Writing World History: C.A. Bayly Looks at the Opportunities Presented to the Historian in 21st Century When Trying to Write the History of the World

Article excerpt

DURING THE LATE TWENTIENTH century a dominant aim of the historical profession was to write deeper and more nuanced social histories This was done through studies of localities and institutions and by revealing the experience of people 'without history' or 'people without power'. As far as history outside Europe was Conceded, the profession retreated from imperial history, replacing it with an 'area studies' approach. Historians now drew their inspiration from indigenous language sources and local colonial archives. The characteristic triumphs of the profession at this time were books such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou (1976), Robert Daroton's The Great Cat Massacre (1984) or Keith Thomas's, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).

Philip Kuhn's Soulstealers (1990), a study of a millenarian 'panic' in mid eighteenth century China represented a similar genre for the overseas world.

Even during these post-Second World War generations, however, some historians were compelled by the logic of their own arguments, or by a fascination with the wider connections they discovered, to set their work ill a context which spanned continents and oceans. Well before world history or global history became recognised courses in American universities, Robin Palmer had written of The Age of Atlantic Revolutions: A political history of Europe and America 1760-1800 (1959) whose political consequences crossed and re-crossed the oceans. Here, American Revolution, the 'near' French revolution of 1773-76, the Revolutions of 1789-93, the Haitian slave rebellions and the Irish rebellion of 1798 were all bound together in a network of cause and effect. This, Palmer implied, deserved to be understood in its own terms rather than being broken down to provide a series of 'external conditions' for local, regional or national studies elf France, the Thirteen Colonies or Ireland. At about the same date, John Pocock was trying to discover a common bond of civic republican radicalism linking ideological developments across the whole Atlantic world and Western Europe. This work was infused with a similar spirit.

But what happens if the focus is broadened even further? Perhaps the 'revolutionary age' was a truly global phenomenon with causes and consequences in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, as well as Europe and the Americas. After all, the Anglo French struggle of 1757-63 in Asia, which helped bankrupt the Atlantic ancien regime, has to be set against the background of the earlier fragmentation of the Ottoman, Mughal and Persian Safavid regimes. The rebellious Chinese sectaries after 1760, the rising Sikh movement in the Punjab and the Wahhabi Muslim purists ill central Arabia alley 1730 had features in common. All these political movements reflected provincial reactions to the inequalities resulting from the expansion of world trade from the late seventeenth century. They all sought to establish godly polities in the face of expanding world empires and the corrupt towns and gentry, classes nurtured by the imperial polities. The global connections of the world crisis of 1780 to 1820 were even clearer. The high point of the Napoleonic Wars saw European armies deployed in India, Egypt, Java and southern Africa, as Britain and her allies attempted to redress the balance of power in Europe. But the movement of historical causation worked both ways. British military losses in the Caribbean helped preserve the revolutions in Europe. Indian and Ottoman resources helped defeat the French in Egypt.

The present day seems a good lime to direct more of the profession's energies to the study of global connections and comparisons such as these. The reasons lie partly outside the discipline of history itself. The debate about 'globalisation' and the supposed return of Anglo-American 'empire' in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia and the Balkans has made everyone acutely aware of the way in which major events ricochet across the world. …

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