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Tim Marshall on chaps and maps

History, goes the old rhyme, is about chaps, while geography is about maps. Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography, is all about how these two matters are actually very hard to separate. What the chaps think and do, says Marshall, is profoundly influenced and often downright determined by the circumstances described in the maps.

When I bought this book, in a remainder shop, I did not know who else was reading it. I am fascinated by the impact of geography upon history, but is anyone else? Since buying the book I have learned that it is now a best-seller. This pleases me, because it is a very good book, and in particular a very unsentimental book.

Britain and Western Europe, and then the other parts of the world where English is the dominant language, have mostly been blessed with a degree of geographically conferred freedom of manoeuvre that is denied to the inhabitants of pretty much all other nations. That is why these places got rich first. And it also now means that we Euros and Anglos are able to believe, as a matter of practical political policy rather than merely as privately pious aspiration, in a wide range of idealistic things of very variable value – things like freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, freedom for women, “social justice”. and so on and so forth – things that geographically more constrained people can only, as yet, dream of, and which they often regard as more as a threat to their own ways of doing things than as any kind of promise.

Another book that Marshall refers to quite frequently in this book is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which also offers a fundamentally geographical explanation for these facts. I share Marshall’s admiration for this book , and it heads the bibliographical list at the end of Prisoners of Geography, but this is an accident of spelling. I was also intrigued to see in that same list two works by Halford Mackinder, in particular Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, a title which Marshall might have picked for his own book had it not already been taken.

Why, for starters, did the modern industrial era that helped to create all that freedom of political manoeuvre for the world’s luckier people, having kicked off in Britain, then, after an imitative surge in Western Europe, then see its centre of gravity shift to the USA? Well, there are many reasons.

I was particularly struck by what Marshall says about the contrasting impact of rivers. The great rivers of Europe and North America, the Rhine and the Danube, and in the USA the Mississippi and its tributaries, are all super-highways, making a single market of Europe and helping to make the united super-state of the United States. I wrote here a while back about how one of the first great impacts of steam power was in supplying steamships for these great rivers

Africa’s rivers are quite different. Africa is not only very big. It is also, in the middle, very high. Africa’s great rivers are constantly interrupted by waterfalls and rapids. So, although these rivers supply an abundance of water (along with potentially severe quarrels about water), and now increasing quantities of electricity, what Africa’s rivers fail utterly to do is connect the many distinct communities of Africa to each other, this being on of the reasons why these communities, with their numerous local languages, are and are likely to remain so distinct. This cultural and economic fragmentation means that Africa never was, is not now, and is not for the foreseeable future likely to be the kind of political superpower that the USA has long been, for all that many parts of Africa are now surging ahead economically.

This matter of the world’s great rivers and of the differences between them is an example of stuff that I sort of already knew. Sort of. And here lies one of the things about this book that I most relished, which was that it alluded to all manner of things that I sort of knew, but then pulled it all together, put the pieces of the puzzle together, connected what I sort of knew about the geography of this or that place with what I sort of knew about its quarrels and its political preoccupations. I now know lots of things better, that I only sort of knew before reading this book, and I now sort of know a whole lot more stuff.

On the USA, Marshall is an anti-pessimist. He notes the constant prophecies to the effect that the USA has had its great moment, and that from now on it will be just another country, one among many. Marshall looks at his maps, and sees the USA continuing to be blessed with geographical advantages that statesman elsewhere can only dream of.

The word “maps” being in its subtitle, along with the bombastic claim that these maps tell you all you need to know about the world, these maps ought to be really, really well done, from the graphic point of view. But to my admittedly fading eye, they seemed to be not that good. On their own, they tell you nothing like everything about the world, which is why you actually need to read the book to get the points of all the maps. I was particularly disappointed by how the mountains look in these maps. Along with rivers, mountains are a big deal in this book, as you would expect them to be. But, in these maps, the mountains often scarcely register. It doesn’t help that the maps are done only with black ink on white paper. Colour would have helped. But even black ink could have been used, I feel, with somewhat greater clarity. I had to look quite hard to work out where these various mountains were. But, as I say, maybe that’s just me. My eyesight is definitely not what it was.

The mountainous insight I recall with particular pleasure is Marshall’s observation that the hostility between India and China would have been and would now be far greater, were it not for the most impenetrably formidable mountains on earth being at the boundary between these two civilisations. Contrast those impenetrable Asian mountains with that famous gap in the mountains in northern Europe, which results in a gigantic military parade ground with no natural barriers stretching from the Pyrenees to the Urals.

