Review of Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History by Jon Thares Davidann and Marc Jason Gilbert Pearson

Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History. Jon Thares Davidann and Marc Jason Gilbert. New York: Pearson, 2013. ISBN: 9780205532667

High school AP and college world history teachers looking for a brief but entertaining supplementary text for their classes may want to consider this innovative, accessible, and well-written paperback. The book is thematic and crosses boundaries of space and time. The authors, both on the faculty at Hawaii Pacific University and well-known specialists on world and Asian history, have drawn together a variety of case studies in order to examine cultural contact as an agent of change since 1500 with what they term an “encounters model”. Rather than politics, often the focus of such studies, they emphasize encounters across the spaces between cultures as a way of examining some of the significant transformations that resulted when two or more different peoples engaged each other, whether violently or peacefully. The authors were influenced in their approach by the late Jerry Bentley’s pioneering book, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford University Press, 1993), that made a growing body of scholarly work on Afro-Eurasia before 1500 accessible to non-specialists and students. Davidann and Gilbert’s book can be viewed as an attempt to bring Bentley’s analysis up to contemporary times. Like Bentley, their reader-friendly book provides a reasonable balance between the scholarly and teaching function.

The authors chose ten case studies from modern world history, most of which should be of interest to students, to illustrate their approach on how contact brought change to all parties, altering the culture of the colonizer as well as the colonized, the newcomers as well as the local people. Hence, they write, while the British sought to impose their culture on India, chicken curry later became the unofficial national dish of Britain. They show how outsiders impacted other societies in various ways but also had to work within the realities of the local societies, which often adapted the outsider’s ideas to their own needs and traditions. As a result, Italian Jesuit missionaries adopted aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture while Catholicism became indigenized in Latin America. Hybridity and cultural mixing became common, creating a middle ground of openness between contending cultures. The geographical range of the book is wide, with examples from Mexico and the Caribbean, China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Polynesia, North America, Central Asia, India, Africa, and Europe. Some forty percent of the coverage concerns the twentieth century. The authors do not expect their readers to have detailed knowledge of the subject matter.

After a brief and useful introduction, there are ten chapters grouped into four thematic sections. The first section, Encounters in the Age of Exploration, looks at familiar material in new ways. In Chapter One, they explore Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans, moving from the Taino-Columbus relationship and the resulting cultural conflicts to the conquest of the Aztecs. They debunk the myth that the Aztecs believed Cortes to be a god, portraying the Spaniards instead as, in Aztec eyes, just another group of outlying people (albeit a well-armed and ruthless one) on the fringe of the Aztec Empire. They note how the strategies pursued by the Spaniards and Aztecs reflected their own cultural values and how both adapted to the changing conditions. Some Spaniards even abandoned Spanish culture for a Native American identity. Chapter Two concerns Christian missionaries (especially Jesuits) and indigenous responses in China and Japan in the later 1500s and early 1600s, demonstrating the give and take between the outsiders and the local societies. The Jesuit movement toward, and dialogue with, Chinese culture is a well-known story to world historians and should also interest students. The chapter also shows how some Catholic missionaries in Japan showed a similar pattern of cultural adaptation but could not overcome the turbulent Japanese politics of the time or the divisions among Christian missionary orders, leading to their expulsion. Chapter Three looks at the Ottoman model of a multicultural state, outlining the mechanisms of Turkish Muslim relations with the various ethnic and religious minorities. In a particularly interesting discussion, they focus on the cosmopolitan Ottoman ports of Salonica and Algiers, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in relative harmony and religious and cultural syncretism were common until the wars and political upheavals of the twentieth century.

The second section addresses Middle Ground Successes and Failures. Chapter Four surveys Native American encounters with Europeans in North America. Like Aztecs, Native Americans initially perceived the Europeans as new outsiders bringing resources. But the British and French newcomers viewed North America through their own cultural lens, as a wilderness waiting to be tamed and settled. The Europeans and indigenous groups had radically different concepts of land use, subsistence, and settlement, causing problems and clashes. The chapter offers nice sketches of groups such as the Catawba and the French fur traders. Chapter Five discusses the Polynesian encounter with Euro-Americans, an episode less well-known among world historians and students. Polynesians were not in decline; indeed, some societies were expanding when Europeans arrived. As with the other cases, both sides held misconceptions of the other that would have deadly consequences. Eventually cultural mixing occurred and some even crossed the cultural boundary from their own group to the other. Chapter Six examines the frontiers of Central Asia where Russia, China, and the steppe empires connected and collided. The chapter rewrites the idea that Russia and China were usually hegemons in the region; rather, for many centuries, they contend, Central Asians were often more powerful and had strong impacts on their neighbors. They analyze the long Russian interaction with the Mongols, Russian expansion into the steppe, raiding and slavery, Russian resistance to multiculturalism in their colonies, and the dynamic relationship between Russia and the steppes, including temporary alliances. Their coverage of Russian missionary activity and forced conversion, and of how some steppe peoples capitalized on this for own interests, is especially instructive.

