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Historicizing the Global, or

Labouring for Invention?

by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 59
Geoff Eleys extended and erudite essay, Historicizing the Global is one of
a number on that theme to have appeared in recent times. What seems to set
Eleys effort apart from some of the others, to which I shall turn in greater
detail presently, are two features (not including its unremittingly presentist
mood). First, Eley is not principally concerned with the economic
characteristics of globalization, unlike writers associated with the
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), or even some of their
more prominent critics. Therefore, the main questions for him do not centre
on the history of capital and monetary flows, and the nature and timing of
price convergence in markets spread over the globe. To the extent that he is
interested in economic questions, they appear to focus far more than is
usually the case on labour markets and their evolution, but also on the
nature of unfree labour in the long-term development of capitalist
production. A second feature of Eleys presentation is its attention to
globalization as a discursive phenomenon, and the relation between the
discourse and what underpins it in real terms, but also what the discourse
itself helps to shore up, propagate and justify. I am entirely sympathetic, let
me state at the outset, to such efforts to look at globalization-as-ideology,
even if I do not share certain of Eleys theoretical perspectives or
presuppositions. However, in the space of this brief comment I would like
to point to some aspects of the whole question that remain neglected in the
main essay, and also to what I can only term a massive geographical blind
spot in its view of the world. My brief comments will be in three parts. First,
I will rapidly and critically review some recent literature that is of relevance.
Second, I will question of the relative absence of Asia in Eleys analysis.
Finally, I will look at the question of the emergence of the global as an
object of study for historians, here revisiting some of my own earlier work
and that of the French historian Serge Gruzinski.
A good part of the debate on globalization treats it principally as an
economic phenomenon, having to do with a move from a world made up of
dispersed, fragmented and largely natural economies, to a system of
History Workshop Journal Issue 64
The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of History Workshop Journal, all rights reserved.


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integrated, interlinked and market-oriented economies. In this literature,

where the principal protagonists are Jeffrey Williamson, Kevin ORourke
and some of their co-authors (all writing under the carapace of the NBER),
globalization can and to be meaningful should be measured.1 Such
measurement should allow us to test propositions regarding the pace and
timing of this largely unidirectional process, which is a reincarnation of sorts
(in a post-national framework) of what was once dealt with in a national
framework as modern economic growth by the likes of Simon Kuznets and
Walt Rostow. In turn, we can then also look to subsidiary phenomena that
either facilitate or impede globalization (which is here positively valorized,
of course), and these would include both hidebound ideologies and sundry
other state-related phenomena (including politics in its various manifestations). The classic statement on the question by Williamson and ORourke
takes issue with the view (associated in the cliche with Adam Smith) that the
maritime discoveries of Columbus and Gama mark the beginning of the
process of the opening of the world.2 Rather, they see the centuries between
1500 and 1800 as characterized by slow and uncertain progress in this
direction, largely because of the work of mercantilist states, prohibitive
tariffs, and anti-capitalist mindsets. Thus, it is only in the nineteenth century
that globalization can be said to start in earnest, under the (probably
benevolent?) aegis of the British empire. The process continues till the First
World War and then suffers an interruption due to the collapse of the gold
standard and the Great Depression. A new phase of globalization then
begins hesitantly after 1945, to gain real momentum from the 1980s
There is much that can be debated in this view, including its unceasing
and obsessive focus on market (and especially commodity and moneymarket) integration. Even from an economic viewpoint we might point to
the highly problematic nature of evidence on the nineteenth-century capital
market, and also to the substantial neglect of the question of labour in the
NBER worldview. But there is also the issue of the flagrantly improper
characterization of the centuries from 1500 to 1800. Dennis O. Flynn and
Arturo Giraldez have shown how the later sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries were actually of great significance for the transformation of the
world silver economy, and make that the cornerstone of their own
chronology of globalization, from a principally monetary angle of attack.4
It may also be noted that most of the states of the world did not have
prohibitive tariff regimes or even heavy mercantilist regimes in more general
terms at this time. Thus it should be doubted whether 1800 (and the
definitive establishment of the Second British Empire) can be seen as
marking the sort of watershed that Williamson and others have in mind. It
may further be noted that these NBER authors have also begun to show
some creeping doubts themselves in recent times about the validity of their
chronology. One of their latest essays is devoted to showing how the
discovery of the Cape Route by the Portuguese in about 1500 actually did

