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keerthik sasidharan

The Flowers from a Forgotten Spring

The Flowers from a Forgotten Spring

[I wanted to share this essay on a new popular history book (Ben Wilson's 'Hey Day: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age') which explores the decade of the 1850s-1860s, the period before the first wave of globalization.  A shorter version of this essay appeared as a review in The Hindu on November 12, 2016 under the title 'A Global Age before Globalization'.  I hope you'll find it of interest.]


Seven years before he died in 1832, the great German writer Goethe wrote to his contemporary, the musician Carl Friedrich Zelter, about the age in which they were living.  “Railways, quick mails, steamships, and every possible kind of rapid communications are what the educated world has in view so that it over-educates itself and thereby continues in a state of mediocrity.”  Then, with a hint of self-indulgence that the great man had rightly earned, he further noted, “We and perhaps a few others will be the last of an epoch which will not return.”  Goethe - about whom his friend wrote “this man is independent [selbständig] from tip to toe” - had not just described the changes underway accurately but had foreshadowed a criticism of modernity that was to reappear across centuries, all the way down to Solzhenitsyn in our times.  Goethe’s was, arguably, the last generation that could live, think, and write - should one choose to do so- without the burgeoning pressures of connectivity and the constant production of new knowledge itself.  Goethe’s world was both larger and smaller than any other time in human history.  This state of affairs however was a consequence of factors that had accreted throughout Goethe’s own life time.  Since 1769, when James Cook first journeyed to the South Pacific to see the ‘transit of Venus’ (and eventually became one of the superstar explorers), there burst open in the North Atlantic mind a greater self-confidence about not just making long-distance journeys over perilous seas but confidently interpreting what they say. Interpretations that became formalized discourses.  Thanks to the invention of navigation tools, state sponsored activities such as the Longitude Act in 1714, improved knowledge about sea routes, andbetter financing arrangements of these journeys - the world suddenly offered itself for both conquest and study.  Barring for sailors, slave merchants, gentlemen explorers and proto-colonialists, for most of the peoples of the 18th century, the world was still too far away.  Should one choose to, one could still live in 18th century Europe without being assaulted by new information or by being forced to radically rearrange one’s mental furniture about concepts, peoples, and ideas. But by the1830s, when Goethe wrote his paean to a quieter age, this was no longer possible.  By 1848, as a series of failed revolutions swept across Europe, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: “The world is drawing to a close.  Only for one reason can it last longer: just because it happens to exist… Suppose it should continue materially, would that be an existence worthy of its name and of the historical dictionary?”  

Ben Wilson’s “Hey Day” is a popular historian’s response (in the affirmative, of course) to Baudelaire’s gloomy question about the worth of the ages to come, not just for existence but, more prosaically, for historiography itself.  Wilson writes about the decade of 1850 to early 1860s, and is an elaborate argument about the historical import of that period for the century to follow. Not only was the world of the 1850s-1860s, one filled with new frontiers of human experience - technological, scientific, commercial, literary, and political - it was also period where escape from the world and its seductions became difficult to resist for the European mind.  What burbles up in Wilson’s exciting chronicle is the human (or more accurately, the English speaking worlds’) willfulness to repurpose new discoveries and old relationships, thanks to increased technical knowledge.  The working class and lower middle classes in England and parts of Europe suddenly came face to face not only with technological innovations - from the Colt pistol, reaping machines by Cyrus McCormick, vulcanization of rubber courtesy Charles Goodyear and so on - but also with a new ideology of ‘progress’ itself.  The possibility of better future out there - be it in New Zealand, Australia, California, or Canada - congealed on its own as secularized vision of a Christian eschatology of a perfectible world.  Even Karl Marx in 1852 got caught up in the fervor, writing under the penumbra of the The Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park: “There is no more splendid time to enter the world than the present… Australia and California and the Pacific Ocean! The new world citizens won’t be able to comprehend how small our world was.”  

