On the Map – Simon Garfield


On the Map by Simon Garfield gives an overview of the history of maps and mapping and covers a range of related issues. It is aimed at the general reader.

Garfield begins with the size and shape of the world and shows how the Greeks managed to work this out as early as the pre-Christian era. It involves some simple trigonometry, which Garfield explains, before going on to look at what else the ancients knew about the shape and size of the world, and how they recorded and displayed that information.

He moves on to the Mappa Mundi, describing its place in the cathedral at Hereford, and explaining how it was nearly sold to mend the roof. He shows how this map, and others of the time, were oriented not by the magnetic compass, but towards Jerusalem, the centre of the earth.

There is a chapter on how the Vikings sailed to Greenland and to what is now Canada. Then Garfield goes on to look at the increasingly accurate maps developed in the Renaissance, and describes the explorations that took place at that time.

This is a complex period of map history, and Garfield appears knowledgeable and well informed. He considers different claims about the discovery and subsequent naming of America. He points out that it was the prominence of his name on one particular map that popularised the name of the explorer – America Vespucci – and gave rise to the name we use now, but that his claim to have discovered the continent was in fact quite flimsy.

Garfield moves back to mathematics when he describes the development of the Mercator projection, and looks at other, different projections of the world. It’s always a challenge for me to visualise the way three dimensional objects are resolved onto two dimensional spaces, so I enjoyed this section.

As he summarises the history of map making, Garfield includes chapters on mapping a city, and on the craze for atlases in Holland in the 17th century. He traces the growth of the Ordnance Survey. He looks at some of the errors that found their way onto maps, and persisted into the twentieth century. These included the clearly marked but totally fictitious Kong mountains in West Africa.

Later in the book Garfield is more haphazard in his choice of subject matter. The chapter on the map that stopped cholera in London was interesting. It’s a well known story but I had never come across the details. Chapters on treasure maps and journeys to the South Pole are followed by another on the A-Z and one on Hollywood maps of the stars’ homes.

There is a section on a man who gave up his day job to build globes. Garfield visits his studio in London, and watches him at work. Another looks at the modern day value of historic maps and describes some of the map thefts that have taken place. Want to steal a valuable map? There are suggestions here.

In the final chapters Garfield illustrates the development of SatNav, and looks at maps in games. This was interesting, covering simple games like Monopoly, as well as more complex maps such as those used in Dungeons and Dragons and Grand Theft Auto. Finally Garfield writes about mapping the brain. It’s an eclectic list.

As you can see this is a good book for anyone who enjoys non-fiction, and likes finding out more about things! I don’t want to be sexist, but as a boy I loved books like this because they made learning informal and interesting. I’m in a men’s book group and I guess most of the blokes in that would like it too for the same reason. Many of them are not that keen on fiction and bring along biographies or history books, regarding fiction as a bit of an indulgence.

On the Map is especially good for dipping into if you have particular interests – such as maps in games. Especially in the second half the chapters stand alone, and can be read in isolation from the rest of the book.

Garfield tries manfully to be entertaining throughout, choosing interesting and unusual characters, stories and ways in to the different aspects. He always gives us the human angle, and tries to avoid being dry and boring. But it is a long book and at times he was clearly straining a bit to find amusing things to say, and maintain that cheery tone.

I’d certainly recommend this book to the general reader who wants an informal and entertaining account of the history of maps.


Ten Cities that made an Empire – Tristram Hunt

Harewood House, Leeds, paid for with money from the slave trade

Ten Cities that made an Empire tells the history of the British Empire from a new perspective. Beginning with Boston, which Hunt claims was the first city of Empire, and finishing with Liverpool, a city bound up with the empire’s rise and fall, it examines the stories of these cities to reveal how the British empire began, grew and finally declined.

Hunt arranges the ten cities chronologically, showing the development of British power and prestige. The empire experimented with new forms of government as the old failed and faded, always seeking an identity and form that would be permanent and lasting. In fact this proved impossible, and implicit in Hunt’s argument is the point that the empire was only ever an extemporisation, a reaction to the political realities of its time, and never a successful or coherently organised institution. It never had a plan.

