‘Replenishing the Earth’ by James Belich

Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World 1783-1939, Oxford University Press.

2009, 579 p.

Melbourne, formerly Port Phillip, is mentioned right from the opening words of this book.

Let us begin with two problems in urban history, exemplified by two pairs of cities:  Chicago and Melbourne and London and New York. (p.1)

Why did Chicago and Melbourne undergo such explosive growth, and why in 1890 were London and New York the only two mega-cities in the world?  And why are these four cities English-speaking? Given that there were other empires and cultures- the Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian- that could have rivalled or even exceeded the British empire, why didn’t they?

Replenishing the Earth is a big book that asks big questions and gives big answers.  Big ideas demand mental dexterity of readers, and Belich asks us to do some geographical somersaults as well.  He speaks not of  the “British Empire” as such, but of the Anglo-world, composed of two parallel, twinned structures (I wish I could show you the diagram- see Note 1 below)

To visualize this two-pair Anglo-world, imagine a malleable map like those used to illustrate pre-historical continental drift.  Place your thumbs above Florida, and your forefingers firmly in the Great Lakes.  Prise the United States apart along the line of the Appalachians, splitting it into Atlantic East, roughly the original thirteen colonies, and the vast American West.  The East, in our period, was an emigrant society as well as an immigrant society.  It was one of the world’s greatest sources of long-range migration and investment.  It was the American ‘old-land’, a metropolis equivalent to Britain.  Now gather up Australia, New Zealand, and with some hesitation, South Africa and place them in the Central Atlantic.  With Canada, the Dominions make up a water-linked ‘British West’. This West and old Britain combined to comprise ‘Greater Britain’, the white, un-coerced part of the British Empire, the British flank of the Anglo-world.  Here we have two metropolises or ‘oldlands’, the British Isles and the US East, and two Wests or constellations of ‘newlands’, land-joined in the American case and sea-joined in the British. p. 70

These two parallel ‘oldlands’  (i.e. Britain and Eastern America)  spawned what he calls a ‘settler revolution’ as people, technology and communications flooded into the ‘newlands’ (i.e what became the Dominions and Western America).  This might be thought of simply as good old-fashioned colonization but he separates out four phases that have their own rhythm:

  1. incremental colonization- the slow development of small settlements along trade routes and waterways, looking seaward with their interiors viewed as wild back-country
  2. explosive colonization.  This occurred from 1815 onwards with the mass transfer of technology, money, information, skills and people.  The settlers demanded oldland support, often on their own terms, and the whole scenario usually ended with a bang
  3. re-colonization.  Once things went pear-shaped, settlers cast about for an export that fed into oldland demand that would rescue their local economy- sheep, tallow, timber etc.  In this regard, “[t]he Anglo-world was built like a coral reef on layer after layer of fiscal corpses” (p. 206)  But this was not necessarily exploitative, but a matter of mutual dependency. By integrating themselves into the oldland economy, they saw themselves as part of ‘Greater Britain’ or ‘Greater America’, and “virtually metropolitan co-owners rather than subjects…” p. 180
  4. decolonization. This works only for the British scenario, but it marked the emergence of real as distinct from nominal Dominion independence.

His book focusses mainly on explosive colonization and re-colonization and he argues that the boom-bust waves run as an undercurrent through the histories of the newlands and their relationship with the oldlands.   He suggests that being aware of these rhythms is akin to being attuned to the seasons when describing agriculture- something that I had sensed myself in my own work with Judge Willis in Port Phillip during a time of financial bust, reflected in my several postings on this blog on the Twelve Apostles.

This book invites those who study settler pasts to add another colour to their palette. A booming settler society was very different from the same society in busts, or under re-colonization.  The mood was different, the atmosphere was different, the popular culture was different.  Social structure, crime levels, labour relationships, and gender relations in an explosive colonial society all differ significantly from those in a re-colonial one. (p. 548)

This book draws heavily on economic history: you only have to look at the secondary sources he has used to see that.   This is not the type of history with which I am particularly comfortable, but he adds to the ‘rational choice’ explanation of human economic activity another less measurable influence.   Immigrants, or their immediate forebears, had often shifted internally within Europe in preceding decades, and they were not moving as strangers into another people’s society, but were instead part of the cloning process whereby Anglophone language, institutions, credit and finance systems, plays, books, newspapers, fashions were transplanted into newland territories.  There were always the ‘boosters’ in these newland communities who spruiked the climate, the riches for the taking and the opportunities for settlers- and even the terminology that came to be used for the newcomers is important here-  but the mass transfer of people happened because of what happened in people’s heads when they weighed the possibilities of migration.  This, too, is an approach to history that I feel comfortable with.

His book focusses on the Anglo-phone world, but he makes -rather unclearly-  a distinction between Anglo-phone and Anglo-prone.  Quite apart from the linguistic punnery here, he is at pains to point out that many of the features he identifies are not exclusive to English-speaking peoples, but that they were more likely to display them than, say, French or Spanish societies. His book also encompasses Brazil, Argentina, Siberia, Algeria and Manchuria as alternative scenarios.

There are big ideas in this book, and I can’t do justice to them.  In fact, in a blogpost of this length I can’t even give Belich’s answer  to the questions he posed in his opening sentence above.  I am in awe of the breadth of reading that the author has undertaken and the sheer size of the explanation he offers.  I could not write this sort of history- I admire those who can- but I don’t know if I would necessarily want to, even if I could.  I found myself sitting up a little straighter once people and voices were brought into the spotlight, and I think that reflects my own historical leanings.

Note

You can see the map if you go to the Googlebooks page and search for “The Two-Pair ‘Anglo-World'”. This will take you to Page 70, from which you can go back one page to p.69 where the map is shown.

Other reviews of this book:

The Independent 3 July 2009

The Times Higher Education 27 August 2009

Andrew Smith’s blog (which is where I read of the book, then made the connection with the Keynote speaker at the recent AHA conference- that’s Australian Historical Association, by the way)

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2 responses to “‘Replenishing the Earth’ by James Belich

  1. Pingback: ‘Savage Lands’ by Clare Clark | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘Settler Sovereignty’ by Lisa Ford | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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