Ironically, as Wilson competently demonstrates, the diversities of human experience burgeoned precisely as the geography of the earth shrunk.  Thanks to applications of spherical trigonometry (distance from Cape Town to Melbourne, via the The Great Circle routes, now shrunk by 1000 miles!) and detailed logs of winds and waves, ships began to shave off distances dramatically.  Clippers traveled at hitherto unimaginable speeds (“Hell or Melbourne”) to win prizes or fame for their captains.  At the bottom of all these explicit pressures also lay the ebb and swell of profitability in ferrying migrants from Europe to Australia, South Africa, South Americas, or New Zealand.  Concurrently, as new paths were carved out in the American West amidst forests, ravines, plateaus, and arid patches, the previous inhabitants of the lands came face to face with this newer generation of interlopers, passerbys, and homesteaders.  The effort to survive Nature inevitably also meant contestations with those who had earlier found ways to accommodate Nature.  As Wilson insightfully notes, “power over nature is often a euphemism for power over other people.”  Across the world - Maoris in New Zealand, the aborigines in Australia, the Xhosa, Bantu, Ndebele, and the Zulus in southern Africas, the earlier inhabitants of Brazil and Madagascar, the Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux, and other tribes in largely unexplored Americas, tribes of the frontier provinces of India - there waged small and large battles, some times as a brush fire and occasionally as infernos. This interaction had a cyclical structure to it: violence, coexistence, compromises, negotiations, and yet some more violence.   But the real danger to many of these tribes came from the wasting away that followed cataclysmic violence(“their women are pinched with want and their children constantly cry out with hunger”, wrote the famed trapper Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick).  In Australia, the aborigines declined from 700,000 in 1788 to 180,000 in 1850s, while in southern Africas, the Khoekhoe (then called Hottentots) populations fell from 200,000 to 32,000.  In some American Indian tribes, women outnumbered member by nearly three to women.   It is to Wilson’s credit - and a sign of our politically sensitive climates - that amidst a narrative that could easily trip over into North Atlantic triumphalism about “globalization”, he not just shows the sensitivity to acknowledge the decimation of peoples who are by now largely forgotten, but also fleetingly guides us through the grayer characters of this saga.  The famed adventurer Richard F. Burton or the explorer George Caitlin, in Wilson’s telling, become stand-ins for the reluctance among Europeans as they watch aggressive settler colonies press forward.  However, in contrast to the diversity of European voices and sentiments, we hear little in Wilson’s telling, of what the Native Indians or Aborigines or Zulus thought of this encounter.  Similar narrative lopsidedness prevail elsewhere.  The chapters on the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion as the British called it, or the First War of Indian Independence as the Indians call it, is reduced to the experience of British women and soldiers.  The extraordinary complexity of factors that consummated in a violent reprisal in 1857 runs the risk of appearing, in Wilson’s narrative, as a conflagration between simple minded nativist brutality and a complex array of British reactions.  Perhaps, this is unfair to expect, for ‘Hey Day’ is not an history of moral sentiments during 1850s, but some thing more tractable - a tale of how North Atlantic civilizations spread around the world.  Often enough, one comes away with the sense those at the receiving end of the emergent North Atlanticization of the world are either victims or villains; while the narratives of European actors are often afforded the luxury of nuance.  

In a way, this selectiveness is the peril of trying to squeeze in a multiplicities of historically contingent events into a narrative about a“globalizing” age.  (There are some successful but rare exceptions - like Professor Felipe Armesto Armandez - who manage to write truly excellent ‘global’ histories.) In Wilson’s telling, every chapter runs the risk of becoming a wellspring of disagreement or discontent for those who know the details better than Wilson’s narratives can find space for details.  A historian of steamers and schooners might find much to fault with Wilson’s summaries of advances, when the technical realities, production of social relations, and politics of travel differed from route to route.  Travels from England to Australia were different from the historic nature of travels from Hong Kong to San Francisco, from Malaysia to South Africa or from India to the Caribbean.  Similarly is the case with other capacious historical events that form each of Hey Day’s chapters.  Events as treacherously complicated and expansive in its contents such as the opening up of Japan in 1853, the European domination of China, violence in India against the East India Company, the engorgement of the United States into a continental behemoth, the extensive pre-Civil War debates, politics, and rising discontent about Slavery, the peopling of the South Pacific become well told but partial surveys.  

