Over the past weekend I read a book called, Jefferson’s War, by Joseph Wheelan. It is a surprisingly quick read, and a very interesting look at early United States history. The subtitle he uses is America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805, and while discussing that allusion could occupy an entire long post, I am more interested in looking at that book in contrast with Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt. What fascinated me reading both of them, is the role that slow communications played in so much of what went on during both conflicts. The Barbary Wars of Wheelan’s book took place in the era immediately following the creation of the Constitution and the first years of the current United States, yet some sixty years later, during the Taiping revolution (or rebellion, or civil war, depending on whose point of view you take), communications were largely confined to paper and pen carried along by messengers. At best, during the Barbary Wars, you had ships that employed flag codes between vessels – semaphore at a tactical level was not a novel concept at the time, but incredibly limited in range.
Large decision points of both conflicts hinged on information that was weeks to months out of date in arriving back at the countries of origin of the European and US forces involved. Being an English and Chinese-language-capable scholar, Platt primarily discusses British and American involvement, as well as giving an in-depth look at both the Qing imperial forces and the Taiping rebels’ records (such that are available.) His account covers many incidents in the war where the fate of the Taiping rested on perceptions in Britain that were shaped by communications, some physically intercepted, some merely delayed in reaching London than others. Wheelan, too, touches on several decisive moments where the delays in communication between the US and its naval forces dramatically changed the outcome of battles, strategy, and public perceptions of the war abroad.
What fascinates me about this is that the same sorts of “accidents” of delayed communications are not exceptional – if anything, the communications enjoyed by both sets of forces were still much more rapid and effective than those available to militaries, merchants, and decision makers of all eras of human history. Today, delays of more than a few days or a few hours are considered abnormal – we find ourselves frustrated at having to wait longer than a few seconds for messages to transmit across the internet or to make a strong connection between telephone exchanges. I find that one of the most difficult things for contemporary laymen to grasp is this incredible distance and delay in communications in history. Sometimes I even find myself guilty of projecting the granted ease of sending a message nowadays onto situations in the past where even distances of a few kilometers could prove decisive.
We even see this in filmmaking and television writing. I would argue that one of the big reasons for an explosion in television shows and films set in the nineteen eighties or earlier is because so many plots and tropes rely on communication breakdowns that require an inordinate amount of contrivance to render believable in a modern setting. A missing person or a person running late to a critical “plot point” back in the day was entirely plausible and a regular feature of history and fiction alike. Today, barring extraordinary circumstances, we are in constant communication with important figures in our lives and our world, for better or worse. We rely on a network of communications that still relies on a grand, powerful, and redundant physical infrastructure unlike anything seen before – not even the Indian courier routes of the Mauryas or the Pony Express were effective enough to allow the interconnectedness we experience as a given today.
I will return to this topic later, and, I plan, in more depth in the future, but I wanted to capture that sort of “a-ha!” moment I had when I truly appreciated again just how much “the past is a foreign country.” When we feel isolated today, it means that we have not had the interaction that we want with the immediacy we expect. When we make decisions or carry out actions that can change our entire lives, we do not expect to do so blindly or without the resource of advice, be it from friends, family, and peers, or from the broad knowledge base of the internet or far-distant supervisors and managers in business and government. Understanding the significance of that, I posit, allows you to better comprehend not only the past, but also the way that society and all its multifarious manifestations are changing from the depths of the Third World to the heights of globalized industry and science.