Hunt begins with Boston. The city grew out of a spirit of religious freedom, and as a consequence of the Reformation. However it was not long before it became a significant business hub, benefitting from the trans Atlantic trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton. Later, in the wars with the French, much of the wealth of its prominent citizens came from supplying the British army.

Boston was a patriotic city, celebrating English festivals and traditions such as GuyFawkes. Its wealth was displayed in the form of luxurious imported goods such as china and cloth from the industrial heartlands of Britain. It was loyal and patriotic.

But the English felt that the colony was not paying its way in the wars with France. The consequences are well known, and the first city of Empire was lost to the revolution.

Bridgetown is the second city on the list. It’s a simple story of the slave trade. Bridgetown was never home to the British elite, who poured the wealth they gained into stately homes in England. These included Harewood House outside Leeds, which even today is an extravagant reminder of the wealth plundered from the plantations.

Dublin comes next on Hunt’s list. After the American revolution a different approach was adopted, and Dublin was allowed more independence during the period called the Protestant Ascendancy. Dublin developed a strong identity. The institutions of government brought income and the city became a vibrant cultural centre. However after the 1798 rising, and with fears that the French may invade, direct rule from Whitehall was imposed in the act of union. The institutions of government left for London, and Dublin once again became a backwater. Resentment over English dominance was to some extent mitigated by the project of Empire which gave a sort of unifying purpose, but it never disappeared.

Cape Town was the next step in empire, and a key stepping stone to India. First occupied by British forces in 1797, it became increasingly anglicised and was a key strategic outpost until 1955.

Calcutta developed from a trading post, and from here came Clive to conquer India. Many British in Calcutta adopted Indian customs, and lost their commercial edge, relying instead on land ownership and taxation, and milking the interior for all it was worth. Bombay was a different proposition, cut off from the interior by a range of mountains and so more dependent on trade. Hunt describes the development of both these cities up to the present day.

There are descriptions of the depravities of empire in the section on Hong Kong, which begins with the establishment and development of the port, and the initial commercial fears that investment there would be wasted. It was the opium that made Hong Kong profitable, and the gun boats that enabled the British to trade opium against the wishes of the Chinese government, and the interests of its people. Hong Kong was linked to England, India and Singapore by the profits from opium.

Melbourne was chosen as the Australian city, rather than Sydney. Melbourne developed largely through the Victorian period and the urbanisation of the area mirrors developments in London. Hunt claims the first ashes victory by the Australians marked the beginning of a new independent attitude, though the links with England remained strong through two world wars.

New Delhi and Liverpool focus on the loss of Empire. The idea at Delhi was to build a capital that would last, but Hunt argues that before it was built, and with Gandhi already set on the path to independence, India was lost. Liverpool grew as a slave port, and became the first multicultural city in Britain. It was already in decline before we joined the EU, but that and the loss of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery accelerated that decline. Now Liverpool is expanding its container freight terminal and developing links with China, which will expand with the opening of the new Panama Canal. (This is open now, but was not at the time of publishing.) Hunt claims this will allow Chinese goods to reach the heart of the country, turning Liverpool into a different kind of colonial city, and England itself into a colony of China.

In Ten Cities that made an Empire Hunt returns frequently to the question of trade. After all it was an empire built on trade and for trade. There were tariffs and laws that excluded the Dutch and French from trading with Boston, and the intention was to secure sole rights to the Atlantic trade for the British. Cape Town was seized in order to facilitate trade with India. It provided supplies and shelter.

Later the free trade movement, inspired by the Manchester School is mentioned. This led to the repeal of the Corn Laws, reducing food prices. But one perhaps unforeseen consequence of the emphasis on free trade was that British products were undercut by cheaper goods from India.

Indeed empire seemed to work better under protectionist trading arrangements such as the Commonwealth, rather than under extreme free trade policies. Of course the empire and the gunboat were very good at facilitating these kind of exclusive deals.

It was when trade with the Commonwealth diminished in the 60s and 70s, as more colonies gained independence, that Britain joined the EU, swapping one customs union for another, as industry struggled to thrive in an open market.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hunt’s book is the focus on architecture and town planning. Each section contains a map of the city in question and Hunt considers the way the streets developed, including the significance of street names, and the architecture, which of course often reflected aspects of empire.

