3. H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History”

The renowned English novelist H.G. Wells (1866-1946) was the author of another famous world history that was published shortly after the War. Wells came from a lower-middle-class family in Kent, and in 1884 moved to London to attend the Normal School of Science (the later Royal College of Science).[1] While a student in this South Kensington school, Wells was tutored in a broad range of natural scientific fields, ranging from biology and botany to geology and astronomical physics. During his student days, Wells already began to develop the literary abilities that would bring him renown in later years, but until well into the twentieth century he saw himself in the first place as a teacher. Wells held several teaching jobs, served as a fellow of the College of Preceptors that was responsible for the training of schoolmasters, and was a passionate advocate for the popularization of science and the improvement of English education.

His greatest literary successes came with The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898). Well’s literary and scientific worlds were very much intertwined. His works stood out by combining fictive literature with theoretical science. Wells made sure that all the scientific information presented in his novels was correct, showing his work for revisions to his friend Richard Gregory (1864-1952), who was the editor of the journal Nature.

Wells also kept an eye on international politics. Before the First World War, he expressed his concern about the ‘German menace’ that was unfolding on the continent. After the war broke out, he served as an advisor to the Allies, and made several front-line visits (without being engaged in combat). But despite his active support for one of the belligerents, the war turned Wells into a staunch opponent of nationalist politics and an advocate for a grand union of all humankind. In 1916, he wrote the novel Mr. Britling Sees it Through, which described the wartime experience in England, but also included the story of a German counterpart that faced the same doubts and hardship as the English protagonist. The novel was translated into French, Russian, and German, and also circulated behind German lines. In numerous pamphlets, Wells pleaded for the end of national government and the installation of a world state. He had high hopes for a League of Nations, and served on the wartime committee that was planning the post-war establishment of such an organization.

When a League of Nations was created after the war, Wells was disillusioned. The organization lacked strength and was politically insignificant. Wells took on a new project to consolidate a lasting world peace. The author was convinced that the war had its roots in a lack of proper education. Therefore, a new political reality could come from educational reform. Wells planned a textbook of world history that was to replace the nationalist histories that were then used in secondary education. He inquired if his friends at the League of Nations committee felt for compiling such a work as a joint effort, but they declined. Wells believed that a new world history was too important to give up. He decided to write it himself.

The Outline of History was produced in a record speed. Wells began working on the project in 1918 and the first volumes of an initial 24-part series were published in November 1919. The parts were then bound together and published as two grand volumes. Several new editions appeared in the next few years. What Wells believed to be the definitive edition came out in 1923, but later revised editions were still published in 1930 and on the eve of the Second World War. In writing the book, Wells was assisted by a strong team of scholars. It consisted of Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), professor in Greek language and classical history at Oxford University, E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), biologist and the then director of the Museum of Natural History, Henry H. Johnston (1858-1927), African and Asian explorer and widely read author on cultural anthropology and linguistics, and Ernest Barker (1874-1960), political scientist at Oxford University who also authored historical studies. H.G. Wells’ second wife, Amy Catherine “Jane” Wells (née Robbins) (1872-1927), also was closely involved in the compilation of the work.

In the introduction of the Outline, Wells presents the conviction that motivated the writing of the work: “there can be no common peace and prosperity without common historical ideas.[2] There was required “a sense of history as the common adventure of all mankind” in order to ease the tense relations between both nations and social classes. The Outline sought to realize this by “restoring” universal history. Wells believed that humankind had developed an understanding of history that could achieve global unity, but this had been forgotten in modern times. Wells states: “all the great cultures of the world hitherto, Judaism and Christianity in the Bible, Islam in the Koran, have used some sort of cosmogony and world history as a basis. It may indeed be argued that without such a basis any true binding culture of men is inconceivable. Without it we are chaos.”[3] Universal history was not just an accumulation of national histories. The many names and dates of national histories had to be omitted for broader concepts, which integrated details into grand patterns, in order to bring a universal comprehension of history within reach of an ordinary citizen. Wells explains: “Universal history is at once something more and something less than the aggregate of the national histories to which we are accustomed.”[4]

The work is divided into nine parts, referred to as ‘books’. The first two books deal with the geological history of the planet Earth, the origins of life, the origins of species, and the development of pre-historical mankind. These are topics that – especially at the time – were well outside the research field of the historical profession, but in which Wells had been tutored at the Normal School of Science. Wells believed that human history could not be understood without taking biology into account,[5] but the structure of the Outline demonstrates that Wells still subscribed to the conventional academic idea that ‘history’ was the account of human civilizations: book three, which includes the rise of civilization, is titled ‘the Dawn of History’. Wells defines ‘civilization’ as the “settlement of men upon an area continuously cultivated and possessed, who live in buildings continuously inhabited”.[6]

