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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 407-446

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Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial? Kenneth Pomeranz and the Great Divergence*

P. H. H. Vries
University of Leiden

. . . everywhere we go, there is nothing growing in the ground, just coal and iron. . . .

--the Japanese politician O¯kubo, member
of the Iwakura Tomomi mission,
talking about his visit to Britain in 1871.
Quoted in P. Duus, Modern Japan, 2nd ed.
(Boston, 1998), p. 96.

. . . a country possessing very considerable advantages in machinery and skill, and which may therefore be enabled to manufacture commodities with much less labour than her neighbours, may in return for such commodities import a portion of the corn required for its consumption, even if its land were more fertile and corn could be grown with less labour than in the country from which it was imported.

--D. Ricardo, On the Principle of Political
Economy and Taxation,
ed. by R. M. Hartwell
(Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 154. [End Page 407]

Obligatory Reading

Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy is an important and excellent book. Any review that would omit to notice this would be a bad one. So let me start by immediately emphasizing its quality. I would be very happy if I had written it myself. It had been forthcoming for a long time, and had already been, even before its final draft, the centerpiece of extensive discussion. 1 Expectations had become very high, and readers will not be disappointed. Kenneth Pomeranz, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of another highly praised book, The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937 (Berkeley, 1993), has written a book that will become obligatory reading.

As the flap text puts it, the book is about one of the classic questions of history: Why did sustained industrial growth begin in northwest Europe, despite surprising similarities between advanced areas of Europe and East Asia? 2 After David Landes, Andre Gunder Frank, and Roy Bin Wong, to mention the most well-known scholars who have recently tackled this question, we now have Pomeranz's study. 3 In this review I will on various occasions compare its findings and its approach to theirs. I explicitly also refer to his approach because the importance of this book resides not only in its subject and its findings, but also in the specific way in which the author constructs his arguments.

I suspect everybody would agree that the rise of the West can only be satisfactorily analyzed by systematically comparing the West and "the rest." Whereas most authors pay lip service to this ideal, Pomeranz's approach really is systematically comparative. In this he has a big advantage over many of his colleagues. He not only has excellent and firsthand knowledge of the economic history of "the rest," especially [End Page 408] China, but also managed to become very knowledgeable about recent literature on the economic history of early modern Europe. In short, he is up to date with regard to all regions he wants to compare, and if need be gathers his own, new empirical material.

There is one comment on his comparative approach that I would prefer to make straight away. To me it is not completely clear what exactly is compared to what. The title is quite explicit. The book will be about China and Europe. Reading the text, however, "Europe" appears to be an abbreviation of "northwestern Europe." So one might expect the author to focus on a comparison between China and this part of the Old World. He indeed often does. But already in the very beginning of the book he also stresses the fact that, in any case until about 1850, it was only Britain that industrialized and not Europe. 4 He nevertheless often uses "Britain" and "Europe" as interchangeable categories, which makes it rather unclear whether what is said about Britain also applies to the rest of northwestern Europe, or even Europe...


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