Global Times and Spaces


lead to significant market integration in some areas, and for some

commodities at least (notably for pepper and spices between eastern and
central Europe, and western Europe).5
While the two naturally differ in myriad other ways, one significant
feature of the NBER worldview is curiously shared by Eley in his essay. This
is the almost total focus on the Atlantic world, as if the global could simply
be reduced to the Atlantic, and especially the North Atlantic. In part, we
may usefully return here to the Flynn-Giraldez critique of the NBER
viewpoint, for a good part of their critical emphasis lies on developing the
importance of both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean as basins of interaction
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As they and before them Richard
von Glahn have pointed out, the Chinese (and Japanese) economy must be
factored in for any meaningful understanding of world silver and other
commodity flows in the early modern period, or indeed to understand the
careers of even the most successful and profitable European corporate
entities of the time such as the Dutch United East India Company (or
VOC).6 Neither China nor even India appears to play any real role in Eleys
own conception of matters, except briefly in the context of the indenture
system of the nineteenth century. Yet bringing these areas into the equation
will change matters in a non-trivial way and produce a quite different way of
historicizing the global.7
Given the prevalent India and China are the future of the world mantra
of today no current management guru will need to be told why, but historians
may need to be reminded of the issues at hand. There is to begin with the
weight, demographic, agricultural and before 1850 also in manufacturing
terms, of these zones. Further, even after 1800 and British dominance over
Asian seas, Indian and Chinese financiers continued to play an enormous
role not only in national terms but as overseas entrepreneurs, underwriting
even a part of the British empire in Asia and Africa.8 Indian labour was
crucial both for production (as noted in passing by Eley), and for policing the
empire, and fighting its wars. A history of the global which neglects the
Indians and Africans who fought both in the European (and Middle Eastern)
theatre of both the World Wars is, to put it mildly, a rather narrow one, and
semi-apocrypha tell us that Henry Kissinger for one has stated that in the
absence of such a pool of military labour, there could never be an American
empire to succeed the defunct British one (If only we had two brigades of
Gurkhas to send to Baghdad !). I do not write this out of some simpleminded patriotism, or to rehash the now hackneyed call to provincialize
Europe (and perhaps universalize Bengal), but because one is constantly at
risk of reproducing that old and familiar history of the global, where it all
begins in the Mediterranean, passes to the Atlantic, and eventually expands
by means of concentric circles to the rest of the world. This was precisely the
rooted, and eventually successful, objection that historians of Asia raised to
the Wallersteinian perspective: that it was very old Eurocentric wine in a
shiny new plastic bottle labelled world-systems theory.9


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Finally, a point somewhat distinct from those discussed above. Eley

extensively and approvingly cites the work of Frederick Cooper, who has
raised vigorous objections to the use of the concept of globalization itself.10
It is certainly true that some theorists, and some ideologues, of globalization
wish to see in it a novelty that is (by them) vastly exaggerated. However,
Cooper himself does not seem adequately to take into account the historical
roots of the concept, even if not of the precise usage. The question then
is: from when do we find systematic and self-conscious attempts to think
globally, particularly among historians? The French scholar Serge
Gruzinski has argued in his work Les quatre parties du monde that we can
trace this back to the later sixteenth century, when the joint rule of the
Habsburgs over the Spanish and Portuguese empires created a global
imperial imagination, and a historiography, geography and literature to
accompany it.11 The central trope here was of a single monarchy that held
some significant degree of control over the four parts (meaning Europe,
Asia, Africa and America) of the world, now that Thule, the last of the
lands (in Senecas prophetic words) had been found.12 He further suggests
that this Iberian globalization is visible not merely in political and
economic terms, but through a complex set of cultural productions: ivories
combining Christian and Krishnaite themes in Goa, Japanese namban
screen-paintings, chronicles written in Nahuatl in the valley of Mexico but
dealing with Henri IV of France, histories of the Ottoman empire written
in New Spain by German exiles, and so on.
I would argue that while Gruzinski is broadly correct on the timing of
the emergence of global histories (as opposed to the earlier universal
histories), wherein sixteenth-century Portuguese authors such as Antonio
Galvao speak of the object of their study as a redondeza (a version of the
globe), the move was far more widely shared than has been supposed. We
can find examples of it in the Ottoman empire, in the court of the Mughal
emperor Akbar, and in various other places.13 Nor was this global
imagination always an imperial or imperialistic imagination, for we
cannot understand authors such as the sixteenth-century Polish historian
Marcin Bielski (14951575) in this fashion. So, if one is to ask Coopers
question again (what the concept of globalization is good for), one answer in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that it was good to think
globally in order to redefine the possible objects of historical study. If, in
many instances, such a new history was one of imperial hubris and
messianic zeal (as with Philip II), it could also lead other European authors
of the same period to relativize their own achievements, and even to claim
(in one instance), that the discoveries of the Chinese had far exceeded their
own. It is, alas, a lesson that many historians of Europe seem reluctant
to learn even today.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Doshi Chair of Indian History and Director of
the Center for India and South Asia at UCLA. He has taught in Delhi,

