J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY THEMAPMAKERS
The Times Atlas of World History is a record of the impermanence of human and political borders, writes Murray Laurence
IN Imperium , his account of the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski writes, At the approach to every border, tension rises within us; emotions heighten. People are not made to live in borderline situations; they avoid them or try to flee from them as quickly as possible. And yet man encounters them everywhere, sees and feels them everywhere. Let us take the atlas of the world: it is all borders.’’
For most of us living the Western life of comfort and order, our encounters with borders are invariably benign, with the most likely perturbation being the irritations of queues and over-zealous or inefficient customs and immigration personnel.
New security measures have added to our annoyances, but few of us have experienced the danger, the tension or sheer terror of lawless borders as described by Kapuscinski, not only in Imperium , but in all his reportage.
But we know there are such places and that millions exist somehow in their diabolical shadows and that millions more have done so for thousands of years. And if we pause in our travels and reflect, we realise that the borders and territories we cross unmolested today almost certainly would have been contested and under siege, perhaps frequently, in the past.
Following Kapuscinski, I turn to the most interesting atlas in my possession, The Times Atlas of World History, given to me in 1979 and inscribed by my wife, Maureen, in French with the imperishable poem by Charles Baudelaire, L’Invitation au Voyage , which begins My child and my star/Let us wander afar’’ and ends There all is beauty, ardency/Passion, rest and luxury.’’
The volume was published in 1978. The last pages describe The Cold War 1943 to 1973 and The World in 1975: Rich Nations and Poor Nations. It predates the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as numerous other epochal events, upheavals and horrors, so we might readily conclude that much would have been added to later editions.
However, there has been no new edition and, thinking about this, and the philosophy behind it, we can see that 30 years is a flash, and would barely require the double-page entry that is the format for each section.
The great attraction of this book is its perspective: regions and developments are covered equally in two pages. For example, The Collapse of the Chinese Empire 1842 to 1911, The Byzantine Empire from Heraclius to the Fourth Crusade: 610 to 1204, Eurasian Trade Routes from the Crusades to Bartolemeu Dias or The Muslim World: the Middle East and North Africa 909 to 1517.
The editor justifies this perspective as follows: No people has consciously been relegated to the margin of history and none singled out for specially favoured treatment. We have laid particular emphasis upon the great world civilisations and their links and interplay; but we have not neglected the peoples outside the historic centres of civilisation — for example, the nomads of Central Asia — whose impact on history was more profound than is generally appreciated.’’
In contrast, my 1984 edition of The Macquarie Illustrated World Atlas has 17 maps covering Australia and two to take care of Brazil, one of which also has to look after Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay (I admit, in a story once, I referred to it as hot and forgotten’’), Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana. One map deals with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and a slab of Mozambique, while the rest of Africa is accounted for in two others.
The Times Atlas of World History is magnificent and I am delighted that Kapuscinski has provided me with the motive to go wandering through its pages again. And what led me to Imperium? Last year my son Daniel moved to Surgut, a distant city in Siberia, to teach English. This was the moment to start noticing Russia, which I had stopped watching since those unforgettable days of borders and walls falling at the end of the 1980s, or at least since the dancing bear Boris Yeltsin had tumbled from the back of the stage to be replaced by the icy charms of Vladimir Putin.
So I go to the section headed Russian Expansion in Europe and Asia 1462 to 1815 and find that Surgut was founded on the River Ob in 1594. 1594? It is scarcely imaginable that a town was founded in so remote and inhospitable a place almost 200 years before European settlement in Australia (Surgut lies at 62.14N and 73.20E). I learn that rivers facilitated the surprisingly rapid Russian expansion across the Urals into Siberia despite innumerable setbacks such as debilitating wars, which dragged on under Ivan the Terrible for 25 years on the Polish and Swedish frontiers, and Moscow itself being sacked by invading Crimean Tartars in 1571.
Maps show the detail of economic developments and territorial conquests noting, in case you wanted to ask, that this vast expanse was acquired from primitive peoples’’, as well as the expansion of Muscovy after the Mongol conquest, this last in extraordinary detail and covering the period from 1462 to the Pugachev uprising of 1773-74.
This event appears to have erupted over thousands of square kilometres, and the route of the Pugachev rebels is given greater prominence than the atlas gives to, say, the combined exertions of Sturt, Mitchell, Eyre, Stuart, Giles and Forrest in the inland explorations of Australia. The rebels almost subjected Moscow to yet another sacking before the revolt was put down and the Cossack general Pugachev executed, despite his extravagant claim to be Peter III.
The Times Atlas of World History is an extraordinary record of the impermanence, instability and arbitrariness of the world’s human and political borders. On every page there is a map that illustrates the expansion of the territory of one group of humans and the inevitable contraction of another’s. We know without reading the accompanying text that such movement in frontiers would have involved pillage, rape, torture, calamity and death often on an unimaginable scale. The borders thus grasped would be assaulted anew at any time by the previously vanquished, ambitious or thwarted relatives of the current possessor of the territories, or by some new more formidable invader, causing more terror, destruction and flight.
Choosing a country where I have wandered, I look at the entry on the Mughal Empire and the growth of British power in India, covering the 16th and 17th centuries. It depicts the expansion of the Mughals under Akbar and Shahjahan, and up until the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 by which time the Maratha Hindus, as well as Persians, Afghanis and European trading powers had the Mughals facing almighty assaults on multiple fronts.
The expansion and then retreat of the Mughal borders involved battles on a gigantic scale. We know from reading William Dalrymple’s scholarly works that armies comprised thousands of elephants, which suggests the carnage involved, as well as the cataclysmic disruption to the lives of innocents.
The saying was the Ruler of Delhi is the same as the Lord of the Universe’’, attesting to their supposed immanence. Oddly, this brings to mind the verse by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, Inniskeen Road: July Evening, which ends, A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king/of banks and stones and every blooming thing’’ but I feel that Kavanagh’s territory is not of a dimension that would have impressed a Mughal. Still, in 1803, Shah Alam II, defeated by the armies of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), sought the protection of the British, leaving India in the hands of the British East India Company.
Granted, Akbar and his successor kings did leave a colossal heritage in art, including, in an ironic touch, the miniature painting and boundless architectural wonders, not much of it wreckage at the time, but in meditating upon the expansion and disintegration of the borders of their universe, and the fortunes of their subjects, we appreciate the meaning of Kapuscinski’s words.
Meanwhile, Baudelaire’s journey is one of romantic exile, far from the here and now, but remote from the desperate flight that has characterised the journeys of millions throughout history. Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns next week.