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Reviewed by:
  • Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550-1800
  • Jason Nice
Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550-1800. By Miles Ogborn. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 368 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $24.99 (paper).

Miles Ogborn presents students of world history with a fresh narrative based upon the lives of more than forty individuals around the world who negotiated a variety of contradictions during the 250 years between the coronation of Elizabeth I and the abolition of the slave trade. Indeed, Ogborn convincingly demonstrates that the British Empire slowly evolved during both peaceful and violent negotiations made every day by ordinary and extraordinary individuals alike. Ogborn himself, in writing this book, admits to a delicate process of negotiation in selecting forty-two individuals whose lives would be illustrative of the history of the British Empire while avoiding "the opposite perils of tokenism . . . and exceptionalism" (p. 11). For the most part, Ogborn's selections avoid these perils, as he introduces us to a variety of people ranging from a Welsh pirate captain to a Ra'iatean high priest. In almost every case, we learn of constant negotiations, whether between civilization or nature, metropolis or colony, independence [End Page 157] or dependence, freedom or slavery, liberty or tyranny, or between the values of the Enlightenment or the realities of empire. Ogborn's book chronicles the cyclical history of these negotiations, from accommodation to violent persecution, by tracing the expansion of the British Empire from its infancy in Ireland to its maturity, or at least its adolescence, in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Throughout, Ogborn consistently emphasizes the central importance of human relationships and networks, whether among merchants in Madras, slaves on a Jamaican plantation, or abolitionists in London.

The greatest strength of this book is that, by focusing on the gritty details of people's private and public lives, Ogborn reveals a world "built and changed by small actions with often limited intentions: making a profit, holding a position, finding something out, growing a crop, righting a wrong, avoiding or inflicting pain and suffering, making a truth or taking a voyage" (p. 332). The quotidian life of the British Empire, especially in the Atlantic, comes alive as Ogborn masterfully finds the universal in the particular. Students of world history will enjoy how Ogborn uses this approach to demolish old platitudes. For instance, Ogborn employs the biographies of the merchants William Freeman and Richard Oswald to deconstruct outdated descriptions of the triangular trade ("like some nightmarish and never-ending merry-go-round"), revealing instead "a more complex pattern of exchanges" (p. 116). However, while this fruitful complexity characterizes the vast majority of the book, Ogborn masks this complexity in his presentation of Hugh O'Neill (Ireland), whose rebellion against iniquity and injustice is somewhat overstated. Ogborn suggests, based upon the lives of three Elizabethans (including O'Neill), that "although ideas, institutions and forms of resistance changed over time, many of the seeds of what came later can be seen in the tentative, if also belligerently violent, beginnings of Elizabethan England's entry to the global stage" (p. 329). Similar biographical connections make this an excellent book, yet the implied similarity between Hugh O'Neill and Toussaint L'Ouverture is superficial at best since their contexts are exceptionally unique.

As someone who regularly teaches a world history survey course, I am already scheming various ways to include this book on my syllabus. Ogborn's subtle connections are captivating and will enhance the learning experience of undergraduate students. For instance, Ogborn peppers his narrative with material insights, such as commenting that the iron for slave chains was produced in the West Midlands, or that the bricks used to construct the Royal African Company's slave fort at Anoumabu were brought from England. Students also encounter specific [End Page 158] places more than once. For instance, in addition to learning about Anoumabu in the slave trader Archibald Dalziel's biography, students also read that Bartholomew Roberts took his first steps toward becoming a pirate at Anoumabu nearly a hundred years earlier. Yet, while Global Lives would make an excellent addition to a world history syllabus, I would be reluctant to adopt it in...