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Special Section: An Interview with Dr. Stewart Gordon, historian of long distance trade and related themes in world history

Interview by John Maunu, World History Connected's Digital Resources Editor


Stewart Gordon is an independent research scholar based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His books include When Asia was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the Riches of the East (Da Capo Press, 2007), Shackles of Iron: Slavery Beyond the Atlantic (Hackett, 2016), and A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks (University Press of New England, 2015). Forthcoming in 2018 are There and Back: Twelve of the Great Routes of Human History (Oxford University Press) and A History of the World in Seven Themes (Oxford University Press). He can be reached at or through his website

The following is an edited version of two interviews in the fall of 2017 with Dr. Stewart Gordon at his home in Ann Arbor. The interviewer is John Maunu, World History Connected's Digital Resources Editor from nearby Pinckney, Michigan.

Maunu: When did you begin writing World History?

Gordon: Like most World historians of my generation I was trained in history and language in an Area Studies PhD program (University of Michigan). Early in my career I undertook detailed archival work on the Marathas, a late pre-colonial empire in India. As much as I tried to circumscribe my writing to a region of India the interesting questions kept taking me beyond boundaries. I wanted to know about long-distance trade, trans-regional military recruiting, pilgrimage, broad Asian influences on rituals and governance. Fortunately, I was able to pursue these interests without the restrictions of department or tenure. I am a trained fine furniture restorer and, in my twenties, chose to leave the university. I opened a restoration shop. I laid gold leaf during the day and wrote at night.

Maunu: Did aspects of handling antiques and artwork influence your move toward World History?

Gordon: I think that handling antiques daily sensitized me to the material aspects of life more than reading a book on materiality ever could. How was the piece used? Why was it worn in a particular way? What materials made it possible or desirable? Could I duplicate a finish? These sorts of questions lead me into the chemistry of varnishes and adhesives. It also led me into an appreciation of archaeologists, whose scientific tests, thinking and speculations have infused my recent writing.

Maunu: How have your views on World History changed since those early years?

Gordon: It dawned on me, and many other historians, just how much history has been (and is) the handmaid of the nation/state. Historians often pursued only topics that reinforced the agreed-upon national narrative. At a critical juncture I accepted that my belief in the commonalities of human experience trumped national historical narratives, just as it trumped assumed essential differences underlying identity histories. Around this time, for example, I did two books and several articles on the trans-Asian pre-colonial kingly practice of ceremonial robing, an essential marker for entering honorable service even if king and soldier shared no common language, religion or origin.

Maunu: I have noticed that your more recent books seem to shift scale frequently, moving from the biography of an actual historical figure to a broad, trans-regional or deep historical perspective.

Gordon: Yes, in both "When Asia was the World" and "A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks" the movement from the big-scale to the small scale and back again is very much a conscious choice. It's partly practical. Our audience of students or readers likes to hear stories of real historical figures, especially if they are based on a memoir that gives a voice to a person from the past. Part of the historian's task is to place these stories in context, whether economic, social, military or religious. This struggle for context often entails leaps in scale or timeframe. I believe that teaching the ability to shift scales and timeframes is one of the most important and useful skills that a historian can convey.

Maunu: What is your current project?

Gordon: It's a radically different new teaching vehicle for introductory World History in high school, community college and undergrad. Oxford University Press a couple of years ago recruited me to write a World History teaching book that, like my recent writing, would be narrative and thematic. They agreed to let me choose the themes and the narratives. They also wanted the voice of a single author and relatively short volumes (250 pages in each of two volumes). They signaled their willingness to give up "coverage" for student engagement. I embraced the whole package and agreed to undertake this big project. The text is completed and the book should be out next year.

Maunu: Can you reveal some of the details.

Gordon: Sure. The overall structure of the book is seven themes, the same themes mirrored in the pre-1500 volume and the post-1500 volume. Each theme has its own chapter. An actual historical figure personally deeply affected by the theme serves as our "guide". I am careful to avoid going beyond the memoir the guide wrote and material from the period and place.

