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The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, by C.A. Bayly.

July 4, 2013

 The Birth of the Modern World: Global Connections and Comparisons, 1780-1914, by C.A. Bayly.  Blackwell, 2004.  540 pages.

An impressive, complex history of the “long nineteenth century” which examines how people around the world interacted with each other to create the world we know as modern.

C.A. Bayly has written “a reflection on, rather than a narrative of, world history.”  His is “a thematic history” that is “transnational,” weaving together national histories from around the globe.  Bayly does not believe in simple or single causes, but weaves together economic, political, and ideological histories, always demonstrating how they are connected. Into this mix, he adds what he calls “bodily practices” such as clothing, gender roles, literacy, and language which were changing in the period he describes.

In this book, Bayly challenges much that the general public and professional historians have claimed.  Bayle is careful to name those whose ideas he discusses, making his book important as historiography.  In some ways he weaves together the ideas of others historians just like he does regions of the global and thematic approaches to doing history.  The complexity of his account and the wealth of unfamiliar information made the book sometimes difficult for me to read.  I like books that stretch my mind, but at times this book made me reach too far.  Yet I found it fascinating and important.

Europe and America are not treated by Bayly as exceptional regions leading other nations in their progress toward better living. Instead they were acting on and reacting to other regions.  Their Enlightenment, their revolutions and their industry were not the cause of the world domination that they had achieved by 1900.  Europeans did have a few early advantages, such as governments able to pay for and train more efficient armies and navies, which would help them achieve global power.  That their power would increase was not inevitable, but always being challenged around the world.

Economic changes play the major role in Bayly’s account, but he defines economics broadly.  He does not focus on “modes of production” or the Industrial Revolution as the major engines of change in the period.  Instead he looks at the earlier “industrious revolution” in which merchant capitalism, international trade, and patterns of consumption were changing around the world by the end of the eighteenth century.  These changes transformed peoples’ lives as they sought to buy newly available produces often made by artisans from far away. More land was opened for cultivation. The innovation of plantation slavery practiced in the American South and in the Caribbean contributed wealth to Europe and America that fueled industrialization.  According to Bayly, actual industrialization and the concentration of workers in factories was not the main driver of change until after 1850 when it reinforced the growing domination of Europeans now able to flood the rest of the world with armies and cheap products.

How governments were constructed and what they sought to do also changed in this period, according to Bayly.  Everywhere centralization and state involvement in peoples’ lives were increasing.  Geographical boundaries were more defined and less fluid.  Governments became more involved in economics, and despite calls for free trade, often assisted groups and individuals seeking economic power.  In Europe this included the growth of shipping and railroads and the use of tariffs to shape market forces. The nebulous rhetoric of “the people” came to have an impact on political leaders.  As the century progressed, national rivalries grew and economic and governmental leaders competed with counterparts to control more of the world’s resources.  Patriotism blended seamlessly into imperialism and international rivalry.  This competition would grow into the rivalry over colonies that led to World War I.

Ideological changes are another theme for Bayly.  As always, Bayly defines this term broadly to include all kinds of thought from traditional to that constructed to serve particular aims.  In this way he is able to weave together what once would have been called intellectual history with some of the current work in cultural history which is influenced by post-modernism.  For example, Bayly sees some areas where long traditions of loyalty and patriotism existed, as well as places like the United States where a diverse people needed to create “a useful past.”  He looks at other areas of thought such as religion and political thought in much the same way, always introducing global examples.  For him, after the revolutions of the late eighteenth century occurred in various countries around the world, there was a new rhetoric of patriotism and the good of more people.

Bayly believes strongly that historical events are patterned, but not that the patterns are unidirectional.   As some world actors move in one direction, he sees other responding by moving in the opposite way.  In his view, the world was becoming more uniform in its economies, its governments, and its patterns of rhetoric, but at the same time people were defining themselves as different.  Racial and ethnic differences were being more stridently defended with “scientific proofs” of superiority and inferiority.  Religions became more alike, at the same times outbursts of traditional spirituality inspired sometime nationalistic rebellions.  Gender is another example of how changes were occurring, but ones that enhanced rather than lessened male power.  Bayly’s willingness to admit these contradictions is probably valid, but it makes reading his book more difficult.

I feel I have done Bayly as injustice.  My summarizing of his main points has led me to exclude the incredible breathe of his knowledge of global affairs.  Reading his book, events in China, India, and Africa began to fall into comprehensible patterns, their details sharp and distinctive.  This is truly a global book, despite its disclaimers of being a global narrative.

There are not many illustrations in this book, but the ones that are included are stunning.  For example, the cover of the book features a portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a native of Senegal, a slave from the French West Indies and a member of the French Assembly during the French Civil War.  Simple global maps provided assistance in learning global geography.  And of course, there was a glorious bibliography to lead readers into more knowledge of global history.

Other historians are sure to contest many of Bayly’s specific points.  That’s what historians do, and it does not detract from the book’s importance.  It should be read and pondered over widely, by historians of course, but also by the rest of us seeking to understand how we got to the places we are today.

I recommend The Birth of the Modern World wholeheartedly to all who dare to engage in the important issues which it raises.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. residentjudge permalink
    July 5, 2013 9:53 pm

    Thank you for reviewing this book so carefully. I’ve heard of it but haven’t read it (and I probably should!) It sounds such a broad history- I just can’t imagine being able to write on such a large canvas.

  2. July 6, 2013 12:31 pm

    Thanks. I can’t imagine writing such a broad book either, but I am glad he did. Have you read Before European Hegemony, by Abu-Lughod? It is also broad but of an earlier period and much more accessible. Both have helped me gain an international context that I had lacked before and really helped me understand what I read.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    July 12, 2013 9:42 pm

    This sounds great! Thanks for such a thoughtful review. Have you read either of Charles C. Mann’s books? I think you would enjoy them.

    • July 14, 2013 11:09 am

      No, I haven’t read Mann. Thanks for the suggestion. I am really enjoying my international history these days. It makes so much sense.

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