The Transformation of the World


The 19th century, or indeed any span of time, does not neatly correspond to a tangible experience in the way that a day or a year does. Rather, the century, 1801-1900, is a creature of the calendar, a convenient, but arbitrary, convention used by historians to package global events in a manageable way. Some notable historians, like Sir Christopher Bayly, have deliberately blurred the strict periodisation of the 19th century because to have a feel for its contractions, transitions and connections necessitates opening up the margins of time. This is why no framing dates appear in the title of Professor Osterhammel’s book since not everything he considers began in the 19th century. His study stretches back far beyond 1800 as well as forwards to the present day to discover the significance of the 19th century in longer, overlapping periods of time.

Nor is Osterhammel’s account of the 19th century defined by an isolated spatial configuration. The 19th century was the last age of European discoveries. By 1900, or soon-after, there were no more blank spaces on the map to be filled in as explorers, geographers, surveyors and cartographers systematically unveiled previously unknown parts of the world. The measuring and mapping of the entire globe was more or less completed by the end of the 19th century. The space of global interaction had now been expanded to its greatest possible extent.

So, what is meant by the idea of the 19th century and what has it bequeathed to the 21st century?

Like most historians, Osterhammel acknowledges that the 19th century was a European one in the sense that most other countries or regions fell, in one way or another, under the dominion of European states or empires. This is not to suggest that the account proceeds blithely on the assumption of “Europe’s special path” (xxi), or, in explaining socioeconomic differences between Europe (whatever that may have been at the time) and other parts of the world. Equally, it “would be capricious to sketch a history of the 19th century that disregarded the centrality of Europe” because, as the philosopher Karl Acham once wrote, it was an “age of overwhelming, and overwhelmingly European, initiatives” (xx).

The leading themes and panoramas that pull the global 19th century story together took Europe as their yardstick. Never before had the western peninsula of Eurasia ruled over such vast tracts of the globe. Never had ideas and values originating in Europe achieved such impact on the rest of the world. And never had European culture been so eagerly absorbed by others, far beyond the sphere of colonial rule. The world became more uniform in the face of European expansion but also more internally differentiated as the vanquished and subjugated renewed efforts to rebuild and reimagine their own identities.

For the long 19th century was an age of internal unrest and elite change, external military threat, secession on the imperial periphery, and spread of subversive ideas and values―in short, an age of revolution. No continent was spared. Between 1783, when the world’s largest republic gained independence in North America, and the end of the Great War, some of the oldest and most powerful state polities disappeared from the stage: the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas (or at least south of Canada); the ancien régime of the Bourbon Dynasty in France; the monarchies in China, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, the Tsarist Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Upheavals of revolutionary dimensions occurred after 1865 in the southern United States, after 1868 in Japan, and wherever a colonial power displaced indigenous groups with a form of direct rule (as in India and Africa). The 19th century completely redrew the world map.

Yet, for all this, the 19th century holds very different meanings and memories in different parts of the world, and those experiences continue to resonate in and shape our own time. For China, the 19th century is better forgotten as an era of internal weakness and national humiliation. The Chinese now look to a more remote past for the splendours of the Chinese world, all while seeking to restore their historical dominance in Asia today. While for Britain, whose empire was the first to span the globe, the historical memory of the 19th century casts a different spell since it represents the summit of their achievement in many fields of endeavour and has cast a long shadow over their contemporary place in the world.

As the title of Osterhammel’s book suggests, the 19th century marked a turning point in the transformation of the world, though especially the world economy. Commercial innovation, economic expansion and technological progress occurred on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Markets grew larger and deeper, specialised factory production was fostered, lucrative export markets emerged, and the era of consumer culture was born as large firms with a global compass spruiked their wares to city dwellers with growing disposable incomes, giving the 19th century a unique place in the global history of wealth.

The 19th century continued the expansion and improvement of knowledge that commenced with the European Enlightenment. The flow of knowledge around the world was largely a one way street. The codification and presentation of scientific knowledge, great strides in medical techniques and vaccination treatments, gained momentum in the 19th century. This yielded a special community made up of the scholar, intellectual and scientist who formed a kind of “clerisy” or specialist authority without a firm political commitment or religious affiliation. By the outbreak of the Great War, the modern scientific age, populated by practitioners with specialist knowledge, was born.

Many events in the 20th century continue processes from the previous century. The greatest long distance migrations in world history occurred during the 19th century. Never had so many people been on the move. Slaves, merchants, settlers, soldiers and refugees, among others, formed massive waves of migrants criss-crossing the globe. Different kinds of diaspora emerged fuelling, in turn, the spatial growth of large states like Germany, Canada and the United States. The great march of peoples of the 20th and 21st centuries, we are reminded, began in earnest during the 19th century.

As the 19th century unfolded, trade and finance condensed into a dense web of global connections forged largely through the instrument of European imperialism. This system of European alliances grew into a network of global treaties that eventually culminated in a collision of advancing European empires during the great conflagration of 1914-18 as the European conquest of distant lands and the oceans of the world finally exhausted itself. The age of European civilisation, having boasted its superiority to all others, died in the trenches of the Great War.

Jurgen Osterhammel’s barnstorming world history of the 19th century written in the mould of the great 19th century historical works by Max Weber, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill is likely to remain a classic portrait of an epoch whose artistic tastes and cultural institutions, such as the national library, photography, the cinema, the opera house, still remain in use today.


Jürgen Osterhammel. The Transformation of the World: a Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.

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