We can hardly understand how the modern world arrived at its current shape without understanding the history of colonial empire. But how best to understand the history of colonial empire? In animation above, visualization designers Pedro M. Cruz and Penousal Machado portray it through a biological lens, rendering the four most powerful empires in the Western world of the 18th and 19th centuries as cells. The years pass, and at first these four cells grow in size, but we all know the story must end with their division into dozens and dozens of the countries we see on the world map today — a geopolitical process for which mitosis provides an effective visual analogy.
Cruz and Machado happen to hail from Portugal, a nation that commanded one of those four empires and, in Aeon‘s words, “controlled vast territories across the globe through a combination of seapower, economic control and brute force.” We may now regard Portugal as a small and pleasant European country, but it once held territory all around the world, from Mozambique to Macau to the somewhat larger land known as Brazil.
And the other three empires, French, Spanish, and British, grow even larger in their respective heydays. That’s especially true of the British Empire, whose dominance in cell form becomes starkly obvious by the time the animation reaches the 1840s, even though the United States of America has at that point long since drifted beyond its walls and floated away.
Wouldn’t the U.S. now be the biggest cell of all? Not under the strict definition of empire used a few centuries ago, when one country taking over and directly ruling over a remote land was considered standard operating procedure (and even, in some quarters, a glorious and necessary mission). But attempts have also been made to more clearly understand international relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries by redefining the very term “empire” to include the kind of influence the U.S. exerts all around the world. It makes a kind of sense to do that, but as Cruz and Machado’s animation may remind us, we also still live very much in the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic world — or rather, petri dish — that those four mighty empires created.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.