The classicism of Bath was recreated in Dublin, whilst Melbourne saw the development of suburban housing: we are shown plans of houses at different price brackets. These types of home exist in British suburbs now. In India the debate about architecture struck at the cultural issues underlying British rule. The buildings were magnificent, but often European rather than Indian styles were used. At times there were odd marriages of the two, and the country was subject to the vagaries of European fashions, as classicism gave way to Gothic styles.

In New Delhi Lutyens was employed to design the whole new town. But this carried the seeds of its own destruction, separating the ruling classes into an enclave that left them out of touch with reality and at odds with the local population. The British were left with nothing but grand displays of power, designed to impress and intimidate, and the end of empire was nigh.



To War with Wellington – Peter Snow (or how the Tories snuffed out democracy again)


To War with Wellington is a direct and straightforward summary of the war in Spain, France and Belgium beginning with the landing of the British force in Portugal in 1808, and culminating in Waterloo. There are many contemporary accounts of the events of this period, and Snow draws directly on these to produce his version. He presents different viewpoints, though these are mostly British. Even the stories of looting and plunder come from the pens of British writers in diaries, letters and reminiscences, including letters Wellington himself sent back to London condemning the actions of his troops.

Snow relies on some key sources, so we meet the same characters on different battlefields and at different places, and they include a variety of types of people: there are some common soldiers, surprisingly literate and articulate considering the general lack of education in this period, and, unsurprisingly, officers and generals with their own more narrow points of view.

Snow offers clear diagrams of battles, and these are very helpful in communicating the key strategic and tactical decisions Wellington made, and there are a couple of larger scale maps that show his progress through Portugal and Spain. These are also really useful.

To War with Wellington is a lively and interesting account. Snow chooses quotations from his different sources wisely, focusing on dramatic events expressed in colourful language. He links these direct and indirect quotations with his own summaries of events, and moves the narrative along quickly. The narrative structure is pretty straightforward – a chronological account starting with the British troops landing north of Lisbon during a storm when they have to ride the surf to the beach, and finishing with the defeat of the French at Waterloo.

We are given a detailed picture of Wellington, starting with some basic physical attributes, and it’s almost a warts and all portrayal. Snow is honest about Wellington’s appearance, and the rather dreary and cautious approach he took to the war in Spain, especially in the early years. He received criticism for this and it’s possible the war lasted longer than it needed as at key points, such as after taking Madrid in 1812, Wellington retreated to Portugal to safeguard his rear and consolidate his position. Snow is also  honest about Wellington’s failing marriage, and his romantic liaisons with a variety of foreign women firstly in Spain, then later in Brussels, as well as in 1814 during his brief tenure as ambassador in Paris, where apparently he shared a couple of Napoleon’s old flames.

The Peninsular war was not Crimea, or WW1, but there were many casualties and these are covered in great and often horrific detail as might be expected. Exploding shells apparently became prominent at this time, and as in any war, technology played a big part. Wellington was given a great advantage by the deployment of the 1st/95th rifle brigade, whose story is told in a Mark Urban book, Rifles: Six Years With Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters. The range of their guns was perhaps double that of the traditional musket used by the French.

To be honest the bravery of the soldiers in these wars astounded me. They besieged towns and attacked them in what can only be described as shocking conditions and often with little prospect of surviving the battle. The first to attack were named the forlorn hope, as this described their chances of returning alive, and at Badajoz the carnage was appalling. It reminded me unfortunately of the comic poem by Thomas Hood, Faithless Nellie Gray:

At duty’s call I left my legs
In Badajoz’s breaches.

-a wry pun that Hood develops in all kinds of clever but I suppose cruel ways throughout the poem.

It’s hard to explain the bravery of these men and I suppose that’s down to their patriotism, and a sense of camaraderie or esprit de corps that narrowed their world. They were soldiers and would have wanted to be valued as such: often their horizons were limited to that. But in many ways it could be argued that these were men fighting against their own best interests.


