A very short History of the World


European centred history: the Neanderthal / Early civilisations / Minoans / Mycenaean / Phoenicians / ancient Greeks / Alexander the Great / Carthage / Rome / Byzantine Empire / Charlemagne / Islam / Vikings / Normans / Crusades / The Knights Hospitaller of Saint John / Mongols / Genghis Khan / Ottomans / Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula / Columbus / Black Death / city states in Northern Italy / Hundred year’s war / 16th century / sea trading routes to the Far East / Magellan / Pirates and state sponsored Privateers / Henry VIII / Elizabeth I / Protestantism / Reformation / Counter-Reformation / Spanish Armada / 17th century / Thirty years war / Louis XIV, the Sun King / Netherlands / England / Oliver Cromwell / Scientific Method / 18th century / Prussia, under Frederick the Great / Kingdom of Great Britain / American Revolution / French Revolution / Industrial Revolution / 19th century / Napoleon / British Empire / Russian Empire / American Civil War / 20th century / First World War / World War II / nuclear weapons / Cold War / continuing technological change / global economy.

China / Japan / India / South Eastern Asia / Africa / pre-European America


Our ancestors evolved over millions of years in Africa and for most of this time were just one of a number of cousin species, that began walking upright, and learned to use fire and stone tools. The last major cousin species, the Neanderthal, died out about 35,000 years ago. By this time our ancestors, Homo Sapiens, had spread around the world. They mostly lived in small hunter gather groups, living off the land as they found it, often moving around as they followed herds of animals or used up readily available local resources.

About 10,000 years ago our ancestors learned to cultivate crops, and in some areas including the Middle East, northern India, China, and later and independently in Central America, started to live in ever increasing settled communities. A surplus of food stuffs enabled more sophisticated societies and city states and the emergence of civilisation. Early civilisations included those of Egypt along the Nile, those around modern day Iraq such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, those along the Yellow and Yangtze River in China, and those along the Indus Valley in India. Empires emerged as different peoples fought each other and some become dominant for a while. Early writing emerged about 3,400 BC and the great Egyptian Pyramids were built about 2,500 BC.

Into the second millennium BC significant civilisations included the Minoans centred on the Island of Crete, the demise of which was significantly contributed to by a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera about 1500 BC, which may well be the origin of the tale of Atlantis. A succession of Egyptian civilisations continued throughout the second millennium and much of the first trading with and sometimes in conflict with a succession of civilisations from the middle eastern Mesopotamian region. The Mycenaean, legendary sackers of the city of Troy lived in the late second millennium.

Those we now term the Ancient Greeks emerged as a large number of city states around 700 BC. They and the Phoenicians established many colonies all along the Mediterranean, such as at Syracuse and Marseille (both Greek) and Carthage and Cadiz (both Phoenician).

The 6th century BC was a remarkable period in which a number of major philosophers lived including Pythagoras of Greece, Confucius in China, Buddha in India, and Zoroaster in Persia.

In the 5th century BC the Greeks narrowly survived invasion by the Persians. The two leading city states of Athens and Sparta then sometimes fought each other dragging other city states into their conflict in what is known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The ancient Greeks wrote about many topics and are seen today as being the originators of many scientific and philosophical ideas with key personalities including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

In the second half of the 3rd century the Greek city states fell under the hegemony of King Phillip from Macedon, whose son Alexander the Great, a pupil of Aristotle, overrun Persia and built an Empire stretching from Egypt to the borders of modern day India.

As Alexander’s Empire was divided up upon his early death, further west Rome was slowly extending its borders. In the 2nd century BC it came into conflict with another great western Mediterranean power, Carthage, but got the better of it. Into the first century BC Rome continued its expansion around the whole of the Mediterranean and northwards into what is modern day France and a little later into Britain. For the first 2 centuries of the 1st millennium Rome was a largely stable empire, albeit with frequent conflicts on its far eastern borders in what we now term the Middle East.

The vast steppe regions of central and western Asia gave rise to large tribes who began to emigrate East towards China and West toward Europe. In so doing they also began to push other people’s East and West who then began to butt up against the Chinese and Roman Empires. Both Empires partially fought, partially formed alliances, partially tried to absorb some of these peoples but eventually the pressures became too great. The Roman Empire split into a Western half and an Eastern half. The Eastern half was to continue in some guise through to the 15th century as what is known as the Byzantine Empire, but the Western half was overrun by a number of Germanic people’s including Franks, Visigoths, Lombards and Vandals, who established kingdoms of their own. Before splitting however the Roman Empire had accepted Christianity as its state religion and the Catholic Church emerged in the West centred on Rome and the Orthodox Church in the East.

In Western Europe the kingdoms and empires which emerged from the fall of the Roman Empire were gradually Christianised. The most significant kingdom was that of the Franks which reached its peak under Charlemagne, who on Christmas day 800 AD was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor since the fall of Rome 300 years earlier, a title that then continued for a thousand years through into the 19th century. Charlemagne’s empire split on his death with both French and German monarchies considering themselves to be his descendants.

In the 7th century AD Islam emerged from the Middle East and within a hundred years had overrun the whole of North Africa, much of the Middle East, and the Iberian Peninsula. The initially single Islamic state, which was for a while the largest yet seen in the world, broke up into a number of largely independent but highly cultured states, rivalled at the time of the first millennium only by Byzantium and China.

In Northern Europe Vikings emerged from Scandinavian Countries in the 8th century initially raiding, but then settling in Britain, Ireland, Northern France where they became known as Normans, and Russia, where they founded Kiev, and became the originators of what became the Russian state. The Normans then themselves invaded other areas, the most significant of which was their successful invasion of England in 1066.

In 1095 the Byzantine Emperor sought help from the Pope in Rome against a growing threat from the Islamic Turks. Pope Urban II saw this as a political opportunity to reunite under himself the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity which had split in 1054. He called upon the Christians of Europe to join what became the First of the Crusades.

A powerful force led mostly by French and Norman Barons was successful in taking major cities down to and including Jerusalem in 1099, and four significant crusader states were established. Promises to restore lands to the Byzantines were not honoured, and a number of massacres took place including that of Jews.

The Muslims slowly fought back and began to retake lands. In 1144 they retook Edessa, one of the more significant crusader states, prompting calls for a second crusade. Despite a major force under the Kings of France and Germany, no major gains were made. In 1187 the Muslim forces under Saladin retook Jerusalem, without the massacres that had marked the Christian victory nearly a century earlier. A third crusade, which included King Richard of England, the Lionheart, had some successes but failed to retake Jerusalem. King Richard did however negotiate a treaty with Saladin that allowed unarmed Catholics to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

The fourth crusade in 1204 turned on the Byzantines themselves and sacked Constantinople. It was an infamous act with the Venetians being particularly culpable, and though the Byzantines recovered control in 1261 the empire never fully recovered.

Through the 13th century a number of additional crusades were called, but with ever diminishing success. In 1291 the last of the crusader states in the Middle East, Acre, fell. The crusades had however given rise to a number of religious military orders such as The Knights Templar, The Teutonic Knights, and The Knights Hospitaller of Saint John. The later initially moved to Cyprus and then Rhodes which they ruled for over 200 years through to 1522. When forced from there they moved after a few years to Malta in 1530, survived a major siege in 1565, and ruled through to being finally ousted by Napoleon in 1798.

