Project 500 Years: Communique #3

Here were my earlier two communiques in this project: 1, 2.

Well, I am now speedily closing in on having completed 25% (125 years/days) of this 500 year/day project! That will happen on May 5. I raced right through the “100 year” mark. I’ll confess that at the time I was trying to pull together an actual longform article based on the first 100 years/days of my findings, but I got a bit distracted along the way there by finding and starting to dig into a few relevant new books. Which is fine.

The only long(-ish)-form piece I’ve written from this project so far was this one: “How ‘The West’ was born”, in mid-March, and my thinking has already become deeper and more nuanced since then…

I’ve become fascinated with a few big topics, such as:

  1. The role that creating and maintaining a transoceanic empire played– for these four European polities that by 1641 (today’s year!) have already done so– in helping to form their own national identity and set of national institutions at home. And/or, the interaction between the empire-building/maintenance and the emergence of these entities as nation-states. I have lots of great data to look at thus far. Such as: To what extent was the emergence/consolidation of (Protestant) Netherlands as a distinct “national” entity tied to the the decision of the Dutch investors in 1602 to create their own “East India Company”, separate from the one the English merchants had formed two years earlier? Or, what was the interaction between empire-maintenance considerations and the decision of the Portuguese Cortes to secede from Spain in 1640? Then, there is England, the emergence of “Britain”, and the whole nearby-colonial project in Ireland…
  2. What are the features of the European transoceanic empires that emerged from the early 15th century CE on, that are distinct from the great land empires known throughout history (and also still extremely powerful in the mid-17th century)? I start from the premise that all empires are built and maintained through varying degrees of violence and coercion. But once this handful of European-origined powers were capable to delivering powerful naval gunnery to very distant points on the globe and then trade, raid, plunder, kill, and capture, and then retreat back to the seas just whenever and however they chose, then something changed in world history. What was it, exactly? Definitely, the cruelty worsened, because these conquistadors was not, as the creators of a land-based empire are, obliged at some level to stay and sit alongside the neighbors for many generations to come. I think it’s something about the combination of the ability to deploy powerful stand-off weapons against land-based populations (the naval gunnery) and the ability, when needed, to replace complete populations at will through transoceanic transportation, as the European colonial planters in the Atlantic islands and the Caribbean did, after they had worked to death those of the Indigenes whom they had enslaved and set to work in their odious plantations.

So these are the kinds of topics I’m exploring– even as I continue writing the daily bulletins, which seem to become increasingly engrossing and time-consuming as I go along. I realize I could stop writing these dailies whenever I choose, whether I do that to be more present with my grandkids when I see them this July or when I once again set about doing the kinds of longform writing I’m still thinking about. Let’s see.

There is also, however, a distinct pleasure in the relentless accretion of knowledge I have been gaining through doing the dailies.

I am still not sure what this project will end up “producing”. I think I want it to produce something bigger, better, and more readable than the dailies, which I realize are often not well-written and often noticeably incomplete. Because of time pressures, I frequently just end up regurgitating chunks of text from elsewhere (generally English Wikipedia) without digesting them well or checking for alternative sources, etc. That is purely the result of my self-imposed deadlines. If I really went down every enticing research rabbit-hole that I encounter as I do my dailies I would end up not finishing even one year of this project, let alone 500! (Also, the time pressures will probably increase over the next few weeks as my company Just World Books– which at this point means me and one super person working with me– is releasing a new 3rd edition of The Gaza Kitchen cookbook in mid-June. Fun; very worth doing; but also a lot of work… Kind of like this project, I suppose…)

Anyway, what I’m currently thinking of for this project over the next 12-18 months is to steer it toward creation of a dedicated website on the history of 500 years of European-origined imperialism, along with the magazine-length articles and perhaps a podcast series along the way. I would do a book, except that having four-color images would make it really expensive to produce (see: Gaza Kitchen, above.) And what would P500Yrs be without all the fabulous images I put into it?

Just a couple of final technical notes here:

  1. I am still publishing the dailies at two places: On my Just World News blog and at this dedicated publication on Medium. Read it at either. I can’t received comments at JWN (but always welcome them at Twitter where my handle is @helenacobban.
  2. If you should want to read everything I’ve written in the project to date in a forward-chronological order— that is, starting at 1520– then thanks to my excellent web-designer Luke Finsaas you can do that at this “Category” page on my blog. (You can’t do it at Medium, where the material is all strictly reverse-chrono.)
  3. I had hoped that the navigation/tagging/search options at Medium would be better than on my blog, but the reverse is true. So if you want to do some navigating or searching within the P500Yrs material, use my blog.
  4. I did start using the “Tagging” option in WordPress to put tags onto the P500Yrs material. But it take time to do: I have only had time so far to tag the years 1520-1580. Also, the tag-cloud that resulted, which you can see on the sidebar of the blog, is already clunky, unwieldy, and quite possibly unhelpful, with only 12% of the eventual content tagged there.
  5. I’ve found that I have not been using these tags. If I want to go back into an earlier blog-post in this series, to check on a date or whatever, I just use the “Search” function that is indigenous to WordPress. Look for the little magnifying glass on the top-right of each page. It is pretty good at finding what I want to find within the existing P500Yrs oeuvre in a more targeted way than the tags.
  6. I am happy that I am already finding the oeuvre I’ve been building up in the project pretty useful as a reference resource!