The Rise and Fall of Western Empires Visualized Through the Artful Metaphor of Cell Division

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.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get the His­to­ry of the World in 46 Lec­tures, Cour­tesy of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

Watch the His­to­ry of the World Unfold on an Ani­mat­ed Map: From 200,000 BCE to Today

Ani­mat­ed Map Shows How the Five Major Reli­gions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

5‑Minute Ani­ma­tion Maps 2,600 Years of West­ern Cul­tur­al His­to­ry

The His­to­ry of Civ­i­liza­tion Mapped in 13 Min­utes: 5000 BC to 2014 AD

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Ani­mat­ed Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

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.

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