Whilst the Crusades ultimately failed in that the lands they took were eventually recaptured by the Muslims, they did open up the West to far greater knowledge, technologies, and influences than they might otherwise have done, which played an important part in the eventual rise of the west.

In South East Europe the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire waxed and waned, with occasional competent, and often less than competent rulers. The Byzantines would have fallen to the Muslims earlier had it not been for the Mongols, emerging from the Asian Steppes under Genghis Khan. The Mongols invaded East, and West, conquering the Chinese, destroying a large number of city states in areas such as modern day Afghanistan, and conquering the Eastern Islamic states around modern day Iran and Iraq. They had begun to continue further West into central Europe when they stopped as a result of their Great Khan dying. Native peoples gradually re-established themselves in China, Russia, and in the Middle East, albeit with a further brief resurgence of the Mongols in parts of Southern Middle Asia under Tamerlane. With the re-establishment of the Muslim states, and the emergence of the Ottomans, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire eventually fell, in 1453. The Ottomans already had a major foothold in South Eastern Europe and continued to extend their influence both in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They reached their greatest extent in the 17th century before becoming overly conservative and defensive gradually loosing territories and influence in a long decline.

In South Western Europe, the last Muslims were pushed out of Spain and Portugal in 1492. The reconquest from the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula was a process that spanned some 750 or so years. Over the centuries an initially weak Christian presence in the North East of the peninsula gradually expanded outwards, with the gradual emergence of new Christian status such as those of Aragon, Castile, and Portugal. It was far from being a simple story of a slow Christian victorious expansion however, and Christian and Islamic states sometimes allied with each other and sometimes fought amongst themselves. Over the centuries however the trend was against the Arabs and in 1492 the last Arab stronghold at Granada fell to the then united forces of Castile and Aragon, which had joined together the marriage of Ferdinand, King of Aragon with that of Isabella, Queen of Castile. It was only a few months after this victory that Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to sponsor Columbus’s voyages seeking a western route across the Atlantic to the Orient.

Other key defining characteristics of Europe during the first half of the 2nd millennium, in addition to the Crusades, the Mongols, the gradual weakening of the Byzantine Empire, and the long drawn out Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, was the growing prosperity of city states, waves of the plague or black death, the hundred years war between England and France.

Powerful European city states emerged in Northern Italy in the 11th century as a result of increasing trade and the consolidation of local sources of food. Some important such states include Florence, Venice, Genoa, and Milan. The idea of the powerful city state spread up through central Germany, where many free cities emerged, such as Augsburg and Cologne, through to the Low Countries, where towns such as Ghent and Bruges grew very rich. The city states emerged largely in central Europe where there was no strong monarchical powers claiming total overlordship.

The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, swept through Europe between 1347 and 1353. It originated in China, and also had a devastating effect in Asia and the Middle East. It travelled along the trade routes and likely entered Europe through the Italian city states. Up to about a third of the population of Europe died, though some areas were worse hit and some less so. Ironically however it had a positive effect on the long term Western and middle European economy, as feudalism, whereby labourers, peasants, were in effect owned by their lords gave way to a wage-labour, whereby labourers were paid for their work and could make their own choices. In Eastern Europe where the impact of the Black Death had not been so great, feudalism, serfdom, did not break down. Other significant consequence of the Black Death in Western and Middle Europe was increasing innovation in labour saving technologies, and thus increasing productivity, and also a large increase in land ownership away from only a few very large estates. An ugly side of the Black Death was increased persecution against minorities with the Jews particularly hard hit. The hygiene practices of the Jews meant they were less affected by the plague, and the ignorant masses looking for someone to blame often turned on and massacred local Jewish communities.

Continual outbreaks of the Black Death were to occur through to the 17th century, in both Europe and the Islamic world, and locally were occasionally severe. These however did not spread across the whole continent in part because of a greater natural resistance and in part as a result of often very severe quarantine restrictions that were imposed once an outbreak had occurred. The last major outbreak in Europe was in 1720 in Marseille which killed up to about half the population in the city and environs.

Instrumental in the emergence of strong national identities in England and France was the conflict between them known as the hundred year’s war. This started in 1337 when the French King, Philip VI, confiscated from the English King, Edward III, the Aquitaine region. The English Kings had ruled over significant parts of France since the Norman Conquest. Edward countered the French King’s aggression with a counterclaim to the whole of the Kingdom of France, a claim that was as arguably legitimate as Philip’s own claim. The war was a long period of sporadic breakout of hostilities. Despite some significant English victories, notable at Crecy in 1346 and Agincourt in 1415, and despite the English King Henry VI being crowned King of France in Paris in 1431, the war turned decisively against the English. The war came to an effective end in 1453 with French victory at Castillon, near Bordeaux, following an English attempt to reconquer Gascony, though the English were to retain control over Calais and its environs through to 1558.

As Europe entered the 16th century Western Europe was largely ruled by a small number of large monarchical states in England, France, Spain and Portugal, middle Europe was a patchwork of smaller mostly German and Italian states, and Eastern Europe by large but still changing states such as Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The Western European monarchical states had begun to turn their attention outwards with Portugal having rounded the Cape of Good Hope and thus opening sea trading routes to the Far East, and both the Portuguese and Spanish had begun the exploration and soon to be conquest of the Americas. And in middle Europe, initially emerging from the Italian city states, a way of thinking we refer to as the Renaissance was dramatically increasing the curiosity and creativity of the Europeans. Prior to this period European culture and technology had been in very general terms inferior to that which had existed in certain parts of the Muslim and Asian world. In the second half of the 2nd millennium Europe was to change the world, for better and worse.

During the course of the first half of the sixteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish opened up worldwide trade routes. The first circumnavigation of the earth was completed in September 1522 when the remnants of a Spanish exhibition that had started out under Magellan’s leadership returned to Seville in Spain. Magellan himself did not complete the voyage as he had been killed over a year earlier in the Philippines. In the Americas, the Spanish, with the help of disaffected local Indian tribes, quickly conquered the Aztec and Incas empires the two dominant cultures then existing in central and southern America. The Spanish and Portuguese then set about carving up America between them in accordance with a ruling ratified by the Pope which divided up the non-European world into their respective zones of influence. The Portuguese got what is now Brazil, and the Spanish most of the rest of the Americas. During the course of the 16th century the English, French, and Dutch interests in America were largely limited to the exploration of North-western America as they sought an alternative passage through to Asia, and increasing raids on the Spanish shipping by pirates and state sponsored privateers.

The opening up of trade to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa was led by the Portuguese. During the course of the 16th century they established trading posts at, amongst other places, Goa in India and Macau in China both of which they retained into the second half of the 20th century. Spain’s energies remained focussed on the Americas though they did establish a foothold in the Philippines. English interest in Asian seafaring trade was led by merchants who as the 16th century came to a close had begun to send expeditions to the Far East, and sought to obtain royal approval which they got in 1600 leading to the founding of the East India Company. Both the French and Dutch had also begun expeditions to the far East and both were to form their own East India Companies in the first decade of the 17th century.

16th century England was the period of Henry VIII and of his granddaughter Elizabeth I. Henry VIII embraced the recently emergent Protestant ideology for political rather than religious reasons and after a return to state sponsored Catholicism under his daughter Mary I, England became a predominantly Protestant country under Elizabeth I.

