A World of Connections and Inequality: A New History of the 19th Century

The 19th century poses special problems for historians and social scientists. If conventional views of the march of history are correct, the world should have become modern over this period ...

The 19th century poses special problems for historians and social scientists. If conventional views of the march of history are correct, the world should have become modern over this period. Following upon the political revolutions in France, Haiti, and North and South America and the Industrial Revolution, the 19th century should have produced a definitive transformation of political and economic life. Following upon the development of the steamship, railway, and telegraph, it should have been the era in which the world was tied together. It should have been the time when the working people of the world were freed from the bonds of slavery, peasant agriculture, and craft hierarchies to struggle for their rights as workers and as citizens. And to a certain extent it was.

But only so far. Politically, the century began under the domination of a small number of powerful empires. It ended under the domination of a small number of empires. Far more political entities were eliminated, mostly through colonial expansion (the kingdoms and communities of Africa, for example), than nations created (notably, the republics of former Spanish America). In some countries, especially in Europe, more and more citizens obtained the right to vote, but women did not. Slaves were freed, but post-emancipation societies found ways to keep liberated slaves from exercising their freedom. In parts of Western Europe, workers obtained the right of free association, but in many places aristocratic elites retained many of their privileges. Tsars, kaisers, and other autocratic rulers retained authority in many places even while in others bureaucrats exercised control over more and more aspects of daily life. Commercial networks were dismantled as well as created as colonial expansion imposed restrictions and boundaries on long-standing trading systems. Anti-Semitism was stronger at century’s end than at its beginning, racial distinctions more sharply defined and rationalized. Political elites often turned such distinctions into a means of excluding entire categories of people from the body politic. Economically as well as socially, the 19th century fragmented peoples as well as connected them. It is not clear that the world was more “modern” in 1900 than 1800 in anything other than a tautological sense.1

Jürgen Osterhammel’s rich and thoughtful book The Transformation of the World, skillfully translated by Patrick Camiller, has the great virtue of addressing with careful attention what was and was not transformed over the 19th century. The “global history” of his subtitle is a call to examine the world in its diversity, not to subsume it under a single world system, nor to identify a singular process that was the basis of its transformation, nor to provide a master narrative of the ascendancy of capitalism, the nation-state, or the “West.” He points to trends that were widely shared but not universal. He does not hesitate to describe and narrate; this is a comprehensive book, not a schematic one. Its very length—1,167 pages—makes a point: the world of the 19th century is varied, complex, and puzzling. No single-minded theoretical approach can grasp its dynamism. Time and again, he lays out divergent interpretations—of the great themes of the social sciences, of the finer points of historiography—and sorts through their merits and their weaknesses.

The “global history” of the book’s subtitle is a call to examine the world in its diversity, not to subsume it under a single world system.

Osterhammel’s focus is on the connectedness and unevenness of the world, on global asymmetry. He brings out different responses to the exercise of power. The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, indeed in a manner that is almost recursive, coming back to certain problems from different angles. Osterhammel distinguishes “approaches,” “panoramas,” and “themes,” and these rubrics are broken down into a series of chapters, each of which is a comprehensive examination of a topic: memory, time, space, mobility, living standards, cities, frontiers, imperial systems and nation-states, international orders, revolutions, the state, industry and energy, labor, networks, hierarchies, knowledge, civilization, and religion. This organization leads to some overlap and a degree of repetition, but it also allows Osterhammel to reflect on the spectrum of patterns of change and to ponder alternative analyses. Within most if not all topics he has something to say about every continent, but the coverage is, not surprisingly, more focused on some places than others. China, Japan, Russia, Western Europe, and the United States receive the most attention. Much of Osterhammel’s earlier research and publications focused on China, and his extra-European perspective brings an incisive edge to his treatment of the major trends of 19th-century history.

