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A global age before globalisation

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

How the world was remade during the 1850s and the early 1860s, as North Atlantic civilisations spread across the globe

In 1848, as a series of revolutions swept and failed across Europe, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: “The world is drawing to a close… Suppose it should continue materially, would that be an existence worthy of its name and of the historical dictionary?” Ben Wilson’s Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World is a historian’s response to Baudelaire’s gloomy question (in the affirmative, of course) about not just the worth of the ages to emerge but, more prosaically, for human history itself.

Age of invention

The decade of the 1850s to the early 1860s, according to Wilson, was unlike any other till then in human history, thanks to an expansion of human experiences courtesy new inventions and process innovations. (“Of all the decades in history, a wise man would choose the 1850s to be young in,” wrote the British historian G.M. Young). The working and lower middle classes in England and parts of Europe suddenly found themselves amidst, if not in actual possession of, tools that reduced labour as well as spatial and temporal distances. The arrival and proliferation of telegraphy, Henry Bessemer’s ‘cheap’ steel, spherical trigonometry, detailed logs of ocean waves, Colt pistol, McCormick’s reaping machines, Charles Goodyear’s vulcanised rubber, and so on not just changed lives and histories, they also prompt the perennial question: why exactly did so many inventions and process innovations burst into European consciousness in so brief a period?

Historians and social scientists have often sought to answer this question by relying on singular causes and the accompanying dynamics to explain the efflorescence of life-changing technologies. These explanatory variables include emergence of bourgeois virtues, availability of geographic endowments, improved institutional design, adoption of best practices and so on. These are, however, questions Wilson astutely avoids getting embroiled in.

Progress, the new religion

Instead what we get in Heyday is a lucid survey of episodes, diversities of experience, and responses to these innovations as the Northern Atlantic cultures begin to span far-flung geographies and histories of peoples. Alongside, what burbles up nicely in Wilson’s chronicle is not just the human (or more accurately, the 19th century ‘English-speaking worlds’) wilfulness to embrace inventions and abandon old hierarchies, but also the democratisation of non-religious ideologies themselves. Thanks to the secularisation of a Christian eschatological world view (as the philosopher Karl Lowith described it elsewhere), ‘progress’ becomes the new religion. Technology is anointed as the midwife to birth the more perfectible future that was to emerge. In Wilson’s telling, this possibility of self-betterment — be it in New Zealand, Australia, California, or Canada — is the true propeller of migrations and histories that eventually emerge. Even Karl Marx, writing in 1851, spell bound by The Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park, was convinced: “There is no more splendid time to enter the world than the present!”

Numbers do the talking

Splendid or not, actual real lives were, however, often cut short and misery seemed everywhere. Australia, Canada, California, as well as part of Asia suddenly seemed as an escape as well as arenas brim with possibilities. As clippers ferried migrants from ports like Liverpool at hitherto unimaginable speeds (“Hell or Melbourne”) to win prizes or fame for their captains, the previous inhabitants of these vast lands came face to face with interlopers, colonialists, and homesteaders. The efforts by the latest arrivistes to survive and conquer Nature inevitably also meant contestation with those who had earlier found different ways to do the same. As Wilson insightfully notes, “power over Nature is often a euphemism for power over other people.” The Maoris, Australian aborigines, the Xhosa, Bantu, Ndebele, Zulus, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux, et al became embroiled in violent struggles with the European migrants. Wilson lets the numbers do the talking, only for the reader to recognise the stark truth: entire nations of people were often decimated with little moral compunctions. This recognition notwithstanding, in contrast to the diversity of European voices that we hear in Wilson’s telling, we hear little of what the American tribes or Aborigines or Zulus or latter-day Mughals thought of their encounters with the Europeans. Perhaps, this is unfair to expect, for Heyday is not a global history of sentiments during the 1850s, but in fact something more tractable — a tale of how North Atlantic civilisations spread around the world. In Wilson’s telling, an extraordinary complexity of factors that consummated frequently in violence runs the risk of appearing as a clash between simple-minded nativist brutality and a complex array of European motivations. Often enough, one comes away with the sense those at the receiving end of this emergent North Atlanticisation of the world are either victims or villains; while the European actors are afforded the luxury of narrative nuance.

In parts, this selectiveness is the peril of trying to squeeze multiplicities of historically contingent events into a master narrative about a “globalising” age. Every chapter is thus likely to become a wellspring of disagreement or discontent for those who know its contents better than Wilson can find space for the details. Events with complicated arcs, from their origin to denouement, such as the opening up of Japan in 1853, European domination of China, the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, engorgement of the United States into a continental behemoth, pre-Civil War debates on slavery, peopling of the South Pacific, etc. become breezily told but partial surveys. To describe all this, Wilson’s narrative is chock-a-block with facts which, at one level, arouses admiration at the industry that must have gone to collect and weave them into a fluid narrative. It is a testament to Wilson’s elegant style that he manages to collate facts, chapter after chapter, without devolving into, what John Updike called elsewhere, “the cumulative numbing” of a Guinness Book or turning Heyday into a monumental, but forbidding, work like Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World (also about the 19th century). Heyday is written with one loving eye towards historical detail and another wary one at the promiscuous attention spans of the reader. Striking a balance, as excellently as Wilson does, is harder than what most academics are able to do or what readers may realise.

Wilson’s narrative technique of proffering linkages across events — a method that 11-12th century Indian logicians called samyogaja-samyoga (“connection born from connections” in the words of the great Indologist David Shulman) — is attractive and reveals time and again that one event’s present is pregnant with another event’s future. This, of course, was always the case. But by the 1850s, what had indeed changed was the intensity with which shocks transmitted across the system. The fierce abolitionist John Brown, who Wilson quotes, makes this all the more visceral: “when the price [of cotton] rises in the English market,…the whip [on slaves in America] is kept constantly going.”

No simplistic narratives

Heyday is marketed as a book about ‘the dawn of the global age’. That half-pregnant phrase prompts a question: the global age of what? Knowledge, capital, people, modernity, capitalism, or something even more playfully self-referential — the conceit of ‘global history’. Wilson’s work doesn’t engage with such questions of self-criticality, nor does it think aloud if the idea of global history of an age itself has a history of its own. The absence of these questions do not detract from the pleasures of reading Heyday, but merely reveal that we must be vigilant about invisible carapaces in which historical retellings are ensconced. These days, the term ‘global’ is used to suggest an attitude towards markets and the permeability of borders. Books of this variety come with their own cheerleaders, think tank agendas, and marketing mantras. Another use of the term ‘global’ intends to ‘historicise’. It tries to show that our collective present was birthed by more than one civilisational parent and was often conceived at the peripheries of cultural interstices. Heyday prefers to align with this latter idea of ‘global’. That Wilson does so with a great flair to keep the pages moving makes it a rare confection of virtues: its ambition, ease of reading, and the willingness to eschew simplistic narratives.

Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad and lives in New York City. He’s on Twitter @ks1729.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 10:22:01 AM |

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