Simon Sebag Montefiore is well known for his biographies of Catherine the Great and Stalin and for his history of Jerusalem. Written during lockdown, “The World: a Family History” is his most ambitious work yet.
It does what it says on the tin, namely providing an account of world history using the family as a device to tell the story. It is erudite but never boring. In a little under 1,300 pages, we learn history from the Neanderthals to Donald Trump. From this, the uncharitable may surmise that mankind has made little progress in several million years.
But despite the darkness, the wars, the plagues, the atrocities and the famines, there are many points of light in the book with scientists, artists and musicians showing the better side of humanity. Because it is about families, there is a great deal of sex in the book, much of it explicit. There is also a great deal of humour – and sometimes a combination of both sex and humour.
For example, Montefiore mentions Madame Claude, the proprietor of Paris’s most famous 1960s bordello, at which both President Kennedy and the Shah of Iran were clients. Madame Claude was asked about her career. She responded: “There are two things that people will always pay for: food and sex”. Then she added: “I wasn’t any good at cooking”.
Women play a huge role in the book – not just the more famous rulers like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great – but also some lesser known but equally impressive potentates. They include Empress Wu, “the most extraordinary woman in Chinese History”; Marozia “ruler of Rome, and mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, lover and murderess of a succession of popes and princes” ; and Kosem who, from being a slave in the royal harem, became the woman who dominated the vast Ottoman empire for 40 years.
Montefiore is entertainingly judgmental. Two legendary seadogs do not impress him: Christopher Columbus is a “thin-skinned, narcissistic tyrant”. William Hawkins is “blunt, gritty and dour with acute porcine eyes”.
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Sometimes Montefiore errs: Robert E Lee did not take command of the Confederate forces at the beginning of the American Civil War. His promotion only took place two months before the end of the War. Lee’s first major role was as President Davies’s military advisor. For most of the fighting, Lee held command solely of the Army of Northern Virginia whilst other lesser Confederate generals messed up in the vast western theatre.
There is a fabulous amount of information in the book. Readers will discover when the fountain pen was invented (perhaps not something His Majesty would appreciate), why bluetooth technology has that name and which, at 38 minutes, was the shortest war in history.
In terms of geography, the author is true to his mission. None of his three “leading” families (the Alexandrines, the family of the Prophet Mohammed and the Genghis Khan/Tamerlane dynasty) are European – or indeed in the Anglosphere. India, China, Africa and Latin America are all covered in depth.
One dark theme throughout the history is, like war, a global phenomenon: slavery – which Lincoln famously called “ this monstrous injustice”. Montefiore does not hold back in his description of the horrors and its extent. No wonder the Romans were afraid of Spartacus when 40% of the Italian population were slaves.
Much of what we see generally written and discussed about the slave trade today, revolves around Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. But as Montefiore explains, this was merely one ghastly period in this enduring calamity. Genoa and Venice became rich by trading slaves. The Mongol wars brought enslaved Turks, Russians. Circassians and Georgians into Europe and Egypt.
The great 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta travelled across Asia and Africa and everywhere “he encountered slavery”. Demand for sugar accelerated the transatlantic trade. Portugal delivered 4.9 million slaves to Brazil alone – “seized in raids by African rulers”. The Caliphs of Sokoto (in Nigeria) played a particularly large role in enslavement. Perhaps the most infamous of all was Tippu Tip. This Omani-Zanzibari warlord had a dictum ”Slaves cost nothing: they have only to be gathered”.
When Britain declared war on slavery in the early 19th century, and dispatched the Royal Navy in a long and sustained campaign to stop the trade, it was some of the African kings who were most resistant. King Ghezo of Dahomey, for example, told British envoys: “The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It’s the source of their glory and wealth”.
We live in uncertain times with Putin launching the first war on European soil involving a major power since 1945. On a previous occasion when disaster loomed, namely the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Montefiore observes that Kennedy was obsessed with a history book “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman (which describes the follies that led to the Great War). Montefiore’s wry comment: “Never has a historian been so important”.
If more politicians and policymakers spent time studying history, they might avoid making the sort of lamentable mistakes that Bush and Blair made in Afghanistan and Iraq. The World – A Family History would be a good place to start.
The World – A Family History is by Simon Sebag Montefiore and published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Hardback £35.
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