Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire

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Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire

Simon J. Potter and Jonathan Saha

University of Bristol, UK1


The turn towards Global history shows no sign of abating. It seems that across the discipline, historians are becoming increasingly interested in understanding the past on a planetary scale. Prominent Imperial historians, in particular, have been among the most fervent advocates of Global history. So close are the concerns of some Imperial history—particularly British Imperial history—to those of Global history, that it is getting harder to disentangle the two. Despite this we argue that, whilst both fields are overlapping and heterogeneous, historians should reflect more explicitly on the methodological differences that exit between them. In the process we point out some lessons that Global historians might learn from Imperial historians, and vice-versa. We argue for a “connected history of empires” that seeks to uncover links that operated across the formal borders of imperial formations and that deploys novel spatial frameworks. Such an approach would draw on the diverse methodologies developed by Imperial and Global historians who seek to write both “comparative” and “connected” histories. We point the way towards histories that are more than imperial, but less than global.


The “global turn”, the move to writing “Global history”, represents one of the most significant historiographical developments of recent decades. Scarcely perceptible in the 1990s, this new approach to questions of scale and narrative has become increasingly popular since the beginning of the new century. It seems set to entrench its scholarly hegemony still further. Historians of the British empire have played a key role in accomplishing the global turn and, in the UK at least, have increasingly come to identify themselves as “Global and Imperial historians”. Conferences, research centres and postgraduate programmes promising entry into a sparkling new field of “Global and Imperial history” (presumably more attractive, to funders and students alike, than plain old Imperial history) have proliferated. But what is the exact relationship between the two component parts of this new academic fusion? Have they been added to the mix in equal measure? Should Imperial history be regarded as a mere prelude to twentieth-century narratives of “globalization”, the latter understood as a very recent process by which places and peoples have become ever-more densely interconnected? Or is globalization a process with a longer history, stretching back into the early modern period, in which the development and collapse of empires appears as but a minor, passing theme within a deeper, continuous and enduring global story of common development and closer integration? Or is the relationship between imperial expansion and contraction on one hand, and globalization on the other, more significant, and complex? And one day, perhaps soon, will those scholars who now write, research and seek funding for “Global and Imperial history” come to describe their subject simply as “Global history”, with Imperial history disappearing as a distinct subject, one more casualty of our onward march into a global future?

Arguably, in their eagerness to “go global”, few Imperial historians have devoted serious attention to these questions, although the answers undoubtedly have massive implications for how we understand our subject. Through this essay, and by bringing together the articles collected in this special issue, we seek to encourage wider discussion of these questions. We also suggest ways that historians of empire might usefully respond to them. We argue that Imperial historians could usefully rethink the nature and scale of the connections and comparisons that we work with, in dialogue with recent developments in Global history. But we also argue that Imperial historians should not abandon their long-standing attempts to understand the peculiar nature of modern empires as political, economic, cultural and social structures, with all the opportunities, obstacles, inequalities and violence that they presented people with in the past. We argue that a fruitful cross-fertilization can be accomplished between Imperial and Global histories, but that this can best be achieved by acknowledging and exploring the productive tensions between their differing methodologies and analytical frameworks. Scholars should not assume that Imperial history can be folded simply and easily into Global history.
In particular, we argue that Imperial historians might gain more by thinking in terms of “connected history”, than by working unquestioningly within a Global history framework with its attendant and potentially distorting preoccupation with the idea of globalization. Connected histories of empire grounded in specific places and concerned with particular individuals might help us avoid the simplifications encouraged by the planetary scale of analysis that absorbs many Global historians. As Lynn Hunt suggests, a “top down” approach to globalization offers historians much less than do versions of Global history written “from below” that trace the “series of transnational processes in which the histories of diverse places become connected and interdependent.”2 So construed, connected histories of empire might offer accounts that accord more agency to individuals, and recognise the crucial importance of choice, contingency and chance.3 By avoiding the Olympian perspective that characterises some Global history writing, connected histories of empire can help us develop our understanding of how people in the past themselves understood (and sought to influence) patterns of long-distance interaction, and of how contemporaries themselves drew comparisons between widely-separated parts of the world.
