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Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, co-edited by Anne Curthoys and Marilyn Lake.

April 7, 2013

Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, co-edited by Anne Curthoys and Marilyn Lake.  Australian National University E-press, 2005.


An exciting anthology of articles highlighting how and why historians are moving beyond national borders in the writing of history.

Anne Curthoys and Marilyn Lake have edited a group of papers originally presented at a Australian conference on Transnational History.  In their introduction, they point out that traditionally history has often been “the handmaiden of the national state,” focusing on national governments and providing patriotic images to unify its people.  History is organized in national units, even when events being described predate the existence of a nation.  Historians who did not praise their nation have been roundly attacked in the “history wars” of recent years.  Authors in this collection do not advocate throwing out national histories, but rather keeping them in a healthy tension with the larger context in which events occur.   The articles in their volume discuss some of the promises and pitfalls of such an approach and give examples of its application.  Many but not all of them involve Australian topics.

When I first learned about this book I was excited by its new perspective on history.  Gradually, I realized that the perspective was not as totally new as I had thought.  Part of what has excited me about reading Australian history has been comparing information with Yvonne about the connections between her country’s history and my own.  Stella Miles Franklin spent time in the United States and was involved with women I had studied here.  Early Indigenous Australian activists worked with the US-based Garvey movement, as one of the articles included in this book describes.  Some of the other histories that have interested me lately have also been transnational in scope, especially those revising American colonial history and our understanding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

What is new in this book is the conscious focus on the transnational approach to history and on what it means to do history in this way.   Several decades ago “New” Social History encouraged historians to look at the past “from the bottom up,” and pay attention to the dissenters from the national narratives.  Now “Transnational History” is asking us to examine events “from the outside in” and to develop the necessary methodologies and to broaden knowledge bases to do so.   Several articles in Connected  focus directly on these questions.  They provide lots of citations and discussion of the historians who are working in this field; so many that my personal list of books to read immediately has become overwhelming.

In his article “Putting the Nation in Its Place,” Tony Ballantyne compares the various ways in which historians have conceptualized World History in the past.  Often historians have created a global narrative about the “Rise of the West.”  More recently postcolonialists have challenged such narratives and looked at the economic, political, and cultural advances of other regions. They have researched the trade networks that developed in places like Eurasia, and the Indian Atlantic Oceans.  For example, Janet Abu-Lughard argues in her book, Before European Hegemony, that the Mongols were the first world empire and that “modernization” was taking place in China by 1000, long before it started in Europe.  Others claim that European dominance occurred only after 1765, as Europeans found ways to capture global resources to advance themselves militarily and fiscally.  Bayly’s Birth of the Modern World,1780-1914, describes the “rise of the West,” but in more negative terms than traditionally used.  Focusing on the economic and military conquest, he identifies the greed and violence of the Europeans and ways in which definitions of race furthered their ability to control native peoples.   In this article, Ballantyne credits Bayly for his new, more critical global narrative, but calls for more inclusion of personal stories of what the conquest meant to those conquered.

Robert McDonnell surveys the growing body of history that is emerging about the Atlantic World, and raises questions of its definition and the practicality of its goals.  In his view, the historiography of the British colonies in North America is still caught up in the Cold War project of proving American exceptionalism.  New transnational research has significantly revised our understanding of the colonization of the Americas, in part because African slavery requires the understanding of at least two continents.   He lauds the new visions of transnational histories but notes that most historians are simply not adequately trained to write competently about several continents.   He also cautions that we may only recreate a more transnational narrative of colonization which remains loyal to a vision of European/American superiority instead of an Atlantic History which includes ”multiple and conflicting” narratives.

All the articles in Connected Worlds were well researched and written, and all prodded me to think about their topics in new ways, something that always thrills me.  Some, but not all, were rather dense and demanding.  I can’t write about all of them here.  Click here to see an annotated copy of the book’s Table of Contents  and see how this approach plays out.

In addition to its provocative new content, Connected Worlds, was published in a new project that aims at making the writing of scholars more available to a large community of readers.  This book, and an enticing group of others, is available either as a free download or as a printed-on-demand hard copy.  Since the book was not available for library loan from anywhere in the USA, I was particularly grateful to be able to download it free.  Despite my usual complaints about how hard it is to return to sections I want to reread or quote, I was thrilled to have this book available to me.  I simply took more extensive notes than I usually do when I was reading it.  The Australian National University is to be commended for making its books more available in this manner. Check out their offerings.

I strongly recommend Connected Worlds to all historians and all who enjoy learning about the ways in historians today are introducing new ways of thinking about our pasts.  [A word to the wise.  If you download this book, make sure you have done so correctly.  If not, you end up as I initially did with a maze of text and footnotes.]


Other transnational histories that I have read and reviewed:

World History in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor. Objects reveal their connections to multiple worlds.

Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, by John Thornton. Africa and the North and South America

The Hanging of Angelina,by Afua Cooper. The history of slavery in Europe and Canada.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2013 1:59 am

    I am glad that you have had the chance to read this book. I was very excited to read it before I studied history at university and fortunate to have a couple of these authors as lecturers. I too downloaded it for free but then found that I was referring to it so much that I bought a copy. Some time in the future I plan to buy a tablet and hopefully reduce the number of hard copies of books that I purchase.

    • April 24, 2013 10:25 am

      Good for you for having heard and worked with such a great group of historians. I totally understand your decision to buy this book hard cover. Ebooks are OK for general reading, but not for books you need to work with. Finding what you need after a first read is horrible.

      Thanks for all you are doing with AWW and on Twitter.

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