Protestantism had emerged in middle Europe when Martin Luther had protested against certain largely corrupt church practices relating to Indulgences which effectively enabled people to pay to enter the kingdom of god. Martin Luther, unintentionally, started the Protestant Reformation which provided an alternative Christian view to that governed by the Catholic Church. The spread of Protestant ideas was greatly enhanced by, and indeed dependent upon, extensive use of the recently invented, in Europe at least, printing press. Protestant ideas rapidly spread from their early sponsorship in certain German states, to countries such as the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, England, the Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary, and also a strong presence in France. The Catholic Church responded with a counter-reformation which rejected compromise with the Protestants though did lead to some reforms which addressed some of the concerns that had led to the Reformation in the first place. The counter-reformation also gave impetus to the desire to convert to Catholicism the peoples of the non-European world, and also to the Roman Inquisition which prosecuted those suspected of beliefs counter to those of the Roman Catholic Church. In France civil war between Catholic and Huguenots, ie. Protestants, were directly or indirectly responsible for over 2 million deaths, and were brought to an uneasy end with the conversion of the Protestant King Henry IV to Catholicism. The failed Spanish Armada in 1588 was an attempt by Phillip II of Spain to invade England and restore the Catholicism of his former wife and Queen Elizabeth’s predecessor, Queen Mary I.

The 16th century saw considerable intellectual and technological innovation. It was the century of Leonardo d’Vinci, though his creativity spanned the 15th and 16th centuries, and of Copernicus, and of Galileo, who spanned into the 17th century. It saw the beginnings of the scientific revolution and a shift away from seeing the world in purely religious terms.

Defining features of 17th century Europe are: internal conflicts, in part religious in part political; the continuing extension of the colonisation and opening up of trade with the rest of the world with a related decisive shift in power from Spain and Portugal to France, England, and the Dutch; and the founding of modern science.

In the first half of the seventeenth century a period known as the thirty years war started out as a conflict between protestant and catholic Germanic states but gradually extended to involve Sweden and Spain and eventually France who though catholic fought on the protestant side against the catholic Habsburgs because of fears of encirclement.

France emerged from this conflict as the most powerful country in Europe. Late in the 17th century resumption of religious conflicts within France were settled decisively in favour of the Catholics and many French Protestants, Huguenots, emigrated to either other European protestant countries or to America. Under the long reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the second half of the seventeenth century, France was frequently in conflict with the Spanish and the Habsburgs, and increasing so with the English and Dutch around the world.

One of the outcomes from the thirty years war, at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was the formal recognition by the Spanish Habsburgs of Dutch independence. The Dutch republic had been formed in 1568 when the Habsburg Netherlands had revolted. The Southern part had been retaken by the Habsburgs, but the Northern part had held out and during its 80 years war with the Habsburgs had become a powerful sea trading nation. The Dutch, a protestant nation, benefited significantly from the emigration from Catholic states of rich and skilled Protestants, and they became for a while the foremost seafaring nation in the world, particularly active in the Far East. In addition to establishing their own bases, including Cape Town in South Africa and Batavia, modern day Jakarta in Indonesia, they seized control of a number of Portuguese ports and bases.

In England, the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 was followed by the rule of the Stuart’s, when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. Under his rule significant migration to America began, as more extreme Protestants, Puritans, sought greater religious freedoms. His belief in absolute monarchy brought him into frequent conflict with Parliament, a continuing issue which under his son Charles I came to a head and was only resolved through the English Civil War which led to the beheading of Charles I and the proclamation of a Republic under Oliver Cromwell. On Cromwell’s death however Charles I’s son Charles II became king under a restored monarchy. He too shortly before his death in 1685 came into conflict with parliament and attempted to restore absolute monarchy. When his successor and brother, James II, who was also a catholic, continued such practices, the Protestants inviting the protestant William of Orange, from the Dutch Republic, to invade; which he did. A Dutch invasion force landed but as a result of significant protestant desertions there was very little fighting and James II fled. Britain became a constitutional monarchy.

During the course of the 17th century the Italian states continued to lose power and influence, a process that had started in the sixteenth century as a result of the shift of European trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The German states, under a loose Holy Roman Empire confederation, had been devastated by the thirty years war, one result of which is that many of them became even more independent.

It was principally in the 17th century that the widespread crystallisation and application of what might be termed the Scientific Method emerged with the works of persons such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. In simplistic terms this ensured that theories were based on measurable evidence, with observation and experimentation used to determine new knowledge and to derive or refine our understanding about the world. It created an intellectual environment that enabled the immense technological advances that paved the way to the modern world.

The 18th century saw continuing conflicts on the European mainland. In the West much of the early conflict, known as the War of the Spanish Succession, related to France and Austria seeking to gain control of the lands of the Spanish Habsburgs as Charles II had no heirs. Other countries joined in on one side or the other. Britain gained Gibraltar, Minorca, and significant territories in what is now Canada. In the East, Russia extended its territories into what had been territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire which collapsed, and also expanded into what had been Ottoman Empire territories. Prussia emerged as a powerful Germanic Kingdom.

For much of the century France was ruled by Louis XV, and there was a growing discontent against the monarchy, in part due to his personal shortcomings, in part due to his losing a period of conflict with Great Britain, known as The Seven Years War, fought between 1756 and 1763, which saw Britain taking over most of France’s North American colonies as a result of the first truly world war in that it was fought around the world. Britain also emerged as the dominant power in India. Ironically it was Britain’s success that was a major contributing factor to the conditions that led to the American Revolution and the strong French support to the American colonists. Prussia, under Frederick the Great, had allied itself with Britain and emerged as a major European Power.

The Kingdom of Great Britain had been formed in 1707 with the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Whilst not popular with much of the Scottish population, it had become a financial necessity due to a failed Scottish attempt to found a colony in Central America. Jacobite Rebellions in 1715 and 1745 were suppressed and with defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 any realistic hopes of a renewed Scottish independence were ended. Through much of the eighteen century Great Britain went from strength to strength, gaining significant colonies and power around the world. Whilst Britain lost its North American colonies as a result of the American Revolution, it retained control of Canada, and continued to increase its power elsewhere. The loss of North American enabled greater attention to be paid to India and to the recently discovered lands of Australia and New Zealand. In the 1760s the Industrial Revolution began in Britain.

Eighteenth century Italy was mostly under control of either Austria or Spain. There was a gradual weakening of the power of the church and whilst the Italian states were no longer powerful on a European or world stage there was significant cultural output.

Towards the last quarter of the eighteenth three revolutions were to significant shape the world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.

With the discovery by Europeans of the Americas, the early colonisation by the Spanish and the Portuguese was focussed on Central and South America. Whilst exploration of North America took place during the 16th century early attempts at colonisation failed. But from the early 17th century they were successful, and included the Spanish in Florida and New Mexico, the English at Virginia and New England, and also French, Swedish and Dutch colonies. The Russians crossed over from Siberia and became active in Alaska and down the west coast.

A major factor behind the rapid growth of the English colonies was religious persecution by the catholic King Charles I, which led to about 20,000 Puritans emigrating in the first half of the 17th century. The Dutch absorbed the Swedish colonies and the English then absorbed the Dutch colonies. A Scottish colony attempt in the late 17th century was a failure and the resulting difficulties were a significant factor in convincing the Scots to enter into a Union with England to form Great Britain.

Into the 18th century there were 3 major powers extending their territories in North America: Britain, France, and Spain. Britain was well established down most of the East Coast, the Spanish in Florida and further West, and the French to the North of the British and in a sweep round to the West and South along the Mississippi down to New Orleans.