Furthermore, we argue that to derive real value from connected histories of empire, to avoid simply searching for patterns of interconnection for their own sake or as fragmentary evidence for earlier phases of globalization, Imperial historians should devote more attention to links within and between different empires (European and non-European), and within and between different colonies. This offers two associated benefits. First, it can help us correct the Anglophone bias that continues to mark much supposedly “Global” history—often, in fact, a dialogue among English-speaking historians, built on English-language primary and secondary sources and centrally concerned with English-speaking parts of the world. Second, it can assist us in overcoming the long-standing but often misleading tendency to examine the British empire as a singular, hermetically-sealed world-system. Imperial historians need to learn from the willingness of Global historians to dispense with nations and empires as self-evident and self-contained units of analysis. But we need to avoid the planetary simplifications of some brands of Global history, and indeed we need to push the agenda of scalar revisionism further by acknowledging the varied experiences of particular regions within different empires and within different colonies. Our arguments thus diverge significantly from those of another pair of Imperial historians, who have recently offered an overview of what they call “imperial globalization”.4
The terminology employed in this essay requires some explanation. What do we mean by “Global history”? No satisfactory or agreed definition exists, because Global history is a new and diverse field, and one that borrows from and blurs into a number of different approaches. Hunt tends to equate Global history with the history of globalization, and sometimes implies that Global history can really only be written for the period since c.1990, when the entire world seemed to have become truly interdependent for the first time.5 However, this is a definition that few Global historians would accept. Attempts to trace the roots of contemporary globalization back into earlier period, as far back as the early modern era or even into the middle ages, are central to what many understand as constituting Global history. Neither, contrary to what Hunt writes, do all Global histories focus directly on globalization or present it as a progressive and inexorable process. On one hand, a conscious or unconscious overlap exists between the work of Global historians and of those who see themselves as practicing “World history”. The latter approach emerged largely out of history teaching in US universities, and often involves attempts to write “the whole history of the whole world,” offering stories about the entire planet that encompass very long periods of time.6 Globalization is often only a minor theme in this variant of Global history. On the other hand, a very different branch of Global history owes more to the approaches pioneered by “Transnational history”. Transnational historians focus on the “interaction and circulation of ideas, peoples, institutions or technologies.”7 They analyse the “connectors” that provided concrete links between different places and peoples, “the actual ways and means that characterise the encounter of their historical trajectories.”8 Transnational historians often seem less prone to, and less interested in, the simplifications associated with “globalization talk”. In this essay, we have called the transnational form of Global history “connected history”: to us, it seems to offer Imperial historians much more than do approaches that focus on the concept of “globalization”, or that are inspired by World history.
The term “connected history” derives largely from an essay published by Sanjay Subrahmanyan in 1997, which took this phrase for its title. Attempting to locate Asia in a global early-modern context, Subrahmanyan argued that, rather than treat different parts of the world as if they were essentially discrete entities, historians should focus on the circulations, exchanges and interactions that linked those places together. Subrahmanyan claimed that it was through analysis of the movement of both the tangible and the intangible—people, goods, technologies, institutions and beliefs—that Asia’s history could best be integrated into a global picture. It was the role of the historian to uncover the “fragile threads that connected the globe.”9 More recently, Charles Bright and Michael Geyer have similarly called for a “connected history of the world,” focusing on the “entangled histories of already connected people, places, things, ideas and images.”10
Historians of the British empire have to some extent (and not necessarily in explicit dialogue with the ideas of Subrahmanyan or of Transnational historians) followed similar leads. They have devoted increased attention to connections, mobility and networks. Increasingly, they have conceptualised the British empire as a complex patchwork of interacting and dynamic agencies, rather than as one homogenous monolith directed from London with a single overarching objective.11 As will be discussed below, a number of historians and historical geographers have thus attempted to map the many webs and flows that made up the empire.
