William Farrell, ‘Global history from below?’

[This is the fourth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). William Farrell is a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, exploring silk and globalization in eighteenth century London, which has resulted in several working papers.]

Could there be a meeting of global history and history from below?1 The participants at the Birkbeck workshop seemed sceptical I have to admit. The key works in global history have been Big History syntheses. The key works in history from below, on the other hand, have deliberately used a smaller scale.

Despite these signs of a dialogue of the deaf, I still think the potential for a ‘global history from below’ is there. We shouldn’t forget that micro-history is supposed to be a rich, empirical testing ground for arguments about wider social change. Equally, many of the articles in the Journal of Global History or Journal of World History do actually use a case study method. There should, therefore, be many places were these apparently contrasting traditions meet.

The research on sailors and slavery in the Atlantic world provides an example of how the two approaches can influence each other. Marcus Rediker’s books on sailorspirates and the slave ship are the most well-known, if controversial, examples. He, Philip D. Morgan and others have done several things that overlap with the global history agenda. They have answered Brecht’s ‘who built Thebes?’ question, by focusing on those worked the shipping routes and plantations that were at the heart of the Atlantic system. One effect of this has been to unsettle the old narrative and geography of proletarianization. The history of work and workers can no longer be written around the rise of the factory in northern Europe.

Going further, some historians have emphasized the active role of subaltern groups in Atlantic history. Whether slave rebellions ‘ended slavery’ or not, they clearly deeply unsettled planters and imperial governments, forcing them to make changes in how the system was run.2 Historians have also shown the transnational nature of the Atlantic world was something experienced from below. Some ships’ crews were multi-ethnic, and a rough-and-ready cosmopolitanism could emerge on board and in port. At the same time, the enslaved from West Africa were remaking their cultures in the new context of the plantations.

Historians are also investigating the lives of sailors, pirates and slaves in the Indian Ocean. There is clearly potential to link the two regions up either through comparing the experiences or looking for interactions. The ‘sailors and slaves’ model can also be used to explore other areas of early modern history. For instance, Beverly Lemire is looking at how sailors were often the avant garde of fashion. They were some of the first European consumers, from any social class, of exotic goods like printed cottons and tobacco.

The globalisation of labour personified? ‘The Idle 'Prentice turn'd away, and sent to Sea’ from William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness (1747), plate 5.

The globalisation of labour personified? ‘The Idle ‘Prentice turn’d away, and sent to Sea’ from William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness (1747), plate 5.

Finally it’s worth noting that an existing source we are all familiar with – the Old Bailey Online – can be used to explore some of these themes. The historical background material on Old Bailey Online highlights its potential as a source for the history of minority communities. But it can also be used for a more dynamic account of international labour mobility.

Take the textile industries in London. It is quite clear from going through the evidence of textile workers that many used the army and the sea as a means of temporary employment during downturns in their fickle trade. Henry Cockale told the Ordinary of Newgate that ‘wanting Work, [he] went to sea’. Thomas Bonney enlisted on board The Lyon ‘when Business was a little dull’. The detailed defence of Robert Campbell, who described himself as ‘a weaver, and sometimes a seaman’, provides a snapshot of how someone might have gone about being taken onto a ship, and the pressures that led him to do so.

It is even possible to get at the patterns of unemployment and out-migration using, for example, the East India Company’s recruitment records. What has often been called the crisis period in the silk and woollen industries from 1719 to 1722 was a time of increasing recruitment of London weavers into the army. Why was it a crisis period? Well contemporaries blamed imports coming from … the East India Company. There is an irony there to say the least. But it also suggests that the categories of ‘soldier’ ‘sailor’, ‘artisan’ and ‘labourer’ were quite fluid in reality. This is one small way to link a metropolitan ‘history from below’ with grand changes in world markets.


1 I take ‘global history’ to mean two things: a) study of periods of increasing interconnection between different parts of the world b) non-Eurocentric comparative world history. Some global histories aim to do both at the same time.

2 There is a parallel here with how Tim Hitchcock sees the changes in eighteenth century criminal justice and poor relief, as an interactive process between the poor, institutions and policy makers.

11 thoughts on “William Farrell, ‘Global history from below?’

  1. Pingback: The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. William,
    Great topic. I agree 100%. In Latin America, the history of the people that sailed between Buenos Aires, Santigo de Chile, Lima, Cartagena and La Habana, is still waiting to be told. And the lives of the soldiers that fight all over Latin America during the wars of independence is also another topic to focus on. The idea of global history from below in this case would be to go beyond the limits of the so-called National Histories, to pay attention to regional problems, forgetting the geo-political limits that came later. Just to provide an example, history of the indigenous communities in the Andes is adressed by to different sets of historians, with few contact between them, and different agendas. There´s a lot to be done here.

  3. Thank you Silvia. As you say, its still hard to break free from national perspectives. I guess one way around that is to have more formal collaboration, if only to overcome the logistical problems for historians working on their own.

  4. Some fascinating possibilities here, Will. Due to my own current preoccupations, I’m especially interested in your cases of textile workers using maritime labour as an escape from a sudden economic downturn.

