Even if world government were to come, such rivalries would not cease…. In all probability, human genetic inheritance is attuned to membership in a small, primary community. Only so can life have meaning and purpose…. But how firm adhesion to primary communities can be reconciled with participation in global economic and political processes is yet to be discovered.
People ask me how I decided to become an historian. In fact, I never did. While geography and history were childhood passions of mine, which I indulged in course selection, I never expected to make a living from them. I just never decided to do anything else. It might have seemed that becoming a lawyer like my father was a logical choice, except that he worked all the time and I wanted no part of that. Most immediately, as graduation from Amherst College loomed so did the likelihood that I must enter the military.
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So I applied to graduate programs in history half-heartedly and put off a career decision pending my return from the Vietnam War in Of course, soldiers in a war zone think about nothing else except surviving and getting back home, which meant I had no immediate prospects besides graduate school at the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago, the only departments that accepted me.
I had not studied its faculty and had no idea under whom I would work. I had never even heard of William H. They included Peter Novick in U. American intellectual history, Akira Iriye in U. Gregory Campbell in Late Modern Germany. It quickly became apparent that McNeill was a prominent figure in the department and a visible one, since his office was in the midst of the busiest corridor and his door was often open. But I did not encounter McNeill until, I believe, the second semester of my second year, when time came to prepare for the orals exam.
I led a polite rebellion against the random mix of courses offered by various professors, calling instead for proseminars to train all the students in, say European or American history in the basic themes and interpretations defining their fields. In my European field, for instance, that meant the origins of revolutions, the international systems of the 19 th and 20 th centuries, the ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism, Nationalism, Communism, and Fascism, the Industrial Revolution s and their social and economic effects, and something on art and culture.
To my surprise, Professional McNeill not only approved our petition but also volunteered to teach the proseminar. A year and a half later it came time for me to select a dissertation topic and a Doktorvater as Romantic German students call their mentor. Since my topic was to be French diplomacy toward the Weimar Republic in the years following the Treaty of Versailles , the obvious choice was Campbell. But he strongly suggested McNeill as someone better able to advance my career, so I timidly approached him again and again he agreed on condition that Campbell serve on my committee and render technical advice.
Most memorably, he suggested that I take a day every month to collect my thoughts and send him a detailed progress report describing my researches, working hypotheses, crises, and conundrums. Here is one sample from his letter of May 6, I do not think you should be too worried about coming up right away with a fine and compelling outline of the whole thesis. I would address myself to the problem at roughly the one-month intervals, just to see where you are in your overall thinking, and to make any adjustments or enlargements of detail that your improved state of knowledge suggests.
But a period of fertile indecision, indeed of agonizing confusion and concern for the apparent anomalies or gaps or general unintelligibility is a sine qua non of really worthwhile work, since only after passing through such a state of puzzlement are answers to worthwhile questions likely to emerge.
Obvious questions with obvious answers result in dull history. So a suitable tension between hypothesis and available data, between confusion and certainty, is the wholesome and proper state in which to find yourself. You seem in that posture and I commend it to you. Thanks to the training and motivation I received from McNeill I finished the thesis in near-record time and got hired by the University of California, Berkeley, in the depressed academic job market of the mids.
Since then our paths only crossed a few times including two FPRI history institutes he generously graced. Obviously McNeill continued to influence my teaching and writing. I especially recall drawing on The Rise of the West for my lectures in the Western Civ survey at Berkeley, including its illustration of a French headboard carved in that depicted the horrific scene of a snake twisted into the shape of a human face and in the process of devouring its own tail.
Both had been left out of my US history courses systematically, transmuting to me a sanitized and secularized version of the facts. McNeill in his recent study of the Caribbean. He shows how pathogens and disease vectors were shipped from Africa to the Americas on slaving vessels and how they became naturalized in environments profoundly altered by the rise of plantation agriculture.
The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William H. McNeill
But it would be impossible to undertake a similarly fine-grained analysis for a larger area, and so far there has been little appetite for similar research on other regions. Regional studies of disease in Europe are largely confined to medieval visitations of the plague, later known as the Black Death. If our aim is solely to understand disease as contemporaries did, then its biological identity is relatively unimportant. But the insistence that we must avoid using modern disease categories prevents us from charting the spread of disease or explaining the rise and fall of epidemics and their relationship to economic, political, and environmental changes.
These are surely legitimate questions. They are also vital if we are to attempt anything more than a localized study. If cross-cultural comparisons are to be attempted, or long-distance connections explored, then it is clearly useful to establish the identity of the disease in question. It is not always possible to do so with certainty, but analysis of ancient and modern DNA and stable isotopes is improving rapidly, and there are now many techniques that enable us to determine the existence of pathogens in the past.
Bio-archaeological and paleogenetic techniques will assuredly become important tools for those who wish to write the history of disease from a global or long-term perspective, and will be particularly important where manuscript and other documentary sources are fragmentary or ambiguous. This may be one reason why the disease history of parts of Asia is currently underdeveloped, but it is unlikely to be the only one, for sources relating to epidemics in the Indian subcontinent are relatively abundant and could permit detailed explorations of the relationship among disease, trade, conquest, and environmental change.