However, Imperial historians have paid much less attention to the connections that traversed the geographical frontiers and borders of the British empire. They have not explored links between empires as thoroughly as those within empires.12 The essays brought together in this special issue of JCCH offer a valuable corrective, demonstrating the variety and significance of trans-imperial connections, how they bound together and influenced different empires and forged ties between empires and sovereign states or regions. These essays thus further question the accepted spatial frameworks that continue implicitly to inform much historical research.
Similarly, several of the essays in this volume look at comparisons between different empires. Here, they explore the avenues opened up by earlier comparative research into the history of modern empires. The few studies that have brought different modern empires between the same set of hard covers have tended to take the form of multi-authored volumes, containing individual chapters each covering specific colonies. In these collections, analysis of multiple colonies is seldom accomplished within a single chapter. The editor, or more often the reader, has been left to do the actual work of comparison. Research incorporating two or more empires in one integrated study, by a single author, has meanwhile been hard to find. There are of course real practical difficulties, arising from issues of linguistic ability and the availability of funding for travel and the purchase of resources, which hinder genuinely comparative research. However, several of the contributions to this special issue indicate at least one way of overcoming such obstacles. Rather than simply comparing colonies as objects of historical study, several of our contributors shift the focus towards examining how comparisons were made and used by contemporary historical actors, taking a lead from the work of Ann Laura Stoler.13 This is not so much comparative history, as the history of comparison. Such an approach also has an added virtue, in that it often returns us to studying the connections between empires by revealing the networks through which different empires monitored and learned about one another.
This essay first looks at the divergent comparative methodologies of Imperial and Global historians. It suggests how Imperial historians might learn from the strengths of Global historical comparative methodologies, while avoiding some of the associated pitfalls. It then moves on to examine how Global historians and Imperial historians have, in their different ways, started to write connected histories. It puts the essays brought together in this special issue into the context of these historiographies, and suggests avenues for future research.
Comparative Methods in Global History

Implicitly or explicitly, connected histories involve comparisons. To understand how those comparisons might fruitfully be presented in connected histories of empire, it is first necessary to consider how they have been undertaken by other scholars. Both Imperial and Global historians deploy comparative methodologies, but the approaches they adopt often bear little resemblance to one another.

First, an obvious difference is that Imperial and Global historians have tended to base their comparisons on quite different timeframes. Major works of comparative Global history published over the last quarter of a century, many inspired by Kenneth Pomeranz’s controversial book The Great Divergence, have focused principally on the early modern period up to, roughly, the 1830s. 14 In contrast, histories drawing comparisons between different empires have generally examined either the late-nineteenth-century high point or the mid-twentieth-century demise of the European imperial systems.15
Second, comparative Imperial and Global histories have been shaped by very different underlying research agendas. Global historians engaged in comparative history-writing have been mostly interested in examining large scale socio-economic change. The predominant quest has been for a convincing explanation for the “European miracle” of industrialisation.16 On the other hand, as will be discussed below, comparative Imperial histories have examined a wider range of topics, reflecting the development over the last thirty years of a plethora a new avenues for research. Economic matters have, since the 1980s, attracted the attention of fewer and fewer Imperial historians. Topics relating to social and cultural themes have proved much more appealing.
These differences are significant. Yet there are certainly areas where a dialogue between Imperial and Global historians’ comparative methods might yield productive insights when writing connected histories of empire. Here, we highlight one lesson that comparative Imperial historians could learn from their Global colleagues, and one corresponding lesson that Global historians might learn from their Imperial counterparts. Global historians have challenged the inflexible geographical assumptions implicit in earlier work that adopted the regions and nations of the world as coherent and natural units of analysis.17 This recent creative “re-spacing” of the globe should be taken as a challenge to Imperial historians to assess whether the formal boundaries of empires provide the best parameters for building units of comparison. On the other side, Imperial historians have begun to consider how contemporary historical actors drew comparisons between different colonies and empires, and the reasons why they engaged in these exercises. This cultural history of comparative analysis has been largely neglected by Global historians.
