Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in conversation with author Manu S. Pillai on his new book, The World: A Family History

The British historian tells the story of humanity from prehistory to the present day in his ambitious new book 

Updated - December 30, 2022 07:03 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2022 09:01 am IST

‘The World: A Family History is the most daunting and yet the most satisfying book I’ve written,’ says Simon Sebag Montefiore.

‘The World: A Family History is the most daunting and yet the most satisfying book I’ve written,’ says Simon Sebag Montefiore. | Photo Credit: Marcus Leoni

In his new book, The World: A Family History, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore traces convergences and divergences in world history through individuals and families. In an interview with historian Manu S. Pillai, he explains why it is his most daunting and yet most satisfying project yet. Edited excerpts: 

The World: A Family History; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Hachette India, ₹1,899. 

The World: A Family History; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Hachette India, ₹1,899. 

You’ve become an expert in tracing history through human agency. Is this a conscious choice?

With history, the human eye is very useful. And that’s what I’ve done, tracing the world through individuals and families. But I don’t claim this is everything. The world is made up of great movements of technology, trade, migration, pandemics and war. And ideologies and religions. But what I have done in The World is to use individuals and families to tether these processes, to make them accessible. So yes, history is about great convergences and divergences, but also human agency.

Were you nervous about doing a ‘world history’. This is your largest canvas.

Yes, this is an ambitious book. The idea itself is simple: It’s the span of world history, with the intimacy and juice of biography. It is the most daunting and yet the most satisfying book I’ve written. I also faced the fact that I am not an expert on many subjects I cover. So I went to the experts: I consulted professors all over the world, and I was lucky that many distinguished people helped me. You have to approach these things with humility. At first, I wasn’t sure it would work. But in the end, I think it has.

Procession of Dahomey chiefs with their slaves and bands.

Procession of Dahomey chiefs with their slaves and bands. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

You’ve also tried to avoid that trap of Eurocentrism.

Yes, I was clear about diversity. I wanted to approach dynasties, such as the Mughals or the Gandhi-Nehru family in India, exactly as I would approach the Ming or Tang of China, the Dahomey kings in Africa, the Hapsburgs and Windsors in Europe, and the Kennedys in America. Alongside huge countries like India, I wanted to cover others like Cambodia, Haiti, Morocco. Africa was a challenge, because there used to be an attitude that African history didn’t start until Europeans arrived. The same in the Americas. But I took it as a challenge that I had to cover the history of these places before Europeans turned up.

Coming to the unit of family, despite diversity of geography and time, when you combine power and family, you find similar patterns. And not all pleasant.

That’s why I don’t romanticise the family. Yes it remains a basic unit of human life. And the power family continues in our world. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s made a virtue of not being part of a political dynasty. Around the world power families tended to act in a certain way. But there are also differences. For instance, in Europe, primogeniture was a strong principle, but with the Ottomans and Mughals, brothers fought for the throne. It was a risky system because family feuds could destroy the country. And then there are cases where family is exaggerated. Queen Victoria orchestrated political alliances through royal marriages, but these relationships did not prevent World War I — because people follow the interests of their state more than their family.

Vintage colour lithograph of Queen Victoria in her robes of State.

Vintage colour lithograph of Queen Victoria in her robes of State. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

You also see that in political families and courts, violence — spectacular violence — was a constant.

Yes, violence is often a spectacle. In China, you had those incredible public tortures. When I first started reading, I thought these could never have been used, but they were. Much of this was designed to demonstrate the absolute power of the rulers, and to warn against standing up to it. Assassinations were especially messy. It’s actually quite hard to execute someone when you’re in a panic. That’s one of the things about human life: the sheer chaos of many simultaneous, often spontaneous, things happening everywhere around the world.

Sexuality comes across richly in the book. Sons distracting ambitious mothers by sending them lovers; homosexual relationships; and so on.

This book is a celebration of humanity, as well as an indictment. So there’s a lot of dark spots out there: massacres and wars. But also there’s poetry, song, music, architecture, and, of course, given that this is about families, sex. This is part of the richness of human existence. I’m not a prudish writer. I enjoy writing about it, I enjoy the variety of it and I also don’t judge people for it. I think a full picture of someone includes their intellectual life, their sexual life, their family life, and their political life. I try and cover it all.

A painting that shows an extravagant early 17th century ceremony involving musicians, elephants, guests on horseback and servants carrying trays of gifts to the house of the bride of Prince Dara Shikoh, the heir apparent to the Mughal throne. 

A painting that shows an extravagant early 17th century ceremony involving musicians, elephants, guests on horseback and servants carrying trays of gifts to the house of the bride of Prince Dara Shikoh, the heir apparent to the Mughal throne.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sexuality is also linked to legitimacy. And one gets the feeling that royal lines were rather mixed up.You quote the Prophet Muhammad, who says, “All genealogy is lies.”

Yes, there’s tension there, and genealogies are an invention. The idea of dynasties, and formal families is a social invention, created, presumably to, protect wealth and power. Similarly, the idea of family going through the male side is a social convention, because, families are bigger than that in terms of DNA and real genealogy. And historically, great families were mixed. The Ottomans brought in brides of different backgrounds. So you have sultans who were as much Serbian or Albanian as they were Turkish. In India, we see the Mughals mix with several groups. In the end, all family history is a history of hybridity.

The reviewer is a historian and writer.

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