The war against France, begun in the 1790s, was essentially a rearguard action by the royal families of Europe designed to protect their privileges. The Whigs in parliament were much more supportive of Napoleon’s political philosophy, but the Tories under Liverpool and Castlereagh were quite opposed to those liberal views, and their triumph dictated the development of Europe in the period following the war. It led to another hundred years of servitude for Russian peasants, and of course to the final cruel and violent end to the Tzars in 1918.

In 1815, before Waterloo, with Napoleon defeated and on Elba, the victorious Tory government under Lord Liverpool introduced the Corn Laws to protect the interests of the landed classes, another direct expression of their political philosophy. It lead four years later to the massacre, on the fields of Peterloo in Manchester, of working men dressed in their Sunday best and protesting about the price of bread. Meanwhile, at the battle of Waterloo the Polish were fighting alongside the French, recognising the opportunity Napoleon gave them for independence from the crowned heads of Europe. The French soldiers too were fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity – fighting for the legal rights embodied in the Napoleonic code, and for the opportunities for education and advancement that it offered them – opportunities written in their constitution, and denied their British counterparts at that time.

Of course victory at Waterloo also ensured the triumph of Britain, giving us pre-eminence in a world in which British industrial and scientific power guaranteed a technological advantage over less industrialised countries, and made victory secure. We can all enjoy that history, built on the ironically named thin red line, the blood of the British infantry, but the Empire was a myth for the factory worker and the farm labourer.

The poor did not share in the benefits of Empire, though they may have seen it at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and again in the Festival of Britain. It was a country that worked for the wealthy but not for those on the Jarrow marches, on means tested benefits in 1930s Britain or in the Preston in 1854 that inspired Dickens’ Hard Times.

In Britain we are disadvantaged, as we do not have a written constitution, unlike the rest of Europe. There are no hard rules to protect our rights, just grace and favour and tradition. The Tories can plan a bonfire of regulations – workers’ rights, environmental protection and so on, and parliament is sovereign, can override any of these rights even though we value them.

In Germany, after their experiences with Hitler, referenda are not allowed under the constitution, but the right to remain in Europe has been stolen by 37% of the electorate, or a slim majority, in a referendum that, because it was only advisory, not binding on parliament, was seen as no threat to the constitution or to our rights. But it was a threat. Sixty plus percent would have been the internationally recognised supermajority, usually required for constitutional change. It might have left a less divided nation, and a country where the young would have felt happier. At the same time we have a Tory PM who is threatening to take away our human rights, as if that were some kind of vote winning proposition. We really did lose, at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Landmark Herodotus – Robert B Straussler

World Map according to Herodotus
The Landmark Herodotus is a complete edition of the famous histories which tell the story of the conflict between Persia and Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

At the heart of these histories is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child, when I read and re-read a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan Leonidas, held up the advance of the Persian army long enough for the Greeks to ready the defence of Athens and the Peloponnese. It’s a story that has been told and retold again, including in a fairly recent film, 300, Rise of an Empire.

My recollection of this fictional account is a bit faint after all these years, but the histories show that the novel was clearly exaggerated with respect to some details of the battle of Thermopylae in which these men’s lives were sacrificed. In my memory the novelist also changed the date of the battle of Marathon to make the whole story more dramatic, ending the novel as the runner arrives at Athens after Marathon, with the news of victory. In Herodotus’ account the battle of Marathon takes place a few years earlier than Thermopylae, not after it.

Herodotus’ The Histories presents a relentlessly detailed account of the classical and pre-classical history of the eastern Mediterranean including some of the myths and legends of Greece, Persia and Egypt, and is divided into 9 books, each looking at a different period of time or geographical location.

The first book examines the way the conflict between Persia and Greece began. There are echoes of the story of Troy in the abductions of women that take place, and the story of the wealthy Croesus seems to be a place where myth meets reality. He is a man of ambition and decides to extend his empire to the east, which brings him into contact with the growing Persian empire under Cyrus. Cyrus responds by moving into Croesus’ Lydia (now partly Turkey) and conquering not only Croesus, but the Ionian Greeks settled along the coast.