Pomeranz’s “great divergence” thesis, now roughly a decade-and-a-half old, offers a useful case study that allows us to draw out some preliminary contrasts between the comparative methodologies of Imperial and Global historians. Although he was not the first to shift the focus of the debate around industrialisation onto a detailed analysis of Asian societies and economies,18 his book has provided the most enduring framework for conducting comparative global analysis. It is also a useful starting point because the central argument has important implications for broader understandings of the impact of European (and especially British) imperialism in Global history.
Pomeranz effectively returns us to older debates surrounding the economics of empire, by arguing that imperial expansion was a crucial factor in making industrialisation possible.19 Pomeranz’s explanation for the early industrialisation of Europe, or more specifically England, has been crudely summarised by friendly critics as “colonies and coal.”20 In short, he argues that it was easy access at home to coal, and overseas to the land opened up by colonial conquest in the New World, that led to England diverging in economic terms from the rest of Eurasia. He arrives at this conclusion through extensive “reciprocal comparisons” of areas of the world that in the early modern period were both densely populated and economically dominant within their wider regions. He terms these the “cores” of the global economy. The main cores that can usefully be compared, he argues, are England and the Yangzi Delta, although Pomeranz also draws on evidence from the Netherlands, Japan and Gujarat, which according to his criteria also displayed structural similarities. Through his “reciprocal comparisons” between these core areas, numerous similarities emerge that call into question the underpinning assumptions of other, Eurocentric explanations for early industrialisation. Pomeranz finds “surprising resemblances” between his cores that undermine claims to Europe’s uniqueness and demonstrate that, even where important differences are apparent, these differences cannot have had the profound effects that have often been claimed for them.21
These resemblances lead Pomeranz on towards a second form of comparative analysis. Drawing on Charles Tilly’s terminology, he calls this approach “encompassing comparison”. Rather than comparing England and the Yangzi Delta as discreet units, this approach involves comparing each area in terms of its role as an element within a larger whole. In other words, it means exploring their place in the interactions of the global economic system.22 Here, Pomeranz points out that comparative and connected histories become almost indistinguishable. The availability of coal and colonies to England meant that ecological pressures, similar in nature to those operating in the Yangzi Delta, were relieved in a quite distinctive fashion. The labour-intensive innovations for working the land developed in the Delta were not followed in England, where more easily accessible coal enabled the deployment of labour-saving techniques.23 Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England’s access to cultivatable land in the Americas further relieved the internal pressure on land at home. Indeed, it is this contrast between the Yangzi Delta’s relationship with its peripheral region in central China and England’s relationship with its non-European peripheral region, arranged around the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, that makes imperialism so central to Pomeranz’s argument. England’s colonial periphery was coercively maintained, whereas the relationships that other core territories maintained with their own peripheries were characterised more by mutual growth and were a closer approximation to free market economics.24
Pomeranz’s “reciprocal” and “encompassing” forms of comparative analysis have drawn historians’ attention to the globally distinctive forms of European imperialism and its crucial role in Global history. They have also set the tone for much of the comparative Global history that has followed.25 For instance, Victor Lieberman has argued that fruitful comparisons can be drawn between the northern and western regions of Europe on the one hand, and mainland southeast Asia on the other. Pomeranz has found “surprising resemblances” in the early modern period: Lieberman’s research has revealed, in an equally evocative turn of phrase, “strange parallels” operating in the period between c.800 and 1830 CE.26
Yet not all agree with Pomeranz’s approach to “re-spacing” the globe. In one of the most significant engagements by an Imperial historian with the field of Global history, C.A. Bayly has rejected entirely the method of “reciprocal comparison”. For Bayly, the role of Global history is to “blow down the compartments which historians have made between this region and that region, or between this subdiscipline of history and that one.”27 For Bayly, it is unnecessary to ponder how best to divide the world up into meaningfully comparable units: all regions can meaningfully be compared, because all parts of the world were undergoing similar changes during the period between the French Revolution and the First World War. All regions were “modernizing”, becoming more like one another, partly as a result of widely-felt economic transformations, but especially due to the spread of common forms of state organization and intervention. Bayly thus argues for what we might label a “great convergence” rather than a “great divergence”, driven by the global diffusion of the model of the “patriotic and information-rich state.”28 Northwest European countries pioneered this model, and as a result enjoyed an early imperial sway over global flows of information, wealth and power. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century the gap was already narrowing, with formidable “modern” states emerging in other parts of the world. The overseas spread of Western influence was always accompanied by “leakages and the transfer of power and intellectual skills” to non-Europeans, ultimately ensuring both that Western dominance was temporary and that “modernity” was everywhere inevitable.29 The origins of change might have been “multi-centric”—they did not all derive from Europe or the West—but ultimately they all pointed in the same direction. Bayly argues that in the long nineteenth century the entire world thus took a common “step-change” forward, towards “contested uniformity.”30
Does Bayly offer Imperial historians a more useful model of comparative and connected history than Pomeranz’s tools of “reciprocal” and “encompassing” comparison? We would argue not. Bayly’s brand of Global history exhibits some of the key characteristics of World history, in terms of its attempt to offer a single, essentially narrative-driven, account: a unified, world-encompassing story. Although the book’s subtitle evokes themes of comparison and connection, it is not a work of “connected history” as Subrahmanyan or as most Transnational historians would understand that approach. Bayly is interested more in the analytical connections and comparisons that can be created in the mind of the historian, than in the connections and comparisons that contemporaries themselves created or perceived. His themes of convergence and homogeneity, and his desire to take the entire world as his frame of analysis, ultimately work to obscure the complex ways that individuals and groups created global connections, within and across the boundaries of empires, to serve a wide range of often conflicting agendas.
Comparative Methods in Imperial History

As already noted, the debate over the “great divergence” has tended to focus the attention of Global historians on the period before 1830, at least in terms of their discussions of empire: Bayly is a notable exception here. Meanwhile, Imperial historians with comparative interests have primarily concentrated either on the “New Imperialism” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or on mid-twentieth-century European “decolonization”. This chronological disjuncture has compounded some of the wider differences between Imperial and Global approaches to the history of empire.

Some of the earliest comparative Imperial history was written during what was still the colonial era.31 Later, in the wake of decolonization, William Roger Louis and Prosser Gifford edited two important collections on European imperialisms in Africa, the first comparing the British and German empires and the second the British and the French empires. These remain among the most wide-ranging attempts to conduct comparative research within the field of Imperial history. Both books were divided into two parts. The first part of each book looked at diplomatic, political and (to a lesser extent) cultural histories within the imperial metropoles. The second part of each book examined colonial administrative practices within Africa.32 Overall, the volumes explored the ebb and flow of inter-imperial collaboration and rivalry between the 1880s and the First World War. They emphasized the similarities in administrative practices between empires, whilst also noting the importance and variety of local conditions. With their implicit separation of metropole and periphery, and their limited acknowledgement of African agency in shaping “the partition of Africa” on the ground, these publications reflected the broader state of the field of Imperial history in the 1960s.33
In more recent years, there have been few attempts to make such large-scale comparisons between European empires. Instead, emergent subjects in Imperial history, such as cultural history and histories of medicine and punishment, have brought together material drawn from across different empires in the context of more narrowly-focused studies.34 In terms of the scale and nature of the comparisons attempted, most of this work bears very little resemblance to the Global histories inspired by Pomeranz, or to Bayly’s history of convergence. Instead of big questions regarding the development of global inequalities or homogeneity,35 comparisons focus upon more bounded and specific themes and processes as they operated within different imperial formations. The difference is not only in the content, but also in the form. As with the earlier works of Gifford and Louis, these are usually multi-authored edited collections, containing discreet essays that often each address a single imperial power and/or colonial state.36 Comparative analysis, where it is explicitly conducted, is restricted to introductory essays by volume editors.37 Whilst these volumes contain fascinating insights, the analytical benefits of situating historical studies from different empires alongside one another are rarely made explicit. And, in contrast to Global history, this Imperial branch of comparative history has not been used as a foundation upon which to construct grand narratives.