The seven years war between coalitions led respectively by Britain and France, between 1755 and 1764, was fought in many places around the world but one of its outcomes was Britain gaining much of the French territories in North America and also the Spanish Florida territories. Whilst France and Spain still held territories further inland the Eastern Seaboard was now made up of British run colonies and Britain had become by the far the greatest power in North America.

Following the end of the seven years war the British government sought greater control over the 13 colonies, which had previously been largely left to run their own affairs. However the colonists themselves were also then agitating over a lack of representation in the government. Events gradually spiralled out of control, leading to violence and eventual war. Whilst many of the colonists would have preferred to reach a settlement that would have kept them British certain intransigencies on both sides did not provide the opportunity, and the colonists eventually won their independence, in no small part due to substantial aid from France.

As a result of the loss of the American colonies Britain largely shifted its attention to Asia, the Pacific and later to Africa, though it retained its presence in Canada, which was strengthened by migration of loyalists from the American colonies north into British held territories.

French aid to the colonies played a major part in its own financial difficulties which in turn were a significant contributor to the French Revolution. The 13 colonies themselves formed the United States of America and began a rapid expansion West, significantly aided by the Louisiana Purchase whereby significant land up through the middle of North America was purchased from the French under Napoleon. A brief further war between Britain and the United States occurred in 1812, and included the burning of the White House in 1814, but it ended without any change in the border between the United States and British Canada and the British and USA went on to develop mutual interest and increasingly friendly trading relations.

A number of factors combined to give rise to the French Revolution. A growing dissatisfaction with the absolutism of the French monarchy, and its inefficient and corrupt supporting bureaucracy, increasing financial difficulties arising from many wars over a long period of time and the exemptions from taxation of many privileged groups including, though not limited to, the clergy and the aristocracy, and a growing belief in a fairer society. French support to a successful American revolution exacerbated both the financial difficulties and the view that changes were overdue and achievable. There was however, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, little call for violent overthrow of the monarchy, and a different outcome, some form of constitutional monarchy such as had emerged in Britain, could have emerged had King Louis XVI himself been more astute.

By early 1789 France was bankrupt and unable to pay its debts. Poor harvests and severe winters over the previous 2 years had also led to famines and a general resentment amongst much of the wider population. To help solve the financial difficulties the king turned to a consultative assembly that had not met since 1614 known as the Estates-General. Consisting of representatives of the Clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate) and the rest, representing over 95% of the population (Third Estate). The representatives of the Estates-General met in May 1789, and whilst the King wished to focus on taxes required to alleviate the financial problems, the representatives of the Third Estate had many grievances they wished to see addressed. An impasse quickly arose and without any resolution emerging the Third Estate redefined themselves as a National Assembly, representing the people as a whole. Attempts by the King to disband the National Assembly failed and on 9 July it renamed itself as the National Constituent Assembly and began to function as a governing body and started to draft a constitution.

Shortly after Louis XVIs sacking of a popular finance minister and the concentration of troops outside Paris, widespread agitation spread amongst the Parisian population, with rioting, and in a search for arms to the storming of the Bastille on the 14th July. Revolts spread across France and on 4th August the National Assembly voted to abolish feudal privileges. For the next 3 years France was in practice a constitutional monarchy, albeit with the real power lying with the National Assembly. However, in part as a response to external threats from Prussia and Austria, in a war the French themselves had started in order to distract attention from growing domestic problems, more radical individuals emerged at the head of popular militias. In a climate of fear the execution of ‘enemies of the revolution’ began under Robespierre’s leadership, and in a period of about 10 months from September 1793 through to July 1794 40,000 were executed across France, many by guillotine, including the King and Queen. The climate of fear however eventually turned against Robespierre and his followers who were themselves guillotined.

A period known as the Directory followed, with rule by a five man committee. It was a period of economic depression, though there was some success abroad, particularly in Italy where a young general Napoleon brought much of the region under French control. And when in 1799 France was again threatened by external powers, various political intrigues brought a popular Napoleon back from his latest less than successful escapades in Egypt to overthrow the Directory and become First Consul of France.

The Industrial Revolution was the transition from a predominantly rural society, based mostly on agriculture and on manufacture done mostly in people’s homes using hand tools and basic machines, to one of mass production using special purpose machinery, done in factories. The industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the 1760s in part as a result of certain technological innovations such as the development of the steam engine and a new method for smelting iron based on coke. In part because of a number of factors such as financial institutions and entrepreneurs, an earlier agricultural revolution which had created a surplus of food and labour, mineral resources, navigable rivers, and an empire with a ready supplier of cheap imports and consumers for its products, all of which created an environment highly conducive to rapid expansion and improvement once it was underway.

Britain was very conscious of the benefits of its monopoly which enabled it very rapidly to become the most productive nation the world had till then ever seen, and for a while attempts were made to prevent the export of machinery, skilled workers, and manufacturing techniques. This could not last forever. Once other nations began their own industrial revolutions, with Belgium in the 1820s, and from the mid-19th century France, Germany and the US, their economies were also rapidly transformed. By the end of the 19th century both Germany and the US had overtaken Britain in terms of industrial output.

Early 19th century Europe was characterised by Napoleon’s success in gaining dominance over much of Western and middle Europe. As a general in the French revolutionary army Napoleon had largely been responsible for France’s success against her continental enemies. He subsequently seized power in 1799 becoming First Consul of France and subsequently declared himself Emperor in 1804. Napoleon was a military genius, at least in so far as land battles were concerned, and France became the dominant force in Europe through to 1812. At sea however the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was won by the British, though it cost Horatio Nelson his life, and led to British naval supremacy for the next 100 years. Napoleon also abandoned any French ambitions in America by selling Louisiana to the United States, which at a stroke doubled the size of the United States. In 1812 Napoleon overreached himself when he invaded Russia. His failure led to disastrous defeat, and a further defeat at Leipzig in 1813 against a coalition of forces including Prussia and Austria led to his initial exile to Elba. A brief return to power in 1815 was followed by a final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Whilst many see Napoleon as a tyrant, others see him as an enlightened genius. Reforms introduced by Napoleon underpin much of France’s modern day legal, administrative and educational practices, and the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of or has influenced the legal system in many other countries.

With the fall of Napoleon the British Empire went from strength to strength. Australia had been claimed by Britain in the late 18th century, and with the loss of the American colonies as a destination for Britain’s criminals Australia became the new destination and its British population rapidly grew. New Zealand became British in 1840. The centre of the British overseas empire however was India. The British colony of South Africa started out as an East India Company way station for ships travelling between Britain and Asia. The East India Company also acquired areas of South East Asia, including Singapore and Burma. By the mid-19th century however the East India Company was in serious difficulties and the British government took over control of its possessions.

Through most of the 19th century, and into the early 20th century, Britain was by the far the most powerful nation in the world. Its empire, which from the late 19th century also included significant areas of Africa, became the largest the world has ever known. Its strength was underpinned by its lead in the industrial revolution and its effective application of new technologies such as the steamship and the telegraph. By the end of the 19th century the British Empire controlled a fifth of the world’s land and one quarter of the world’s population.

