Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The ‘Settler Revolution’ on air [updated]

replenishing_the_earth Much has been written about the Agricultural Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution—those great events in human affairs—but very little about what NZ historian James Belich calls in his new book “the Settler Revolution”: that spectacular event in world affairs when English-speaking settlers exploded out from a small, dank island off the coast of Europe and began to populate nearly two-thirds of the globe; bringing with them British law and European culture, and making what are now some of the best places in the world to live.

Four simple facts from Belich’s book tell the story of the unprecedented explosion.

  • In 1780, the seven largest cities in the Americas all spoke Spanish.  But a century later the English speakers had caught up, and by then they inhabited all but one of the largest. As one diaspora was diminishing, the other was exploding.
  • “Before 1800, few if any cities had ever reached a population of one million, though ancient Rome, medieval Baghdad and eighteenth-century Beijing came close.” But by 1890 there were two: London with six millions & New York with three.
  • In 1830 the cities of Melbourne and Chicago were small villages on a dirt track (the Chicago of the time was described as “consisting of ‘about half a dozen house,’ a few Indian tepees and one hotel”—and Melbourne in 1835 “after a perilous flirtation with the name ‘Batmania’” contained precisely zero inhabitants, but by 1890 they were packed to the rafters and thriving.
  • At the start of the 1800s the world contained around 12-15 million English-speaking souls.  By the time of the First World War, there were around 150-200 million.  Even the slaughter of the First World War couldn’t slow down the rise.  “Leaving aside the 400 million people in Britain’s subject empire, English-speakers grew over sixteenfold from 1790 to 1930 … [and] as their great cities suggest, Anglo wealth and power grew to match. . . .”

The story is dramatic. But what explains those very pregnant facts about a revolution about which heretofore so little has been intelligently said?  Belich’s new book Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 seeks to address that point and answer those questions, and many more like them.

I have to say it was in the box of books I took away on holiday (I had a great time; thanks for asking), but never got time for more than a cursory browse that whet my appetite for more.  Which means that I thoroughly enjoyed his thirty-minute interview with Bryan Crump last night on Government Radio, which is as good an introduction to the book and his answers as any.  So I commend it to your attention:

And, hey look: here he is talking to Kim Hill (well, mostly the reverse) a few months back:


UPDATE: Just to note, this is the same book Tyler Cowen called “one of the very best non-fiction books of the year.”  True story.


  1. I think you mean Brian Crump

  2. Oops. Well done. Got my Crumps confused.


  3. I've been reading 'Empire' by Niall Ferguson and a fact which struck me in his book was that, contrary to widely held belief, the British Empire was not destroyed by independence movements fighting for freedom. The empire's main enemies were other European powers like France, Portugal, Spain and Holland; and the biggie of course, Germany, which was the one which actually destroyed the empire in the end. Also when in South America recently I rediscovered that, unlike the Spanish empire which revolted holus-bolus when Spain was at was with Napoleon, the British Empire rushed to Britain's aid whenever she was attacked - both times principally by Germany.


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