is that this book is an impressive piece of research. Belich had to do a massive amount of reading on many countries. It is a powerful reminder of the problems with parochial “national” histories, so I wish more people would read it. That being said, I don’t think his explanation for the emergence of the Angloworld is that convincing. He states at the start of the book that he wants to explain why it was English-speakers rather than Spanish-speakers or someone else who colonized North America and Australasia. This is a very good research question. In 1750, Spanish-America was a giant and Anglo-America was a pygmy. A few generations later, the English-speakers were no longer upstarts. Why the Anglosphere was able to overtake the Hispano-sphere is a big question that deserves an answer. Unfortunately, explanation Belich presents in Replenishing the Earth isn’t terribly convincing. What made the English more successful imperialists in the period after 1750 than any other group? Belich doesn`t really say, except for talking about export-oriented natural resource based economies.

This explanation doesn`t really hold water, because the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese all had similar commodity-type economies. Was it Protestantism that made the English better imperialists than the post-1750 Spaniards? I doubt it, but a religious explanation would be less implausible than the one Belich has offered. Belich is skeptical of Douglass North`s institutional explanation for the relative rise of Britain and its offshoots. He is right to be skeptical of this and any other theory, but I think that he is too dismissive of it. I also think that Belich`s book would have been stronger had he incorporated more about technology and the origins of the knowledge-based economy in 18th century Britain into his book. I think that the rise of the “Enlightenment Economy”in the 18th century provides the best, single-factor explanation for the rise of the Angloworld. I`m not saying that we should embrace any single-factor explanation, but if we had to select one factor, I would have to say it would involve the phenomena discussed in Joel Mokyr`s new book The Enlightened Economy.  So there are some big problems with Belich`s book, however, he has started a potentially very interesting debate. It`s particularly interesting to me now that I`m getting into comparative history, comparing Latin America with Canada (and Anglo-America).

To sum up my views– read Belich`s book, but read it along with the new work by Mokyr.

Anyway, I should get back to work writing a lecture on the history of irrigation in western North America.



One response

6 08 2010
‘Replenishing the Earth’ by James Belich « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

[…] Andrew Smith’s blog (which is where I read of the book, then made the connection with the Keynote speaker at the recent AHA conference- that’s Australian Historical Association, by the way) […]

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