Osterhammel’s 19th century goes from the 1770s to the 1920s, with frequent forays before and after those dates. The concept of “century” opens an inquiry into ways of framing historical processes. Different time frames produce different notions of change. One can, for example, easily look at the history of China in the 19th century as one of decline, focusing on the humiliation inflicted by European powers in the Opium Wars, the chaos of the Taiping rebellion, and the sclerotic state of the Qing monarchy. But if one looks at a different time perspective, the period 1840–1980 looks like an interlude in the history of an imperial formation, no longer than several dynastic interregna in Chinese history, ending up with a state with much the same borders as the Qing had established by the 18th century, with a strong system of administration, and a dynamic economy producing—as in centuries past—the kinds of goods that people in distant parts of the world want to buy.2 Osterhammel’s sensitivity to issues of framing provide him a device for studying connected and asymmetrical histories and challenging received wisdom.

<i>Suppression of the Taiping Rebellion</i> (c. 1860). Wikimedia Commons

Suppression of the Taiping Rebellion (c. 1860). Wikimedia Commons

Was the 19th a “European” century? For him, this is a genuine question, not a presupposition. Osterhammel can stress the rapidity with which the industrial and financial power of European states developed and point to the wave of imperial conquests in the late 19th century, while making clear the limits and the impermanence of the structure of power established in those years. No other century, after as well as before, was so much Europe’s century. Like Kenneth Pomeranz, he sees a “great divergence” around 1800 as Britain’s level of economic growth and industrialization pulled away from that of the great empire on the opposite edge of the Eurasian landmass, China.3 Britain’s economic power—with Germany and France striving to catch up—underlay not only its capacity to coerce and conquer, but the interest and fascination people in many parts of the world had in doing business with Europe’s entrepreneurs and responding to its scientific, intellectual, and cultural initiatives. But Europe was neither a coherent political space nor a coherent ideological construct; the legitimacy of imperial rule was questioned and fought over before it was consolidated; its offshoots, notably the United States, were proving as dynamic and domineering; its own games were played with great effectiveness by Japan; its divisions would soon tear it apart; and its future, at century’s end, was very much in doubt. The gist of Osterhammel’s way of telling the story of European domination is to underscore the limits and fragility of that domination.

If the very structure of this book offers an alternative to the tendency of historians to narrate history within the boundaries of existing nations, its contents offer a compelling alternative to more recent tellings of history after the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that place nationalism and nation-making at the center of a worldwide process.4 The revolutions of the British, French (Haiti), and Spanish Americas were struggles for emancipation to be sure, but they were struggles for change within empires before they became struggles for independent nations. The consequences of these revolutions were more complex than the “horizontal” affinity posited by Benedict Anderson.5 Latin American societies, Osterhammel points out, did not experience the “calm consolidation” of the nation-state and remained profoundly hierarchical. Osterhammel refers to “the post-1865 refounding of the United States as a nation-state,” over half a century after the founding of a different sort of state divided between “free” and “slave” regions, its newfound unity based on the extermination or marginalization of the continent’s indigenous population and compromises that rendered the rest of the population legally equivalent while in reality excluding African Americans. What we now call Europe was dominated by a “pentarchy”—France, Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia—each of which was an empire with multiple components, a far cry from the approximately 30 nation-states that make up Europe today.

As Osterhammel argues persuasively, the distinction between “overseas” and “continental” empires is unhelpful, since imperial strategy focused on combining and manipulating whatever resources could be had, going beyond those of a linguistically or culturally defined nation. The most “national” of polities in the late 19th century was Japan, but it too was embarking on the incorporation of “other” territories and the creation of a myth of pan-Asianism that was both inclusionary and hierarchical. Osterhammel finds little to offer in the notion that 19th-century empire, unlike earlier versions, was actually a national project of exploiting subordinate entities and concludes that the “link between nation and state is not easy to grasp.” Otto von Bismarck had the wisdom to see that stability in an international order with a small number of supranational players depended on elites’ sense of their own limitations; his less restrained successors would lead Europe into a war that was not a clash of mobilized nations but an inter-empire war. That war would shake up the inter-imperial order as it then existed, but new forms of empire-making would come into play. The relationship of empire, nation, and state was complex, changing, and uncertain for a very long time. Scholars would be wise to place a question mark rather than a hyphen between nation and state, at least before the idea of a world of equivalent, sovereign states came to be the (much-abused) norm with the collapse of colonial empires in the 1950s and 1960s.

