Monday, September 17, 2012

History of the World Since 1300

The first lecture of History of the World Since 1300 was wonderful.  The course promised a world view of history, and it's already showing in the readings and the lecture.

I was impressed with the perfect technology.  I started to view the first lecture shortly after 6 pm when it first became available, and it was great - no problem with buffering on the beautiful high definition video.  The first lecture was divided into five segments, with a quiz question after each segment.  You can download the video in MP4 format, and there is a text version of the lectures as well (called subtitles, but really just a separate written text).

The first lecture focused on the growth in trade as the driver of linkages around the world.  In the back story about earlier times, Professor Adelman talked about early trade between the countryside and villages, which allowed the villages to grow because of the agricultural produce from the rural areas. As people become able to produce more than required just for survival, 'luxury' items  start to move great distances along overland trade routes like the Silk Route.  Such trade is driven by products with a high value to bulk ratio.  Camels can't carry all that much and so you want to ship light, valuable goods like spices, cinnamon and pepper.  The emergence of maritime trade routes, enabled through improved maritime technology like bigger ships, the compass and charts, meant that heavier goods like teak, ivory, sugar, earthenware, lead and glass could flow along the trade routes.  

We see the beginning of the great entrepot centres like Aleppo (in the news about Syria lately) and Samarkand (in today's Uzbekistan) that served the overland routes and the maritime entrepots of Calicut (Kozhikode in Kerala in Southern India), Melaka (in present-day Malaysia), Aden (in present-day Yemen) and Venice.  In all cases, it's Arab merchants who dominate trade, using close, trusted family connections to carry out trade, and they become the first money lenders to facilitate trade.

The lecture and the readings brings together the spread of religion and the interlinking of the world.  Buddhism spread along trade routes, and in turn facilitated trade by developing bonds between people.  From the above mention of maritime technology, Adelman foreshadows future world trends caused by technology changes.  He had already spoken of China's strength and power largely driven by their harnessing of water through irrigation, dams, land reclamation and sewage handling.  But a key theme has been the development of wealth and the trading of wealth driving world development.  Indeed, Adelman's first introduction pointed to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations:  Smith argued that wealth was an engine of social interaction, and clearly Adelman subscribes to this notion.

Adelman ended with a segment on Genghis Khan.  Did you know that in 25 years the Mongols conquered an area larger than the Romans conquered in 400 years?  The Mongols came from the Northern Asian plains, with little opportunity to develop beyond subsistence level.  With so few resources of their own, their approach to developing wealth was to plunder it through conquest.  They travelled light and conquered quickly, depending on surprise, terror and their superior horse-based warfare for victory.  They wiped out the rulers in conquered areas and replaced them with Mongol rulers (often sons of Genghis Khan), they left the common people in place and living much as usual.  They needed these people in place to provide the goods for their support.  You can't plunder much from a society that isn't producing any more.  Trade flourished under the Mongols, bringing lemons and carrots from Persia to China and noodles and playing cards to Europe.  But there were exchanges beyond goods.  German miners found their way to China to improve mining practices there and Chinese doctors found their way to Persia.

Past  related blog posts:
  • discussion of Coursera as a disruption innovation in eduction here
  • post on the way the course will run - a fascinating view of the advantages of an online course here
  • talking of The Wealth of Nations, I reported on a fascinating chart article from The Economist, on the first effort to actually measure the wealth of nations, as opposed to their income which is captured in GDP

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