“The Silk Roads”

Peter Frankopan

Just like my last book review, I’ve got two thoughts; apparently it’s always two things with me. This time, it was two things that I actually did learn about in history class that this book helped me understand better than the classes ever did.

First, the American Revolution. As the output of the American education system, I’m well aware that it, basically, got started because Britain raised taxes on the colonies in what would become the US, and we all got mad about it.1 What this book pointed out is why Britain increased taxes — because, of course, they had to know it wouldn’t be popular, so it wouldn’t have been just for funsies, there had to be a reason. The reason, it turns out, was that they had just bailed out the British East India Company, and big bailouts require funding. Why did they bail out the British East India Company? Because the BEIC’s revenues from India had suddenly collapsed! Why did those revenues suddenly collapse? To summarize, because the company realized that, thanks to the magic of colonialism, the could just… not pay a living wage! To anyone! And so they didn’t. And then millions of people starved. (To those following along at home, the moral of the story is that you should pay people a living wage. And also, y’know, not do coercive labor practices in any way, shape, or form.)

Secondly, and let’s just go ahead and say right now that it’s not gonna get lighter in tone, was World War II. I very specifically remember thinking, in not only high school but also college-level history classes, “how did Hitler think invading Russia was going to go well, it’s like the canonical way to end a European empire.” It was never really explained, the best I ever got was mumbling about his egomaniacal tendencies and the need for “Lebensraum.” Which, to be fair, were factors. But this book did a lot better a job explaining a key thing: crops. The goal wasn’t to invade Russia, it was to take Ukraine—the bread basket of the USSR. And the issue wasn’t egonomanicism or greed, it was that Germany didn’t have enough food. Also on the list of things that can cause massive starvation: declaring war on everyone, dumping your entire economy into war matériel, and conscripting every farm worker with a Y chromosome. Plants may generally be able to grow themselves, but they don’t harvest themselves.

The book had a whole lot of other interesting stuff. I knew (and, let’s be real, still know) very little about Asian history, so a whole heck of a lot of this was new to me. The bits above are what I called out because they were revelatory moments about things I already knew about. A different form of learning to “this is brand new information” types of things. I found the book quite approachable, and the chapters were broken up fairly well—not tiny chunks, each one is still gonna take some time to get through, but reasonable enough. The naming pattern definitely got stretched thin after a while, but that’s probably less of an issue if you’re reading a print copy instead of the ebook where the chapter title is always visible at the top of the screen.

All in all, a good read, and I recommend it, Check it out!2

  1. “No taxation without representation” does point out that the lack of representation was also a key issue, but it’s not as relevant to my realization here.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.