Wells’ introduction of the concept of civilization – in the chapter ‘The First Civilizations’ in book three – focuses on four regions: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. The rest of the world is discussed in a very brief section at the end of the chapter. It mentions the “underdeveloped peoples” of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the civilizations of Mexico and Peru, which are described as being “6000 years behind the Old World”.[7] This geographical imbalance remains throughout the rest of the work. Book four discusses the histories of Judea, Greece, and India. Book five deals with ‘the rise and collapse of the Roman Empire’. Book six treats the histories of Christianity and Islam, from their formation until the Christian crusades of the Middle Ages. Book seven opens with the ‘Age of the Land Ways’; firstly discussing the Mongol conquests, which Wells describes as “the last and greatest of all the raids of nomadism upon the civilizations of the East and West”.[8] Book seven then proceeds with the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Kipchak Empire, Moscovy, and Timurlane, whereupon the ‘Age of the Land Ways’ comes to an end and the ‘Age of the Sea Ways’ begins. The focus shifts to Western Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the maritime discoveries, which made “America to come into history”.[9] Book eight is titled ‘the Age of the Great Powers’. It subsequently discusses the European monarchies from the sixteenth century onwards, the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath, European industrialization and political ideas in the nineteenth century, European imperialist operations on other continents, to conclude with ‘the catastrophe of 1914’. The last book of the Outline gazes into the future, being titled ‘the Next Stage in History’.

Wells’ universal history shows a strong bias towards Europe and Asia. The Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and Oceania get very little attention. Within Asia, focus lies on the Western, Central and Southern part of the continent. The book shows little interest for Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea, and also Chinese history can be argued to merit more pages. This particular geographical focus is dictated by the main theme of the work: the obstructed universal integration of humanity. The Outline is an account of the integration of humankind into one world community, and the countermovement towards fragmentation that hampered the process of global integration. Wells focuses on the peoples and regions that he considered to have contributed most to these opposing processes. The idea of a political unity of the human race was formed in the Roman Empire.[10] Christianity and Islam developed the spiritual notion of universal humankind, and “opened men’s eyes to the fresh aspects of the possibility of a unified world”.[11] Also Buddhism is praised for its integrative tendencies. After the attempts of a universal unification by the Roman Church and Islam faded out, nationalist monarchies in Europe took the initiative. In seventeenth-century Europe there emerged the “modern civilization”, characterized by consciousness of class distinctions and nationalism, which had become a worldwide phenomenon in Wells’ time.[12] This unhealthy fragmented condition culminated in the atrocities of the Great War of 1914-18. The “Fourteen Points” statement of American president Woodrow Wilson marked a new epoch in human affairs, once again inclining towards a universal community.[13] For the future Wells predicts the coming of a federal world state. He states: “Nationalism as a God must follow the tribal gods to limbo. Our true nationality is mankind.”[14]

In the introduction of the Outline, Wells stresses that his universal history is not an encyclopaedia of world history that lacks unity in its presentation.[15] The work is integrated by the general theme of global integration. Peoples and countries that had contributed little to the general destiny of the human species, as defined by this theme, were warranted to be left out. At the beginning of a small paragraph on Japan, Wells declares: “Hitherto Japan has played but a small part in this history; her secluded civilization has not contributed very largely to the general shaping of human destinies; she has received much, but she has given little.”[16]

The Outline of History is not really Eurocentric or ‘Eurasian-centric’, but rather centred around the notion of the Aryan and Semitic races. In line with the dominant ethnological perception of human classification at the time, Wells thought of humanity as divided into several races. These races were not equated to certain nations or civilizations, but rather formed a more fundamental social category that transcended the boundaries between civilizations. In his discussion of the four early civilizations, Wells classifies the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indian civilizations all as ‘white’ (Aryan or Semitic), in contrast to the Chinese civilization that was Mongoloid. Islam and Christianity were essentially Semitic religions, although they had captured the hearts and minds of many Aryans. Buddhism, on the other hand, was an Aryan religion, but its practice in present time was almost exclusively confined to Mongolian peoples.[17] Although cross-racial influences were recognized, races were contributed with certain essential qualities that transcended times and regions. The Aryans were herdsmen, while the Semites were shepherds.[18] The Semites also were “counting people”; Wells identified arithmetic and algebra as “essentially Semitic sciences”.[19] All Aryan peoples, at their turn, had a bardic tradition. They were “essentially a people of the voice”.[20] Throughout The Outline, the Aryans and Semites get by far the most attention, followed by the Mongoloids. Other races, such as the Hamitic, the Australoid, and the Negroid, also are mentioned, but are portrayed standing at the sideline of history. The main focus on the Semites and Aryans might also explain the geographical bias towards ‘Semite’ South-western Asia and ‘Aryan’ India, over ‘Mongoloid’ Eastern Asia and America.

