The empire strikes back

Last updated 05:00 20/09/2009
Replenishing the Earth, James Belich, Oxford University Press, $65.

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I FIRST met James Belich at a Victoria University departmental party in late 1984, when he had lately returned from Oxford and a Rhodes Scholarship. And it was his enthusiasm for local events that made me realise what marvellous history we have in our corner of the South Pacific.

A quarter-century on, Belich's broad-brush rewrapping of our past has cast light on how we see ourselves. He came to academic prominence in the 1980s with his re-interpretation of our wars of the 1845-72 period, a thesis and book that redefined those wars for the non-military establishment.

More recently, Belich has penned a two-volume general history of New Zealand, highlighting our "explosive" Pakeha settlement and proposing among other things that we "recolonised" Britain from the 1890s, largely via the meat and dairy trade.

Today he is one of only two historians in New Zealand to have published interpretative books on both those topics. His latest book, Replenishing the Earth, takes those themes to the world. Here, in more than 550 pages, Belich applies his theme of re-colonisation to the entire "Anglo" world his term for the English-speaking peoples who spread across the planet from the 1780s and who, by and large, made the western world what it is today.

His book paints a bold picture of an heroic age of explosive settlement and resettlement, cycles of spectacular booms and calamitous busts. Mighty cities emerged from the Americas to Australasia in the historical blink of an eye. It was a time of hope, of vaulting ambition, an age when people from a scant-populated island nation spread their language and social hopes around the globe. An unprecedented eruption of culture, people and economy.

Precisely why and how it happened has never been entirely explained historians have struggled with national or regional views and with political, economic and social explanations without finding clear answers.

Belich offers a much wider overview, mainly built around what he calls the "long" nineteenth century a socio-political definition previously used, I believe, by Eric Hobsbawm. But it is the right term in Belich's book. Indeed, Belich portrays his topic imaginatively, even applying modern usages such as "software", with which the ordinary reader can identify.

His is an unashamedly socio-economic view a "rhythmic re-conceptualisation of the economic and cultural contours of settler history". He does not tackle the rationality thesis of John Ralston Saul as an explanation for the period. Political and industrial change also falls broadly from the radar, as do the social effects of the Napoleonic wars. To this extent Belich is adding a layer rather than recasting the whole. But that, it seems, is broadly his intent. This is a book of new colour and dimension, not foundation.

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His themes are commendably focused, outlining his take on much of the history of the western world. There are "British wests", the "great midwest", even "last best wests".

Good stuff, but I have a few gripes. At times Belich proposes patterns that seem too pat; I suspect nineteenth century reality was significantly muddier than it appears today from the cool luxury of the armchair.

Replenishing the Earth also remains a work of synthesis. The array of published books and papers used is staggering. To some extent, a book of this nature can only be sourced that way. It seems, however, ideas catapulting from the arguments of others must also to some extent be framed by them indeed, this is sometimes explicit, as on p281, where Belich quotes one interpretation.

And that is a pity. History often benefits from closer touch with original sources. None of this is a barrier to readability. Belich has a lyrical style and has produced accessible text. He has eschewed the silly neologisms ("wood-berg") of his earlier years. And the title is fabulous a phrase that keys, unashamedly, into twenty-first century hopes and dreams.

Even 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable for a New Zealander to write a general history of the world. But as Belich observes himself, it is time New Zealand historians began exporting their ideas. And Replenishing the Earth is a great way to start the ball rolling.

Matthew Wright has written more than 30 books on New Zealand history. His latest book, Old South, a reinterpretation of settler idealism, is published by Penguin.

- Sunday Star Times

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