Alan Macfarlane. The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 464 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4039-0432-4.
Reviewed by Alan L. Karras (Department of International and Area Studies, University of California, Berkeley)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2004)
This is by all accounts a complicated book. More importantly it is part of an ongoing and equally complicated project. Soon after the book appeared in 1997, reviewers explored its arguments and put them in both the context of Macfarlane's own oeuvre and the scholarly fields to which this particular project spoke. Were Alan Macfarlane like most scholars, he would have moved on to the next project and left the rest of us to grapple with the work as it stood. Rather, he continued to wrestle with the problems that he raised in this book in at least three other distinct works. But as if that were not enough, he reissued Savage Wars of Peace in 2003, this time with an epilogue oddly placed in the beginning. With this chapter, Macfarlane locates his work in a new context, even as he critiques several newer books that provided that context. The epilogue is at once fascinating, as it shows the author going back to his project and tinkering with its context, and galling, as it allows the author a free voice to criticize others whose work has advanced the field beyond where it was when Macfarlane produced this book. There is also a website where Macfarlane chronicles the making of the book--and discusses its aftermath. Even if its subject were not "big history," all of this information might lead to the conclusion that this is an extremely "big" work--one with which all of us ought to familiarize ourselves immediately. But is it really?
The answer, it seems to me, is "it depends." For many British historians, whose concerns are traditionally with mainland Britain, its culture, politics, and economics, Savage Wars of Peace will not prove mandatory reading. But for many other British historians, especially those with an interest in empire, there is much to recommend this book. Political economists, too, will be well served by tackling Macfarlane's analysis and arguments here. The reason for this assertion is that Savage Wars of Peace is a work of comparative history that has, at its core, a set of world history questions.
The question that drives the book forward is best expressed in the epilogue. Savage Wars of Peace "seeks to explain, in some detail, how the two islands of England and Japan broke out of the normal tendency whereby rising population absorbs increased resources and then overshoots to create a crisis through the intersection of war, famine, and disease" (p. xxiii). This is the Malthusian trap that appears in the title. At once, Macfarlane asserts that there is something about the geographic islands of England and Japan, including of course their cultures and demographics, which allowed them to not fall victim to Thomas Malthus's most dire predictions. The validity of Parson Malthus's argument remains alive even today; searching for Malthus on Google will bring up a host of pro- and anti-Malthus websites, demonstrating the debate continues with some vociferousness. All of these sites, in one form or another, deal either with the problem that Malthus described and that Macfarlane analyzed in this book or with Malthus's dramatic and drastic solutions to the problem. Those solutions need not concern us here, as they did not concern Macfarlane.
Macfarlane implies that by comparing the two islands, England and Japan, he can solve the riddle. But this is misleading. In the final analysis, the author really does not provide a single answer to the question of how England and Japan escaped from a Malthusian crisis. Rather, he posits a series of linkages--what he refers to as "causal chains"--that connect events and outcomes in both places, whether deliberately or accidentally (pp. 378-385). The argument makes much more sense when we read that "people often do the right thing for the wrong reason, or rather, do a thing for one reason and then find that it has other effects" (p. 386). It is not quite chance, as this quotation might imply, but a series of choices that each island's residents made at various points that had unintended results that led to more decisions with more results, both intended and unintended. What bound England and Japan together for Macfarlane was the fact that these choices and consequences happened on islands. A world historian might be interested in exploring this phenomenon more carefully by studying the ways in which island cultures evolve and interact with other cultures, especially those on their frontiers. Islands, as islands, are not really the focus here. Japan and England are the focus, and the fact that they are island cultures is not specifically explored. Why England and not, for example, Jamaica or Barbados? Or Madagascar or Batavia for that matter? Perhaps most importantly, where are Scotland and Ireland? How does what is going on in those places change the book's argument? Scotland is, after all, part of the same landmass as England but certainly a separate entity even though tied politically.
