The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar; painting by John Trumbull

Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Trumbull: The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, 1789

In the late eighteenth century, few places in the world were more remote from Europe than Vancouver Island. The closest major European outpost lay nearly a thousand miles to the south, in Spanish California. Traveling to Europe took at least six months, in wind-powered ships making a wearying, dangerous voyage of nearly 15,000 miles around the tip of South America and back north through the Atlantic. Nonetheless, British traders who had explored the region had high hopes of harvesting its bountiful furs for shipment across the Pacific to sell in China. They planned to use the proceeds to purchase a Chinese commodity for which their compatriots had developed an insatiable taste: tea. So when reports finally reached London in January 1790 that a Spanish ship had seized two British vessels off Vancouver Island the previous spring, the two countries nearly went to war. The speed limits of the preindustrial age did not prevent far-flung parts of the world from knitting themselves into a tight web of connections.

Many of the most revealing and innovative works of history in recent years have taken these early global connections as their subject. Some have done so in miniature, crafting finely detailed studies of individuals whose odysseys map out earlier currents of global trade and imperial competition: Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2008) traced the life of an obscure eighteenth-century Englishwoman, possibly of mixed race, as these currents swept her between the West Indies, Europe, Africa, and South Asia. Others have made use of the largest possible canvas: Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (2003) showed how connections changed and intensified across the globe as steam power supplanted sail, telegraph cables made the transmission of news instantaneous (even across oceans), industrial economies burgeoned, and empires extended their often murderous sway.

The impulses behind these works are not hard to discern. The surging global flows of capital, information, goods, and people in our own age—widely hailed a generation ago as liberating but whose dangerous effects have since become all too visible—have stirred a powerful curiosity about their long-term origins. Emphasizing global interactions also helps us see non-Western peoples as participants in their own history, rather than as passive objects of Western attention.

The limitations of the new global history, however, are as notable as its illuminations. Change on a global scale is easier to describe than to explain. Even Bayly, in his magisterial volume, had trouble giving reasons for the enormous transformations he chronicled. The pressure to situate every event in the widest possible setting can also lead writers to forget that the most intense and consequential forms of historical change often do not take place on the scale of the globe, but in small, crucible-like locations: Paris in 1789, St. Petersburg in 1917. And few historians have the time and resources to properly master the many different historiographies, bodies of source material, and—not least—languages that a global history may entail. A full treatment of the Vancouver Island incident, for instance, would require consultation of sources in English and Spanish, and several archives, as well as a knowledge of the indigenous history of the region. Criticism of the new global history for overreach has by now occasioned more than a few lively debates.1

Matthew Lockwood’s To Begin the World Over Again exemplifies both the illuminations and the limitations of the global approach. His subtitle, “How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe,” meanwhile, provides perhaps the most egregious case yet of a global historian’s overreach—or at least overmarketing. The book itself does not actually hold the revolution responsible for global devastation. Indeed, Lockwood says little about the revolution itself, and seems somewhat confused about how it should be understood. At one point he calls it “a revolution in favor of liberty” that provoked a “reactionary counter-revolution in the wider world” by traditional authorities anxious to prevent their own countries from imitating it.

Yet he does not discuss the spread of American political ideas and barely mentions the most obvious case of the American Revolution inspiring revolutionary change elsewhere: the French Revolution. And just two pages after the remark about liberty, he dismissively insists that “the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants…did not give a damn about a civil war in British North America or the ideas and ideals that inspired it.” He pays considerable attention to American slavery, but unlike The New York Times’s much debated “1619 Project,” he does not claim that the Americans revolted in large part to preserve slavery in the face of growing British abolitionist sentiment. To the contrary, he argues convincingly that the British only found it advantageous to move seriously toward abolition once the revolution had deprived them of their largest slave colonies.

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The source of the supposed global devastation lies elsewhere. In keeping with a great deal of recent global history scholarship, Lockwood sees the “age of revolution” less as a moment of ideological rupture than as one of crisis in European imperial governance.2 The enormous fiscal demands of a global imperial competition that had intensified throughout the eighteenth century, principally among Britain, France, and Spain, placed intolerable pressures on each. The explosive result, starting in 1775, was more than a half-century of nearly continuous revolution, counterrevolution, and warfare on a vast scale. Lockwood portrays the American Revolution not merely as the first major act in this drama, but as the one that unleashed the tragic violence that followed and that set the scene for Great Britain’s eventual emergence as the first true world power. He calls the book “very much the story of how Britain won the American Revolution,” and this intriguingly counterintuitive statement would have made a far better subtitle (the title itself comes from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense). From this point of view, the ideological content of the American Revolution is almost irrelevant.

Like Colley in The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, Lockwood uses individual life stories to tell his global history. Many of them are familiar to historians of the period, but he has assembled a remarkably diverse collection and writes about them vividly. Dean Mahomet, one of his examples, was a Bengali who served in the army of Britain’s East India Company during its wars against the Maratha Confederacy. In 1784, at age twenty-five, he accompanied his Irish commanding officer back to Europe and later opened London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostanee Coffee House. It failed, but Mahomet bounced back, starting a series of profitable, South Asian–themed bathhouses that featured the newly fashionable Indian hair and body massage called “shampoo.” He eventually became the official “shampooing surgeon” to two British kings and lived into his nineties.