Global Times and Spaces


Paris and Oxford. He is the author most recently of Explorations in

Connected History, 2 Vols, (Oxford UP, 2005), and (with Muzaffar Alam)
Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 14001700 (Cambridge
UP, 2007).


1 Kevin H. ORourke and Jeffrey G. Williamson, After Columbus: Explaining Europes
Overseas Trade Boom, 15001800, Journal of Economic History 62, 2002, pp. 41756; also
ORourke and Williamson, When Did Globalisation Begin?, European Review of Economic
History 6, 2002, pp. 2350.
2 In point of fact, Smith remained deeply ambivalent concerning what had happened
between the 1490s and his day, seeing it at times as a case of a lost opportunity.
3 For a critique of ORourke and Williamsons historical na vete, see G. Balachandran
and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, On the History of Globalization and India: Concepts, Measures
and Debates, in Globalizing India: Perspectives from Below, Jackie Assayag and C. J. Fuller,
London, 2005, pp. 1746.
4 Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, Path Dependence, Time Lags and the
Birth of Globalisation: a Critique of ORourke and Williamson, European Review of
Economic History 8, 2004, pp. 81108; and the response by ORourke and Williamson,
Once More: When Did Globalisation Begin?, European Review of Economic History 8, 2004,
pp. 10917.
5 Kevin H. ORourke and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Did Vasco da Gama Matter for
European Markets?: Testing Frederick (sic) Lanes Hypotheses Fifty Years Later, NBER
Working Paper 11884, December 2005.
6 Richard von Glahn, Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China,
10001700, Berkeley, 1996; the implications of such work have unfortunately been caricatured
and misread in such problematic works as Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in
the Asian Age, Berkeley, 1998.
7 This point was made forcefully in a number of essays by Frank Perlin, gathered together
later in two volumes: see Perlin, The Invisible City: Monetary, Administrative and Popular
Infrastructures in Asia and Europe 15001900, Aldershot, 1993; and Unbroken Landscape:
Commodity, Category, Sign and Identity; Their Production as Myth and Knowledge from 1500,
Aldershot, 1994.
8 At a monographic level, the path-breaking work is by Claude Markovits, The
Global World of Indian Merchants, 17501947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama,
Cambridge, 2000. Also see the more recent and general accounts by Sugata Bose,
A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, Cambridge, Mass., 2006,
pp. 72121, and Thomas R. Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena,
18601920, Berkeley, 2007.
9 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, World-Economies and South Asia, 16001750: a Skeptical
Note, Review (Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton, NY) 12: 1, 1989, pp. 1418; David
Washbrook, South Asia, the World System and World Capitalism, Journal of Asian Studies
49: 3, 1990, pp. 479508. The embarrassing section of Wallersteins work on eighteenth-century
Asia has thankfully sunk without a trace; cf. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System
III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 17301840s,
San Diego, 1989.
10 Frederick Cooper, What is the Concept of Globalization Good For? An African
Historians Perspective, African Affairs 100, 2001, pp. 189213. Though ostensibly writing
from an African historians perspective, Cooper is in fact perfectly sensitive to materials from
not only the Atlantic, but also Asia (in particular Central Asia and China).
11 Serge Gruzinski, Les quatre parties du monde: Histoire dune mondialisation, Paris, 2004;
also see the earlier reflection in Gruzinski, Virando seculos 14801520: A passagem do seculo; A`s
origens da globalizacao, Sao Paulo, 1999.
12 Diskin Clay, Columbus Senecan Prophecy, The American Journal of Philology 113:4,
1992, pp. 61720.


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13 See the discussions in Sanjay Subrahmanyam, As quarto partes vistas das Molucas:
Breve re-leitura de Antonio Galvao, in Scarlett OPhelan Godoy and Carmen Salazar-Soler,
Passeurs, mediadores culturales y agentes de la primera globalizacion en el Mundo Iberico, siglos
XVI-XIX, Lima, 2005, pp. 71330, and Subrahmanyam, On World Historians in the Sixteenth
Century, Representations 91, fall 2005, pp. 2657.