In addition to knowing better about Europe’s mountains, I now sort of know a whole lot more than I did about the mountains of South America. South America is, for me, one of the less fascinating places in the world, because, being so geographically cut off from the rest of the world and being of significance mostly only to their northern neighbours, South American mistakes count for a lot less than mistakes can elsewhere, especially mistakes made by the USA and Europe of course. South America, you might say, is basically just a big clutch of European mistakes.

Speaking of European mistakes, Marshall is very good on the habit of late nineteenth century Europeans of drawing straight lines upon maps of foreign parts, in defiance of geographical and consequent social and cultural and now “national” realities on the ground. The USA gets along fine despite all the straight lines that it contains dividing its states, because these states are, fundamentally, still very united, at least in the sense that everyone in them is quarrelling about the same things within the same political institutions. But the Middle East is still trying to shake free of its baleful legacy of fake states, which Europeans and now also Americans, all motivated by the need for oil, have expended so much of their own treasure and so much Middle Eastern blood trying to keep in being.

However, Marshall does not fall into the trap of attributing everything that is wrong with the Middle East to European interlopers. People were quarrelling murderously with one another in that part of the world long before the Europeans became a force to be reckoned with there. As I say, this is a notably unsentimental book

The sea also looms large, as it should, what with the sea itself being so large. Russia’s continuing obsession with getting hold of a warm water, all-year-round port being much mentioned as a motivator of Russian policy. It is suggested that the recent Russian (aka Soviet) foray into Afghanistan was motivated by what lay further to the south of Afghanistan, in the form of a warm water port on the coast of Pakistan.

More interestingly, for this Brit, was the fact that for people in the big southern continents of South America and the bottom end of Africa, the sea looms so large as a barrier. It is just so very, very big, and everything else is just so very, vary far away. We Brits like to think of the Atlantic as this big barrier between us and our rowdier and bigger young brother, the USA, which involves or used to involve huge exertions to traverse. But look at the map of the world, preferably undistorted by Mercator, and compared to the southern Pacific Ocean, the north Atlantic looks rather more like the English Channel. It also matters a lot that the coasts of Africa and South America are not blessed with an abundance of natural harbours.

The plan of the book is that each major continent is given its own chapter. We start with a brief geographical description of the territory, and then how that constrains the politicians, and upon this foundation we then get a potted description of all the big current events roiling the place and the hostilities bubbling along within it and with people in nearby continents.

For me, the final chapter was as informative as any of them, being about a cross between and ocean and a continent, in the form of the Arctic. There is much debate about whether global warming is continuing or has pretty much stopped, but what is not in doubt, unless Marshall is seriously misleading everyone, is that during the last few decades a lot of Arctic ice has melted, and transport and resource extraction opportunities across the Arctic have opened up. For many decades, airplanes have travelled along great circle routes across the Arctic. Now ships are starting to do something similar. All of which means a new arena of intensified political conflict. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Marshall notes that, not long ago, the government of Russia tried to have the world rename the Arctic Ocean as the Russian Ocean. Interestingly, Marshall points out that the USA, in extreme contrast to Russia, has not been much exercised about the Arctic.

So, how does all this impact upon the Samizdata agenda, and our attempts to fill the world with ideas of freedom and abundance and economic success, and our constant challenges to the assumption that the world will forever be trapped in lots of fixed or diminishing sum quarrels between contending nations and predatory bureaucracies with irreconcilable and deeply anti-Samizdata-ish agendas of their own? Well, despite all the influences described in this book, the world is becoming, for more and more people, a more abundant and hospitable place. More and more people the world over, because they can, are being drawn towards a more liberal and pacific and anti-anti-foreigner attitude to life. Marshall’s book does not contradict that claim. This is indeed the road that humanity is now travelling along. But what this book does do is remind us of all the many local barriers and boulders which are to be found strewn across this road. Geography may be diminishing somewhat in its impact upon human life, but it is not going away. And people are not the same in their political and ideological experiences and prejudices, which means that any ideas about how we are all citizens of the world, in just the way that our particular local tribe of cosmopolitans happens to be and is trying to be even more, will encounter more roadblocks. Chaps will still need to think about maps. People in those rich and lucky European and Anglophone countries are still confusing their own experiences and aspirations with those of people everywhere, and learning the hard way that they have much more to learn about the world than they realised when they emerged from their schools and colleges. These are the people this book is particularly aimed at, and the good news is that a decent number of them seem to be paying attention to it, and to the skeptical and cautious and inquisitive agenda that it offers. Or I hope they are. I hope it’s not just oldies like me.

