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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.