The third and fourth sections emphasize imperialism, nationalism, and twentieth century challenges. Chapter Seven on British imperialism and Indian nationalism analyzes the decline of the Mughals, the British East India Company’s policies, the British Orientalists and their influence (such as identifying parallels between Hindu and Western civilizations), the Bengal Renaissance, and British contempt for Indians. This leads to what they term the War of 1857 (rather than the  “Great Mutiny”), which modified but did not end British attempts to reshape India, shifting the focus from religion to economics. They also demonstrate how Gandhi’s eclectic philosophy and strategies owed much to both Indian traditions and Western thinkers. In Chapter Eight the authors turn their attention to Japanese imperialism in East Asia and nationalist reactions from the 1890s to World War II. They offer an interesting discussion of Japanese rule in Taiwan and the attempt to modernize what they considered the “primitive” indigenous Malay peoples, although they believed this would take many decades, even centuries. But much intermarriage of indigenous people with Chinese and Japanese occurred, often with Japanese approval. They also explore Japan’s harsh rule in Korea, the role of the Korean YMCA in nurturing Korean nationalism, sports competitions, and the Nanjing massacre. Chapter Nine, Mapping Africa: European perceptions and African realities, argues that the political encounter between Africans and Europeans spurred many changes, some devastating, others creative. Among the forces at work were the Balkanization of African peoples and states, European and African perceptions of each other, as well as Christian and Muslim missionary activity. Chapter Ten surveys the limits of multiculturalism that resulted from immigration by non-white people into Europe in the 20th-21st century, posing issues of race, gender, religion, law, and prejudice. The chapter contains a nice examination of one of the lesser known immigrant groups, the Surinamese immigrants in the Netherlands and their impact on Dutch society.

Cross-Cultural Encounters is not just another account of Europeans becoming dominant but rather emphasizes the changes of the past five centuries as a two-way street. Hence, it offers students a new way of thinking about the world. The book includes provocative images and useful maps. The authors include analytical questions at the end of each chapter so students can better engage the material. The book is well-researched but given the authors’ broad reach, a few errors of fact, typos, and misleading statements are inevitable. For example, they describe the Silk Road as going through Mongolia although the most common routes stayed south of the Great Wall, only skirting the territory of present day Mongolia. They refer to the “immigrant” Chinese population in Taiwan (p. 150) in the early twentieth century, although in fact the ancestors of many of those families had settled on the island in the 1600s and 1700s.  They identify Sufism and dervishes in Turkey with Shiite Islam (p. 59) but Sufi dervishes are better known as a part of the Sunni Turkish tradition. Nor were all Sufis also dervishes. There are a few murky and questionable references which need more explanation, such as “Equatorial African Uganda” (p. 58), presumably referring to Equatoria, the southernmost province of Ottoman Egypt in the nineteenth century and comprised largely of today’s South Sudan plus, for a time, the northern part of Uganda. Occasionally a term needs explanation for students, such as the Aztec Toxcatl festival (p. 26). Sometimes the understandably truncated coverage oversimplifies. Hence, discussing Somalia in Chapter Nine, the authors write that because the Somali people had been divided into three colonies (British, French, and Italian Somaliland), they still suffer from the political fractures resulting from European rule (pp. 168-169).  But the situation is more complicated. Somali society has long been divided into antagonistic clans and rival states, and only sporadically had much political unity before Western colonialism. Furthermore, both eastern Ethiopia and northeast Kenya have substantial Somali populations, further fragmenting the society. Hence, while colonialism deserves some of the blame for Somalia’s inability to form a cohesive government and coherent nation, other factors have also played a role. Despite these minor flaws, students should find this book stimulating and world history scholars may also read it with profit. I particularly recommend Cross-Cultural Encounters to teachers for classroom use or as an informative reference.


Reviewed by Craig A. Lockard, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
Edited by Rebecca A. Nedostup

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]