Where, then, does the case for fundamental transformation in the 19th century lie? In his conclusion, Osterhammel proposes five “angles of vision” rather than the usual “-izations.” First, “asymmetrical efficiency growth.” Here he refers to the process of capitalist development that took the uneven distribution of economic power to new levels and concentrated capital formation in a small number of places, to the incorporation of new frontiers (the American West, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Burma), and to industrialization. Technological asymmetry provided the weapons that made conquest easier and cheaper for states with the relevant capabilities, but also “multiplied the risks of political folly.” New technologies, in the material and organizational sense, implied greater capacity of states to intervene in the lives of people near and far away, but the intensity of such intervention did not vary directly with the capacity to do so. The most remarkable example of such efficiency growth was not Western Europe—a varied and changeable entity in itself—but Japan. The rapid transformation of Japan was no example of the triumph of laissez-faire capitalism, but of a close relationship of state and capital, of a willingness to adapt foreign know-how combined with an elite’s strong sense of distinctiveness and purpose.

Second, increased mobility. Infrastructure for transportation and communication—steam ships, railroads, telegraph cables—made it possible for more people from more places to migrate, to do business in a wider range of commodities, and to acquire ideas and information across space. Between 1815 and 1914, 82 million people moved voluntarily from one country to another, millions more via the slave trade that persisted until midcentury and the coerced or semi-coerced forms of labor displacement that followed it. The Americas, Siberia, Manchuria, and other regions were integrated into networks with an intensity that was not possible before. Osterhammel rarely uses the word “globalization”—he is too wary of teleology and too careful a historian to confuse “big” or “long-distance” with “global”—but here he finds a place for this notion. The other side of mobility was, of course, the larger number of people who did not or could not move and the unequal access people had to means of communication. Mobility both reflected and enhanced the unevenness of the global distribution of resources.

Osterhammel finds too simple both the notion of ever-expanding diffusion of knowledge and that of cultural imperialism.

Third comes an awkward phrase, “asymmetrical reference density.” Here Osterhammel is concerned with not just the transfer of information but the increased but highly uneven mobility of ideas and cultural content. His emphasis throughout the book is on selective transmission and adaptation, not on “westernization.” Intellectuals, in Japan, China, and elsewhere, played “an active role in shaping the transfer of new European conceptions and the institutions associated with them.” The example set by British, French, and German affluence and social norms appeared to create a “global standard,” although it was not entirely clear what that standard was or whether it represented a legitimate claim on colonized people for the resources necessary to raise themselves to such a level. Osterhammel finds too simple both the notion of ever-expanding diffusion of knowledge and that of cultural imperialism. He provides numerous examples of adaptation, reconfiguration, and reimagination in the realms of religious thought, artistic and literary expression, and educational institutions (the university system of Meiji Japan, the educational reforms of the Ottoman Empire, urban architecture in several regions) that belie a choice between cultural assimilation and a bounded sense of cultural integrity. But the very extension of imperial power around the globe both opened alternatives and shut down possibilities.

A fourth element is the “tension between equality and hierarchy.” Within Europe, Osterhammel notes the weakness of egalitarian thinking in Great Britain, the reactionary politics of elites faced with popular involvement in politics, and the continued importance of aristocracies in some European polities. His emphasis is on changing forms of hierarchy rather than a linear tendency toward leveling. Within imperial powers, especially colonial empires, the trend was toward sharper distinctions between different sorts of polities and cultures, in the name of “civilization” and, especially in the second half of the century, “race.”