Book 2 is a history of Egypt. It is extensively detailed and some of Herodotus’ comments on the culture, history and geography of Egypt are especially interesting. For example Herodotus hypothesises about the source of the Nile, the size and shape of the world and the whole continent of Africa.  He raises the question of whether it is possible to sail round Africa, and whether anybody had, recounting a story of men who found the sun rising on the wrong side of their boat as they journeyed on. Herodotus is sceptical about this, but it rings true to a modern reader.

Books 3 and 4 describe the growth of the Persian empire, including the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses, and excursions to the north into Scythia by Darius. Here myth and legend again become inextricably linked as factual knowledge about these northern areas was quite scarce. In books 5 and 6 Herodotus describes Darius’ excursion into Europe. This is in the end a failure. The Persians are expelled, and Darius dies before he can organise another expedition, leaving Xerxes to take over the reigns in books 7 to 9, which detail the events of his campaign.

The Landmark Herodotus is a clear presentation of this history. There is a series of detailed maps and footnotes so that with patience the reader can follow the progress of the armies, and discover the different parts of the world subject to Greek and Persian influence. Following Xerxes progress around the coast of the Aegean, or looking at the different parts of Asia subject to Persian rule was fascinating. I have to say that I’m a sucker for these kind of maps which have no real practical purpose or use – as one of my sons says, they are just cramming my brain with useless information!

There are several appendices to The Landmark Herodotus, and these fill in the gaps in Herodotus’ account, for example describing Spartan life and culture in detail, looking briefly at key dialect issues or considering the accuracy of Herodotus’ portrayal of Egypt. I mostly skimmed through these. There are also illustrations in black and white showing ancient implements or weapons, or presenting diagrams and illustrations of, for example, fortifications. These are all interesting.

For the more casual reader each section is accompanied in the margin by a clear and brief summary of its contents , and many students would benefit from, and even rely on this, as it allows the reader to quickly skim sections and retrieve significant information. The histories are also divided into numbered sections which allow the reader to identify footnotes with ease.

The Landmark Herodotus was a gift, and not a book I would have chosen myself, being rather academic and of quite a daunting length. It’s not without fault – some footnotes are missing and it was quite fun to notice these – what a geek I am!

Nevertheless it’s a great resource for any student of the classics, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend everyone to read The Histories word by word as I did, there are certainly many interesting comments and pieces of information. As a landmark document showing the first recorded attempts to offer both a factual history, and a scientific and sceptical account of the Greek world, Herodotus is certainly worth a look!!

In his book Persian Fire Tom Holland offers his account of the conflict between Greece and Persia which he sees as epitomising the great divide between Asia and Europe embodied in today’s clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations. This is a much more accessible version of events, but not to everyone’s taste.


The Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes


The Seven Daughters of Eve was written by Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University.  You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard about some of the projects he’s been involved in, such as the discovery that a Stone Age body found recently in a melting glacier in the Alps has living relatives in Bournemouth, and that a 1000 year old skull in Cheddar Caves Somerset has direct descendants still living in the area – teaching at the local comprehensive school in fact.  Sykes worked on both these projects, and gives full accounts of them in this book.

Sykes moved into the field of human genetics at quite an early point of the development of the subject, when genetic identification techniques were much less advanced than now.  On a year’s sabbatical he was flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne to start the second of two six month placements, and landed on the Cook Islands for a short holiday.

When he broke a bone, his vacation was extended, and this gave him thinking time.  The upshot was that Sykes took blood samples back to Oxford., and carried out genetic testing which proved that the South Sea Islanders had arrived on the Pacific Islands from Asia.  This was surprising as it meant they had sailed against the prevailing winds, and it also confounded the theories of Thor Heyerdahl, who had argued they had come from South America, and reconstructed their hypothetical voyage on the famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.

In this way genetic testing had solved one of the most controversial and problematic questions about human origins and migrations.  Sykes was able to go on and fill in the details of the Polynesian migrations by sampling genetic material from across the Pacific, showing how and at what time different voyages, ending up with the last, to New Zealand, had taken place.  In The Seven Daughters of Eve he sets out to do the same for Europe.