    But I also think that your examples illuminate one of the key questions about ‘history from below’, namely the importance (or not) of ‘the active role of subaltern groups’ in larger histories. This is something that came up at both of the workshops and I think the contrast between your weavers and Rediker’s sailors, pirates and slaves is worth highlighting. Both clearly have ‘agency’ in the sense that they are asserting control over their own destinies, but Rediker argues that his seamen actively shaped world history and the global economy through their ‘revolutionary’ actions in the eighteenth century, whereas I think you are making the more modest (and more plausible) claim that weavers mostly reacted to these large-scale changes in international markets.

    So, does ‘history from below’ (rather than merely ‘social history’) necessarily assert the macro-historical agency of its subjects as in Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ or Rediker’s ‘Revolutionary Atlantic’? Or is it simply an exploration of how ordinary people sought to struggle and survive without claiming any larger historical importance for their actions?

    If it is the first, then it is easy to see why ‘history from below’ and ‘global history’ tend to be distinct, whereas ‘history from below’ and small-scale history overlap more often. Finding cases of ordinary people directly shaping ‘world historical’ events is a high bar to clear. It is much easier to find them influencing their neighbourhood or community.

    • I believe it can be both Brodie. I agree that sometimes you just can´t find them doing anything beyond influencing their own communities, but there are cases in which they make a difference, you just need to really focus and ask the right questions. In my case (I´m from Latin America), we have a huge gap to fulfill on this matter, not only in terms of historical agendas, but also on the formal aspects of the historiographic field. We are on our own, Sometimes without any financial support, doing what we can, with poor libraries and badly-,managed archives. However, we´re making some slow but steady progress. 🙂

    • You pose the distinction very clearly Brodie. I think a ‘history from below’ about the Age of Revolutions in Rediker’s sense is plausible, but could you write one about the period covered in Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crises’? I think a historian would end up using the more modest approach you outline above.

  5. Pingback: Matthew Jackson, ‘Relocating History From Below: Places, Spaces and Databases’ | the many-headed monster

  6. One of the main things that worries me about Rediker’s approach (of quite a few, but let’s not go into that here) is precisely this focus on world-changing radicalism, an agenda which seems to exclude from interest those who were not radicals – which, at least in my research, seems like most people. Describing an Atlantic proletariat of radicals, and ignoring everyone not contributing to that radical tradition, seems to me just another form of condescending posterity. I would love to believe in a pan-Atlantic tradition of working-class solidarity, but I see very litte evidence for it. Plus if Rediker is against national boudaries, why is his work so unapologetically Anglocentric?

    On the other hand, we all have to acknowledge a great debt to writers like Rediker and Linebaugh (and going back to Thompson) for suggesting, when few others did, that such an approach is even possible. I know Rediker has been very influential to my work, even if I have mostly ended up disagreeing with his arguments.

    You are probably right, Will, to pick up on ‘case study’ approaches as the meeting-point between global history and history from below. Global biographies, like those done by Alison Games or the group biography by Miles Ogborn, seem increasingly fashionable, though often elite-focused. I suspect this is one problem of global history – that the world, or even the Atlantic, were simply not meaningful frames for most people’s lives, much as historians want them to be. Local/national/imperial categories were important resources, even if they were not rigid or monolithic. I think if we can hold onto that, while, as Silvia suggests, building links at levels both above and below the national, then we are moving in the right direction.

    One final thought: changing your community IS, if only in a cumulative sense, changing the world. I would like to get past a focus on Big Change to investigate the ‘small’ changes within individuals’ personal worlds and then how those small changes add up to become seismic.

  7. Having just paid for a holiday with the spare change I keep in a jar, I’m in total agreement with Richard that small change can add up to big change. Bad jokes aside though, I think it is really important that social historians try and get back to talking about change, and a focus on ‘small change’ is an interesting way to think about this.

    Another point on ‘global history’ and ‘history from below’ though: I think Will makes a good case for how this can be developed, but I think there are other avenues that could be explored too. Does ‘a study of periods of increasing interconnection between different parts of the world’ need to just focus on sailors, slaves and other forms of mobile labour? Isn’t there also a story to be told of how these growing connections influenced the lives and experiences of those who were not necessarily mobile themselves? Your example of contemporaries complaining that unemployment was being caused by East India company imports might be one example of how an increasingly global market had an impact on domestic labour markets.

    I think a really compelling way for global historians to get the attention of social historians would be to demonstrate the impact interconnectedness had even on those workers/farmers etc who did not leave their own shores and cross national boundaries.

  8. This new short essay from the great Natalie Zemon Davis seems relevant here. (I posted a link on Samantha’s piece too, but for a slightly different reason.) Here’s what she says about agency:

    ‘I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground. … I have wanted to be a historian of hope. We can take heart from the fact that no matter how dire the situation, some will find means to resist, some will find means to cope, and some will remember and tell stories about what happened.’

  9. Pingback: History Carnival 124 | Early Modern Medicine

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