A major source of inspiration to Wells was The Martyrdom of Man (1872), written by the British scholar and African explorer Winwood Reade (1838-1875). Wells read the book during his days as a student at the Normal School of Science. He mentioned it as a strong influence in an interview about his universal history when The Outline was still in production, as well as in the introduction of his work. Winwood’s book is a secular universal history, inspired by the findings of Darwin, with whom Reade corresponded about his travels. The work is divided into four parts, which are gathered under the one-word titles ‘War’, ‘Religion’, ‘Liberty’, and ‘Intellect’. The overarching theme of the work is humanity’s struggle against ignorance, mental bondage (to religion and superstition), and barbarism.[21]

Besides its secular motif, The Martyrdom stood out from other histories in its time by the centrality of Africa. The work has its roots in Reade’s African travels. In the introduction to The Martyrdom, Reade declares: “With respect to the present work, I began it intending to prove that “Negroland” or Inner Africa is not cut off from the main-stream of events, as writers of philosophical history have always maintained, but connected by means of Islam with the lands of the East; and also that it has, by means of the slave-trade, powerfully influenced the moral history of Europe and the political history of the United States.”[22] From this point, a conception of world history unfolded itself. Reade proceeds: “But I was gradually led from writing the history of Africa into writing the history of the world. I could not describe the Negroland of ancient times without describing Egypt and Carthage. From Egypt I was drawn to Asia and to Greece; from Carthage I was drawn to Rome.” And so he goes on, casting the net wider and wider.

Wells cites numerous other works, both in the introduction and in the footnotes to the narrative throughout the work. Among these is Helmolt’s World History, through which Wells is connected to Lamprecht. A.N. Wilson, the biographer of Catholic author and historian Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), who attacked The Outline for its incorporation of Darwinian theory and negative depiction of the Catholic Church, argues that Wells was not a trained historian and had no time to read widely.[23] Therefore, Wilson states with some contempt, Wells resorted to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and “Holt’s World History” (by which he probably means a world history textbook of Henry Holt publishing house). Wells indeed was not a trained historian, and given the short time in which The Outline was written, it is not unlikely that he consulted encyclopaedias. Still, Wilson’s judgement is somewhat unfair. Wells did have the academic training in the natural scientific subjects that were also incorporated into the The Outline, and he was assisted by academic scholars from different fields. It can also be wondered, given the relative narrow geographical orientation of historical scholarship at the time, if it was possible in the first place for a work that pursued global coverage, written directly after the First World War, to completely rely on academic studies.

The Outline of History became a grand success and was sold in large numbers.[24] It was translated into many languages, and became very influential in secondary education.[25] The work also received praise from academic historians. In 1921, Carl L. Becker (1873-1945) wrote a laudatory review of The Outline in the American Historical Review.[26] He praised the work for the novelty of its motifs. Wells had written “new history”, which did not in the first place sought “to relate to the facts just as it happened”, but exploited the past in the interest of progress in the present.[27] Also the content of the work stood out from conventional historiography. Becker noticed that the table of contents missed the ‘traditional landmarks’ such as Ancient History, Medieval History, Modern History, Medieval Church, and Protestant Reformation. He stated: “Mr. Wells employs names for his major subjects which leave the well-drilled student wondering whether he has not inadvertently abandoned history for something else.”[28] In Becker’s praise for Wells’ new approach resounds a rejection of the narrow focus of conventional historical scholarship: “I now know that there were people living in Persia between the days of Xerxes and Mr. Shuster, and that the history of India did not begin with Vasco da Gama or that of China with Jenghis Khan.”[29]

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[1] Biographical information of H.G. Wells is largely based on: David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986).

[2] Consulted edition: H.G. Wells, The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (London: Newness, 1919-1920) 2. This quote is italicized in the original.

[3] Wells, Outline of History, 2.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Smith, H.G. Wells, 261.

[6] Wells, Outline of History, 103.

[7] Ibid., 120.

[8] Ibid., 471.

[9] Ibid., 518.

[10] Ibid., 352.

[11] Ibid., 353.

[12] Yet, Wells felt that Europe contributed positively to the development of humankind by the establishment of science, which together with a universal religion of righteousness and the concept of the world state, was one of the three great ideas of human history.

[13] Wells, The Outline of History, 734.

[14] Ibid. 750.

[15] Ibid., 2.

[16] Ibid., 683.

[17] Ibid., 273.

[18] Ibid., 135.

[19] Ibid., 128.

[20] Ibid., 98.

[21] John V. Fleming, Winwood Reade and the Martyrdom of Man http://www.princetonindependent.com/issue01.03/item13.html (consulted 12 December 2014).

[22] Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, consulted via: http://www.exclassics.com/martyrdom/martyr.txt (12 December 2014).

[23] A.N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc, 298.

[24] Within the first year of publication there were sold over 100.000 copies. See: A.N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984) 298. Of the first two editions, altogether there would be sold over half a million copies. See: Smith, H.G. Wells, 259.

[25] Smith, H.G. Wells, 258.

[26] Carl L. Becker, ‘Mr. Wells and the New History’, The American Historical Review Vol. 26, No. 4 (July 1921): 641-656.

[27] Becker, ‘Mr Wells’, 643.

[28] Ibid., 645.

[29] Ibid., 646. Smith claims that The Outline of History had a large effect on academic historical scholarship. See: Smith, H.G. Wells, 258. Yet, it is difficult to estimate to what extent Becker’s review represented the general stance towards Wells’ work in academic historical scholarship at both sides of the Atlantic.