You’d be forgiven for thinking that globalisation burst into the human history story only at the start of the Age of Empires. However, in recent years the true history of early globalisation has become clearer through the works of some of the top historians writing today, as well as more lesser known writers who have brought their niche topic knowledge to bear in authoring some ground breaking books. The result is that our perspective on the history of global connectivity and international trade and communication between disparate world cultures has been radically altered. The new literature is a treasure trove of fascinating tales and long-forgotten adventures and cultural sights. It’s time to reveal our 8 BEST books on early globalisation:
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
We’ve deliberately chosen to start our list with an historical figure most readers wouldn’t immediately associate with globalisation; plunder, pillage and rape, maybe, but expansion of trade, freedom of religion, and guarantees of safe passage for travellers, not so much. This is a reflection of just how revisionist Weatherford’s work on the life of Mongolia’s most famous son has been. Charting Genghis’s (or Chinggis, depending on which book you’re reading) rise from fatherless shepherd boy to Great Khan, the author weaves the extraordinary man’s biography together with the equally astonishing, and previously little-known, tale of his revolutionary governance and law making. Turns out, Genghis’s contributions to international jurisprudence were every bit as important as Napoleon’s were 600 years later. The pax mongolica that followed in the wake of the Khan’s conquests, and that was upheld by his successors, enabled Marco Polo to travel to China, and Chinese technologies such as gunpowder to travel in the opposite direction. Genghis’s empire is more commonly remembered for the towers of skulls left behind by Mongol armies, but the Mongol’s founding of one of the earliest periods of globalisation has remained largely unstudied; until now.
Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900
Stephen R. Brown
The reputation of early modern colonial trading companies, represented most notably in the popular imagination by the East India Company (EIC), has been the target of broader cultural and social trends in the past few decades to “de-colonise” the study of colonial history and its Empires. Merchant Kings, as the title suggests, does absolutely nothing to rescue the reputation of any of the six swashbuckling adventurers of early modern global capitalism that are profiled within its covers. However, it is ludicrously entertaining in its narrative of these truly bizarre characters; some unbelievable racists even by contemporary standards, some simply insane, and others plain street thugs dressed up as “gentlemen”. From the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) megalomaniacal Jan Pieterszoon Coen, to the EIC’s Robert Clive (whose biography should really replace the definition of ‘bastard’ in any self-respecting dictionary), Merchant Kings provides a rip-roaring insight into the madness and ego of some of the most important figures who spurred the forces of globalisation in the early modern period.
Outsourcing Empire: How Company-States Made the Modern World
Andrew Phillips & J.C. Sharman
Phillips and Sharman’s work considers the liminal role of early modern trading companies like the EIC and VOC in mediating the interaction of Europe’s emerging nation-states with the polities of the Old World and the New that they came into increasingly frequent contact with during the Age of Exploration. These company-states filled the gap in European states’ early modern communication and transport infrastructure to play an important, and lucrative, role in building the early modern highways of globalised trade. Outsourcing Empire charts the roughly 300-year period from the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th century when such company-states were given extraordinarily free reign to expand their trading privileges with, and in many cases simply conquer, indigenous kingdoms in the Old and New World whose resources were becoming ever more sought after by Europe’s growing consumer class. A subtle and understated work, Outsourcing Empire had this reviewer thinking of the parallels between the EIC/VOC and the modern day’s Tech Giants of Silicon Valley. The commercial empires of yesteryear hold lessons for those of today.
