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Lockdown Reading: Trevor Burnard on Big Books, Globalisation and Pandemics in History

Published: 15 June 2020 - Trevor Burnard

In early May GHCC director Anne Gerritsen wrote to the extended GHCC community to survey their experiences of the global pandemic. In this fifth instalment of the GHCC pandemic mini-series, Professor Trevor Burnard, formerly Warwick History's head of department and currently Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, shares how he experienced the past few months and the insights concerning history and globalisation he obtained from his lockdown reading.

Life under Lockdown

I am personally pretty comfortable, which makes it all the more clear just how different the experiences of everyone is in this crisis, and how the poor are affected much worse than the rich (I don’t see myself as rich but in global or even in national terms I am at least in the more privileged part of society). For an academic, at least without children to home school or parents to worry about, this is like a bit of extended study leave and when I do work I am finding Zoom a pretty good experience. It makes me wonder about the manic travel most of us do (or did) most of the time – perhaps we can stop that now, for the good of ourselves and the planet. I quip that this experience is preparing me for old age: pottering about the house all day until the highlight of the day – a walk to the shops!! Then listen to boring news with my wife yelling at politicians she disagrees with and me falling asleep in front of mindless comedies on Netflix or Sky. Getting Sky, which I said I would not do on moral grounds, shows how little moral gumption I have! Then earliesh to bed and repeat, seemingly endlessly.

The only big personal worry we have is that we cannot see our children in Australia and my mother in New Zealand – and won’t be able to for some time and then probably at great expense. And I worry a lot about my 22-year-old daughter and what this crisis means for her and for her generation. I transition, sometimes in the same sentence, between thinking that we have to keep the lockdown going until everyone’s health is safe to thinking we have to open up immediately unless the future of our children is forever blighted, just as my grandparents’ lives were in the 1930s. One thing that really irritates me is how views on the lockdown have polarised, like everything nowadays, so that if you want a lockdown eased you are some sort of crazed right-winger rather than someone really concerned about how poor people will cope if the economy collapses.

Pandemics in History

In terms of wider thoughts: I lament that so much stress is placed on individual leadership in this crisis when it seems to me now, and even more in the past, we need to recognise that there are often bigger forces than individuals in shaping history. Microbes have had a much bigger influence on the history of the New World, especially in the Caribbean, which I know best, than leaders. And I think about how recently it has been – really since William McNeill’s work on Plagues and Peoples – in the 1970s that we have thought about the impact of pandemics on such things as the growth of slavery and the conquest of the Americas.

One thing you can do in this pandemic is read big books. Pandemics are often ignored. I read Volker Ullrich’s great two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler in which he turned somehow magically from insignificant loser and loner with a few odd ideas to the evil political genius and criminal mastermind, all in the year 1919. That was the year of the Spanish Flu but Ullrich never mentions this in two big books! I have also read Jonathan Sumption’s magnificent four-volume (so far) history of the Hundred Years War. Lots of stuff on monarch and war but virtually nothing on the Black Death which raged throughout much of that conflict between France and Britain. And I read Mark Peterson’s extraordinarily good history of Boston as a city-state. He dwells on all sorts of things connected to Boston but, like most historians, hardly deals with small pox outbreaks in the 1720s and the 1760s – the latter of which had a big effect on the coming of the American Revolution. I also read, like everyone else, Hilary Mantel’s latest (spoiler: Thomas Cromwell gets in it the end) and while she mentions plague a bit, it is a minor player in a history about great women and male psychopaths. Perhaps we might think more about histories in the Annaliste mode, which are about non-human forces, like microbes and viruses, as shapers of history, more than the role of individuals as being somehow the shapers of history.

COVID and Globalisation

The last few years have really shaken my views of historical progress. I realise that I, wrongly, thought of globalisation in a largely Whig way. It wasn’t always a smooth or moral process (the Atlantic slave trade was a very global event but not a very good one) but generally was leading to better things and was, more importantly, irrevocable or that most bad word for an historian, 'inevitable.’ The decline of democracy and the rise of the strong man and autocrat in so-called democracies in the last few years and the rise of nativist populism shows that this naïve belief that the world has always been global and will become more global is not a belief shared by everyone, or indeed most people.

The other book I am reading during Covid is Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, with lots of the book set around Coventry, in which he dissects, very wittily, the views of Britons about being global peoples in the lead-up to Brexit. It seems like a study of Britain from a distant past, not the past decade, as so much has changed in the last two months. But what has struck me in this crisis is just how powerful the nation state remains and, when crisis strikes, how little we really believe in globalisation. The disease is global but the responses are national with global cooperation in very short supply. It suggests to me that histories of globalisation coming out in the next decade will take a very different, and less enthusiastic, approach to globalisation than I realise was the case for people brought up in the Blair/Clinton/Davos years of globalisation as the inevitable future, aka Francis Fukuyama.

I wait for a book from Fukuyama on the immediate future so I can understand how the future that will happen will be very different from the one he predicts: it is amazing how unerringly wrong as a commentator he, and most people pronouncing on where we are going, are. One of the odd things of this crisis is reading articles in magazines and journals about the immediate and long-term future written before Covid and realising how irrelevant these diagnoses are. It makes you feel good about being an historian – at least we sometimes get the past right while others speculate badly on the future.

Professor Trevor Burnard is Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and the author, most recently, of The Atlantic in World History, 1490-1830 (Bloomsbury: 2019).