In two papers (delivered at Baylor in 1982) and 61 pellucid pages, McNeill (The Rise of the West, Plagues and Peoples, The Human Condition
) revives and renews Walter Prescott Webb's thesis that European expansion created a Great Frontier around the globe—where not only progress, freedom, and equality prevailed, but also destruction, compulsion, and slavery: "the persistent double-edgeness of change." The aim is to rid us of provincialism—put "the States back into the world as one of a family of peoples and nations similarly situated"—and also to expose the "romantic delusion" of an Arcadian past. The evidence derives from McNeill's unsurpassed knowledge of steppe and veldt and Outback, of disease and demographics, of transportation, communication, agriculture, and trade—in which he perceives patterns. The two papers divide at 1750. In the two centuries before, the Europeans' diseases ("epidemiological superiority"), combined with their "greater or lesser superiority of skills," destroyed native populations (in the US, USSR, Latin America); the resulting labor shortage, for agricultural or mineral production, brought recourse to compulsory labor (slaves, serfs, indentured servants, peons); "the arts and skills of civilization" made little headway. After 1750, however, transportation and communication links grew—and, most crucially, population soared. (McNeill reviews the possible reasons—with particular attention to the spread of American food crops, like potatoes and peanuts, yielding "more calories per acre than anything grown before.") When there was no more land to be tilled, and no other livelihood at hand, migration set in (to Australia and South Africa, as well as North and South America)—reducing the differences between European and frontier societies, and bringing the legal abolition of slavery and serfdom. But, McNeill emphasizes, "legally sanctioned compulsory labor" persisted—in Australia and the Congo, in the transport of Indian and Chinese "coolies" to the fringes of British and American settlements (carrying "three times as many persons across the world's oceans as ever left Africa in Atlantic slave ships"). Once again: a monumental thesis, compactly and matter-of-factly put.
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