Lockwood also recounts the story of Bennelong, an Australian of the Eora people whom British colonists kidnapped in 1789 to help them learn Aboriginal languages and customs. He traveled to Britain in 1792 but returned to Australia three years later and refused to remain among the colonists. “He fell off spontaneously into his early habits,” one observer recorded, “in spite of every thing that could be done to him in the order of civilization.”

John Aitken, meanwhile, was a Scottish petty criminal who emigrated to Virginia as an indentured servant in 1773, one step ahead of the law. Returning to Britain two years later, he decided to help the Americans win their struggle for independence. With some assistance from an American agent in France, he cobbled together a series of ingenious incendiary devices and carried out what Lockwood calls terrorist arson attacks on British naval shipyards. These caused widespread panic and a security clampdown that lasted even after the authorities caught and executed Aitken.

Most traveled of all the book’s characters was Boston King, born into slavery in South Carolina in 1760. During the American Revolution he fled to British forces who promised him freedom in return for helping their war effort. Having moved to British-occupied New York, he crewed on a pilot boat, only to be captured by Americans and returned to slavery, this time in New Jersey. Escaping back across Staten Island, he was eventually evacuated, with four hundred other former slaves, to Nova Scotia, where he worked as a ship builder and became a Methodist preacher. Then, in 1792, the British offered him the chance to take part in a new colonial venture: the resettlement of former slaves in Sierra Leone. Even as the effort struggled, King became a missionary, and died in 1802 while serving among the Sherbro people on the African coast.

With each of these characters, Lockwood traces the disruptions in their lives back to the American Revolution and the shock it delivered to the British Empire (including the British Isles themselves). The connections are obvious for Aitken and King, but Lockwood finds them in the other cases as well. For instance, the revolution made it impossible for Britain to punish criminals with transportation to the American colonies, prompting it to colonize Australia as an alternate destination for convict labor—and eventually to disrupt the life of Bennelong. Meanwhile, the fighting that swept up the young Dean Mahomet formed part of the ongoing worldwide conflict among empires, thereby tying it “with unseen tendrils to the battlefields of North America.” Lockwood adds that the American Revolution “spurred Britain to rethink the nature and aims of imperial governance,” leading to “an authoritarian revolution” that would firmly subordinate India to its colonial master for the next century and a half.

Lockwood also ventures well beyond the bounds of the British Empire. During the last third of the eighteenth century, Spain faced the challenge of preserving, and keeping solvent, an empire that in theory included roughly half the landmass of the Americas, stretching from Cape Horn all the way to present-day Montana. To do so, its government imposed punishing new taxes on its American possessions, while also stripping their elites of much of the political autonomy they had previously enjoyed. The pressure ratcheted up still further after 1779, when Spain joined France in supporting the American Revolution.

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One result, Lockwood writes, was the huge rebellion of indigenous and mestizo peasants launched in Peru in 1780 by a local official named José Gabriel Condorcanqui, a descendant of the Incas who claimed the title Túpac Amaru II. Lockwood recounts the events less through the figure of Túpac than through that of his fearless wife, Micaela Bastidas, who helped him lead the insurrection and then shared his fate after the Spanish succeeded in crushing it. On May 18, 1781, after she saw her son hanged in front of her, her tongue was cut out and she was garroted to death in the central plaza of Cuzco. Ultimately, though, her cause would triumph with the independence of the Spanish American states, and Lockwood cites as illustration an enthusiastic letter written by Túpac’s brother in 1825, congratulating Simón Bolívar as “the Hero of Colombia and the Liberator of the vast countries of South America.”

A portrait of Bennelong, an Aboriginal Australian who was kidnapped by British colonists

National Library of Australia/Trove Digital Library

A portrait of Bennelong, an Aboriginal Australian who was kidnapped by British colonists in 1789 to help them learn local languages and customs

Lockwood even credits the American Revolution with Russia’s rise to great-power status, and with China’s decline. In the first case, he argues that the American war so badly distracted the traditional European allies of the Ottoman Empire that Catherine the Great could seize Crimea from the Turks, providing Russia with warm-water ports on the Black Sea. In the second, he suggests that the revolution so badly damaged British trade that British merchants could no longer come up with the silver demanded by China as payment for its tea. As a result, they searched desperately for commodities the Chinese might want to buy. Canadian furs offered one possibility, but ultimately the British found a far more profitable good to lubricate its Chinese trade: opium. And in the nineteenth century, Britain’s success in pushing opium on the Chinese in two “opium wars” would fatally weaken the Chinese Empire.

Taken together, these chapters present a colorful and engaging fresco of a world in turmoil. But how well does Lockwood’s story hold together in the end? His book, for all its appeal, is also hobbled, in a particularly acute manner, by the limitations of global history as it is currently practiced.

