Charlene's Reviews > The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, history, war, true-crime, politics, non-fiction-inequality, economics

I LOVED this book. If you are extremely well versed in history, then, to you, it might not read like the "new history of the world," the book promises. Since I am only a moderate reader of history, there was plenty of new information for me in this book. Usually, the history that interests me most involves great scientists or inventors or the kings, queens, and other rulers of the world from the distant past. When trying to read about more recent events, such as the Revolutionary war, WWI or WWII, my eyes glaze over and my mind begins to wander. Surprisingly, when this book chronicled the Revolutionary War, WWI and WWII, I was completely addicted to every page. Prior to reading this book, if you asked me how the Revolutionary War began, I surely would not have told you that the unethical actions of some dude named Robert Clive (so good!) was a key motivator for the people living in America to fight for the right to be their own country. If anyone had asked me about the Holocaust, I would not have known that it really started in the wheat fields of Russia. Every time Frankopan relayed a well-told history, I would start to feel as if I had heard it before (who hasn't heard of Alexander the Great, Queen Isabella, Hitler, or the many other rulers who have shaped our world) Frankopan would introduce me to people I had never heard about in any classroom or book (Do you know the story of how Yale thieved his way to the good life and to having an ivy named after him?).

At first this book seemed like a standard history. Beginning as far back as history records, Frankopan took his reader on a sweeping and marvelous journey through time, witnessing the conquering and colonization of our globe. At it's core, this book has one central question, "What travels up and down the arteries and veins (waterways) of the earth?" You might think the answer is, "Material goods travel from one place to another via the Silk Road." The answer is so much better than that. What really traverses the veins and arteries of Earth is power -- who can sell the most goods, make the most money, conquer the most land, steal the most from the citizens of every land, and so on.

As he told each history, he absolutely excelled at making the reader wonder, 'What would *I* have done if I had been the ruler of that country at the time?' It's so easy to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking and pass judgement on what various leaders did wrong. I personally despise Reagan because of the racists ideologies to which he subscribed and continually perpetuated. It is easy, no matter which leaders you idolize or despise, to engage in black and white (wrong and right) thinking. It's much harder to stop and ask yourself, "If I were Reagan, what would I have done?" While I know perfectly well that I would never have made it my mission to promote the idea of the black welfare queen, driving around in her Cadillac (on her way to meet her next dude who will impregnate her with yet another baby tax dollars will have to pay for), I don't know what I would have done about funding Saddam and his army. Sure, the Iran-Contra affair was pretty bad. As a liberal, I see it as particularly horrible. And yet, what would I have done if I were Reagan. I found myself stunned at my own inability to take the best action to keep our country safe. If Reagan refused to fund Saddam, he risked Saddam turning to other countries who would have been more than happy to fund him and form an alliance against the U.S.. I don't condone Reagan's actions. Further, I support any efforts that ensured transparency and brought him to task in front of the American people; and still, I find it almost impossible to figure out what *I* would have done in Reagan's place. This happened so often throughout the book, with so many different leaders of different countries and companies, that I found myself in a state of constant moral crisis. When a book puts me in such a conflicted state, for such a long time period, I find that extremely rewarding. My dopamine neurons were going crazy, making me completely addicted to every page of this book. Every day, I had to put myself in the place of someone else, a powerful leader, and try to imagine what I would have done differently.

There were so many great stories about how humans (usually those with the most power) used the Silk Road to destroy enemies, that it is hard to pick only a few to highlight in this review. Here are some of, what I found to be, the most enjoyable stories in this book:


All three of these stories involve the East India company. No matter how much I read about the EIC, the info I discover never fails to amaze me.

1) The East India Company drugged its way to power. Talk about roofying whole masses of people to get what you want! The EIC started out as a company of merchants who sold goods from one continent to another. However, when they began dealing drugs, they rose to become an occupying power. Their transition into drug dealers was seamless and is what allowed them transition from every day merchant to a major ruling force in the world.

China specialized in trading silk, porcelain, and, above all, tea, making them a powerful world leader. The EIC was able to get its foot in the door by trading goods, but when the peoples of India grew opium and the EIC traded it, a major shift in power occurred. The EIC funneled in opium for the Chinese people to get hooked on, while funneling out all the material goods. As the Chinese people became more and more addicted to opium, the European people became more and more addicted to material goods. All of this added up to great wealth and power for the EIC and the European Country that owned it.


