If you look hard enough all history eventually becomes geography


Black & blue: 2016 electoral results in Alabama. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)


Here’s a curious angle on today’s glorious electoral upset in Alabama, courtesy of Quartz:

Black voters typically support the Democratic party, which is popular in Alabama’s middle districts. That vote shows up in electoral maps as a stripe running straight through the GOP stronghold: The black belt.

Contrary to myth, the “black belt” does not refer to the large African American population living in the area—or at least it didn’t originally.

“Black belt” refers instead to the quality of the soil of the area. Tanks to ancient marine deposits, the soil of that area is rich in nutrients, extremely fertile and, indeed, black. And there is a direct link between the color of the soil and the political leaning, too: Cotton.

As biology professor Allen Gathman shows by overlapping Alabama’s cotton production by county in 1860 (when the production was heaviest in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) with the 2016 presidential election results, the areas with historically strong cotton cultivation, and therefore a historically large population of black laborers in the second half of 1800s correspond to Democratic votes today.

So, you can explain where Democrat support in Alabama is located in the present by looking at the race of voters. In turn, you can explain the racial makeup of the state by looking at the economy (and specifically where cotton production was located) more than a century ago. And that in turn is explained by the nutrient content of the soil.

These kind of geographic/geological factors tend to wind up underlying everything else. Indeed, the very first lecture of my history degree began with this map and the rather startling conjecture that it explains most of global inequality.


The lecturer used it to illustrate Jared Diamond’s argument that:

Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.

Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other.

Technologies such as gunpowder were able to migrate 6,500 thousand miles from China, where they originated, to Western Europe, where they reached their apogee, in a matter of centuries. The wheel, on the other hand, developed in southern Mexico, never even managed the 500-mile journey south to the Andes.

This generally isn’t what we like to focus on when we contemplate history. Individuals and movements are more relatable. However, it pays to be aware of the context in which individuals and movements operate and how powerfully that is shaped by geography.

One thought on “If you look hard enough all history eventually becomes geography

  1. I found this explanation suitable to explain some specific cases, but overall not very convincing. During history there have been several instances in which less developed civilizations originating from areas with unforgiving climate and scarce resources, only marginally touched by the trade routes, managed to subjugate empires with complex societies that had sophisticated technologies available and were richer in resources. Examples include the Arab invasion of the Levant that led in a few years to to the collapse of the Sasanian Empire and the territorial shrinkage of the Byzantine Empire.
    Apart from this, the fact that Eurasia is stretched in an east west direction doesn’t imply that we will encounter the same climates around the same latitudes, so that the diffusion of crops and animals is not so easy nor even as theorized by Diamond. For example, if we consider Northern China and Mongolia, we can easily find that while being more or less at the same latitude, their economies and societies were very different, their armies were very different (one mainly fielded cavalry, the other infantry).
    The astounding and extremely fast development of countries like Russia and Japan during the XIX century, that were able to fill their technological gaps and modernize their societies through a process of reform dictated from above shows that a country even if located in peripherical places, not touched by important trade routes and without access to significant resources can nonetheless become an economic and military power through adequate policy-making.

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