Linda Colley

What is history for? What do we want it to do? In 1731, an obscure Kentish schoolmaster named Richard Spencer offered some answers. Properly to ascertain his position in geographical space, he reasoned, required not a single map, but access to a global atlas, one that would allow him to ‘see what London and the adjacent parts are in the kingdom; what the kingdom is in Europe, and what Europe is in the universe’. Much the same, he thought, applied to history. ‘Particular histories represent to you, what things have happen’d to such or such a People, with all their circumstances,’ he explained: ‘But to understand the whole clearly, you must know what relation every history can have to others.’ Only when such connected and wide-angled histories were available, might one hope to ‘see all the order of time’.

Spencer was writing to puff his translation of Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History, a work the French theologian had embarked on in the 1670s while employed as tutor to Louis XIV’s heir. Interest in world history is nothing new. When Lord Acton planned the volumes of the Cambridge Modern History in the 1890s, he took for granted both the need for ‘transcending nationality’, and that world history signified something more than ‘the combined history of all countries’. As to ‘global history’, the first book in English to incorporate that phrase in its title seems to have been Hans Kohn’s The Age of Nationalism: The First Era of Global History. Published in 1962, it formed part of a multi-volume series called World Perspectives, designed to address ‘our growing global age’. ‘Globalisation’, though, is a more recent coinage. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it noticeably infiltrated media and political chatter. Since then, the global turn in history writing has moved faster, made more noise, and spun in quite different directions.

The evolving effects of decolonisation and their intellectual repercussions have been one reason for this. On the one hand, postcolonial scholarship has tended to sweep aside earlier attempts at universal history, dismissing them as little more than celebrations of the modernising impact of the West. On the other, a dramatic rise in new research into Asian, South Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories has worked to challenge and modify interpretations of some of the set-pieces of the past. Thus accounts of the ‘first industrial revolution’ are now likely to address not merely Britain’s European competitors, but also the input of its slave plantations in the Caribbean, the role of textile technologies learned from India, and the degree to which all 17th and early 18th-century European powers lagged behind China economically. These trends in recent history writing – a deliberate and much greater stress on how major changes in the West in past centuries were triggered or moulded by developments elsewhere – have piggy-backed on and been reinforced by shifts in the postwar global order: Europe’s continuing decline, the resurgence of the great Asian powers, and the rise of new powers in Africa and Latin America.

In some respects, however, the French Revolution has always been seen in transnational and transcontinental terms. Almost from the start, some observers saw its significance as ‘world-historical’, a verdict endorsed by many later commentators, from critics like Carlyle to modern revolutionaries like Mao. It has also long been accepted that the revolution was influenced by developments outside France. The central thesis of R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959-64) was that 1776 and 1789 – along with other late 18th-century upheavals – were linked, and should be treated in tandem. And while Palmer concentrated on white revolutionaries, in his 1938 classic, The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James successfully revived interest in the slaves and free blacks active in Saint-Domingue’s revolution in 1791. Arguing that liberty, equality and fraternity meant even more to the enslaved in France’s richest Caribbean colony than to the inhabitants of Paris, James didn’t so much decentre the French Revolution as locate its impassioned heart outside Europe, an interpretation some recent writers have found deeply attractive.

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[*] ‘Smug Britannia: The Dominance of (the) English in Current History Writing and Its Pathologies’, in Contemporary European History 20 (2011).