What Pomeranz calls “reciprocal” comparisons between empires have only recently begun to push Imperial historians into re-thinking their traditional geographical assumptions. Interestingly, whereas in Global history comparison has led to attempts to narrow down regional units of analysis, some comparative Imperial studies have worked in the other direction, taking in a wider range of territories and examples than ever before—albeit without necessarily buying into Bayly’s arguments about global convergence. Matthew Fitzpatrick’s recent collection on the entangled histories of imperialism and liberalism encourages historians to take account of expansionist states beyond France and Britain, particularly German, Hungarian, Dutch, Polish, Serbian and Zionist versions of “liberal” imperialism. As Fitzpatrick explains in his introduction, these comparisons are useful not because ideologies were identical across these empires, but because a deeper understanding of the similarities helps in turn to bring out national particularities.38 Making a similar point, but examining a greater range of imperial principles and policies, Jörn Leonhard and Ulrike von Hirschhausen have recently argued that “European” empires have often been implicitly assumed to be those of western European states only, overlooking the histories of the multi-ethnic empires to the east. To counter this, their edited collection brings into comparison the British, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires.39
Like other multi-authored volumes, the essays brought together by Fitzpatrick and Leonhard and Hirschhausen each tend to examine a single empire or colony. Editors and readers are left to do the heavy comparative lifting. Two recent single-author studies have offered a more genuinely comparative approach. Ann Laura Stoler has uncovered underlying similarities between French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies in state responses to “mixed race” populations. Discussions in the colonies about these groups were a point of considerable tension for both regimes as they attempted to legislate to maintain a strict racial division in the face of the complex realities on the ground.40 More ambitiously, in terms of its breadth of geographical scope, Martin Thomas’s recent study of colonial policing compares various colonies in the French, British and Dutch empires. Through comparisons of the underlying structures informing the deployment of imperial police forces in colonies during the interwar years, he argues that a similar reasoning can be discerned across empires, rooted in political economy and the need to control labour.41 Neither Stoler nor Thomas play down the marked differences among the colonies they discuss, but their comparisons serve to bring to the surface some of the deeper tensions and concerns that were shared by European colonial authorities.
In addition to these studies, imperial historians have begun to return to comparative history, but in a different form. This has been driven by the call for a more reflective mode of analysis made by Ann Laura Stoler in an influential article published just a year after Pomeranz’s provocative book. Stoler argues that historians should pay attention to how imperial officials and other contemporary historical actors themselves used comparisons in formulating their thoughts and guiding their actions. This is not because such comparisons offer ready-made or “objective” analytical structures that historians can re-deploy as we wish. Rather, Stoler emphasises that such contemporary comparisons were part-and-parcel of European attempts to create new colonial structures of power and influence. Stoler calls for historians to confront the political work that comparative analysis has done in the past, and to uncover and acknowledge how this has continued to shape academic practice in the present.42 Stoler also highlights the problem of comparative analysis that treats colonies as fixed and natural entities, when they might better be understood by historians as ideational constructs, their boundaries and state structures an intrinsic part of more obvious attempts to promote the interests of the imperial core.43 Here, others have similarly alerted us to the danger of adopting colonial states as privileged units of analysis, and of thereby implicitly re-inscribing restrictive, anachronistic and ahistorical colonial-cum-national geographical frameworks.44
Paying attention to the politics of comparisons in history involves developing a sensitivity to how ideas and knowledge moved around the world. As such, it is an approach that may help to bridge the gap between those Global histories that focus on the “great divergence” or the “great convergence”, and those that are more interested in circulations and exchanges.45 It also helps show how comparative and connected histories can be one and the same thing. As Stoler notes, comparative studies should act “as a window onto specific exchanges, interactions, and connections” that took place in the past.46 Here, curiously enough, Stoler echoes Pomeranz’s point that “encompassing” comparisons, when done properly, are indistinguishable from connected history.47
New Geographies for Comparative and Connected Histories

Just as Pomeranz based his comparative history on devising what he thought to be comparable geographical units of analysis, Global historians have engaged in a more general “re-spacing” of the world, redefining the historical geographies that lie behind their research. In particular, innovative studies operating under the labels of “World” as well as “Global” history have focused on borderlands and oceanic worlds, arguably with more interesting results than attempts to write histories at a scale that takes in the entire planet. These innovative spatial frameworks have fed into some Imperial history too. But Imperial historians seeking to write connected histories might learn still more from Global scholarship, and engage in a re-imagining of the geographical units most appropriate to their historical analysis.

