New Internationalist

1688: A Global History

Issue 334

The title says it all, really. John E Wills has hit upon a refreshingly different approach to historical writing. Where conventional histories tend to plot a linear course, focusing on limited areas and long timeframes, Wills takes one year and treats it to a world-spanning overview. In this way, he can consider the effects of simultaneity, synchronicity and even pure serendipitous happenstance.

The author makes a convincing case for choosing 1688, a year which encompasses the Glorious Revolution in England, the journeys around Japan of the famous poet Bashô, immortalized in his celebrated travel sketches, and the death of the Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, better known as the notorious pirate Henry Morgan. In tracing the international trade in spice, silver and slaves, Wills vividly brings to life the rise of the great trading companies and evokes an age poised between absolutism and theocracy and the first glimmerings of modernity and human rights.

1688: A Global History is a sparkling mosaic of a book, full of exquisite pen-pictures, including life at the court of the King of Siam, a pilgrimage to Mecca with the Hajjis, and the rational inquiries of Locke and Leibniz. Moving from Versailles and Peter the Great’s Russia to the buccaneer Dampier in Australia and Confucian scholars in Qing Dynasty China, it ends on a moving and tragic note with Henry Purcell’s bittersweet anthem ‘O Well is Thee’. This is a triumphant and splendidly entertaining interweaving of the voices clamouring to be heard during our planet’s journey once round our sun in the year we call 1688.

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