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Nonfiction Matters
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As the World Turns

Why It is Such a Great Time to Study History

The research I am doing for a number of completely different projects keeps bringing me back to the same point: America History as we have taught it, written it, read it has been distorted by being so relentlessly Atlantic in its orientation. We view our past as East-West — boats from Europe and Africa coming here, trade from here going back there. Recently some historians have started to argue for North-South — looking at the connections between Anglo-French North America and Hispanic South America. But I keep being smacked on the head by how much of our history was actually West-East — oriented towards the Pacific. The great news is that once you start to look at things that way, there are discoveries to be made literally every day. 

I say this is a great time for studying history because the shift in orientation I am experiencing is available to kids — it does not depend on sitting in archives and doing sophisticated scholarship. Rather this is just a matter of looking at what is in our most standard histories and realizing what is lurking there to be found. Take, for example, Drake’s famous voyage to what is now San Francisco. As we tell it, this adds another point to the map of North America, establishes a claim for England, and a terminus for the map of Virginia (since no one knew how large the continent was, Virginia reasonably enough said we begin at one point we know, Jamestown, and end at the other, Drake’s Bay). But in fact Drake went to that coast to trawl around for Spanish ships to capture — ships carrying Bolivian silver to Manila. In other words, he went there because he knew of the wealth of the Asian trade. Similarly, when John Jacob Astor set up a fur trading company in what is now Oregon, he was not thinking off adding a West Coast to North America (that old East-West idea) but of getting furs to ship to China to make a fortune in the — guess what — Asia trade.

I could go on like this, and in my next post I’ll talk about the newest flip I’ve run across — this in the sources of the Monroe Doctrine. But I urge all of you who are teachers, librarians, parents — who sit with kids as they explore American history — to try out this thought experiment: where is Asia in the story of America as I am telling it? Are you assuming that Asia is not really important until, when, the clipper ships race off to buy tea?, Perry steams into Japan?, the Chinese arrive to work on the railroad? Is that assumption correct? Put that question, that doubt into your mind, and the world — the real round world in which our past was lived — opens up. I’ll leave you with this teaser: there is nothing more "Atlantic" than the Triangle Trade — that staple of our textbooks — ships sailing from Europe to Africa to the Caribbean to North America and back. Well guess what — 40% of the goods in the holds of those ships sailing out from Europe were….fabrics from India. The triangle was a rectangle, starting in Asia. In fact, it was actually a sphere, but that takes a bit more explaining, which I’ll do in one of my Consider the Source columns.