The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions
Jeffrey D Sachs
Sachs, a renowned economist and prolific author, tackles the history of globalization in his latest work. Weighing in at a slim 208 pages, The Ages of Globalization is necessarily a break-neck gallup through important ages of geographical and social connectivity, stretching from the paleolithic to the present day. Readers may be slightly flummoxed by this approach; is all of human history an inexorable push toward greater interaction? In response, Sachs balances his account with notable examples of reversals in the globalisation story (we found the story of China’s turn towards isolation in the early 15th century to be particularly interesting). Sachs’s work is a broad brush consideration of the processes at work throughout human history to bring us together as a species, breaking down the barriers of tribe, language and ethnicity.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Similar to Weatherford’s work on Genghis Khan, Frankopan seeks to re-situate Central Asia at the centre of the pre-Columbian world’s trading nexus. It’s an admirable, and potentially extremely intellectually fruitful, exercise. And yet, readers may start to question exactly where the author believes Central Asia is located; his remit seems to grow ever more broader as the work progresses. We eventually find ourselves transported far from the Ferghana Valley to the Mediterranean shores of North Africa. The author’s background as a distinguished expert on Byzantine history perhaps plays a large role in this focus shift toward the Near East. Frankopan’s writing is lucid and deeply researched, and the there is much to be learned from The Silk Roads, however given the jacket’s touting of the historic Silk Roads of Central Asia as being the site of renewed geo-political interest in the present day (think China’s BRI program), it’s a wonder that there isn’t a tighter geographic focus on that specific area. Nevertheless, The Silk Roads remains an important milestone in decentralizing Europe from the story of early globalisation; one we hope the author continues in future offerings.
When Asia Was the World
Gordon’s work is a spectacular work for those looking to view the pre-modern world through non-Western eyes. Documenting the accounts of travellers, merchants and monks from Morocco to Canton during the period broadly parallel with the European “Dark Ages”, When Asia was the World breaks open a personal window onto a lost world of interconnected cultures dispersed across vast distances. With Europe taking a back seat to the historical narrative, Gordon’s work enables the reader to re-orient themselves to the geo-political importance of non-European regions of the world, ones which are roaring back into prominence in the present day, and look set to re-ascend their former position as centre of the world in the not-too-distant future. When Asia was the World is informative and enlightening history told through the eyes of those who experienced a world whose rhythms and foci, both cultural and geographical, were greatly different from our own, but which our grandchildren may find surprisingly similar.
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire
Ah, the EIC rears its ugly head again. Whether in progressive re-appraisals of the EIC as an inherently “racist” enterprise, or as the omni-present villain in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it seems like the Honourable Company just can’t catch a break. The Anarchy’s sub-title seems to promise yet more evisceration, and yet what we are treated to within its pages seems to be something quite different. Stories of Robert Clive’s indifference to, and abject ignorance of, all things Indian are a given, yet the tale of how the EIC’s early expeditions against the Moghuls were largely funded by Indian merchants themselves has remained less well-known. Dalrymple dived deep into the cavernous stacks of the National Archives in New Delhi to research his work, eschewing the more comfortable surroundings, but thinner pickings, of the company’s records in the British Library in London. The rewards are manifest. The Anarchy represents the tale of the EIC’s expansion in India as told from the ground, without the “spin” of reports to the Board in London. The story that emerges is inevitably one of deep complexity, blurred borders, and the all-permeating whiff of history in its most elusive, multi-valent form.
Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
Prof. Brook’s imaginative exploration of the early modern period of globalisation is told through the prism of the Dutch painter Vermeer’s works made in his hometown of Delft. The objects that appear in his works tell the tale of an interconnected world in which a Dutch military officer could wear fur hats made of beaver pelt from the forests of North America, and European aristocrats would coo over the latest examples of chinoiserie imitating the finest glazed pottery of China’s contemporary Ming dynasty. This material history of the period proves fertile ground for discovering the fascinating complexity of international trade that had already developed by the 17th century when Vermeer was active. Brook’s previous work, The Confusions of Pleasure, similarly explored the material history of early modern China; in Vermeer’s Hat we see the same approach applied to a global perspective on trade and exchange. The immediacy of Vermeer’s paintings transports the reader back in time to this exciting world of new sights, sounds and experiences, and provides us with an intoxicating insight into the material pleasures of the age.
And there we have it, our EIGHT best books on early globalisation. Think that we’ve missed a classic out of our selection? Let us know in the comments below.
Alternatively, don’t forget to check out our Current Events page for the latest curated reading recommendations on the topics behind the global news headlines.
Until next time!