Can a book based on statistical data grab readers’ attention as strongly as writings containing fiction, political intrigues, biographies, media gossip etc.?
Matthew White proves it is possible with his 688-page tome, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, with the subtitle, “The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities.” The book traces wars, atrocities, genocides, and multicides, in chronological order, from around 500 BCE till 2010 CE, and lists the numbers killed, cause of the incidents, locations, and the responsible parties in each case. The author intersperses the descriptions of events with discussions of relevant issues such as religious killings, genocide, the western way of war, crazed tyrants etc., After some comprehensive data analysis from different viewpoints such as the underlying religious, psychological, economic, and other factors, the author ranks the top one hundred “atrocities” in order of the death toll. Some natural causes such as famine also make the list.
The oft-quoted phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics” is losing its vigor due to the recent precise and highly logical mathematical data analysis techniques. The author is cognizant of the “fuzziness” of the recorded body counts, and uses a common sense approach to separate the grains from the chaff.
The overwhelming conclusion is that the twentieth century is the most violent one, with the second world war claiming the first rank with 66 million victims. The author finds interesting results from the “raw numbers” in the one hundred ranked multicides.
China is the top location, followed by Europe, Russia, and France. The French are featured as participating the most with 18 events, closely followed by the Chinese and British. A total of 455 million killings cover a span of 100 events with economics listed as the predominant reason behind the killings. The victims were mostly civilians, and as the author writes in the introduction, the army is usually the safest place to be in during a war!
The book has an interesting analysis about the role of religion in the one hundred horrible events. Many hold the opinion that there will be no wars if religions are eradicated. White makes a careful study of how to estimate religious cause for an atrocity or war. In most cases a tyrant or an elite group might have used religious fervor to advance a personal agenda. Hitler was not a devout Catholic, and Saddam Hussein’s practice of Islam was self-promoting. The raw numbers, actually show only 10% of the killings attributed to religion. In the categorization of religious adherents most involved in conflict, the author finds Christians and Muslims in a majority of cases with Jews participating in others.
White brings to notice the fact that followers of Eastern religions haven’t often killed each other over who has a better God. The monotheistic viewpoint of one all-powerful God sowed the seeds of dissent and extreme passion.
The book sheds lots of insight into human nature in general, and provides clues to the minds and behavior of dictators, religious fanatics, and common people. The reader is swept through the large canvas of human civilization spanning over 2,500 years in time. As Steven Pinker puts it in the foreword to the book, “White presents a new history of civilization, a history whose protagonists are not great emperors but their unsung victims millions and millions and millions of them.”
Five events pertaining to the Indian subcontinent figure in the list of one hundred: Bahmani-Vijayanagara War (1366 CE, Rank 70), Aurangzeb (1658-1707 CE, Rank 23), Famines of British India (1769-70, 1876-79, 1896-1900 CE, Rank 4), Partition of India (1947 CE, Rank 70), and Bengali Genocide (1971 CE, Rank 40).
White’s analysis and conclusions on India and Hinduism should be mandatory reading for Indian politicians, who even after half-a-century of freedom, are trying to manipulate religious sentiments towards their vote-bank.
According to White, “Wars of conquest are rarely launched from India. A naval expedition against Indonesia in the 11th century and scattered raids into Afghanistan may be history’s only attacks outward across the natural borders of India.” This might be explained by geographic isolation, however, White notes, that “there is also a notable scarcity of massive killings inside India as well. Considering that India has usually contained around one-fifth or one-sixth of the population-as many people as either China or Europe—why doesn’t India show up on my list as often as China and Europe?”
White indicates that the worst incidents of violence were inflicted by non-Hindus: Lytton, Yahya Khan, and Aurangzeb. White used the term “eerily non-threatening” to describe India’s largely peace-abiding culture.
But he also questions if it was possible that none of these violent events were documented, “that no one wrote it down?” He claims that Hindu philosophy has never been very interested in “recording the chain of cause and effect,” which might be the reason that few such tales and details of events show up in history. Even so, the author states, “that doesn’t entirely explain why there are so few recorded mega deaths after 1000 CE, when historians arrived alongside the major Muslim conquerors. I should also point out that I managed to find two mega deaths (Mayan and Aztec) in the poorly recorded history of pre-Columbian America, so why not India?’
Mr. White’s conclusions reiterate what Professor Thomas R. Trautman writes in India-A Brief History of A Civilization, published by Oxford University Press in 2011: “The world India made (outside India) was not put together at the point of a spear but through the appeal of its products, its religions, and its sciences.”
How true that sounds even in 2013 CE!
Arun Sekar is a retired Professor of Electrical Engineering from Tennessee Technological University. He has published several technical and other articles. He lives in Morgan Hill, CA and enjoys reading India Currents.