Capital in the 19th Century

Osterhammel’s ‘The Transformation of the World’ shows up the work of all-too-many other historians

Books History

We are now well and truly into a new millennium and the 19th century has ceased to be the last century and, instead, has become a former century. As a result, it can appear as one among a number that compete for our interest. Indeed, centuries rise and fall in attention. In Britain, the stock of the 19th has long been falling. Issues that used to vex scholars and bore many of their students while enthralling others, such as the expansion of the franchise, the Chartists, or the living standards of the working class, now lack the prominence they once enjoyed. So also with the 17th century.

Yet, as Jürgen Osterhammel, Professor of History at the University of Konstanz, demonstrates in this massive work, there is much that is still important and relevant about the 19th century.

 His approach is an interesting one. A specialist on modern Chinese history, Osterhammel writes in a more global tone than is usually the case. Indeed, it is fair to say that his willingness to engage at this level contrasts with the more limited, even parochial, stance of so much writing on the period. For example, much work on individual empires does not engage with the comparative perspective offered by others.

This is not a textbook, and Osterhammel has his clear preferences in what to include and what to exclude, but the range of what is covered is impressive. What is left out is much of the politics of the period and it is for this reason that the cover puff “The Braudel of the 19th century” is inappropriate as Braudel did attempt to consider politics in some detail.

However, the coverage is in many respects much greater than that of Braudel, not only geographically but also conceptually. There is a reflective character to the work that explains the choices and devices adopted, notably in periodisation and the discussion of spatial characteristics, and that then employs this engagement with the reader in order to help make the latter complicit in the shaping of the book.

The first section, “Approaches” is followed by two lengthy sections on “Panoramas” and “Themes”. The individual chapters within these range widely. The modern engagement with “transnationalism” ensures that the chapter on mobilities is lengthy as well as located at the beginning of “Panoramas”. In turn, “Energy and Industry” begin “Themes”. The speed of diffusion of new processes and ideas is a key note throughout the book. It helps give energy to the globalisation that is its drumbeat. Thus, capitalism is presented as an economic order that made it increasingly possible to insert local entrepreneurial activity into interactive circuits spanning large areas, or even the globe as a whole.

This is part of a wider engagement with networks and the technology that created them, such as the telegraph and electricity transmission. Finance is also seen as a network, the export of capital accentuating the extent to which there were creditor and debtor countries. This led to international debt crises.

Different networks are seen in the case of religion. Imperial powers, such as China in Tibet and the French in Senegal, sought to direct these networks by co-opting religious leaders with whom they could deal. The response could be troublesome. Osterhammel notes widespread fears of a Muslim revolt.

The need on the part of non-Western societies to respond to the greater strength and power-projection of their Western counterparts is readily apparent, and is discerned in a variety of contexts.

The growing pressure and incentive, including outside the colonies, to learn European languages is a good example. In 1862, the Tongwenguan translation school was founded in Beijing, its dual task to train English speakers and to translate Western technical literature. Japanese universities developed on the Western model, which aided the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

Some of the other arguments can be queried. The idea of the 19th century as an age of increased self-reflection is advanced, but not really substantiated. If the 19th was an age of asymmetrical efficiency growth, so also were other centuries.

More weight can be placed on Osterhammel’s idea that key features were the tension between equality and hierarchy and the significance of emancipation; although, as he is well aware, these are also 20th-century themes.

The discussion of war is overly short, and domestic politics tends to be underplayed unless in the form of revolution or the spread of the franchise. But picking holes is unhelpful. What is impressive is the range and interest. Links are offered with reflections. For example, 80 per cent of Portugal’s exports in 1870 went to the British Isles: “Moreover, brutal exploitation was practised in conditions that were no longer possible in Britain itself — for example, when British firms employed Portuguese children on piece rates to cut cork for bottles with cutthroat razors.”

The source of change is not presented as solely Western. The invention and rapid spread of rickshaw use from Japan is a good example. So also with the discussion of the slave-based dynamic industrial expansion at Kano in modern Nigeria.

There are some British counterparts to work of this ambition, notably Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (2004), but Bayly has retired and Osterhammel’s ambition, industry and scale shows up the work of all-too-many other historians. Similar books should be produced for other centuries. Let us hope that British historians can rise to the challenge of writing them.