First, there is the issue of causality. Christopher Bayly recognized the difficulties of tracing causes and effects in complex global phenomena, invoking “the concatenation of changes produced by the interactions of political, economic and ideological change at many different levels.” Lockwood, impatient with such vague and unsatisfying formulae, insists on the priority of a single causal factor: the American Revolution. He compares the event to a stone making a splash in the water, with “waves and ripples that radiated out from its epicenter.” The trouble, though, is that far more than one large stone landed in the sea of eighteenth-century history. The American Revolution derived in many ways from the rippling effects of an earlier episode in the century’s imperial crisis: the globe-spanning Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763, in which France lost its North American land empire and also most of its possessions in India. As any serious student of American history knows, Britain emerged from that conflict victorious but fiscally exsanguinated, leading it to impose wildly unpopular new taxes on its North American colonies. And just six years after the United States achieved independence there began the French and Haitian revolutions, whose wide-ranging effects—including nearly a quarter-century of horrifically destructive warfare—swamped those of their American predecessor in many parts of the globe.

Again and again, Lockwood holds the American Revolution responsible for an event, only to qualify the assertion with phrases such as “had a long period of gestation,” “of growing concern…before the American crisis intervened,” or “was long in the making.” Again and again, he takes his story up into the period where the rippling effects of the French Revolution overtook those of the American one. Did Latin American independence owe more to the pressures that the American Revolution put on the Iberian empires, or to the enormous disruptions caused when Napoleon Bonaparte, that son of the French Revolution, occupied Spain and Portugal? Why, for that matter, in discussing the opium wars of the nineteenth century, place the emphasis on the American Revolution’s disruptions of Britain’s China trade as opposed to the growth of that trade in the first place? Why privilege one link above others in several long, overlapping chains of cause and effect?

When identifying causes, Lockwood also tends to put almost exclusive emphasis on financial and military factors—to the neglect, especially, of ideas. As I said, this is a book on the global effects of the American Revolution that says virtually nothing about its ideas, and bluntly asserts that most human beings at the time “did not give a damn” about them. When discussing the Túpac Amaru rebellion, Lockwood notes that the Spanish authorities in South America saw Enlightenment ideas as a threat and adds: “It would have been surprising if Condorcanqui was not aware of the more radical currents in European thought.” But he makes little attempt to integrate the point into his subsequent analysis. Would the rebellion have taken the form it did without the influence of these radical ideas? Would it have occurred at all?

Unfortunately, when it comes to answering this sort of question, another limitation of global history comes into play: that of expertise. Lockwood cites very little original material. In his section on the Túpac Amaru rebellion, for instance, he makes use of just two primary sources, both in English translation. Indeed, this long book does not cite a single source in a language other than English. Lockwood has read carefully in the English-language secondary literature. But this literature comes with its own assumptions and emphases, which are not always easy to evaluate without the ability to consult the original source material. For instance, Lockwood’s section on Túpac Amaru relies heavily on a book by Charles F. Walker, whose characterization of the rebellion as “anti-colonial” and a precursor to Latin American independence movements was criticized by J.H. Elliott in these pages.3

Global history remains entirely worth doing, which means accepting some of these limitations (although American history departments should really do a better job of training their doctoral students in foreign languages). But it needs to be done with the recognition that connections between different parts of the globe can operate on several distinct levels. Most obviously, people in one place can exert a direct influence on people in others through the use of force, through the diffusion of information and ideas, through the sale or purchase of goods, or through migration. But there is also indirect influence, as events in one region set off a chain of reactions—often unexpected—elsewhere. In Lockwood’s example, the revolution in North America led Spain to go to war with Britain, as a result of which Spain placed new fiscal burdens on its South American possessions. And there are cases in which large-scale economic or cultural change affects different regions simultaneously and alters the relation between them, as when the “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth century expanded markets in both Europe and the Americas for a wide range of products, dramatically increasing trade possibilities.

These different types of connection also tend to occur on different time scales, for different sorts of reasons. Direct influence tends to make itself felt quickly, and most often involves conscious decisions on the part of individuals or organizations to deploy armies, publish books, sell goods, and so forth. Indirect influence, meanwhile, generally occurs on an intermediate time scale, as large organizations (governments, military forces) adapt to new circumstances, as with the Spanish Empire during the American Revolution. Large-scale economic or cultural change most often happens in response to far slower rhythms, as entire societies evolve, as with the birth of modern capitalism.

Matthew Lockwood, in keeping with current trends in global history, looks above all at the second, intermediate sort of connection. His book concentrates on how European empires reacted to the American Revolution, and the often disastrous effect these reactions had on individual lives. But this is not the full story. A more complete account of the American Revolution’s global impact would take in as many different types of connections as possible and track how they influenced one another as well. History is not just a matter of the ripples on the surface of events, but of the currents beneath them, and the slow, steady tides.

  1. 1

    See for instance Richard Drayton and David Motadel, “Discussion: The Futures of Global History,” with responses by Jeremy Adelman and David A. Bell, Journal of Global History, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2018). 

  2. 2

    See notably Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton University Press, 2006), and Justin duRivage, Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics, and the Origins of American Independence (Yale University Press, 2017). 

  3. 3

    Charles F. Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014); J.H. Elliott, “The Huge, Ignored Uprising in the Andes,” The New York Review, October 23, 2014.