The Birth of the Modern World By CA Bayly

The blue planet turns red
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The Independent Culture

From the desk where I am writing, I look out across an Oxfordshire valley from the edge of the village of Cumnor. On the far side of the valley is a vast, rather ugly Victorian mansion named Oaken Holt. It was built by Sir William Wilson Hunter (1840-1900), the historian and imperial civil servant who conducted the most important statistical survey of British India. Many of the key themes of the "long 19th century" came together in Hunter's career: the making of global empire, the huge, pernicious influence of racial theories (he interpreted all Indian history as a struggle between superior and inferior "races"), the ever-growing power of the modern state, the gathering of statistics as a key tool of that power, and its classifying, rationalising agenda. It was all lucrative enough for Hunter to build Oaken Holt with the proceeds. That big house across the valley is a small symbol of the material benefits of empire to its rulers.

But now walk a little way west from where I'm sitting, to Cumnor's village church. There we find Hunter's lavish - if again rather ugly - marble monument. It records how his children died young, broadcast across the globe - one in the Bay of Bengal, another in South Africa. Here, perhaps, as with the child graves in British mission cemeteries around the postcolonial world, is a hint of the personal costs of empire to set against the gains.

It is not only reverberations of empires past that this landscape summons up, but those of global power and conflict today. Walk about three miles further west from Cumnor church, and you reach the still smaller village of Southmoor. Here lived the government scientist and weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. Just north, in woodland by the river, is where he went for a stroll last July and never returned. We are also, here, on the flight-path of RAF Brize Norton. We can track the rise and fall of international crises by the amount of noise pollution as I work.

That kind of picture - finding the echoes of global history in the local, tracing the marks of empire, power and conflict in this little corner of a former superpower - is by now almost a cliché in certain varieties of historical writing. It's the sort of historical re-imagining that Chris Bayly has long helped to pioneer. He is known as perhaps the finest living British historian of India, in whose work WW Hunter plays cameo roles. But he has also spread his net ever wider, offering a superbly succinct and vivid overview of the British empire in Imperial Meridian (1989) and, more recently, becoming prominent among those who have begun to give the concept of globalisation some serious historical depth.

None of that, though, quite prepares one for the sheer scale, ambition and power of The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Historians have long tried to produce truly global histories, and moved ever more decisively away from narratives of the "expansion of Europe". Perhaps the most famous and influential is Eric Hobsbawm's trilogy - Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire - which covers the same time-span as Bayly's volume. Hobsbawm coined the idea of the "long 19th century" from the French Revolution to the First World War, which is of course a very hard act to outdo. Yet Bayly, while paying due respect to Eric the Red's efforts, manages just that. His knowledge, especially of Asia, seems even more astonishingly encyclopaedic than Hobsbawm's, his perspective wider.

This is a historian's, not a social theorist's, book. Bayly does not spend much time over theoretical debates on the meanings of the concepts around which the story revolves: modernity, nationalism, imperialism, the state, industrialisation. Still, he offers remarkably lucid, supple analyses of each. Bayly not only deftly summarises a startling range of complex previous literature, as well as integrating it effectively into his bigger picture, but also pushes many of those theoretical debates forward, in a quiet way that doesn't announce "This is Theory!".

"Pushes forward a stage": that is the very language whose aptness, or even moral decency, is under question in a great deal of Bayly's story. White colonists who expropriated the natives, despots regimenting or slaughtering their peasants, pseudo-scientists developing disturbing theories of "race", all thought they were engaged in that progressive, civilising kind of push. In reaction, many contemporary critics claim to be defending (rather belatedly) the local, the pre-modern, the fragmentary against the grand narratives of capitalism, colonialism and modernity. For some, the crucial failing of "Eurocentric" history-writing has been to write global history as the story of the inexorable universalisation of capitalism, and modernity. An emerging body of writing on "alternative" modernities mounts a somewhat similar critique, albeit in a different idiom.

Bayly, with great skill and subtlety, questions or even dismantles the terms of that over-polarised opposition. He shows how, in dozens of places, local societies and "traditional" ideas were both shaped by and in turn reshaped the forces of globalising modernity. He repeatedly notes the shortcomings of the anthropological theory of diffusionism, especially in relation to political and social ideas. He challenges the idea of religion as tradition, science and progress as secular, pointing out how much religion in his era was a phenomenon of modernity, while secular ideologies like socialism and scientific rationalism were so often imbued with religious ideas.

On a global scale, the period was just as much marked by religious revivals as by the decline of faith that historians had tended to stress. Bayly also explores how, across the 19th century, religion became closely intertwined with nationality, from Ireland (where "Irish" increasingly meant "Catholic"), to Bulgaria and Japan.

Another of the book's strengths lies in the way it weaves arguments about political and economic change with close attention to cultural transformations. Here, too, Bayly suggests an effective middle way through some very polarised arguments, in which proponents of a "cultural turn" in history- writing - especially in relation to colonialism - seemed hardly to speak the same language as more traditional historians. There has been an atmosphere of mutual indifference or even antagonism, with Bayly coming under oddly mean-spirited assault for supposedly neglecting the cultural oppressiveness of empire. Here he refutes such charges not by polemical counterattack, but through the sheer richness and subtlety of his own account of culture's interactions with economics.

Equally, though, Bayly puts the role of military force, and the transformative impact of war, as high on the agenda as it should be (whereas Hobsbawm, say, greatly understated it). He achieves something similar for the "modernising" processes of mapping, surveying, counting and classifying: the key tools of the modern state. WW Hunter doesn't get a mention, but his kinds of people are accorded the importance they deserve - as are Dr Kelly's scientific precursors. As that implies, this brilliant history of the 19th century has powerful, sometimes disconcerting, resonances for the 21st.

Stephen Howe's latest book is 'Empire: a Very Short Introduction' (Oxford University Press)