Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25
The world began speeding up in the 1850s and it hasn’t stopped since. Electricity and steam were the crucial technologies: railways, steam ships, telegraphs and submarine cables shrank the world in space and time. Now that information, commodities and people could move faster than ever before a genuinely global economy emerged, hungry for growth, labour and new markets. This brought about gold rushes, mass migration, the opening of the American West, the forcible inclusion and reshaping of China, India and Japan to fit a capitalist system, and disaster for indigenous people like Maoris, Australian Aborigines and Native Americans.
Great Britain was at the heart of this explosive process. As the first industrial power, its commercial network reached every corner of the world, its goods carried in the largest merchant fleet, defended by the largest navy, the trade financed by the greatest financial centre, the City of London, and its bills denominated in pounds sterling, then the world’s most powerful currency.
Ben Wilson’s richly detailed and compelling narrative of this whirlwind period catches its exhilaration but also draws more sombre conclusions. The new global perspective did not increase international harmony as many had hoped. Technology concentrated power in the centralised state as railway networks and modern media created mass culture and mass nationalism. It also transformed warfare. The optimism of the 1850s became the western triumphalism of the late 19th century: a world of competitive militarised states fuelled by aggressive patriotism.