<i>Ring Street, Budapest</i> (c. 18901900). Wikimedia Commons

Ring Street, Budapest (c. 18901900). Wikimedia Commons

The tension between equality and hierarchy was also a tension between equality and difference, in its many forms. The Austrian Empire (Austro-Hungarian after 1867) found ways to link the monarchy to highly diverse populations and to contain such tensions, making it “in principle one of the most modern and ‘civic’ of empires.” Colonial empires, on the other hand, developed a politics of difference that justified violent conquest and exploitation, but throughout the century they faced challenges to ruling practices from “humanitarian” lobbies in Europe as well as from people in the colonies that forced debates over exactly where and how principles of human dignity, equality, and citizenship applied.

Capitalist development, meanwhile, posited labor power as a marketable commodity, abstracted from the individual’s social location. Principles of political economy thus stood in tension with the variety of social forms in which human beings existed and the variety of ways in which distinctions could be made among them.6 Neither control of the means of production nor frequently shared markers of status created unity on the upper end of the hierarchy. Osterhammel notes that the bourgeoisies of Europe saw themselves in increasingly national terms—caught up as they were in the politics of their respective states and the complexities of local class relations—and he points to the “failed utopia of bourgeois cosmopolitanism.”

By the second half of the 19th century, the race question became increasingly salient and the subject of “scientific” claims and counterclaims.

Questions of difference and inclusion, Osterhammel observes, were not specific to Europe and its offshoots. The politics of difference took different forms in the Qing and Ottoman Empires, as well as in the Russian and Austrian. Part of the complexity lay in the specific form of empire: however much imperial rulers wanted to underscore their own superiority, they needed intermediaries and they needed to make explicit, in one way or another, that the future of diverse peoples lay inside the imperial polity. By the second half of the century, with more of Africa and Asia subordinated to the authority of European states, the race question became increasingly salient and the subject of “scientific” claims and counterclaims. When Osterhammel refers, in relation to the United States, to the “indispensability but also the instability of ‘race’ as a category of imposing cognitive order” he is making a point of more general validity.7 Various configurations of difference could be mobilized, sometimes with murderous consequences, as the ethnic cleansing of Muslims after the Ottomans’ loss of the Balkan Wars in 1912–13 and the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians in the 1890s and most notoriously in 1915–16 make clear.

Osterhammel thinks of hierarchy as “the vertical dimension of social space,” and by this he means the graded ordering of collective classifications—of races, ethnicities, classes, castes. But the concept of “vertical” could be used in another sense, that of vertical relationships. Capitalist development did not suddenly turn the personalized relations of landlord and tenant, craftsman and apprentice, master and servant, warlord and henchman, religious leader and follower, into a depersonalized relationship of classes. Empires were built around vertical relationships, of rule through intermediaries within component parts of the imperial ensemble, and rulers were careful to limit horizontal relationships, that is connections among different parts of the empire that did not pass through the center. “Aristocrats” were not just a category but individuals whose position depended on links to “their people.” In many parts of the 19th-century world, people found new opportunities to detach themselves from such vertical relationships, but it was often to fit themselves into other ones. Young men might leave the confines of a patriarchal society to fight for a regional warlord or an imperial army, or they might join a religious movement of universalistic orientation. Migrants needed patrons in host communities or among prior migrants from the same region. The volatility of politics in the Qing Empire, in the Balkans, in parts of the Ottoman Empire, in the societies of Sahelian Africa, and elsewhere had much to do with both the uncertainties and the continued importance of building and tearing down vertical connections—a topic to which historians, including Osterhammel, have not given sufficient attention.8

English School, <i>Snow Hill, Holburn, London</i> (19th century). Wikimedia Commons

English School, Snow Hill, Holburn, London (19th century). Wikimedia Commons

Osterhammel’s final rubric for analyzing the distinctiveness of the 19th century is “emancipation.” He refers to different sorts of liberations: from slavery, feudal burdens, restrictions on workers’ mobility or associations, forms of tutelage, and certain habits of mind. He is perfectly aware that each move toward freedom brought reactions. In some places, for example, patriarchal authority diminished but “the bourgeois family brought constraints of its own.” He thinks one can speak of “the spread of democracy but not of its irresistible triumph.” He is right to put much emphasis on the abolition of slavery, because it was indeed a 19th-century process, and because, if it was not literally global, it certainly extended over a great deal of space. Abolitionism began as a project within empire—the British Empire most emphatically. Antislavery movements were claiming that the dehumanizing status and treatment of people from alien cultures living on distant islands few Britons had ever seen was a concern to the British public because those slaves were in some sense included in a “British” polity. Slavery was “a stain on the British flag,” in a favorite expression.