Maunu: Can you summarize a couple of the chapters?

Gordon: Well, I can try to give the flavor of one set of chapters. Chapter 3 in Volume 1 is entitled Plants on the Move. It begins with various causes for different versions of the same wild plant thousands of miles apart. Many of these "isolates", as they are known, were the result of the breakup of the super-continent of Pangaea. Much, much later plants moved out of Africa with the first human migrations. The chapter challenges the common assumption that primitive people could barely feed their families. Quite to the contrary current scientific research suggests that primitive people actually found enough to eat and were constantly experimenting with plants as foods. Throughout, our guide is Pliny, a Roman noble, whose massive compendium of natural history shows a thorough understanding of, for example, differences between wild plants and domesticated plants of the same type. The book often discusses the origins of plants and when they appeared in Rome. The chapter then moves to the origins of many domesticated plants (including the critical foods rice, corn and wheat). The Neolithic Revolution with a "toolkit" of innovation seems less and less likely. Rather, it seems that many, many groups domesticated plants and, over long periods, selected for desirable traits.

     The parallel chapter in the 1500 – present volume covers European colonial plant discovery, development, and exploitation, beginning with the Columbian Exchange. By the early seventeenth century European governments began funding herbaria and specimen gardens, such as Kew in England. Similar gardens sprang up in Italy, France, the Netherlands, and several German kingdoms. The chapter notes that that the wealth-producing plants of the New World were not, for centuries, food. Rather, they were what we would today term drugs – opium, tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar. Our guide is Frank Meyer who was a plant explorer for the US Department of Agriculture in the second decade of the twentieth century. He was well aware that the national government had always sought useful plants, going back to Washington's instructions for explorers and Jefferson's instructions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Frank Meyer wrote hundreds of great letters and took over 10,000 glass plate photos of the interior of China. Today, pharmaceutical companies seek rights to explore from the Amazon to Southeast Asia and are often accused of looting by the locals.

Maunu: Are there any other things important for the readers to know about the book?

Gordon: Some of the other broad themes, which every society in every historic period had to deal with, include "Love, Sex, and Gender", "Slavery", "Technology", and how to generate loyalty. All of these themes, and others, have a chapter in Volume 1 and a matched chapter in Volume 2. Also, the book will have something termed "Curiosity Cues", which are a means for students to do real research on a subject of interest. Also, there will be considerable material for teachers, including a simulated society game, which I am writing, to enrich each chapter. The sample, the Gupta Game, is clearer than any short description

Maunu: Since you gave up your restoration shop some years ago and now write full time, do you miss the hands-on engagement with wood and antiques?

Gordon: Actually, I work with wood almost every day. Mornings, I write but I cannot spend the whole day at my desk. At home I have a working bench and several hundred hand tools. I plan and fabricate, paint and engineer folk art automatons, which consist of a scene (skaters on a frozen pond, a circus, fishermen in a river) and the wooden gears and drive shafts that animate the scene. You turn a small handle and the whole scene comes to life. I do these automatons for my own pleasure, but they have now found an audience and two galleries represent and sell them. Some pictures and movies of them are on my website

Maunu: Where do you see World History headed and what problems do you see?

Since I do not teach on a day-to-day basis I cannot speak to generally declining enrollments in the humanities or the lack of World History courses beyond the Introductory level. What I see among students I encounter is a lack of engagement with the past. We, as historians and teachers, must convince students that a history course is not just a tedious requirement to be gotten through. but instead is an exciting, vibrant way to understand the world that is intensely relevant to their lives.

We also need to convey to them that historical research is a struggle to ask the right questions about the past and that engagement with the remains of the past is necessary to understand their effects on the present and on opportunities for the future. Moreover, historical research yields a deep joy of understanding something that no one before has. This core excitement is certainly what keeps me writing and publishing.


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