2) Prior to when Yale (who would eventually be the main benefactor of Yale University in Connecticut) served in the Navy, most of the positions in a company were assigned to people who were born to good families. Yale was an average person who started out in a lowly position in the Navy. Through this new power structure, which allowed anyone to move up if they worked hard and had seniority, Yale was able to move up in ranks and hold a high position in the EIC. Fortuitously, he was station in Madras. All the goods that were shipped up and down the waterways in a large area around Madras had to go through Madras to be "taxed". For Yale, "taxing" meant helping himself to whatever the hell he wanted. Because of the diamonds and spices Yale stole from the local merchants, he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. His crimes didn't go unnoticed. But, rather than being punished, he was simply asked to leave, and leave he did! He took all that stolen "new money" with him and spent it on the finest life had to offer. When Yale was older, he made a very large donation to the Connecticut School. Hoping for more donations of that kind, the renamed themselves Yale.

3) No one from the original Tea Party would ever vote for Trump. How do I know? Trump is too much like Robert Clive of the EIC, and the Tea Party was *formed in response* to an absolute hatred for Robert Clive.

Robert Clive was hired to look out for the interests of the shareholders in the EIC, and look out for their interests he did! Robert Clive was stationed at a tax port along the trade routes. (It was shocking to me to see how wealthy a few individuals became because they were at the right place at the right time.) Clive made it his mission to redistribute wealth, what is equivalent to tens of billions of today's dollars, from the locals to the pockets of the few elite shareholders in the EIC. The locals were already poor and found daily living a struggle. Clive's redistribution hit the locals even harder. As he lined the pockets of himself and the other shareholders, the locals starved to death around him. A full 1/3 of the population starved to death as the rich got markedly richer. There was a huge outcry. Articles strewn the paper, shaming Clive for his misdeeds. The people chastised him for allowing millions to starve to death while he and a chosen few enjoyed enormous wealth. When confronted, Clive took a "Who Me?" approach, stating that he was hired to look out for the shareholders, not the poor-- as if that would make it ok to knowingly line his pockets with the very money the locals needed to survive.

The mass starvation had an extremely negative impact on the success of the very company from which Clive was making his living. It's sort of hard to have workers to do work when you let them all die. The loss of manpower resulted in bankruptcy for the EIC. What was a company to do? Easy, get a bailout! Where could they find the money for a bailout? That was a little more difficult. They pick pocketed the local Indian people into absolute devastation. So, they couldn't raise taxes on them. The people in England were already livid. It was decided they would raise the taxes on the colonist in America, who were already paying a higher tax rate. The colonists, then English subjects, said fuck that! And thus, the Tea Party was born.

The Tea Party blocked passage of ships, stating that they refused to pay even more tax to a country that raped and pillaged everything they could from the people of India. The colonists felt certain EIC would do the same to them as they did to the people in India. With fury, when a few ships made it into the Boston Harbor, the Tea Partiers sunk the ship, saying they would rather see the tea at the bottom of the ocean than pay for the misdeeds of Clive and his fellow thieves.

According to Frankopan, The powerful elite had "spread their tentacles" as far as they could, taking every resource they could. The colonists cut those greedy tentacles right off; and in doing so, America was born.

I want to write about how a man named D'arcy struck oil and changed the way we fought wars and, in turn, changed the face of the world. But, this review is long enough already. I highly recommend you read it for yourself.
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Reading Progress

March 9, 2017 – Started Reading
March 9, 2017 – Shelved
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: favorites
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: history
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: war
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: true-crime
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: politics
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction-inequality
March 27, 2017 – Shelved as: economics
March 27, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Mengsen (new) - added it

Mengsen Zhang waiting for review!


message 2: by Gary (new)

Gary  Beauregard Bottomley Sounds like a very powerful book with an inclusive world view take to partly explain how history really works. Good detailed review.


Fred Schultz Great review! I also enjoyed the book a great deal. It was mostly review for me, so I gave it 4-stars, but I agree with everything you said here.


Charlene Fred wrote: "Great review! I also enjoyed the book a great deal. It was mostly review for me, so I gave it 4-stars, but I agree with everything you said here."

Thanks. I could easily see someone who is more versed in history giving this 4 stars.


Charlene Gary wrote: "Sounds like a very powerful book with an inclusive world view take to partly explain how history really works. Good detailed review."

He really did a great job of not making things black or white. I had to live in constant ambiguity and had to rethink a lot of naive assumptions I had subscribed to for a long time. So that was really fun.


Jonna Higgins-Freese Charlene, have you read _1493_? Of course, _1491_ is also great, but I had already suspected that probably the existing cultures in the Americas were more complex that we had allowed ourselves to believe. But _1493_ goes into the trade routes that resulted from the Columbian exchange in a way that you might really enjoy. I was particularly fascinated by the trade in silver from South America to China, of which I had been unaware -- which was so massive that it destabilized global financial markets for over a hundred years.


Charlene I read 1491 and didn't seem to love it as much as other people did. Since I disliked 91, I had written off 1493. I didn't know 93 was more about the trade routes. It seems more appealing now. Thanks


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