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  • The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons
  • J. R. McNeill
The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. By C. A. Bayly. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004. 512 pp. $73.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

This book, by one of the foremost scholars of modern Indian history, is a sprawling smorgasbord of world history in the long nineteenth century. Readers may grow weary at times of its rambling structure, but they will be well rewarded for their endurance by a set of stimulating ideas and brilliant aperçus.

Bayly aims to provide both a survey and an interpretation of world history over the span of about 140 years. He begins with a few declarations of his positions with respect to economic causation, postmodernism, the nature of modernity, and so forth. The historical treatment begins with an account of old regimes around the world and the gradual growth of links among them, something he calls "archaic globalization." The next twelve chapters mix chronological and thematic structures, [End Page 381] taking up subjects such as revolutions in the years 1780–1820, industrialization, nationalism, empire, the state, liberalism and socialism, religion, the arts, the hidden continuities from the old regime, thefate of indigenous peoples, among others. Each chapter takes the reader on a world tour, sometimes at seemingly supersonic speed. Some paragraphs begin in the Ottoman Empire but move to India and Japan before coming to a stop. It would be a very difficult book to skim. Many chapters include comment on historiography, usually noting how scholars since the 1960s and 1970s have come to see a given subject differently.

Within this chapter structure, there are a few themes that surface repeatedly. Bayly shows great interest in the role of state power, nationalism, and religion throughout. The attention given religion is unusual for what is sometimes imagined as a secular age, but Bayly shows decisively how misguided that is, and how central and dynamic religion was in the nineteenth century. He does not give undue attention to India, where presumably he feels most at home, but his distribution of attention will probably leave Latin Americanists and Africanists unsatisfied. Others will find his extremely spare and scattered treatment of population growth a disappointment.

The larger arguments in the book are, first, that historical processes were driven by multiple causes located all around the world, not merely by the emergence of modern Europe and reactions thereto. That emergence was less pronounced and later than most historians suppose, says Bayly, and by no means the mainspring of modern history. Second, the world was growing more tightly connected in the nineteenth century, and more uniform, although that growing uniformity was hotly contested. This proposition will surprise only a few historians, but Bayly shows how it happened in new and interesting ways. His comparative treatment of the great upheavals of the Taipings (1850–1864), the Indian rebellion (1857–1859), and the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) is superb and a great tonic for exceptionalist tendencies. Globalization was, he says, multicentric. Bayly offers dozens of smaller arguments along the way, most of them based on his world-historical and comparative approach and aimed against notions of European exceptionalism. No one will find them all convincing (I think he underestimates the impacts of industrialization prior to 1850), but every serious historian will find them interesting. He sometimes stakes out a strong position, only to back away gently a few pages later, as if a desire to make waves was in conflict with a desire to observe scholarly restraint.

Bayly has read very widely in the English-language scholarship on the nineteenth century and wades into scholarly debates on matters [End Page 382] such as the "industrious revolution" or the nature of nationalism with confidence and to good effect. He shows an easy mastery of diverse information; I found only about a half dozen statements I thought dubious (e.g., p. 268 where the Union's final victory in the American Civil War is attributed to the "blockade [of] Houston and Galveston, the southern cotton ports").

The numerous black and white illustrations are well chosen. But someone ought to have...


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pp. 381-383
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