The spread of antislavery ideology was no spontaneous adoption of a higher moral standard. It was forced on other European states by dint of British power and influence, and later in the century, the enslavement of Africans by other Africans (however misunderstood the actual forms of slavery) became a target of humanitarian lobbies and an argument for intervention, indeed a rationale for a supposedly benevolent colonization. Some scholars have gone further than Osterhammel (who is cautious enough) in emphasizing that the abolitionists’ distinction between slave and free labor was artificial, and labor within European countries themselves reflected a mix of coercion and incentives.9 But the ideological act of making such a distinction plausible—turning slave labor into a bounded and excisable category—was itself a basic part of the development of capitalism. It helped to promote a standard of “civilization” that could be applied around the globe, an asymmetrical process of forging universal norms. In practice, imperial rulers and employers found new ways of subordinating labor—including long-distance connections that moved Indians, Chinese, and others across long distances, deploying the fetishism of the labor contract to assimilate their status to “freedom.” Even in the appropriation of emancipation to serve colonization, Osterhammel finds the “unstable” nature of colonial ideologies. Colonialism, he points out, was not the only form of “foreign” rule—the Moguls, Ottomans, and Manchus provided others—but its claim to bring something positive could be measured against people’s experience of repression and exploitation and challenged in terms of the rulers’ ideology itself.10 A century of European domination hung, by the time of World War I, on an already frayed ideological thread.

To Osterhammel, the 19th century was a time when intellectuals—and not just in Europe—became more self-conscious, more aware of their position in relation to others. This too was an asymmetrical process; not everyone had the same capacity to shape the terms under which reflection took place. Writing history well entails sensitivity to the gap between the historian’s present and other people’s pasts. One of the remarkable features of this book on the time scale of a century and the spatial scale of a planet is its author’s acknowledgment of the limitations of knowledge—his own, that of today’s communities of scholars, and that of the diverse subjects who appear in these pages. icon

  1. On this elusive concept, which Osterhammel uses with considerable reserve, see the chapter “Modernity” in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (University of California Press, 2005).
  2. Osterhammel points out that in the case of the United States the period from the Civil War to the civil rights movement (1860–1960s) constitutes a more coherent unit of time than the period 1800–1900. Midcentury dividing points work better for Africa, India, and Indochina.
  3. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2000).
  4. For a related argument, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 2010).
  5. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983). For other readings of these revolutions, see Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton University Press, 2006); Eliga Gould, The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2000); and Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  6. On this point, see Andrew Sartori, Liberalism in Empire: An Alternative History (University of California Press, 2014).
  7. For recent reexaminations of racial thought and empire, see Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2011); Alice Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell University Press, 2013); and Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  8. Osterhammel also has a very interesting chapter on “Networks”—a topic that has been given more consideration by anthropologists and sociologists than by historians. This perspective enables him to cut across the boundaries of national or continental histories. More specific attention to vertically organized relationships would enrich both the chapter on hierarchies and that on networks.
  9. See, e.g., Alessandro Stanziani, “Labour Institutions in a Global Perspective, from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century,” International Review of Social History, vol. 54. no. 3 (2009), pp. 351–358.
  10. Osterhammel also notes that “in some circumstances the nation-state could weigh more heavily on its citizens, especially on members of an ethnic or religious minority, than many an empire did on its subjects.”
Featured image: Fedor Alexyev, Iberian Square, Moscow (19th century). Wikimedia Commons