Crosby and John R.
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McNeill—a lacuna that presents a major opportunity to scholars with the requisite skills. The historical coverage of most of Africa prior to is even more limited, although in this case it is the absence of documentation that is largely to blame. After , the epidemiological contours of Africa and most other parts of the world are more distinct and the scholarship more abundant. But while the geographical coverage is more even, it remains fragmented.
Historians have tended to view disease largely within national or colonial borders, their principal intention being to examine tensions within the body politic. In this sense, the historiography of disease in nineteenth-century Asia and Africa has largely mirrored that of Europe and North America. The s saw the greatest redistribution of pathogens the world has ever known. Human, animal, and plant diseases circulated in many directions, with enormous social and political ramifications.
This global picture usually appears as a dimly illuminated backdrop to a local or national story. It is therefore necessary to think more deeply about the connections between these apparently disparate events. In the s, the dawn of this new epidemiological era was heralded by a resurgence of yellow fever in the Caribbean.
An epidemic subsequently developed in the western Atlantic amidst the tumult of war and revolution.
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For nearly three decades it erupted sporadically but powerfully along the Mediterranean coast, creating havoc in cities such as Cadiz and Barcelona. The same is true of plague, which spread from the Middle East in the s and s as far west as Malta and later of cholera, which radiated out of South Asia from the s. As this tumultuous century drew to a close, plague was unleashed from its confines in parts of Asia and North Africa to reach every inhabited continent.
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Hitherto, the term had rarely been applied to such epidemics, even in the case of cholera. By the early twentieth century, however, the modern meaning of the term had become dominant.
This was due in large part to plague but also to two major epidemics of influenza: the first in —93 and the second in — These were truly global infections, being oblivious of borders and social rank. Much has been written about these pandemics—or at least their local manifestations—but the connections between them are seldom considered. Nor have they been seen in relation to other pathogenic exchanges that arose from the global trade in agricultural commodities.
Livestock plagues such as rinderpest, rabies, foot and mouth, and East Coast fever, 59 as well as plant infections like the blight that caused the Great Irish Famine, 60 brought hardship and death to millions. Contemporaries saw these phenomena as linked and many regarded the simultaneous spread of cattle plague and cholera as a sign of a world gone awry. Although most originated in Asia and Europe, some came from elsewhere, including the Americas.
The blight that destroyed the Irish potato crop, for instance, was most likely imported into Europe in shipments of guano from Peru; the diseases and pests that devastated European vineyards at the end of the century were also of American origin. Each of these diseases was related to specific patterns of movement, such as those occasioned by trade, war, economic migration, and religious devotion.
The most important of these was trade, which expanded massively in scale and scope in the course of the century. But the ramifications of the new world economy were by no means confined to the imperial powers and their colonies. A massive surge in the volume of commodity exports and investments was followed by an unprecedented convergence of prices. We cannot understand the full impact of economic integration unless we consider how environments were changed by their incorporation into a global market.
Capturing the complexity of these dynamics in a single narrative is formidably difficult, but one way of doing so is to examine a variety of localities in order to determine how ecosystems were altered as they were drawn into a global web. This is, perhaps, most easily achieved by focusing on an industry or type of economic activity rather than any particular disease. Plantation agriculture is well suited to this, for it illustrates both the global migration of pathogens and their sensitivity to social and ecological conditions. As they developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the sugar plantations of the Atlantic came to rely almost exclusively on African slaves.
While slavery lingered on in the American South, it was progressively abolished elsewhere and, by the mid-nineteenth century, most plantations in the Caribbean and Latin America depended on an influx of cheap labor from overseas.
The majority came in the form of indentured workers from South Asia and China, and the same was true of the plantations that came to be established in parts of Southeast Asia and tropical Africa. The epidemiological consequences of these migrations have been examined most carefully with respect to the shipment of indentured workers from South Asia to the Caribbean. From these studies, we know that cholera, smallpox, and other diseases often broke out on migrant vessels and that these pathogens were carried to many parts of the world.
In Russia, the abolition of serfdom in the s resulted in an eastward migration of peasants who seized land from nomadic pastoralists. Deprived of the means of subsistence, many former herders had little option but to work on the farms and mines established by the immigrants. There, they encountered malaria, which had recently been brought into the region.
Unable to afford relief in the form of quinine, they suffered terribly from the effects of parasitic infection. Indentured laborers were transported to tea plantations in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast by river, bringing with them a variety of infections including those causing leishmaniasis, known locally as kala-azar. By the s, as the rail link to Calcutta was nearing completion, Assam also experienced what appears to be its first epidemic of cholera.
Cholera was common among the laborers who built the railway, and they were often seen as responsible for infecting new areas. The same was true of the parasitic infection, hookworm. As hookworms are transmitted in feces, the poor sanitation on most plantations meant that the disease became firmly established in many parts of the world.