Sugar, slaves and social engineering

Globalization in World History
April 4, 2003

This work contains several important, thoughtful and wide-ranging essays, but it surprises with its claim that historians have largely neglected the opportunity to engage with "the origins, nature and consequences of globalization... With few exceptions, historians have still to participate in the discussion or even to recognise the subject."

This is nonsense. In the Journal of World History , the official journal of the World History Association, there are articles such as "Silks and religions in Eurasia, c. A.D. 600-1200" (1995), "Born with a 'silver spoon': the origin of world trade" (1995) and "Vasco da Gama and Africa: an era of mutual discovery, 1497-1800 C.E." (1998). This journal cannot be completely unknown in Cambridge, the source of the lectures in A. G.

Hopkins' book, as one of the essays cites an article in a footnote, while its editor, Jerry Bentley, gave a well-received plenary lecture at the 1997 Anglo-American conference.

Furthermore, this journal is by no means the only instance of recent historical work on the subject in English, let alone important studies in other languages. For example, there is a long-established tradition of studying technological and other links within medieval Eurasia to which two recent works make important contributions: Donald Ostrowski's Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589 (1998) and Thomas Allsen's "The circulation of military technology in the Mongolian empire" in Nicola di Cosmo's Warfare in Inner Asian History, 500-1800 (2002).

It is pleasant, however, to turn from misleading claims to the value of the essays themselves. Several are important pieces of work that indicate the extent to which globalisation had sources outside the West and, even when western in genesis and direction, was powerfully moulded by non-western interests. The need to think in other than territorial units is another common theme, while there is an attempt to offer both a typology and a chronology of globalisation. Some of the writing is somewhat uneven:

"Modern 'positional' goods are self-referential to themselves and to the markets that create demand for them; the charismatic goods of archaic globalization were embedded in ideologies which transcended them." Yet, throughout, there is a sense of major scholars grappling with important themes without the established reference points of western teleology.

The role of diasporas is highlighted by Tim Harper and Hans van de Ven, the former seeing them as mediators between transnational, colonial and local political identities, while Amira Bennison and John Lonsdale probe the vitality of supra-national loyalties.

Van de Ven's fascinating discussion of the onrush of modern globalisation in China argues that the networks of social contacts, commerce and cultural practices that linked China and Southeast Asia made China a participant in the changes in demand and the flows of goods that made up proto-globalisation.

Bennison's wide-ranging study of Muslim universalism points out that Muslim political and commercial successes went in tandem with the dissemination of a universalist ideology that shaped political systems, cultural attitudes and modes of exchanges, and with Arabic, a language that "acted as a vehicle for archaic Muslim globalization". More recently, Bennison argues, the creative adaptation of the idea of the nation by Arab intellectuals demonstrated an engagement with European concepts.

Lonsdale's impressive sweep through African history concludes that Africans have long been open to the world and are not afraid of globalisation's culture, but, rather, hurt by its deeply politicised economics. He also suggests that in Europe, between 1792 and 1945, there was an exceptional period in which "the imagined and then socially engineered monoglot community of the national state" drove out other, less clearly bounded political entities: "This nation-building conquest of Europe was an anomaly in world history but became the modern normI and defined the modern era of globalization."

Richard Drayton emphasises the role of plantation slavery and controlled labour in the making of the Atlantic economy, but also stresses the role of Africans as labour, capital and currency in shaping the terms of integration. He claims that the first British working class was created on the sugar plantations in the late 17th century. Drayton also argues that sugar-centred globalisation helped finance later events in the widespread mobilisation of land and labour: "Wages earned in England spinning slave-grown cotton for slave consumers went to purchase bread and woollen clothI helping thus to finance new frontiers of white 'free-labour' settlement."

Tony Ballantyne discusses the role of knowledge in the western imperial project, arguing that, while hybrid local knowledges were crucial at the local level, colonial bureaucracies attempted to synthesise and direct by means of a more comprehensive system of knowledge. Imperial entities also permitted the furthering of comparative knowledge and the consequent ranking of ethnic and other achievements.

David Reynolds traces the contours of American globalisation, suggesting that the location of contemporary globalisation in wider contexts undermines notions of American exceptionalism. Hopkins considers Bali and Labrador in terms of his typology of globalisation, specifically modern and post-colonial stages, and the different strategies deployed in each stage to integrate or to manage the evolving international order. He also suggests that the worldwide attention devoted to the fate of the Innu testified to the emergence of a global civil conscience.

The range of reference and the creative imagination to be seen in these essays is exciting. But there is, at times, a schematic quality that will not command universal support; and indeed Christopher Bayly provides charts of economy, culture and geographical specificity in three stages of globalisation in his thoughtful essay on 1750-1850. Furthermore, the concept of "archaic globalisation" may be overworked. Nevertheless, the determined engagement with wide frames of reference, and with the global dimensions of change deserves attention. This collection will play an important role in the subject's development.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Globalization in World History

Editor - A. G. Hopkins
ISBN - 0 7126 7740 2
Publisher - Pimlico
Price - £12.50
Pages - 8

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