Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World | Book Review

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Ian Morris Geography is Destiny:  Britain and the World, a 10,000-Year History (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), pp. 570  ISBN: 9780374157272 

The author, an archaeologist and history professor in the Classics Department at Stanford, tells us that this book was occasioned by Brexit, the decision by referendum of the English electorate to withdraw from the European Union (Scottish and Irish voters voted to stay).  According to the leader of the Brexit movement, the English voted as they did, albeit narrowly, for five reasons:  identity, mobility, prosperity, security, and sovereignty.  In truth, the five could be collapsed into one:  identity.  The English knew who they were (however fictitious in reality that view might be) and they didn’t want their society to change.  In particular, they didn’t want foreigners (read, EU civil servants) making decisions for them.  Cultural identity was the true driving force behind the ‘leave’ vote.

Certainly, we have witnessed (and continue to witness) this force at work in our own country, where for tens of millions of voters questions of their cultural identity count far more than their economic interests.  On the surface, this reality would seem to belie the thesis of this book as set out in its title.  But our author argues that it is, precisely, geography which forms such identity.  ‘Brexit was just the latest round in an ancient argument about what Britain’s geography means.’

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, circa 1300, England.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, circa 1300, England.

He frames his narrative – all in all, a most-useful survey history of Britain from geologic time to the present – around three maps.  The first is the Hereford mappa mundi.  A very large-scale painting of the world created around 1300 A.D., it hangs in Hereford Cathedral.  By Christian convention, Jerusalem is depicted at the center with the East at the top of the map (the direction from which Jesus was expected to return).  Britain and Ireland, two blobs, are squeezed into the bottom left.   This placement very much reflected the view of those who lived in these Isles and who saw themselves as living at the edge of the world.   Our author takes us, in this first stage of his history from 6000 B.C. to 1497 A.D., from the geological origins of the British landmass — when glaciers and tundra predominated, its early inhabitants ranged from proto-humans leaving footprints in coastal mud from nearly a million years ago to Neanderthals to Homo sapiens, and its flora and fauna featured, during one balmy period, elephants and rhinoceros roaming southern England – through to the end of the high Middle Ages. 

A black and white world map from 1904.
Mackinder’s Map from Mackinder, H. J. (1904 April). The geographical pivot of history. Geographical Journal 23, no. 4: 435.

The second map is Mackinder’s Map (drawn in 1902).  This depicted a Britain replacing Jerusalem at the center of the world.  The concerns of Christendom supplanted by commerce.  This second stage, from 1497 to 1945, shows us a world in which the meaning of geography has been changed by technology.  The ocean-going galleon opened up a world inaccessible to the coastal-hugging caravel.  Virginia tobacco transformed the power-structure of Europe.  The British Empire dwarfed all others.

The third map, designated the Money Map (from 2018), depicts a globe where ‘three mountains of money in North America, Western Europe and East Asia’ dominate: ‘Britain still has a speaking part [in this reflection of the impact of globalization on the world’s wealth], but is no longer the star.’  Indeed, it may prove to be little more than a side-lined observer in the looming confrontation threatened by an expansive China.

Throughout, this book represents ‘deep history,’ a political, economic, social accounting of Britain’s history (in massive detail), with how the weather was.  Throughout, the determinants of geography’s imperatives guide the narrative. To illustrate:  witness the need the Angevin kings of England recognized to close the ‘back door’ of Wales and Ireland against French invasion, if they were to preserve not just their English throne but their dominion over their French holdings from Normandy to Gascony – this geographical imperative would determine English security policy for centuries, crucial to it being the forging of a sense of Britishness.  Throughout, as well, this is a personalized accounting.  Our author, raised in Stoke-on-Trent, sprinkles personal anecdotes into his narrative in support of his arguments so that we learn about his caravan holidays in his childhood and his family history (his dad a miner, their first house, their first automobile).  The tone is conversational, almost chatty, a colloquial story-telling style with – at somewhat alarming intervals – a resort to rather exuberant rhetoric.  Thus, Norman rule under William the Conqueror is likened to the rule the Nazis would have imposed had they managed a successful invasion; Robert Walpole, who established the function of prime minister, was ‘perhaps the most venal, scheming and corrupt’ of them all (as well as the ‘cleverest’); and, in reference to Stonehenge, ‘Henges were Stone Age disco balls.’ This over-the-top delivery can lead our author into errors (of both facts and judgment).  For just one instance, he relates the outcome of the Synod of Whitby (where the still nascent English Church, in 664, sided with Rome’s ecclesiology) and, then, gives us:  ‘Pouncing on this opening, the pope sent a new man, Theodore, to Canterbury to straighten English Christianity out.’  Well, no.  For starters, Theodore was the second papal choice.  More pertinently, his appointment to Canterbury was not occasioned by the Synod of Whitby but by the death from plague in 667 of the archbishop-elect Wigheard after he arrived in Rome to obtain his pallium.

Read this book, then, with a certain caution but with great profit.  It is thoroughly – intimidatingly – up-to-date on the scholarly literature over the entirety of this immense stretch of time and over multiple scholarly disciplines (there are nearly forty pages of end-notes and bibliographical references). 

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