Sykes writes in a very clear and simple style that is easily accessible to non scientists.  He explains complex issues well, limiting the use of mathematics and making do with quite simple diagrams. In this way he is able to tell the personal story of his scientific life, at the same time as describing the growth of genetics as a science and the story of human population diversity.

In the process Sykes explains some of the basic facts about DNA, including the nature of mitochondrial DNA.  He explains why maternal DNA is the most effective for tracing human migrations: mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line, mutations occurring rarely, but on a fairly regular pattern, allowing researchers to estimate the times that population movements took place.  In contrast, nucleic DNA changes at every generation as the sperm and the egg bring together DNA from two different people.

Sykes has the knack of bringing his story to life with real examples.  As well as the two mentioned in paragraph one, both of which hit the news headlines, he also spends time discussing the role of DNA in trying to discover whether any children survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas in 1918, a story that involved genetic profiling of Prince Phillip, a distant relative.  The human dimension is enhanced by his habit of writing the story as if he is thinking through his ideas, so that you are allowed to share his sense of discovery.

This was a fascinating book that combines human interest stories with scientific sleuthing, and has some of the qualities of a good detective novel in places.  The main theme of the book – The Seven Daughter of Eve – is taken up more fully in the last seven chapters, each of which imagines life for one of the seven women at a different time in human evolution.  This was my least favourite part of the book. It’s clear that Sykes is speculating here, and it’s hard not to see this section as a total fiction.  It lacks the hard evidence of early chapters, but at the same time lacks the grit and guts that a real writer of fiction might have brought to the stories.  There was some general interest here, especially with respect to the changing environment during the prehistoric period, and the likely sites of early human activity in Europe, but that could have been explained more concisely.

If you have any interest in recent findings about the history and the migration patterns of mankind, you will probably have come into contact with some of the theories and ideas based on Sykes’ work, and with the work of others in this field.  Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel is possibly the best known, and certainly a fascinating account of the human story.  Alice Robert’s TV programme for the BBC offers a more up to date view and one that is more easily accessible:

The Incredible Human Journey

She also has written a book on this topic, published 10 years after Sykes’ book, and so more up to date.  I might read this too, or find something else on this topic, which I find really interesting, and would recommend.

Evolution, The Human Story

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan


The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a self proclaimed New History of the World which looks at the story of humanity from a non-eurocentric point of view.  Frankopan’s book is about Asia and the Middle East, which he sees as the birthplace and the cradle of civilisation because of their impact on human development and their significance to the human story.

The section about the Roman Empire perhaps sums up Frankopan’s approach most clearly.  Whilst many authors have focused on the rise and fall of Rome, examining the usual sources to give accounts of Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, or to look at the cultural links between Greece and Rome, or at the decline of Rome as a consequence of the arrival of nameless savages from the East, Frankopan’s focus is completely different.  His Rome is always looking East to the traders and riches arriving along the Silk Road: Europe is an accident of Rome’s birth, but its wealth came from Egypt and further afield: the key battles were not the ones against the Gauls, but those against the Persians and the Scythians.  In the end the capital was switched to Constantinople to reflect the importance of the east to Rome.  This was a fresh approach to an old story, and very welcome.

Frankopan sees everything as an adjunct to, or consequence of, events in the East, including ironically the development of Europe and the West since the Reformation.  Claiming that for many Europeans the East is an unknown and mysterious place, he points out that the Middle East and India were the birthplaces of the world’s major religions, and that the East was for long periods the focus of social, political and intellectual development, whilst the West, and especially Europe, was impoverished, backward and isolated from the cultural heart of life.

This is not really a new argument.  It is a common view that Islam protected the cultural legacy of the Classical age during the European Dark Ages, and promoted further discoveries in science, maths and medicine.  But most historians have seen the triumph of the West as the culmination of human history, whilst Frankopan sees it merely as a brief episode, before Europe once again slips into ignominy and relative poverty.

