Going Global

Now that I’ve recovered from the dissertation, I’ve had some time to catch up with topics that I had to sideline while I focused on finishing that. One of the big ones, and the one that’s having the most influence on my writing right now, is world history.

As a piece of historical jargon, world history may be one of the worst terms ever. Unless you write the history of extra-terrestrials, you’re obviously part of the history of the world. And, since the world is enormous, unless you’re writing the longest history ever you’re not covering the whole globe in detail. So what does world history mean?

The World History Association (est. 1982) gives it a reasonable shot on its webpage when it says world history is “transregional, transnational, and transcultural.” In crossing regional, national or cultural boundaries, most world history ends up being comparative, illuminating the similarities and differences between societies we don’t always consider together, or inter-cultural, looking at the interactions between them.

Both kinds of projects are beyond the scope of my work for now, but there’s a more basic way to keep world history in mind: try to always look at the bigger picture.

Here’s an example from one of the projects that I’m working on. When we talk about Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, we tend to think about it as opening up a whole new world for the Portuguese — a sort of aqua incognito. But the Portuguese were already connected to the Indian Ocean world. They sent envoys to Ethiopia, the only Christian country that played a direct role in the trans-Indian trade, in 1488. Even this was not truly setting out into the unknown. By 1481, the pope had already granted the Church of St. Stephen in Rome to visiting Ethiopian monks.

Before Vasco da Gama there was a regular, if limited, flow of European merchants to and from India. We have travelogues from both Niccolò Conti, who went as far as Java and returned in 1444, and Girolamo di Santo Stefano, who reached Sumatra on his trip.

None of this information is new. Conti and di Santo Stefano’s accounts of their voyages were published in English by the Hakluyt Society in 1857. (You can download a copy of the book, India in the Fifteenth Century, from Google Books.). Understanding the big picture behind da Gama’s voyage just requires you keep an eye out.


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