The Times At­las of World His­tory is a record of the im­per­ma­nence of hu­man and po­lit­i­cal borders, writes Murray Lau­rence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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