Replenishing The Earth: The Settler Revolution And The Rise Of The Anglo-World, 1783–1939
Oxford University Press, $59.95 hb, 573 pp
It is always a pleasure to sit down with a fat book by New Zealand historian James Belich. He writes with verve and takes a big-picture view of the past, giving you plenty to think about and, better still, much to argue with. Until lately he has been mainly known for his fine-grained histories of New Zealand and its Maori Wars. Now he ascends to the stratosphere for an Olympian survey of white folks pouring in astonishing numbers into the newly accessible regions of Australasia, Africa, Siberia and the Americas during the nineteenth century. From this exalted perspective they look like nothing so much as a great swarm of bees diverging into several different streams in search of new hives. There had been nothing like this concentrated great voluntary migration in the history of mankind.
Musing on why historians have paid so little attention to this unprecedented phenomenon, Belich rightly points out that most accounts of what he calls the Settler Revolution have been parochial, folding the story of European migration into individual national histories rather than considering the worldwide movement as a whole. Thus Americans see the peopling of the West as their unique achievement, spear-headed by one hundred per cent Americans such as Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill, while ignoring the contemporaneous and quite comparable deeds of the Man from Snowy River in Australia, the Voortrekkers of South Africa or the Canadians in their Little Houses on the Prairies. Not to mention Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff in Siberia, the pieds-noirs farmers of French Algeria or the Spanish-speaking gauchos in Argentina.