Explaining history through numerical groupings is in vogue | World News - Hindustan Times

Explaining history through numerical groupings is in vogue

The Economist
Mar 01, 2024 08:00 AM IST

It is a trend that says a lot about the human mind

A History of the World in 12 Shipwrecks. By David Gibbins. St Martin’s Press; 304 pages; $32. W&N; £25

Breaking down history is appealingly accessible(Pixabay) PREMIUM
Breaking down history is appealingly accessible(Pixabay)

A spectre is haunting history—the listicle. You know the formula: a history of something enormous in an intriguingly specific number of unexpected things. In 2023 alone readers were met with new books about the history of baseball in 50 moments, the West in 14 lives, the information age in five hacks, women in 101 objects and the world in eight plagues, ten dinners or 50 lies. Call it history-by-numbers, or, if you must, the “histicle”.

The oldest histicle of all may be the seven wonders of the world, a list of marvels from around 300BC. But the modern vogue for history-by-numbers began in 2010, when Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” became a bestseller. Mr MacGregor, who was then director of the British Museum, highlighted treasures from the collection.

Breaking down history is appealingly accessible—no need to read a tome to understand the Silk Road, just look at this Korean roof tile. But without care and a certain amount of panache, it risks giving the impression that history is merely, as Arnold Toynbee, a historian, characterised the views of less diligent colleagues, “One damned thing after another.” Or one damned roof tile after another.

Fortunately “A History of the World in 12 Shipwrecks” does not fall into that trap. The book works in no small part because it is more modest than its title suggests, sailing between the Scylla of exaggeration and the Charybdis of triviality and avoiding a wreck along the way. For starters, it is not a history of the world. Rather, it is a series of interconnected essays on notable shipwrecks. But in recounting maritime misadventure, David Gibbins paints a picture of how various people—from sailors in Britain in 2500BC, to Muslims in the ninth century and British merchant mariners in the 20th—pushed the borders of their known worlds.

The book’s itinerary through the flotsam and jetsam of history is avowedly idiosyncratic and makes no claim to objectivity or completeness. Mr Gibbins is best known for writing historical fiction, but he is also a professional maritime archaeologist. The skeleton of the book mirrors Mr Gibbins’s own career: he has worked on more than half of the 12 wrecks he writes about. His descriptions of snaking through kelp and sucking up sand to fish out lost treasure are vivid. Shipwrecks are “catastrophic events”, he writes, but the challenge of diving them is “life-affirming”. (After he swims into the “dead pool” off the Cornish coast, though, you may prefer to take him at his word.)

The sailors’ misfortune aside, a shipwreck serves as a lucky stroke for a historian, especially if it is left intact. Each wreck is a microcosm of a lost world. As Mr Gibbins writes of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship vessel that sank off the Isle of Wight in 1545, a wreck “can be seen as an unfolding series of contexts”, giving details not just of how ships were run, but of what its sailors took with them, and, in the cargo hold, what its culture needed or prized. For King Henry’s sailors, it might have been the wooden tankards in which they drank their gallon of weak beer a day.

In the case of the Santo Cristo di Castello, a Genoese ship that sank in 1667 on the way from Amsterdam to England, Mr Gibbins discovered that the precious cargo included the studies for two paintings by Rembrandt—an artist who himself benefited from maritime trade and the wealthy class of collectors it created.

Ships are not just miniatures of the worlds they sailed from. Many were the engines of history themselves, carrying not just people and goods but ideas, religions and technologies. The wreck of an Arabic ship near Indonesia disclosed a cargo of Tang porcelain, as well as an inkstone, suggesting the ship might have been carrying early paper back from China.

Diving for shipwrecks, then, is an extreme version of what any historian does: plunging into the darkness to discover the missing links between events and cultures. And what is history if not a network of wrecks, accidents, hidden treasures and unexpected consequences? At its best, history-by-numbers embraces the fact that historical narratives, like history itself, are always somewhat arbitrary. This is history not “as it actually happened”, as Leopold von Ranke, a German historian, famously put it, but history as it happened to happen.

This vision of the past as a loosely connected chain of events lacks the storybook comfort of beginning, middle and end. But, at the same time, the historical list offers solace: it suggests that history is finite, knowable and manageable. The list does not just appeal to modern brains, fed on news from BuzzFeed. It also appeals to a desire for control, promising that history can be broken down into discrete parts and understood, and that five or 100 things is all you need to know. This approach to the past suits the present perfectly.

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