Europa

"Europa: How Europe Shaped the Modern World," By Julio Crespo MacLennan.

EUROPA: How Europe Shaped the Modern World. By Julio Crespo MacLennan. Pegasus Books. 447 pages. $27.95.

In a turbulent era when decades old Western alliances are being questioned, reshuffled and even abandoned, a book like Julian MacLennan’s can be useful. Its goal is to provide the continent of Europe with a “grand narrative,” something that has been lacking, he claims, and that will deepen our understanding of how the people of the region — via exploration, colonization and both technological and intellectual innovation — have played a major role in the creation of the world as we know it.

It is a stupendously ambitious undertaking. Perhaps too ambitious. How do you adequately trace the activities and attendant influence of Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, France and Russia, the countries who acquired significant empires between the 15th and 20th centuries, in just 447 pages? With some difficulty. “Europa” is an uneven book, one that could have benefited from more rigorous editing and perhaps a change in emphases.

MacLennan cites many reasons for the rise of European hegemony during the period, but the basic construction of his story hangs on some major points that bear considering.

The Renaissance, which introduced the concepts of a market economy and the nation-state, also established the importance of a knowledge-based society and initiated an explosion of new ideas and inventions. The European countries initially affected were those with strong maritime traditions and an abundance of ports. In the late 1400s, Spain and Portugal, after advances in ship construction and the development of the magnetic compass, reached beyond their traditional coastal domain to sail west in search of riches and new trade routes. MacLennan dates the beginning of European ascendancy to Columbus’ first voyage in 1492.

Over the next five centuries, other countries followed suit, tapping the natural resources of lands east and west, and populating them with their own people who longed for freedom, opportunity or adventure.

The peak of Europe’s power, MacLennan claims, was 1815-1914. England led the way. By the late 19th century, it had built the largest empire in history, one that endured until the disastrous world wars of the 20th century, after which native populations began to assert themselves. The author maintains that the polar explorations of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton were the “last episodes in the history of great geographic expeditions” and that the establishment of the state of Israel was the “last stage in the history of European expansion throughout the world.”

He then brings us into the 21st century with a long description of the European Union: its composition, how it was formed and how it’s future looks at the moment.

MacLennan appears to view European dominance as a good thing, despite some reservations. While promising that he will address the “exploitation, humiliation, suffering and injustice” that Europe inflicted on colonized peoples and places, these seem to be minor themes until he embarks on a discussion of the 1904 Casement Report, which shocked the world with its exposure of the enslavement, mutilation and torture of Africans in the Belgian Congo. These sorts of things were not uncommon during the colonial period, but details about them in “Europa” are thin. The Dutch, he writes, could be particularly brutal. And, when describing the exploits of the mighty Cortes, he offers little that's critical beyond a remark that the explorer could be “cruel, bloodthirsty and covetous.”

Perhaps because of his background in Iberian studies, MacLennan seems to have a slight prejudice towards that region and its colonial history. For instance, in a rather incoherent paragraph, he allows that while Latin American nations were born under the influence of “one of the most advanced constitutions in the nineteenth century, the Spanish constitution of 1812,” their experience with democracy regularly included “dictatorships, despotic regimes and exclusive oligarchies.” On the other hand, he continues, interpretations about why North America produced a stable democracy have been influenced by “simplistic theories, stereotypes or myths about the Anglo-Saxon people’s inherent capacity to create democratic and stable societies,” a remark that itself seems to be the product of thinking based on stereotypes.

Perhaps a more jarring problem is MacLennan’s often awkward prose. Words can be unnecessarily repeated, and all too frequently he resorts to the annoying phrase, “was going to be” as an introduction to generalizations about upcoming, often sweeping, events and trends. These passages alternate with more incisive and smoothly written sections, making the reader wonder how such asymmetry escaped both the editors and the author himself.

Despite its flaws, “Europa” succeeds as a powerful reminder of the part Europeans played in the spread of democracy and the rule of law, as well as advances in science, agriculture, communication, medicine and transport. Directly or indirectly, these developments have benefited each and every one of us.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.