William Van Schendal and Michel Baud’s agenda-setting 1997 essay “Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands”, published in the Journal of World History, persuasively made the case for borderlands as useful geographical units of analysis. Schendal and Baud argued that the complex ethno-linguistic social networks and the diverse politico-cultural patterns that could be found in the mountainous region linking North East India, South China and Mainland Southeast Asia, should oblige historians, and other scholars, to treat the area as one integrated system. This promised to correct the myopia of previous studies that had been implicitly limited by national territorial boundaries. They also drew attention to the geo-political fallout in the post-colonial period, as emerging nation-states and national groups aspiring to statehood came to contest the borders that had been demarcated by imperial powers. Borderlands, they argued, could be viewed as coherent analytical units, and focusing on them could provide fresh insights into the messy, unfinished, and fraught processes of decolonisation.48 Their focus on borderlands has been further popularised by the recent work of James C. Scott. Referring to the upland regions discussed by Schendal and Baud as “Zomia”, Scott argues that the diverse populations that resided there were “anarchist” communities. He argues that the mountains were beyond state power, and that the societies that formed there were radically egalitarian and purposely organised so that state structures did not form within them. Illiteracy, swidden agriculture and mobility were essential for this resistance to state structures. The inhabitants of this region were, he argues, “barbarians by design.”49 These clearly controversial arguments have inspired much debate within Global history circles, including a special issue of the Journal of Global History.50
Meanwhile, Eric Taggliacozzo’s studies of illegal trades in imperial Asia have highlighted the utility of a focus on borderlands for understanding the making of empires. He argues that the illicit goods which were traded in these borderlands drew imperial powers into these regions and led them to attempt to establish fixed territorial boundaries.51 The idea of borderlands might be explored further in Imperial history: the networks that operated across borderlands connected competing imperial formations, and events in these frontier zones brought empires into contact and conflict, with repercussions felt in imperial centres.52 As the work of Schendal, Baud and Scott also demonstrates, borderlands are important for understanding the end of empires and resistance to colonial states.
Studies conceptualising oceans as spaces of global interconnection have so far had a greater influence on the writing of Imperial history. The rise of Indian Ocean studies illustrates the overlapping way in which Imperial and Global historians have used this new approach in their research. Janet Abu-Lughod’s now-famous book Before European Hegemony argued that the Indian Ocean was the most important arena of the fourteenth-century world system. Her study uncovered the multiple trading networks that linked empires, polities and communities from Southern Africa to China, and the resulting flows of religious ideas and practices.53 K. N. Chaudhuri went on to argue for the underlying historical unity of the Indian Ocean world into the early modern period, despite the very visible socio-cultural diversity of the region.54 While debate about the coherence of the framework provided by Indian Ocean studies continues, the concept has developed our awareness of deep and lasting connections in the world beyond Europe’s shores.55
Within Imperial history, students of South Asia have been foremost in engaging with this new approach. Thomas Metcalfe’s seminal study of the “imperial connections” that spanned the Indian Ocean—military, policing and labour networks—uncovered the sub-imperial importance of British India and its resources.56 Even more recently, Clare Anderson has presented the Indian Ocean as “a dynamic and porous space” in which individuals could construct networks of mobility and communication that crossed the borders of colonies and of the Dutch, French, British and Malagasy empires.57 Similarly, Sugata Bose’s study of the Indian Ocean as an “interregional” space of global interaction at the time when European imperial power was in its ascendency, uses both comparative and connected historical methods, and also draws on individual life-stories to illustrate the complexities of this period.58 Although concerned with imperialism, Bose’s book is usually considered a contribution to Global history rather than Imperial history.59 Yet it can tell us much about the meeting of empires in Asia, and about the historiographical possibilities for interaction between Imperial and Global histories.
