Does History Link to Geography?

Although separate disciplines, history and geography are tightly intertwined. While history attempts to examine human society, culture and experience through a temporal lense, geography does so through a spatial one.

A map of the world, surrounded by classical imagery. (Credit: Marzolino, via iStock.)

Physical geography and natural phenomena have undoubtedly influenced the course of history: the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused massive global cooling, attests to this. It is human geography, however, which is more closely linked to history. History is, for example, an incredibly important factor in the development (or decline) of cities. The relative economic power of London, owing to it’s strategic location and history as the Roman capital of Britannia, encouraged the Hanseatic League to set up it’s main English trading post there. At this time the government was located in Westminster, but the relative autonomy afforded to the Corporation of London made it the main commercial centre on the island. Having its own government and liberal economic laws, and a notable lack of interference from the national government, made it attractive to traders. The wealth this generated caused an explosion in the urban population and forced the city to abandon the grid-iron street patterns favoured by the Romans to accommodate the growth. This led to an incredibly dense settlement with narrow winding streets, which in turn necessitated the development of public mass transit come industrialisation, now an essential component of every major city in the world.

In stark contrast to the wealth historical factors have helped to produce, an inability to develop regions of Southern Africa can, to a large extent, be traced to apartheid era debt afflicting the region. Not only must South Africans repay debts of a regime that oppressed them, but people in countries such as Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique have been saddled with enormous debts fighting South Africa’s apartheid wars. These debts have made Southern Africa the poorest region in the world. As poverty is closely linked to high birth and mortality rates, the region’s history has resulted in modern demographics unseen in other parts of the world, with incredibly young populations and rapid growth. This has resulted in dense urban developments and rapid land degradation as a result of overgrazing and the necessity of intensive agriculture. 

Migration, another incredibly topical theme in modern geography, has also been affected by historical European colonialism. Push and pull factors are a foundation of modern studies of migration, and yet colonial ties have only been appreciated as a significant pull factor in recent history. While much credence was traditionally given to economic and social factors, historical factors have recently been afforded more attention. The Caribbean is a region characterised by a diverse group of people – forced migrants (slaves) from Africa as well as indentured and voluntary migrants from Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century the migration flow reversed and citizens emigrated in large numbers – overwhelmingly to the colonial motherland. While Britain was notable in its extensive attempts to restrict the volume of migrants, France and the Netherlands welcomed and indeed encouraged migration from the French Antilles and Suriname respectively. This is responsible for rapid demographic and social changes in those nations in the late 1900s which have shaped their population pyramids and urbanisation to this day.

History is also an oft-cited reason for territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. While geographical factors are the predominant reason why these islands are desirable, – with an abundance of oil and militarily strategic locations – a lack of clarity as to historical ownership has been used to justify claims. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco failed to specify the status of the islands which left them open to competing territorial claims. China, following a border dispute with the Soviet Union, laid claim to all of the islands, not wanting Soviet ally North Vietnam to exert control over its coastline. After a minor naval skirmish with North Vietnam, China occupied Johnson reef and used this as a base to further its influence in the region. Today no less than seven nations compete for control over this trade passage worth $3.37 trillion.

Although it is obvious from these examples and countless more that history and geography are almost inseparable, historical geography remains a relatively new field with innumerable unexplored areas of research. Ultimately, it is only through an interdisciplinary approach that we can truly appreciate and understand that which we study. Hopefully, geographers and historians can move beyond their differences and appreciate this in future.

Michael Hendöe

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