Last December 31, I made a “New Year’s Resolution” that for the next 500 days, each day I would write and publish something– it could be short– that would summarize the key events of one year in world history, sequentially, starting in 1520 CE. I explained some of my motivation in doing this, here. So now, here we are, 23 days into the New Year, and from my POV the project has been going pretty well. I have kept to my commitment to write and post something every day, as you can see in this collection of all the posts, here. I have done this, moreover, while also keeping up commitments to my “day job” running both Just World Books, the publishing company, and Just World Educational, the non-profit. (My usual practice is to do my P500Y writing first thing in the morning and have it done and dusted– as the Brits say– by 10:30 am.) Doing this has gotten me back into the habit of doing my own– as opposed to “corporate”– writing… in my own voice. And it has reminded me that I really love the discipline of a deadline, something I certainly got used to when doing wire-service or daily journalism!
Of course, early on, I came to wonder: What does it all mean? What, if anything, might these forays into “early-modern” history all add up to?
Another of my motivations– in addition to exercising my writing muscles– was to try to build for myself (and any interested readers who might be out there) a systematic, chronology-based understanding of the emergence and operations of the era in human history when a handful of European-origined nations came to, and did, dominate the whole world. That explains the 500-year purview.
I was struck, back in late Spring, when I saw something the distinguished former diplomatist Chas Freeman had written, in which he said that the abysmal failure of the response that the United States and most other “Western” governments had made to the Covid-19 crisis probably marked the end not just of 75 years of U.S. domination of the world order but also of 500 years of “Western” domination of it, more generally. (I had been edging towards exactly that same conclusion, myself; and he and I then discussed the topic in a webinar for Just World Ed.) Then, over the summer, I started thinking more about the signal role that sugar had played both in the emergence of Western capitalism/imperialism (q.v. Eric Williams, Sidney Mintz) and in its demise today, given the high co-morbidity that sugar-induced ailments like diabetes presented when the Covid crisis hit.
So I did a bunch of reading and thinking about the whole record of, especially, the completely slavery-dependent English/British sugar-planting class that emerged in the West Indies in the early 17th century, with a view to understanding that phenomenon a lot better… But that was only 400 years ago! To do my 500-year project, I have had to dive back even deeper. Of course, 1520 was a completely arbitrary starting point for my project. But still, in just the 23 (24) days that I’ve been pursuing it, I have already learned a tremendous amount about the world. Some of this I have written about as I went along, appending some slightly more developed pensées to my daily posts. There will be more, and deeper, such pensées as I go along, and probably also in due course some actual longform articles. But let us wait and see on that.
I should say a couple of quick things about my research for this project. Firstly, I am not a “professional” historian (whatever that means), but in all seven of the books I’ve authored I’ve relied on doing significant amounts of research into recent– and sometimes older– history. And the journalist’s craft relies on many of the same tools: the search for sources and evidence; the testing of evidence; fair use of it; crafting a coherent narrative, and so on. The nature of this particular project has not, however, allowed for any deep research– primarily because of the brisk pace I set myself, but also because the research libraries are closed. So I’ve been both online and on-deadline, which I totally acknowledge is a limitation. However, my massive thanks go out to Wikipedia and their editors who over the years have put together annual compilations of events that thus far– 1520-1543– have been an amazing resource for my project.
True, English-Wikipedia’s annual pages are not “comprehensive”, whatever that would mean. But they provide one essential jumping-off point for what I write each day; and I complement their use with frequent reference to the specialized timelines that English-WP also offers, such as for the Ming Dynasty, the Ottoman Empire, etc. But all those are only jumping-off points. I have also used sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica, the LDHI online resource center (which relies a lot on the Encyc. Brit.), and others. So if, for example, I see something in Wikipedia that piques my interest, I might do a general Duckduckgo online search for it, to see what else is out there. And I do have– and consult– several actual print volumes relevant to the 16th century. But Wikipedia itself is an amazingly rich and too-often beguiling rabbit-hole of learning treasures! All these things I am learning about! The Portuguese sailing counter-clockwise all round Africa and interacting so forcefully with the Ottomans in the Red Sea in the 1540s: who knew? Okay, I realize lots of people did know. But I didn’t. For me, it underlined the robustness of the trading/navigating empire that Portugal had already built in the Indian Ocean zone–starting long before 1492!
So that’s why I really want to applaud all the people who have compiled all those amazing 16th-century pages over at WP. Over the years, I’ve engaged with WP on and off a bit regarding the accuracy of some of its pages on more recent events, where the editing is often very heavily contested. The entries on the older historical topics seems far less contested. The biggest signs of contestation I have seen are some occasional edits/contributions by people who judge any criticism of the actions of the Spanish conquistadores in the Americas to be part of some ideological “Black Legend” of anti-Spanish propaganda put about by the Protestants or whatever.
Wikipedia is also an amazing source for images, several of which I have enjoyed using in the project so far.
I realize that what I am doing is far from being a conventional way to write a history. In fact, I wonder if anyone has ever attempted to do anything like this before? Is it even a work of, or in, history? I think so. Just because it is pointilliste, doesn’t mean it is not a work of some– perhaps agglutinative– historical value.
For this period I’m writing about now, I am very happy to use only online sources, given the extremely informative quality of what I can find online. Later, I can start using more of the actual physical books I have on my shelves here… and later still, perhaps also some actual individual recollection of events. Though I will still want to keep the year-per-day pace up, maybe after a few months I’ll have more time to work on the project.
I also have some plans for changing the way I present the work. My current practice is to do the composing here on my Just World News blog; then I “import” this blog-post into my account at Medium.com; and once it’s there I also add it to the special “Project 500 Years” publication I have created there… and that has been what I’ve been sharing on Twitter. But both platforms, the current JWN blog and Medium, have some downsides when it comes to presenting the work. For example, I would like to be able to present the posts in forward-chrono as well as reverse-chrono order, while neither JWN nor Medium currently allows for forward-chrono presentation. I’d also like to be able to burst individual topics out with a more sophisticated tagging or categorizing system. Medium allows for neither of those things that I can see. Its design seems very clunky to me. I can, however, do some of these design tweaks on my own blog, so I’ll start implementing them soon (with the help of the excellent web designer Luke Finsaas)… and at that point, the presentation of the project that is here at JWN may become the definitive one.
Also, about readers. I’m not sure I have that many, yet. Which is totally fine by me. In the future, I may want to build more of a “community” (an often grotesquely mis-used word) around the project. To be decided later.