So, should you join the throng of readers that this book has already attracted, or should you be content merely to have read what I have said about it? I don’t know, but I hope you have got some clues from me as to the answer to this question, if it concerns you. What you already know about the world and its geographical influences upon politics, and what you already sort of know about such things, isn’t going to be the same as what I knew about and sort of knew about these things before I read this book. But my guess is that if the matter of how geography shapes politics does interest you, you would learn quite a lot from reading this book. In particular, many things that I have not even mentioned would strike you as very interesting, in much the same way that things I have picked out struck me as very interesting.

21 comments to Tim Marshall on chaps and maps

  • CMTinPHX

    The Mississippi River was utterly irrelevant for most of early Anglo North American history. The Erie Canal was what sent America down the path toward eventual superpower status. See, “Wedding of the Waters” by Peter Bernstein.

  • CMTinPHX

    And while we’re on the subject, if rivers are so important then why is it still called “Europe” rather than “Lotharingia”?

  • Although, I was glad to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, I could not help noticing that it read like a defence lawyer’s brief on behalf of a client – in Jared’s case, the ‘client’ was those groups who had not advanced as far from the stone age as others. Some of Jared evidence was good, while other parts of his brief savoured strongly of special pleading. (Given his purpose, this special pleading had, of course, a PC flavour.)

    I look forward to encountering Tim Marshall’s book – behind the list of books I already have to read.

  • Paul Marks

    Even as a proportion of the economy statism has been on the rise in Britain since the early 1870s – our island status did not prevent the massive rise in government regulation and government spending.

    As for the United States – the Bill of Rights (the foundation of limited government) was written long before United States controlled the great river.

    And the great industrial States of the early 20th century (most notably New York – then truly the “Empire State”, and Pennsylvania) had nothing much to do with the great river.

    It is hard to think of dumps such as Buffalo New York as the most advanced cities on Earth – but a century ago THEY WERE.

    Even as late as 1928 the Federal Government was only 3% (three per cent) of the economy – and total Federal regulations were a few volumes (not the endless libraries of regulations that exist today).

    Geographical determinism (like racial determinism) tends to miss what is most important.

    This is not to deny that geographical factors are not important – they are important, but they are not the most important things.

    The most important things are ideas (principles) – and NO, principles are not created by geography.

    The small government United States of say 1876 (when Woodrow Wilson wrote his first attack upon the United States) was much the same shape as the big government declining society of today.

    And (for the racialists) – the big government Maine and Vermont of today are white, just as the small government Maine and Vermont of a century ago were white.

  • Ferox

    How is this distinguishable from the “magic dirt” theory?

  • Snorri Godhi

    Just a couple of thoughts for now, i might have more to say tomorrow.

    Guns, Germs, and Steel: i would describe it as an interesting combination of genius and idiocy. (Like the Communist Manifesto.) I won’t go into the idiocies today, but i beg to disagree with Niall that the book’s main fault is the PC bias. On the contrary, apart from the cringe-inducing Prologue, i found it very much un-PC: that’s part of the genius.

    About rivers: they used to be more important: the Tigris+Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus+Ganges, the Yangtze+Yellow rivers. Since then, fractal coastlines have become more important, see the 2nd link in the OP.

  • neal

    But principles attempt to create geography. If there is no connection, why the attempt to terraform?

    Of course, that would be just civil, or fused glass.

    Probably elemental. Of course, terraformed cognition is probably subject to some kind of random management. Easily dismissed, but haunted none the less.

  • Bruce

    Geography can shape history: think about Trade Routes and Invasion Routes. Sometimes one and the same; and it is interesting how, even in “modern times”, the same paths are beaten by army after army. North Americans, particularly those in the USA, should read a book called; “Warpaths!: Travels of a Military Historian in North America”, by John Keegan, as a primer.

    Also remember that great “Murphy-esque” military dictum:

    “All the great battles of history were fought at the junction of four maps”.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    You should also read ‘The revenge of Geopolitics’ by Robert Karvan, I think, though the title and the author might be spelt diffently, as I read it some time ago. The basic idea was that countries can’t help being defined by their geographies. Germany, in the middle of sweeping plains with no mountains to act as a natural barrier east or west, couldn’t help being either a pawn for its’ neighbours, or a strong power bossing them around. China couldn’t help thinking of itself as the center of the cosmos, since the central plains are surrounded by mountains.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Bruce: That’s only part of it. The full imprecation is:

    “All battles are fought by night, uphill, in the rain, at the corners of four separate mapsheets.”

