Books interview: John Darwin

The former professor of imperial and global history and author of Unlocking the World: Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam on old favourites, empire and commerce, and horse power

October 26, 2020

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
From about the age of seven, anything historical. R. J. Unstead’s Looking at History: From Cavemen to the Present Day, with its wonderful illustrations, was my “bible”, but I was also addicted to historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff, H. F. M. Prescott and Arthur Conan Doyle (the “historical romances”) as well as by authors now rather neglected: Kenneth Roberts, Samuel Shellabarger, Alfred Duggan (every one), Ronald Welch, Thomas Armstrong, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, D. K. Broster and Rex Warner. A particular favourite (when my parents weren’t looking) was Edgar Mittelholzer, the pioneer Caribbean novelist and his “Kaywana” novels of plantation life in colonial Guyana: a lively read!

Your new book, ‘Unlocking the World’, explores port cities and their crucial role within empires. What attracted your interest in this theme?
I first read D. G. Creighton’s Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760-1850 about 50 years ago. It is really a biography of Montreal and its merchant class, and their struggle to command a hinterland. Creighton was a protégé of the (greatest) Canadian historian Harold Adams Innis, who was intensely interested in the connection between commerce and empire. That sowed the seed. R. G. Albion’s The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860 was also seminal.

You also put much stress on the importance of steam power. Which books are particularly illuminating about how technological change affected trading patterns and relations between nations?
Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy was the first major challenge to conventional accounts of the technological reasons behind European primacy. R. C. Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective is a key corrective. R. Findlay and K. H. O’Rourke’s Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium is a magisterial overview. D. A. Farnie’s East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854-1956 sets technological change in its geopolitical context.

What would you recommend as valuable (polemical or more balanced) accounts of the ethical debates about the nature of empire?
The canonical denunciation of the ethics of empire remains J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study. However, Hobson’s definition of “imperialism” is idiosyncratic, his preoccupations overwhelmingly domestic not imperial, and we would now feel very uncomfortable with his notion of “non-adult races”. The best defence of imperialism can be found (perhaps surprisingly) in John Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government. Mill argued that authoritarian rule was essential to “progress” in unprogressive societies (he had India in mind). The finest study of the Victorians’ ethical and philosophical anxieties about empire is still E. T. Stokes’ The English Utilitarians and India.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Clive James’ Fire of Joy: Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud, to my daughter as a birthday gift.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
On my (virtual) desk now is the fascinating study by Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, which shows counter-intuitively that the need and demand for horses accelerated dramatically with the spread of steam power and the railway. I wish I had read it earlier!

John Darwin was professor of imperial and global history at the University of Oxford until last year. His latest book is Unlocking the World: Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam, 1830-1930 (Allen Lane).

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