The Russian Empire also expanded during the course of the 19th century principally in conflict with the Ottoman Empire in South Eastern Europe, where many of those ruled by the Ottomans were Orthodox Slavs who looked to Russia for protection. Russia’s success in this region brought them into conflict with British and French interests leading to the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856 whereby the British and French supported the Ottoman Turks and halted Russian expansions in this area. The Russians had already expanded across the northern Asian continent during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries across into Alaska and down much of the Western coast of North America, though they sold their interests in North America to the United States in 1867 largely as a result of concerns that the British might seize these territories as war between Russia and Britain seemed a decided possibility. Russia did however expand further into Asia, into the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian seas, into the Khanates east of the Caspian Sea, and further down the East Asian coastline bringing them into conflict with Japan. The British and the Russians vied for control of Afghanistan and Persia, as the British saw the Russians as a potential threat to the interests in India. Whilst the Russian Tsars ruled over a huge land territory, the country as a whole only industrialized very slowly, far slower than its European rivals, held back by serfdom and authoritarian control. It was only in in the 1890s that the country began a serious programme of industrialization led by a rapid expansion of its railway network.

During the course of the 19th century a number of smaller nations emerged, such as Belgium, which gained independence from the Netherlands, and Greece which gained its independence from the Ottomans. For the first half of the 19th century, however, and into the second, both what are now Germany and Italy remained as large numbers of independent states. However clever politicking by Cavour from Piedmont in Italy and Bismarck from Prussia in Germany, and the use of patriotic calls to arms against external enemies, Austria in the case of Italy and France in the case of Germany, enabled them both to secure unification. Austria, largely excluded from continuing influence in Italy and Germany, turned its attention towards the Balkans and through a union with Hungary created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a multi-national state which was one of the world’s most powerful. Spain during the 19th century suffered significant internal conflicts and instability, and early in the century lost most of its American colonies and at the end of the century lost those remaining. Portugal lost its most important overseas colony, Brazil, in 1822.

Towards the end of the 19th century technological dominance enabled a further period of colonialism by certain European powers, together with the United States and Japan. Almost the whole of Asia and almost the whole of Africa fell under foreign domination.

The American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, was a particularly bloody affair. Over 600,000 were killed, more American losses than in the first and second world wars combined. The United States, a Union of States with a large degree of autonomy, had been rapidly expanding since its independence from Britain in 1776, and by 1861 had increased from the original 13 states to 34 states, with more territories soon to be seeking to become new States. States however were free to decide whether or not to allow slavery, and the Northern States had abolished it whilst Southern States had kept it. The Southern States felt increasingly threatened by a rapidly industrialising North, and with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who opposed slavery in territories wishing to join the Union, a number of Southern States voted to leave the Union, forming what was known as the Confederacy. Their secession from the Union was not recognised by Lincoln though armed conflict only commenced when Confederate forces opened fire on a garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay and forced it to surrender. Both sides then rapidly built up forces and were soon engaged in violent conflict.

Whilst the initial goal of the North had been to restore the Union this gave way to the goal of destroying the institution of slavery and giving the Union a “new birth of freedom”. It was not a well matched fight, with the Union having a far greater population and industrial might, however the Confederacy had for much of the war better generals, such as Robert E Lee, who had initially been offered command of the Union army. Early confederate victories however were not enough and overwhelming superiority began to tell and in May 1865 the war was over with the capture of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. By then however Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated at a theatre in Washington on 14th April.

The American Civil War was the first to fully employ modern technology, including use of the railways and telegraph and photography and rifles and iron clad warships and hydrogen filled reconnaissance balloons and submarines. The high casualties resulting in a large part from the deployment of certain technologies was a lesson not appreciated when 50 years later technologically advanced nations rushed into war in Europe.

Characteristics of the 20th century include technological advancements, two major world wars, self-determination for most of the world’s peoples, and the emergence of a global economy. In the more distant future there may be other or different views of the significant events or trends of the 20th century, but from the viewpoint of the early 21st century these would seem to have a good claim.

The 20th century saw more scientific and technological progress than all the other centuries combined, since the dawn of civilization. At the end of the 19th century there was a widespread belief that we more or less understood the universe, and that the last few details of scientific knowledge would soon be filled in. However the emergence of ideas such as relatively and quantum physics profoundly changed our models of the physical world and we rapidly came to realize that the universe was far more complex than we had previously believed. The 20th century started out with horses and simple automobiles and ended with high-speed rail, nuclear submarines, global commercial air travel and the space shuttle. In 1901 Marconi established the first radio communication across the Atlantic; by the end of the 20th century we had the World Wide Web. Global life expectancy increased from 35 years at the beginning of the century to 65 years by its end, though there continued to huge variations around the world.

Rapid technological advancements, however, also allowed warfare to reach unprecedented levels of destruction. Two largely European centric wars which, as a result of European world influence at the time affected the whole world, were not only massively destructive, but also led to the end of European dominance.

The First World War arose as a result of tensions within Europe between various nations, and initially at least was welcomed by the people of most nations. There was much rejoicing in the streets at the outbreak of war. But neither the people nor their leaders had any conception of the resulting horrors largely resulting from technological advancements. After more than four years of trench warfare in Western Europe and much conflict elsewhere, the powers that made up the Triple Entente, initially France, Britain, and Russia, and at the end of the war France, Britain, the United States and Italy, emerged victorious over the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. However the peace settlement, and in particular the requirement for Germany to pay punitive reparations, laid the seeds for the Second World War.

The First World War was largely responsible for the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917 which saw Russia take a more extreme and bloody path towards economic development than might otherwise have been the case. Those who see communism as having enabled Russia’s economic development fail to appreciate that such development could just as effectively happened in a more benign manner. Many nations have proven themselves capable of industrialising in a matter of decades.

Economic difficulties led to an environment which allowed Hitler to democratically gain power in Germany. Once in power he did away with the democratic process, though his success in improving the lot of the average German meant there was little internal opposition. He rapidly built up Germany’s military capability, which he got away with in part as a reluctance of other nations to stand directly up to him; as they reeled back from risking conflict and a repeat of the horrors of the First World War. When World War II did break out, with German invasion of Poland, Germany was initially successful. However failure to knock Britain out of the war, and then failure to rapidly defeat Russia, meant the war slowly turned against Germany. Japan attacked the United States and Hitler declared war on America, leading to what were largely two separate wars between certain Allied nations and Germany and certain Allied nations and Japan. The wars ended in 1945 with the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan and the emergence of the nuclear age.

Whilst there continued to be many conflicts around the world through the 2nd half of the 20th century the large scale conflicts of the two world wars have been avoided. Whilst many will disagree the emergence of nuclear weapons has probably played a part. The Cold War between America and allies and Russia and allies would almost certainly have led to far greater conflicts than did in fact emerge, had there not been the very real threat of nuclear escalation.

As the 20th century has progressed, and particularly following the end of the Second World War, the vast majority of the world’s peoples who at the beginning of the century had been ruled by or heavily constrained by Europeans, became self-governing. In part this was a result of their struggles for freedom, in part it was a shift in attitudes by the Europeans themselves who lost the appetite for foreign direct rule. Many of the conflicts through the second half of the 20th century have resulted from this process as newly formed nations, or peoples aspiring to be nations, have fought local conflicts for dominance, with more powerful nations in the background taking sides and occasionally getting directly involved.

Largely on the back of continuing technological change a global economy has also emerged. The ability to transport goods cheaply all around the world, and to be instantly communicate around the world, has opened up world trade in ways never before possible in history.