  • NickM

    Europe loved wine (and still does) whereas the Chinese and Arabs got into tea and coffee. Wine means glasses, glasses means glass-working and that means optics and optics means spectacles which extend the useful working life of someone by decades and that means progress because folks ain’t always re-inventing the wheel every generation. And it is by this Europe went on to exceed (and twat) the other powers. And the fact we did it whilst pissed…

    Oh and also astronomy. And we know where that vice leads… It leads to NickM on The Downs, Nottingham University Campus (thanks Jesse Boot! – and he would’ve procured a lot of glassware) sharing a spliff with a comely maiden and a glass of wine (actually we were necking something dreadful from TESCO but let’s not spoil the image eh?) looking at the stars and wanting to understand. And I now fix computers.




    But nobody gives a fuck what I think because I’m a middle-class white guy and not Dianne Abbott’s cabana boy.

    But I was in lecture theatre B1 in March ’95 when a guy dashed in and announced they had just bagged the T Quark. Top or Truth – I prefer the later. Not discovered on my parish but we still cheered. Brainwashed by “Western” Science or just physics students. I suspect that “Western” term might annoy the two Japanese physicists who first conjectured it. It was just cool. And that is why I saw “we”. It doesn’t matter who the “we” is anymore than if those stars I looked at were made or just happened.

    It just matters it was done. Is anything less about racial exceptionalism? There were like a hundred of us and nobody even cared if it was CERN or The Tevatron. We cared it was down. And it was.

    Proj On!

  • John Galt III

    Dumb book and Jared Diamond’s book was utter garbage.

  • bobby b

    “I now know lots of things better, that I only sort of knew before reading this book, and I now sort of know a whole lot more stuff.”

    For what it’s worth, and mostly as a side note to this post, Brian’s line above about this book nicely sums up my view of Samizdata. From Brian’s excellent essay here to all of the other varied writings and comments from people more schooled in the relevant topics than I, it’s been a consistently interesting and rewarding place to go.

  • lucklucky

    Crossposted from a Portuguese blog.


    Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century parable “Rasselas,” a Persian prince asks a philosopher, Imlac, an essential question:

    “By what means,” said the prince, “are the Europeans thus powerful? or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.”
    “They are more powerful, Sir, than we,” answered Imlac, “because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given.”

    …Joel Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern, and “A Culture of Growth,” though rather plainly written, is a fascinating attempt to answer that essential question. He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow—that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans—masters of reality, not big thinkers.

    The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments—“stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.

    As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts—more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. TED talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view TED talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines—that’s where the leap happens.


  • Paul Marks

    I apologise for the double negative above.

    I meant “This is not to deny that geographical factors are important – they are very important”.

    An extra “not” got in there.

    Geographical factors are very important – but they are not the MOST important things.

    The most important things are ideas – beliefs-principles. And such beliefs-principles are not determined by geography.

  • Mr Ed

    blessed with a degree of geographically conferred freedom of manoeuvre that is denied to the inhabitants of pretty much all other nations. That is why these places got rich first.

    Is this proposition not just another way to obfuscate the importance of liberty, security of property, the rule of law, sound money and ultimately ideas in allowing prosperity to be achieved and maintained?

    Some (currently) landlocked countries: Uzbekistan (doubly so), Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bolivia, Kazhakstan, Mongolia, Paraguay, the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Moldova, Austria, Liechtenstein (doubly so) and Andorra.

    Quite a mixed bag.

    Seafaring nations of historic note: England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands.

    Bangladesh has a fair bit of coast.

  • Alisa

    Paul, I imagine that the ideas and beliefs in people’s heads were often shaped by geography, among many other things, before most of the natural barriers between countries and regions were pretty much rendered meaningless by modern means of transportation and communication. Plus, the influence of the geographical factors themselves was not necessarily straightforward – it was not just the mountain, the river, the sea and the like (or the absence thereof), it was the various complex combinations of any of those that shaped individual psychologies and entire cultures. And that would only partially go towards explaining Ed’s point above – add to that flora, fauna, and just random non-human events and human actions that made an impact on one population and not the other.

  • Mr Ed


    Reading the OP, I seem to recall your musings on some French’s chap’s theories on family structure and economics (from some point around 1989-1992 iirc.). Any thoughts on how these ideas might interact?

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    As for proof about the influence of geography on countries, what would British history have been like if there had been a land bridge between Dover and Calais? Perhaps ten to twenty miles wide, say. Britain would then have been the British Peninsula, a north-pointing counterpoint to Scandinavia. Would it have been a separate country? Would there be something like Hadrian’s Wall? Would Napoleon have had an easy time invading Britain?