Frankopan shares his extensive knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia, considering an exhaustive range of events and societies, beginning with the development and dissemination of the religious faiths of Buddhism and Christianity, and exploring the spread of trade, ideas, religions and empires across the whole of Asia, including the rise of Islam.  He looks at the links with Russia, and Russia’s growth, and at the impact of the Mongol hordes; he writes about the crusades and the later birth of European seaborne trade, a search for eastern riches that lead to the growth of the West.  He considers the British Empire specifically with respect to the Great Game: the wrangling between Britain Russia and Turkey over Russia’s route to the Black Sea and the Gulf.  He gives an extensive account of the division of the Middle East by the British and French – the Sykes Picot line – and the consequences of this arbitrary division for the modern world.  There are sections on World war 2 and on the growth of Israel.  Finally he takes the argument into the 21st century, with a concluding analysis of the current political situation in the Middle East that is interesting and well informed.

The Silk Roads considers the natural advantages of the East in geopolitical terms: the centrality of the Middle East to various trade routes which contributed to its wealth and consequently its power.  Frankopan comments on the new riches to be found there, and describes the current struggle to wrench these resources away from the rapacious hands of western colonisers.  For him the future of the world is to be found in this wealth which he sees as falling more securely into local hands to the exclusion and long term impoverishment of the West.



Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall


Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was a recommendation from a friend, and a half price offer in the bookshop.  It explores an interesting aspect of theories I had first encountered in Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, the best history book I have read in the past twenty years.

Prisoners of Geography looks at ten maps of the world, offering a brief overview of the impact of geography on the history of the area, and going on to consider the current geopolitical situation, and the likely political developments going forward.

The first map Marshall looks at is of Russia.  He explains the history and the expansion of Russia by claiming that, lacking local geographical features to act as boundaries, the Russian state was forced to find security from invasion by expanding its territory until it reached more defendable barriers, initially in the Ural mountains and the Caucasus.  Marshall goes on to explain Russia’s vulnerability to invasion across the north European plain, and its need to secure a warm water port.  He considers these vulnerabilities to be prime movers in defining Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, and in explaining recent developments such as the annexation of the Crimea, and the support for Syria’s Assad, as well as explaining Russia’s response to the threat that NATO might expand into Ukraine, and its encroachment elsewhere into what was formerly the Soviet Block.

Marshall goes on to look at nine other key areas, considering Europe, Africa, China, South America, North America and the Arctic, which are obviously major land blocks, as well as looking at India/ Pakistan, Japan / Korea and of course the Middle East.  The sections on South America and Africa most clearly depend on some of the key aspects of Diamond’s thesis about human development in the context of world geography: the geographical constraints here are quite obvious and dominate the political environment.  In Africa he talks of the lack of navigable and interconnected rivers, and the lack of deep water ports.  In South America he mentions the lack of good soil, and the geographical boundaries that inhibit trade – high mountains, dense jungle, rivers that do not connect, and a rocky eastern coastline that makes it difficult to link coastal cities in, for example, Brazil.

Marshall’s views about the three main world powers – Russia, China and the USA – are especially interesting. He considers the USA to have been particularly fortunate in its geography, once it had established dominion over the whole of its current territory.  There is easy access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, a natural border to invasion in the south, consisting of desert, and control of the Caribbean through Florida.  He sees the USA as ideally suited for world domination and tentatively contradicts the view that the next century will belong to China.  In his view Russia is condemned to be limited by its geography, and especially by its lack of a warm water port.  Access to the world’s oceans is restricted in three main places – at the Bosphorus, at Alaska and by the gap between Iceland/ Greenland/ UK through which its fleet must sail to reach the Atlantic.  China is developing a navy to challenge the USA and is not constrained by human rights in its geopolitical development, but he considers the dangers of internal turmoil caused by a financial collapse to be very real, and recognises China’s dependence on imported resources in comparison to the USA’s recent development of oil and gas from fracking.

Overall this was an interesting book, and not a difficult read.  For me it was a mixed bag, as a lot of the material was quite basic: if you read a serious newspaper you will be familiar with most of the summaries of recent political history, and you will already know about some of the major geographical constraints placed on continents and nations if you have done any reading on this subject.  However in some areas Marshall did provide new interpretations, and this was especially so for me with respect to his analysis of events in India, Pakistan, Korea and Japan, and in offering a more detailed analysis of African issues than I had read before.