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Book Review


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. 1
     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. 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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. 5
      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. 6
      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. 7
James Covi
Washington State University

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