A few years ago, I reached a conclusion that had an ‘aha’ element to me – geography drives history. This was based on my fascination with watching the map of the world (lately this has been the ‘nightlights’ version). I have made some crude connection between the shape of the world and what happened in it over the centuries.
Geography driving history
For example, India and China may seem close but their plains are quite apart from each other. In fact, South Asia is a relatively contiguous region separated from the rest of the world by Hindukush in the west, Indian Ocean in the south and Himalayas in the north and east. Similarly, east and north Asia is separated from the rest of the world by sea on east and Tibetan plateau on the west. The list goes on. This explains much of ancient history. Broadly put, why people kept to themselves within these accessibility circles.
Closer home (temporally) the world wars in early 20th century can also be linked to the heavy hand of geography. First world war was fought at least initially between the naval powers and the landlocked central powers. The late entry of US into both the wars was also linked to geography in that it was separated by a huge ocean and could afford to wait.
Less obviously but still interestingly, would Vietnam have been able to withstand the onslaught of US might if it were not so hilly? Not to take away from the bravery of the Vietnamese soldiers but their Iraqi counterparts had just the desert to fight in – so very open! (Arguably, today’s Vietnam may not be able to withstand the significantly improved technology of US armed forces, but likewise Iraq would have been overrun in 1971 easily by US forces). Afghanistan was harder to conquer and manage for US than Iraq was – geography again.
More broadly, the spread of culture is based on natural substructure of geography. For example, today’s Spanish culture (including the beautiful Flamenco music and dance) is influenced a lot by Arabic one, unlike say Swedish culture. Even Italian culture is lot less influenced by Arabic one because they didn’t share the history unlike Spaniards and Arabs. The peak of Arab power was before navies became prominent – hence land-based movement was the primary means of influence.
Why did Britain, Spain et al become the primary naval powers when the time came? Easy – their proximity to seas. Germany, Russia and those ‘inside’ couldn’t quite develop navies as fast. Far-out Imperialism remained the preserve of Britain and France. Here too, interestingly, the first naval powers i.e. Portugal and Spain trained their sights on Latin America rather than Asia. When Britain and France did become naval powers, they were forced to explore North America and follow on from the Portuguese (Vasco Da Gama) on Asia. Even the broad split of Africa to France and Asia to Britain can be traced to proximity of France to Africa (both through Mediterranean and Atlantic). Britain went farthest!
Geography -> history -> geography
More recently, especially after some thinking on complexity economics, I have revised my conclusion. First the background. I have increasingly come to believe that complex systems based on continuity of causality (effect1 -> effect2 -> effect1) are more common that simple systems with unidirectional causality (cause -> effect). So the revised conclusion is as follows.
Geography shapes history and history in turns shapes geography.
By the second part I don’t necessarily mean actual shaping of mountains and rivers (though that too has been happening and may increase in future). It’s more to do with human interaction with geography.
Take the location of major cities for example. My own city – Mumbai – gets bucket-loads of monsoon each year. In recent years – that has also meant loss of lives, productivity, and property. Why would Indians congregate in such a prone spot to create the financial hub of their economy?
Short answer is – this isn’t a policy choice. Much as the powers that be everywhere in the world would like dictate where an important economic hub should be, it is difficult to do that beyond a point (the failed experiment in India of the International Finance Centre is a case in point). A medieval Indian king – Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq – tried to shift his capital from a north-centred Delhi to strategically located Daulatabad. The attempt failed and he had to reverse the shift. Admittedly, Shahjahan shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi but that was a minor shift given how the people in power then were spread across these two cities already.
Coming back to Mumbai. Till the 17th century, it was largely rivers that told people where to settle. Large cities were typically on the banks of a river. Indian people weren’t seafaring on account of their cultural biases and also for economic reasons (there was a lot going on at home itself, since India was home to about 1/4th of global GDP till the 17th century).
It was the British that founded Mumbai. Its proximity to sea and distance from the then local powers meant it was safe for them. They then sewed up the seven loosely connected islands into a bustling town. (After the brits left, Indians continued the good work of reclamation – Nariman Point in the 70s, BKC as late as 90s and Worli Seaface in 2020!)
In this context, it was history that guided geography.
What does future hold?
Consider Covid-19 itself. Before Covid the cities had a hub-like structure – downtown is where the ‘action’ is and where most people have to go for work. That’s the commercial district. Technology had already enabled weakening of this dominance but legacy effect of city-centres being ‘central’ was too strong to wane quickly. Covid changed that. Now it is imaginable to work in a spread-out manner. If people in these commercial districts are coming to work only 1-2 days a week or not at all, they may explore living away from city-centre in large houses. After all, if restaurants, cinemas, theatre, shopping district are all constrained by the pandemic, and the children’s schools are only online, what’s the upside of being close to the city centre?
Of course, the pandemic will eventually be brought under control. However, in the meantime, enabled by technology, alternative living models become viable as people experiment. They may just get the critical mass that drives the long-term change as well.
In this sense, history will drive geography again!