Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 18 News List

China hurtles back to the future

Robert Markley argues that an economically dominant China, with Europeans begging for scraps off its table, would be a return to the state of affairs 300 years ago

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Markley works this up into a psychological maneuver on Swift’s part, but the reality was probably simpler. England and Holland had fought several wars in the previous decades, and Swift probably just wanted to make another joke about the old enemy. Such slights were common in England, from the frequent assertion that the Dutch were all drunkards to the would-be comic claim by the poet Marvell that they had “with mad labor fished their land to shore.”

Markley finds more material for his argument in Defoe, but then Defoe was highly productive, in effect the first English professional prose writer, turning out books at a huge rate under a variety of pen-names. What Markley concentrates on are the two sequels to Robinson Crusoe, describing Crusoe’s adventures as a merchant in the East. These books are notable for their virulent attacks on China — hardly surprising, Markley writes, when that was the richest country on earth and put unusual obstacles in the way of visiting foreign traders.

For the rest, there is much about the recurring topic of the execution of English merchants on the Dutch-held island of Amboyna in 1622 (it provided the subject for a tragedy by Dryden 50 years later as well as, in another touch of Swiftian irony, the name of the Dutch ship in which Gulliver returned to Europe).

Also notable about this pioneering book is its incorporation of ecological perspectives. History is not only a matter of money, as Marxists tend to believe — things such as land fertility and the using up of non-renewable resources matter, and mattered, too. Here again, as with Sino-centrism, the concerns and forebodings of the present unavoidably influence our understanding and account of the past.

Robert Markley challenges the conventional wisdom of the last 30 years on European expansionism in this remarkable book. It’s crammed with information, and will occupy an important place in the busy field of the history of trade in the early modern era (a description, incidentally, which the author also aims to re-define).

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