Civilisation in China developed predominantly along the Yellow River, with the earliest known dynasty being the Xia Dynasty, dating from before 2000 BC and well into the first half of the second millennium, and the Shang Dynasty during much of the second half of the first millennium BC and under which writing emerged. This was superseded by the Zhou Dynasty which lasted through to 256BC, and during the course of which the two greatest Chinese philosophers lived, Confucius, founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, founder of Taoism. During this period China implemented advanced irrigation techniques including the creation of large irrigation reservoirs and systems of canals. These early dynasties were confederacies of states rather than a single unified state, and it was only with the short lived Qin Dynasty between 221 and 206 BC that the first Imperial Dynasty emerged, with centralized political control and a state wide economy supporting a powerful military.

Whilst short lived the structures put in place by Qin endured. The construction of what is now known as The Great Wall of China began. Qin, pronounced Chin, is the basis of the European name China. Within a few years of the fall of the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty was established, which was to last for some 400 years, from a couple of hundred years before Christ through to a couple of hundred years after. Under the Han the Chinese invented paper and were instrumental in setting up the Silk Road, a trading route through to the Mediterranean.

The Han Dynasty fell in 220AD as a result of infighting and for hundreds of years the country was divided into many waring kingdoms and was not reunited again until the early 7th century under the Sui dynasty. It was followed soon after by the Tang dynasty, generally regarded as a high point of Chinese civilization. Its capital was at the time the most populous city in the world. Again, the Tang dynasty, which lasted from about 618 to 907, was followed by a period where multiple kingdoms asserted themselves before another reunification in 960 under the Song dynasty.

Under the Song dynasty China was the richest, most skilled, and most populous country in the world. There was lively entertainment in the cities and a vibrant social life. A form of printing was in widespread use which enabled an effective civil service and the spread of literature. There were many technological innovations including the military use of gunpowder. The Song dynasty began losing territory in the early 12th century and in 1279 were finally defeated by the Mongols who initiated the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. The Yuan Dynasty lasted a little less than a hundred years. As part of a larger Mongol Empire it had extensive trade across Asia and into the Middle East and on into Europe. The rule of later Yuan emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries and rebellions. One rebellion leader emerged to found the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

The Ming Dynasty lasted 276 years. The Great Wall was extensively rebuilt and took the form that is still largely standing today. The Forbidden city inside Beijing was constructed, consisting of almost 1000 buildings. It was also a period of literature, painting, music, poetry, and porcelain. Ming vases, made of blue and white porcelain, remain well known today. The greatest Naval exhibitions of Chinese history took place under the command of Zheng He, with over 300 vessels and nearly 30,000 men he travelled during the course of seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 round South East Asia and across to Africa and the Middle East. However with a change in Chinese Emperor the continuation of such voyages were banned, and it was left to the Europeans to spread their influences around the world. By the late 16th and early 17th century economic difficulties and natural disasters greatly weakened the Emperor and following rebellions the Ming dynasty was replaced by the Qing dynasty, also known as the Manchu dynasty. This, the last of the imperial dynasties, lasted from 1644 through into the 20th century. The Qing dynasty was however inward looking and whilst it remained an advanced cultural nation it failed to respond to ever increasing European innovations and by the late 19th century fell far behind in terms of military capability and found itself bullied into accepting disadvantageous trading agreements. Belated attempts to reform after defeat in 1894-1895 by Japan were too late to enable the Chinese themselves to dictate to a rapidly changing world in the early 20th century.



Before about 300 BC Japan was a hunter gatherer society. Around 300 BC, though it may have been earlier, rice cultivation began, imported from the Korean Peninsula and a settled agricultural and bronze age culture developed in what is known as the Yayoi period. Even then the metalworking skills were highly advanced albeit under Chinese influence. A large number of kingdoms emerged out of which one eventually gained ascendancy, called Yamatai and its leaders became known as Emperors, and the period from 250 AD through to 538 AD is known as the Kofun Period.

A new period, the Asuka period, is considered to have begun in 538 AD following the introduction of the Buddhist religion from Korea. This was a period of significant cultural advancement in areas of fine-arts and architecture. The emperor referred to the country as the land of the rising sun, and described china as the land of the setting sun, which didn’t go down too well with the Chinese.

A period known as the Nara Period followed covering much of the 8th century, and then the Heian Period through to 1185. These were renowned for literary achievements. However the imperial court became self-absorbed with internal power struggles allowing powerful landowners, with their samurai warrior armies, to become the real power in the land. Following rival claims to the throne and a seizure of power the Kamakura Period commenced in 1185. Whilst an emperor remained nominally in charge the real power lay with a military leader, the Shogun, and subsequently with the Shogun’s regents. During this period the Mongols under Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan, but were fought to a standstill by the Samurai, and subsequently had their fleet destroyed by Typhoons called Kamikaze.

The next period, the Muramachi period, began in 1333 with a failed attempt to restore power to the imperial court, and included a 50 year civil war as rival Northern and Southern Courts vied for supremacy. Another violent civil war occurred between 1467 and 1477 over who should succeed the ruling shogun. Power now lay with feudal lords who fought amongst themselves in support of rival claimants for control of the country.

Strong centralised control was re-established under the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 leading to over 250 years of stability in what is known as the Edo Period. During this period Edo, modern day Tokyo, grew from being little more than a fishing village into the largest metropolis in the world, with a population of the order of a million by the early 18th century. The Edo period as a whole was characterized by a strict social order and isolationist policies, though there was significant economic growth and a highly cultured society.

An end to Japan’s isolationist policies was forced upon them in 1853 when an American fleet under Commodore Mathew Perry arrived and the Japanese found they had no defence. The US, Great Britain, Russia and other Western powers imposed treaties on Japan. The realisation of how far they had militarily fallen behind the Western world prompted change, and during a period known as the Meiji Restoration the country underwent major changes as the country sought to become a modern industrialised nation state able to stand up to the Western powers albeit whilst retaining eastern values. It succeeded and surprised the world by defeating the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1904. In the early 20th century Japan was the only non-Western Power that was able to stand as an economic and military equal.



In Northern India, an early Indus Valley civilisation had existed between about 2,300 and 1,700 BC, but had then disappeared, probably as a result of climatic changes. A further civilisation, the Aryans later emerged and by about 600 BC had formed a further highly civilised society, in which trade and commerce flourished. It was into this society that Buddha was born about 483 BC. A number of empires subsequently came and went in Northern India and were sufficiently powerful that whilst Alexander the Great had some success he was, in 326 BC, put off continuing his conquests in part because of the knowledge there remained other large powerful Indian armies.

The first empire to unify most the Indian subcontinent was the Mauryan Empire which lasted from 322 – 185 BC, reaching its peak with Asoka who ruled from 269 to 232 BC. After early conquests he declared he was appalled by the suffering caused by war and decided against further conquests. He converted to Buddism and set about pacifying and consolidating his empire. After his death however his empire declined. One succeeding empire of note was the Kushan Empire which reached its peak around 100 AD and did a lot of trade with the Roman Empire. By the early 3rd century AD however India was once again split into small states, and was not again united under a single rule until it became part of the British Empire in the 19th Century.

One of the larger and more advanced of the Indian States was the Gupta Empire, which was at its peak for some 200+ years from the early 4th century AD till the mid 6th century. It was a Hindu culture and marked by advances in science, engineering, art, mathematics, literature, astronomy, religion, and philosophy, and was the period during which the Kama Sutra was written. It traded extensively and had a significant influence on developments in Southeast Asia.