The Atlantic Ocean has likewise emerged as a site of historical as well as historiographic convergence, encounter and exchange. In some ways the overlaps between Imperial and Global history are greater here than for the Indian Ocean, since the “Atlantic World” was one that was essentially created through imperialism and slavery.60 Working with the Atlantic Ocean as a scholarly framework has fostered comparative colonial studies of the early modern period as well as connected histories of trade, peoples, ideas and ecologies (although Latin America and the South Atlantic have not been as well incorporated into this geography).61 It has acted as an umbrella sheltering studies that operate on very different geographical scales: some examining trans-Atlantic flows; some attempting to integrate all the lands surrounding the Atlantic; and some exploring Atlantic interconnection through a single site. As with Indian Ocean studies, questions have been asked about the coherence of the Atlantic World approach. Nevertheless, it remains an influential spatial framework for histories attempting to incorporate multiple imperialisms and uncover global interconnections.62
An example of “re-spacing” the world that has emerged more clearly out of the concerns of Imperial history is James Belich’s idea of an “Anglo-world”. His Replenishing the Earth seeks to explain why English-speaking people multiplied in number so dramatically between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how they accumulated so much wealth and global power. This is a contribution to the “great divergence” debate, but also a central element in recent attempts to rethink the history of British overseas settlement and to restore that history to a key place in our understanding of empire. Belich imagines an Anglo-world that incorporated two distinct but related, and very similar, demographic and economic systems. One encompassed Britain as its core and a periphery of settler offshoots in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The other was composed of an east-coast American core and a settler periphery stretching to the west. Belich thinks partly in terms of connections—those between each core and its periphery, and also to some extent between the two cores, with Britain providing a substantial amount of the investment, and a significant number of the migrants, needed to kick-start American growth. However, Replenishing the Earth is essentially a work of large-scale comparison, and one that emphasises the underlying similarities between different examples of English-speaking settler expansion around the globe. The two systems within Belich’s Anglo-world both expanded at a dramatic, unprecedented rate in the period he covers, generating “explosive colonization”, a boom-and-bust cycle of rapid acceleration alternating with sharp contraction. The “progress industry”—an alliance of public and private investment in infrastructure and development—drove the boom, employing frontier crews of hard-working and hard-living young men. After the bust, further growth depended on effective “re-colonization”, the tightening up of connections between the core and the periphery. Replenishing the Earth is based on detailed case studies of a wide range of different places, and demonstrates the benefits of thinking beyond the boundaries of the British empire, and of examining how the British empire connected and compared with other global systems of power: in the case of Belich’s analysis, most notably with the nascent American empire.63
There are now numerous geographies that historians can adopt when writing histories of global interconnection and/or empire. We are not restricted to a binary choice of working either on a planetary scale or within the confines of a single empire. Global historians have found innovative ways of slicing up the world by presenting comparative and connected histories of mountainous borderlands and oceanic worlds. Belich has devised a framework that is implicitly defined by human processes rather than physical geography. The tensions between Global and Imperial history, and the uncertainties and imprecisions concerning their spatial frameworks that are evident among historians working in both traditions, should inspire us to further such geographic innovation.

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