But Macfarlane is not a world historian and this work is clearly comparative, despite its big arguments and analysis. To address what he sees as the peculiarities of England and Japan, at least with regard to their demographic histories, he analyzes four sections. Each of them addresses one part of the population problem. "In the Body" (food, drink, and the disposal and uses of excrement) has three chapters that look at human food and drink consumption, the diseases that spread through this consumption, and the ways in which human excrement was utilized. "On the Body" (disease, housing, clothing, hygiene) considers the ways in which people lived and how, for example, wearing one kind of cloth had advantages over wearing another. "In the Air" (air-borne disease) looks at smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. Finally, "In the Womb" explores attitudes towards sex, reproduction, birth control, abortion, and infanticide. Each section is divided into brief chapters and each chapter is divided into a section on Japan and a section on England. The comparisons, and more frequently the contrasts, between England and Japan are made at this level. Beyond this organizational structure, there is no overarching argument running throughout the book. In other words, it is a series of specific compare-and-contrast articles, cleverly grouped into sections.
Each section is designed to show how that particular area might have contributed to either England's or Japan's rising population without Malthusian side effects. As a result, each section deals with a broad chronological period. Readers will therefore need to piece together a full picture of what was going on in any given year in any particular place. The topical organization works well on one level, but it obscures a more direct chronological comparison.
Nor does the book give us a clear comparative sense of just how England differed from other countries, inside the United Kingdom, inside Europe, or across the Americas. Similarly, the book fails to locate Japan in an Asian context. The new epilogue does a bit of that, but it seems inadequate to the kind of grand argument that Macfarlane intends readers to glean. If indeed England and Japan are exceptional to the rules laid out by Malthus, based on the Parson's own reading of history, then readers need to see that argued. At the very least, England needed to be set into an Atlantic context and Japan into, as a minimum, an East Asian context. The comparison again needs to be contextualized a bit differently in order for it to be of more use.
Though Macfarlane uses Malthus's Essay on Population (1798) as the main jumping-off point, we do not see many of Malthus's own words here. Similarly, this is clearly a work of synthesis--as there are a great number of authors cited but few of them were from the time and place being discussed. I wonder whether or not Japanese observers of Japan might have a different reading of a situation than the European observers who are favored here. As we would expect, the book is much better about using English observations about England. But, for comparison's sake, it might have been useful to have considered the observations of foreign travelers to England--as a way of balancing some of the Eurocentrism that is inevitable in a project of this nature. And again--and this is essential--readers require a direct statement of what Macfarlane intended to do with the non-English British. Where exactly do they fit? England is not, geographically speaking, an island and this absolutely needs to be explicitly and systematically addressed.
It seems to me that governing all of this is a very specific question from world history. That question is, "Why Europe?" Of all the regions in the world in 1500, why is it that Europe is able to take on the leading role that it does? Macfarlane recognizes this implicit question and has explicitly worked on it since the original publication of Savage Wars of Peace.
Still more specifically, why does Britain (as opposed to England: they are politically and socially different, especially after 1707) play the part that it does in the rise of the modern world? One reason relates to demographics, disease, population, and geography. And in this Macfarlane goes some way to putting the English part of Britain into the world historical picture. The comparisons with Japan serve mainly to highlight the differences between the two countries. Nevertheless, the comparisons also suggest ways in which the historical development of England and Japan can explain the growing problem of underdevelopment in so many of the places with which England and, after 1900, Japan had control. It would be useful for many more scholars of Britain to begin to approach the problem of the British Empire in a more global context. Macfarlane has, at least, shown us the way forward.
. Alan Macfarlane, The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth and Equality (New York, Palgrave, 2000); The Making of the Modern World: Visions from West and East (New York: Palgrave, 2002); and Alan and Iris Macfarlane, Green Gold: the Empire of Tea (London: Ebury, 2003).
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Alan L. Karras. Review of Macfarlane, Alan, The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap.
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