Some other Empires of note include: the Empire of Harsha, which though lasting only for the first half of the 7th century in the Northern part of India was a period of exceptional peace and fairness; the Chalukya dynasty which ruled large parts of central and southern India between the 6th and 12th centuries and included periods of highly efficient administration and extensive overseas trade; the Chola dynasty which ruled in South India, including Sri Lanka, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, and which was an important sea-power and conquered and ruled a significant part of South East Asia for a while during the 11th century; the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim kingdom which lasted from 1206 to 1526 having been founded by Turks and afghans invading the north, which also for a time ruled much of central India, but which lost much of its power following the sacking of Delhi in the late 14th century by Timur/Tamerlane who had sought to re-establish the Mongol Empire.

The Delhi Sultanate came to an end with another invasion through the Khyber Pass, when a descendent of Timur, Babur, who was also descended from Genghis Khan through Timur’s wife, established the Mughal Empire which at its peak covered much of the Indian subcontinent. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughals. The greatest of the Mughal rules was Akbar, Babur’s grandson, who ruled from 1556 to 1605 and who overcame invasion threats and significantly expanded the empire. He established a liberal and tolerant rule with an emphasis on cultural integration and made a number of advanced social reforms. The Mughal Empire suffered a gradual decline in the early 18th century.

With the decline of the Mughals, the Maratha Empire increased in power and came for a while to rule much of the subcontinent. Their empire lasted from 1674 through to 1818 when after a long conflict with the East India Company they were finally defeated. Another empire to emerge from the decline of the Mughals was the Sikh Empire which was a powerful empire in the Punjab region for the first half of the 19th century before it too was conquered by the British, the last major region to be so in 1849.

European interest in the Indian subcontinent had started with the Portuguese who established the first trading posts following Vasco de Gama discover of a new sea route from Europe to India in 1498. The Portuguese were soon followed by the Dutch the French and the British. Internal conflicts between various Indian kingdoms gave the Europeans opportunities to establish influence and they came to control certain coastal regions. The British East India Empire company was given various trading rights, which it backed up with its own private army. From 1757 the East India Company began to rule parts of India when it took control of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey. Over the next hundred years the East India Company came to establish control over much of the subcontinent through installing puppet governments into various states. An Indian rebellion in 1857 led to the Government of India Act where by the British government took of the task of administrating the country as the British Raj.

Whilst India entered the 20th century under the firm control of the British, as indeed it would remain for much of the first half of the 20th century itself, in 1885 the Indian National Congress had been formed with the objective of obtaining a greater share in government for educated Indians. In the 20th century the Indian National Congress became a focal point for effective moves toward Indian Independence and after independence in 1947 became India’s largest political party.


South Eastern Asia

Whilst the prehistoric peoples of South Eastern Asia did develop technologically, they did not develop into large complex cultural societies. Bronze metalworking and rice based agriculture were being practiced by the end of the 3rd millennium BC, and relatively advanced sailing vessels, coupled with sophisticated navigational skills enabled an evolutionary seaborne expansion out into the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar, and out to the Asian Islands and the Pacific, including, as Polynesians, reaching out as far as New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. They may well have reached the Americas before the Vikings.

Prior to the coming of influences from India and China around 100 BC, the most widespread culture known in South East Asia was that of Dong Son which originated in Vietnam but spread down as far as Indonesia. It is renowned for advanced Bronze workings and stone monuments. Extensive trade links existed between the peoples of South East Asia and elsewhere and the growing strengths of Chinese and Indian cultures meant their influences gradually increased on the region.

The major economy in the region in the period early in the first millennium AD through to about 500 AD was that of the Kingdom of Funan, which covered much of modern day Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Whilst little is known about it, it is likely that rather than being a single centralised unified state it was more a collection of city states sometimes at war with one another sometimes closely cooperating. The kingdom came increasingly under Indian influences with the Hindu Sanskrit language becoming the language of court. The Kingdom benefited significantly from being on the seaborne trade routes between India and China, and when these trade routes shifted the Kingdom rapidly declined.

A successor state to the Kingdom of Funan was that of the Chenla Kingdom, though it covered a more restricted area, around modern day Cambodia and South Vietnam. It in turn was superseded by the more powerful Khmer Empire. The Khmer Empire, established in 802 AD, lasted for some 700 years. At its peak in the 11th to the 13th centuries its capital at Angkor, in modern day Cambodia, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world and the Empire was covered by an extensive network of roads and rest-houses which connected every town in the Empire. The Khmer Empire built the temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The Khmer Empire suffered a long decline, with contributory factors including climate change and internal power struggles.

A further significant south east Asian empire was the Majapahit Empire centred on the island of Java in modern day Indonesia which reached its peak in the second half of the 14th century. It was initially established with the aid of a Mongol armada sent by Kublai Khan in response to insults from an earlier kingdom.

From the 12th century AD there was a steady increase in the Islam faith amongst South Eastern peoples. A significant boost was the voyages of the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He who established a number of Chinese Muslim communities along coastal regions of what are now Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Around 1400 AD the Malacca Sultanate covering the southern part of modern day Malaysia and part of the island of Sumatra became an important trading area and a centre for Islamic learning and the wider dissemination of the Muslim faith in the area. In 1511 the Malacca Sultanate fell to the Portuguese and the centre of Muslim influence shifted to the Sultanate of Brunei, which benefited from the emigration from Malacca of Muslim merchants and traders.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the Europeans increased their control of the island areas, particularly the Spanish and the Dutch. There was also a large influx of Chinese seeking economic opportunities. Further north however the Ayutthaya Kingdom in Thailand, and the Lao Xang Kingdom of Laos both existed from the mid 14th century through into the 18th century. In the late 19th century however most of the rest of South East Asia came under European control, principally the French and the British, with the Philippines passing from Spanish to United States of America control in the late 19th century. The only country in South East Asia to avoid European colonisation was what is roughly modern day Thailand, also known as Siam, largely due to the diplomatic skills of its monarchs, and the modern reforms of its government.



Mankind originated in Africa, and emigrated out into the rest of the world. With the exception of Egypt however, agriculture and advanced civilisations first emerged elsewhere. Farming and husbandry spread into Africa from about 5,000 BC. At that time what is now the Sahara was a fertile area, though it was gradually drying out to become the desert it now is, and which is incidentally continuing to spread North into Southern Europe.

A number of empires and civilisations have existed in various areas of Africa at the same time as the other civilisations of Europe and Asia, though much less is known about them. There is evidence for example of metal-smelting in central Africa dating back 2500 years BC and walled settlements dating back 1000 years BC or more. In what is now Nigeria in Western Africa the Nok culture developed around 1000 BC and was producing terrocotta figures including human heads and various animals. By 500 BC the use of iron was spread as far as South Africa.

Egyptian influence spread along the Nile and the kingdoms of Nubia and Kush arose in what is now Sudan. These at times came to dominate Egypt itself. This contact also helped ensure relatively advanced civilisations around the Horn of Africa region, including for much of the first millennium AD the kingdom of Aksum around what is modern day Ethiopia, which traded extensively with Rome, Arabia and India. Axum became Christian in the 4th century AD.

