Wills, John E. 1688, A Global History (New York: W.W. Norton Company,
2001). 352 pp, $16.99.
John Wills presents a vivid and personal
look at the lives of individuals and select groups around the world at the
close of the seventeenth century in 1688, A Global History. The conceptual
nucleus of the work is fascinating. Wills metaphorically splits open the
history of 1688 and exposes the intriguing cross-section of events contained
within. This work invigorates history in a way traditional monographs cannot,
giving new life to its historical cast in an easily readable narrative style.
The tail end of the seventeenth century witnessed the solidification of
states in Europe; dynamic empires in China, India and the Middle East flexed
considerable muscle on the international stage; and the interconnections
between societies around the world grew ever stronger. Glancing at the table
of contents of 1688, one eagerly anticipates the reanimation of the
numerous forgotten faces of personalities from that era.
The book, however, over-emphasizes European
influence in world affairs for a work intending to engage the entire globe.
While Europe was still more than a century away from its most defining event
in modern history, the Industrial Revolution, and the continent's corresponding
orbital ascent to global economic and political dominance, 1688 errs
in its Euro-centric and, at times, even Orientalist perspective. Wills'
scope geographically encompasses the entire globe by telling the stories
of people and places in South America, Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia.
However, the book uses predominantly one perspective to interpret those
stories. The reader sees the world through the eyes of European travelers,
clergy, and politicos and disappointingly not from the eyes of peoples native
to each specific society. While in retrospect global hegemony was in Europe's
future in 1688, it was not known nor even a forgone conclusion at the end
of the seventeenth century. Wills could greatly improve his work by showing
"global history" from many diverse human perspectives that existed around
the world at the time.
The opening story demonstrates this point
quite clearly. The first glimpse of the world in 1688 is through the eyes
of the famous cosmographer Father Vincenzo Coronelli of the Republic of
Venice (Italy). Father Coronelli was laboriously selling subscriptions for
handcrafted segments of the most current European world atlas of the era.
The atlas was meant to be assembled after subscription holders acquired
all requisite pieces, which included ornately hand-painted landmasses, oceans,
and various caricatures and scenes. One could envision Father Coronelli
as a metaphorical example of the overall Eurocentric perspective of 1688.
Just as subscribers to Father Coronelli's segmented globe pieced together
an image of the world viewed from the eyes of a European, so must the reader
depend on the eyes of European witnesses for an understanding of world events
in Wills' work. The potential for cultural biases and therefore historical
distortion of events leaps to mind immediately in many scenarios.
While attempting to convey the experiences
of Jesuit priests in China with professional detachment, Wills' account
suffers greatly as he only provides that one European perspective. The reader
is left with an image of superior Jesuit Fathers simultaneously enjoying
their experiences in exotic China while "grit[ting] their teeth as they
saw [the Chinese] groveling before a Living Buddha." (136) The 1688 pilgrimage
to Mecca is likewise recounted from the memoirs of a European, Mr. Joseph
Pitts. (271) It is indeed difficult to read any section of 1688 without
a reference to the contemporary European perspective.
Occasionally interspersed historical narratives
attempt to balance these effects. However, through the omission of other
first-hand cultural perspectives, Wills creates the impression that the
events of 1688 can be best interpreted through the eyes and ideas of western
culture. Overall, the omission of a truly global perspective is 1688's
greatest flaw. Discouragingly, this fault lies squarely at the feet of the
author and publishers. Wills offers a very short and unconvincing explanation
for the lopsided accounts. Regarding such imbalances, he writes, "I have
tried . . .to not succumb to the prejudices of the writers. . . .[I
hope] to convey to my reader some of my astonishment at the voices I have
heard." (5) However, firsthand and secondary records from other cultural
perspectives would have greatly strengthened the work if interjected. One
may not assume that non-European records were unavailable for his research.
Societies in the Americas, Arabia, Africa, Asia, and India had been recording
histories for centuries prior to the spotlighted year of 1688. This gaping
hole in the historical fabric of the era is surprising considering Wills'
academic background in East Asia and world studies.
Despite its faults, 1688 is masterfully
written and captivating to read. Wills possesses a well-developed talent
for animating historical figures. Among the most interesting stories in
1688 is that of fifteen-year-old Dona Teresa of Potosí. Reminiscent
of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, Wills vividly
describes Dona Teresa's unsurpassed beauty, the passion of her suitors,
and the abuses by her mother upon discovering Teresa's clandestine encounters
with a potential lover.
While Wills is an accomplished world historian
and talented author, this work falls outside of the academic scope of world
history and offers only a segmented series of historical explications. In
the first chapter of 1688, Wills explains the etymology and implied
beauty of the word "baroque"; indeed, Wills captures the quality of his
own work when writing ". . . originating as a Portuguese
term for the peculiar beauty of a deformed, uneven pearl, suggests a range
of artistic styles in which the balance and harmony of the Renaissance styles
are abandoned for imbalance . . . ." (15) In many ways
like the baroque pearl, 1688, A Global History is fascinating to
experience but imperfect in its imbalance.