Forget Columbus. Globalization began a lot sooner than you think

Vikings, Mayas and the ancient Chinese were already bringing the world closer together in the year 1000. Episode 25 with Dr Valerie Hansen.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

It’s a bit on the nose. In the new Captain America spin-off “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, our patriotic superheroes take on a terrorist group called the Flag Smashers. Their dream is a united world without borders. They also think things weren’t that bad when half of humanity had been wiped out by Malthusian supervillain Thanos. They look like the steering committee of Extinction Rebellion in an amateur production of Phantom of the Opera, so there’s that for comic relief.

You know you’ve made it when you join communists, nazis and organized crime as fodder for comic book antagonists. To be fair, episode 2 takes great pains to present the Flag Smashers’ point of view with some sympathy. But ultimately (and there’s a long history if you’re keen to read it) Marvel makes transnationalism into a misguided utopia that ends in fascism, opposite Captain America’s wholesome flag-waving.

It’s a sign of the times that the latest superproduction chose to restage this particular bit of Marvel lore. Borders are back. The pandemic only accelerated a nationalistic retreat that had long brewed. I moved to London thinking it was a mere commute to family in Normandy. Now the Channel is so hard to cross it might as well be the Arctic ocean. I wrote an op-ed for The Independent this past weekend urging the British public to remember that multinational families – not summer holidays – are the first victims of international travel restrictions. It took us decades to open the world and allow our families to even exist; we are losing it all in months and I’m starting to wonder if people are even noticing.

In times like these, it helps to take the long view – even if that means going back a millenium or so. This week I spoke with Dr Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Yale University. She looked at the year 1000 around the world and found how pathways were opening up between cultures, from Mayan trade routes to Southeast Asian export economies, Islamic conquests in China and the Vikings landing in Canada. Our conversation was a welcome break from modern politics and a reminder that while we may not be living through the best bit of history just now, an open world has and will continue to exist.

Listen to the episode

(PS: But also, angry mobs already descended on foreigners in 12th century Constantinople.)

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The interview

Below are extremely condensed excerpts of my chat with Dr Valerie Hansen. For the full story, listen or read the transcript.

What’s happening in the year 1000 that piqued your interest?

In the year 1000, two things happen in the borders of modern China. One is that in the far western regions of China, a Muslim conqueror from the Karakhanids conquers Khotan. The Karakhanids are one of the big central Asian kingdoms I write about. So you have a corner of Western China that has never been under Muslim rule (that now is.) Meanwhile, the Song dynasty is fighting a war with the people to the North, the Kitan people, who found a dynasty called the Liao. The Liao overpower the Song, they sign a treaty, they cordon off part of modern China – the whole area around Beijing – and the Song relinquish control. Those are both things that are kind of unprecedented. And then the final thing that happens in the year 1000 is the Vikings touch down in America. So those three things were in my head and I thought, why are these things happening? All the events are about people in one region going to another region and maybe bumping up against others.

What is it then about that year?

Of course the big question for historians is causation. My answer is that there's probably around 250 million people in the world at that time. That must be some kind of turning point where people start to move out of their home regions into other regions. One of the reasons that they can do that is that there are agricultural booms in a couple of different places, in China, in Europe, in the Islamic world, maybe among the Maya. The upshot is that there's increased productivity, so some people don't have to work the land. They can be merchants or they could somehow make their livings off the land.

What kind of globalization are we talking about? Is it trade? Is it ideas? Is it people?

It's all of those things.I start with the Vikings touching down in Canada, because we have very good descriptions of the first encounters between the Norse and the local peoples of what's modern Newfoundland. The first thing they do is kill each other. No questions asked. But then they start trading.

Ideas are also moving around. Leaders of small war bands like the Vikings often come into contact with other rulers. And they notice that rulers who have more established proto countries often belong to some kind of world religion – so Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. A lot of these leaders convert to these new religions.

The question that interested me the most really was the impact on everybody in the society. If a group of Norse go to Newfoundland, start trading there and bring back some goods to Greenland or Iceland, that may not affect very many people. But if the ruler of the Rus, this proto country in modern Ukraine, converts to Christianity, over the centuries that's going to affect all of his subjects, right? So religion is one of the places where we can see the impact of globalization writ large on a lot of different people in society.

And then, people. One group of people who we know are moving are merchants. There's probably not that many of them. Another group are envoys. And then slaves. Slavery is one of the things that I think is part of the human condition. Slavery has existed everywhere in the world, probably since the first time somebody was stronger than somebody else. In the year 1000, we have a lot of information about slaves. Africa is a source of slaves, but so is Northern and Eastern Europe. Our word in English “slave” comes from Slav. And we also have military slaves being exported from central Asia.

The whole Chinese population is consuming these aromatic woods and fragrances and spices coming from Southeast Asia. And the people in Southeast Asia are changing. They're still living in the forest or gathering these woods in the forest, but instead of being on their own schedule, they're now producing for export. I think it’s a sign of globalization when people living in one part of the world are producing for a distant market and they have no control over that market. Maybe that market takes a downturn that affects those producers and they don't even know why it's happening.

So in that sense, the impact of globalization is big and it affects a lot of people throughout society and not simply the top rulers or the most literate people in the medieval world.

How aware would an average person have been of their place in the world and the existence of other cultures?

Probably not that much. I'm very careful that I'm talking about the beginnings of globalization, not full-fledged, rampant globalization. One of the questions is, how many people are aware of the globe, of the existence of the Earth as opposed to their own world? I think most people probably didn't know that much about anywhere outside of their own country. But if they knew someone who had been taken as a slave or they met someone who was a slave, those are the kinds of encounters when people would have realized that there were other people in other societies. And it's something that's just starting around the year 1000.

But you do cite examples, particularly in cities, of some backlash.

One of the things I was looking for was anti-globalization. Are there any people who are opposed to these increases in trade? And there are three uprisings against foreign merchants. One of them is in the late 700s in China. One is in 995 in Cairo. And then the third example of this uprising against expatriate merchants is the massacre of the Latins in Constantinople in the early 1180s. And in each of those cases, we just know about crowds of people rising up, locals attacking these expatriate merchants who they could see are wealthier than anybody local.

Was the entry of foreigners controlled? Do you need a visa? A passport?

Nobody is carrying that kind of travel document. But when they enter a new place, they may well be carrying a letter from their ruler. When you go into China, the local officials will give you a document saying where you can go. That would be typical of a courtier. A slave I don't think would be carrying any kind of document.

As you were researching and writing this, were there parallels to modern-day globalizations and modern-day reactions to globalization that struck you? Or should we leave history where it is?

I wrote this book before COVID. The thing I've thought a lot about with 2020 was that there are so many places that are entirely dependent on another country for their supply of, say, PPE.

The big difference between now and then is that in the year 1000, the shipping technology was not as advanced as today. Massive amounts of goods were being shipped. There's a wreck of a ship that's carrying 600,000 Chinese ceramics found off the coast of Indonesia! But it wasn't enough to completely replace all the local potters. So one of the salient differences is that in the year 1000, globalization wasn't wiping out local industry. It might've been challenging it or taking some of its market share, but it was still leaving enough of it that I think if no ship came, the local potters could continue to make what they made.

This human desire for new goods, this kind of deeply felt impulse we have, there's no element of self control. Merchants don't come in and say, ‘Oh, we've reached 40% market share. We're going to stop now.’ And that's where I think we have to, in the modern world, look at this and think, do we want to be 100% dependent on X foreign power to make X good that we need?

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.