Following their defeat of Carthage, the Romans began to extent their influence along the whole of the North African Mediterranean coastline and during the reign of Augustus this was completed with the whole of the Mediterranean coastline being under Roman control. Whilst the Romans ruled over or controlled the North African coastline until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, widespread contact with the rest of Africa was cut off by the Sahara Desert.

There is little detailed understanding of African history away from North and Eastern Africa and to a lesser extent Western Africa. It is believed that much of these central and southern areas became populated by the expansion of a Bantu-speaking people who migrated out of mid-Western Africa from about 1000 BC. One particular long lasting civilisation about which there is some albeit still very limited evidence is what is termed the Sao Civilisation cantered south of Lake Chad, and who may have existed from about 600 BC for some 2000+ years. Other recognisable civilisations did not emerge in these areas until late in the first millennium AD and more extensively towards the middle of the second millennium AD.

In North Africa, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a large part of North Africa came under the control of the Vandals, one of the Germanic people’s that had invaded the Roman Empire, but who then crossed the Mediterranean. Further East the areas remained under Roman control, albeit under what we now term the Byzantine Empire. In the mid 6th century the Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconquered most of North Africa, including the areas that had been taken over by the Vandals. The Byzantine rule however was far less effective than that of the previous Roman Empire and much of the region reverted to local Berber control.

In the middle of the 7th century the Arab conquests began. In 642 BC the Arabs conquered Egypt and other parts of the adjoining North African coastline, and by the early 8th century they controlled the whole of the North African coastline. Ethiopia in the horn of Africa remained Christian but it was cut off from Europe by the Muslims. North African has remained part of the Muslim world through to the present day, albeit with a further period of European domination in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

From the mid first millennium AD organised kingdoms emerged in western and central Africa. One of the first of these was Ghana, which included parts of what are now Mali and Mauritania as well as modern day Ghana. They traded extensively with the Arabs further North, in particular providing Gold. Whilst not a Muslim empire, the administration of the empire was largely undertaken by Muslims. The empire declined in the 11th and 12th centuries for reasons not fully understood but possible due to a shift in the trade of Gold and internal conflicts.

Not long after the fall of the Ghana Empire, slightly further south, the Mali Empire rose and was the major empire in Western Africa from the mid 13th century though it declined through to the 15th and 16th centuries. The city of Timbuktu within the Mali Empire became for a while a major cultural centre which had a large library and Islamic university. The Mali Empire was superseded by the Songhai Empire though this also only lasted through to the late 16th century.

Elsewhere in Africa the Kingdom of Kongo existed from the 14th century through to the late 19th century when it came under the control of Portugal. The Kingdom of Kongo was a major exporter of slaves to the Europeans. In the South of Africa the first city known was that of Great Zimbabwe which was the centre of an Empire from about the 11th to the 15th century AD, and consisted of some impressive stone buildings including one known as The Great Enclosure which is the largest pre-colonial structure south of the Sahara, with walls as high as 11m. On the South Eastern African coast a number of Swahili peoples, an offshoot of the Bantus, intermingled with Arab peoples to form trading nations, trading ivory, slaves, and gold with Arabia, India, Persia, and China.

During the course of the 15th century the Portuguese established trading posts initially down the coast of West Africa, and in 1488 sailed around the Cape of Good Hope opening up trading routes on the East African coast and across to India and the Far East.

Into the 16th century the Europeans began the African slave trade across the Atlantic. A slave trade with the Arabs had existed long before the coming of the Europeans, but the Europeans turned into an efficient and huge industry. Begun by the Portuguese and Spanish, by the 18th century the British dominated the trade with the Triangular Trade of taking British manufactured goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and sugar from the West Indies back to Britain. The British however were also the first to stop their Slave trade in 1808 and then forced others to also do so.

Meanwhile Europeans also began to found colonies in Africa with the Portuguese settling in Angola and Mozambique and the Dutch founding a colony in South Africa. Full colonisation was slow and by 1870 only 10% of the continent was under European control. However during the course of the 19th century Europeans had explored the continent, through explorers such as Dr Livingstone and Richard Burton, and they had come to realize the vast resources of the continent. Following the Berlin Conference in 1884 which saw rules set by the Europeans for their occupation of Africa, a Scramble for Africa occurred and by 1914 over 90% was occupied with only Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia, and Liberia, which had been established by United States citizens, remaining independent.


America through to the coming of the Europeans

The Americas were initially populated by peoples from Asia migrating across the Bering Straits when there was a land bridge linking Asia with North America. There were a number of such waves of migration initially dating back either to about 40,000 years ago, or to about 20,000 years – there remain differences of opinion. The migrations stopped about 11,000 years ago as the Bering Straits became a sea. Thus the peoples of the Americas developed independently of those of the main European-Asian-African landmasses. Whilst Inuit people’s did migrate into Alaska around the first millennium AD crossing the ice from Siberia they did not act as a cultural bridge.

The migrants into the Americas split, over hundreds and thousands of years, into many different tribes, and their expansion continued south down to Cape Horn at the Southern Tip of South America. They were there by about 14,000 BC.

For a long time, particularly in North America, the way of life was characterised by relatively small mobile groups of often less than 100 moving from place to place as hunters. Over time however more settled communities emerged cultivating a wide variety of crops including maize, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa beans, pumpkins, and many more. Well over half of the types of food crops now grown around the world originated in the Americas.

Around 3000 BC a major civilization arose in a part of what is now Peru, the Norte Chico, and lasted through to about 1800 BC. It had impressive architecture and used textiles. However it lacked use of pottery or sculpture or visual arts.

Independently, though possibly a little later, complex civilizations also emerged in central America. These included civilizations such as the Olmec, the Zapotec, and the Mayans. Some characteristics of these civilizations included pyramid-temples, relatively advanced mathematics and astronomy, writing, and copper, silver, and gold metalworking. Unlike the Norte Chico in South America they also used pottery and fine arts, and also invented the wheel but used it only as a toy.

The Mayans were the longest lasting of these civilizations and it was a major civilization through much of the first millennium AD comprising of a large number of loosely federated city states. The civilization suffered a major collapse around 900 AD, for reasons that are not fully understood but likely included a combination of causes including internal warfare, overpopulation, and environmental changes. The civilization however didn’t completely disappear and it continued in a reduced and weakened state through to the coming of the Europeans. The remaining Mayan cities and peoples were gradually absorbed into the Spanish Empire and there are remain millions of Mayan speakers today primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras.

Another two major civilizations had the misfortune to emerge shortly before the coming of the Europeans.

The Aztec Empire emerged in central Mexico centered on the city of Tenochtitlan, the remnants of which are now located in a part of modern day Mexico City. The Empire originated in 1427 as an alliance between 3 city states in opposition to the Tepanec state which had previously dominated the region. The city state of Tenochtitlan however came to dominate and the influence rapidly expanded out to many other neighboring areas and states, partially through military conquest and partially through economic bullying. The Empire was still expanding when the central city fell to the Spanish conquistadors under Cortes, aided by some of the native peoples who were enemies of the Aztecs.

The Incan Civilization in South America became the largest of pre-Columbian America but its major expansions only occurred in the 15th century. Shortly before Pizarro arrived internal strife between the Incan Emperor’s sons, smallpox which had spread from the initially conquered territories in central America and killed over half of the population, and also discontent amongst recently conquered peoples, severely weakened the Incas. Pizarro was able to take advantage and with the aid of dishonesty, technology, and horses was able to eliminate the heads of the Incan Empire leaving no effective resistance to the Spanish take over.