That complaint be as it may, Wilson’s narrative is chock-a-block full of facts which, at one level, arouses admiration at the industry that must have gone to collect and weave them into a seamless, even if translucent, narrative. It is also a testament to Wilson’s elegant style that he manages to collate facts, chapter after chapter, without devolving into, what John Updike called elsewhere, “the cumulative numbing” of a Guinness Book or accreting them into a magisterial, but forbidding, work like Jurgen Osterhammel’s ‘The Transformation of the World’ (also about the 19th century).  Instead, Wilson’s essays about places - Melbourne, Nebraska, the Caucasus et al - are synecdoches for contact, changes, and clashes in the hopes of convincing the reader that the 1850s were truly the beginning of a new era.  To this end, his narrative technique of proffering linkages - one event’s past is pregnant with another event’s future - may it self seem rather appropriate for a narrative about the global age.  To wit, however, even this modern narrative technique of “connected histories” has a past of its own; in the 11th-12th century the Navya-Nyaya school of logicians in India used a technique called samyogaja-samyoga, which the great Israeli scholar David Shulman translates as “connection born from connections”, to build elaborate causal arguments.  What grants narrative urgency to Wilson’s approach is not just the intricacy of global linkages in 1850s but the intensity with which shocks in one part of the globe were transmitted to another.  The fierce abolitionist John Brown, who Wilson quotes, makes this new reality all the more viscerally evident: “when the price [of cotton] rises in the English market,…the whip [on slaves in America] is kept constantly going.” 

‘Hey Day’ is presently marketed with a sub-heading that declares it is about ‘the dawn of the global age’.    That half-pregnant phrase prompts a natural question: the global age of what?  Knowledge, capital, people, North Atlanticization of cultures, modernity, 19th century capitalism, or something even playfully self-referential:  the beginnings of history writing when one phenomena - say, emigration or capital flows - could be coherently etched out.  Wilson’s work doesn’t engage with such questions of self-criticality that ought to wonder if the idea of a ‘global’ history has an history of its own.  Nor does the book display any awareness about those - say, like the historians Sanjay Subrahmanyan or Geoff Eley - who argue that modernity and ‘global ages’ existed in various guises across the world.  An even subtler, an unexamined, question is about the false positives:  are we mistaking the globalization of 1850s to be unique and unprecedented because it was a melange of integrative forces under whose influential, even if attenuated, shadows we continue tolive.  Were there other ‘global’ ages before in South East Asia under the Tamil empires, or Khanate kingdoms under the Mongols?  The hardest of the challenges, while writing a book about ‘global history’, is to avoid giving the impression of inevitable, unceasing progress.  Failing which, as the historian Fred Cooper describes, the “arguments falls victim to linearity and teleology”.  Linearity is useful for story telling and convenient for ideologues but is far from the lived reality of any ostensibly global phenomenon that an historian seeks to describe.  Wilson’s narrative, like most history books written for the mass market, flirts with linearity in narrative but is also wise enough to not press too hard on the accelerator of historical determinism.  

All this said, Ben Wilson’s ‘Hey Day’ is an admirable effort to weave a narrative around one of the two meanings that suffuses the term‘global’ in our present day discourse.  One use of the term ‘global’ is as an ideological attitude towards markets, permeability of borders, and norms with its own cheerleaders, signaling mechanisms, and institutional frameworks.  Another use of the term ‘global’ is as a description of the world, a chronicle of the present as is, and one which seeks to ask if the present was birthed by more than one parent.  That Ben Wilson has managed to write a book that prefers to align itself with the latter idea of the term ‘global’, and that he does so with a great flair to keep the pages moving,  makes it a relative rarity for its ambition, ease of reading, and the willingness to eschew simplistic narratives. 

Autumn and Its Discontents

Autumn and Its Discontents

Word Clouds On The Move

Word Clouds On The Move