August 2017

Review: An Era of European Imperialism, Unit 3 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

From the start, [this unit] evokes a ‘west and the rest’ mentality and approach to world history. It also places significant emphasis on the history of the United States, which although is never truly categorized as an empire, tends to receive more attention in the textbook than other colonized areas.

by Chelsea Davis

The long 19th century has often been classified as the age of empires, and in many ways, this is an accurate characterization. One cannot study the 19th century nor understand the 20th century without acknowledging the monumental role that empires played. There is a difference however, in using ‘empire’ as a lens from which to view history, and employing ‘empire’ as a method to recolonize the past. Unit 3 of Jackson Spielvogel’s textbook World History: Modern Times unfortunately falls into the latter category, romanticizing empire (and Western Europe more generally) and its impact on the larger world. The unit is made up of four thematic chapters, with broad subjects such as industrialization, nationalism, mass democracy, and imperialism. In the introduction to each chapter, Spielvogel outlines major events through an image of two parallel timelines. On the top is “Europe and the United States;” on the bottom, “the world.” In most instances, the only ‘world events’ of importance are those that are in some way related to Europe or the United States—the declaration of Mexican independence in 1821, the Opium War in 1839, and the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 (376-77). This from the start, evokes a ‘west and the rest’ mentality and approach to world history. It also places significant emphasis on the history of the United States, which although is never truly categorized as an empire, tends to receive more attention in the textbook than other colonized areas. The choice in themes and overall construction of this unit emphasize that Europe—and by extension, the United States—was not only responsible for the creation of democracy, industrialization, and nationalism, but that empire was the mechanism for diffusing this ‘civilization’ to the rest of the world.

The first chapter, entitled “Industrialization and Nationalism” begins with a photograph of London’s Paddington Station, which from the start reiterates Spielvogel’s point of view that not only was Europe responsible for global modernization, but that Britain was leading the charge. This approach does not necessarily stray from mainstream academic historiography, as historians today are still trying to answer questions like “when was the Industrial Revolution?” and “why Britain?”[1] To his credit, Spielvogel offers a variety of answers, such as natural endowments of coal, or imperial access to raw materials, rather than one definitive one, which is important for students to recognize.

The choice in themes and overall construction of this unit emphasize that Europe—and by extension, the United States—was not only responsible for the creation of democracy, industrialization, and nationalism, but that empire was the mechanism for diffusing this ‘civilization’ to the rest of the world.

When the subject moves to cotton production, Spielvogel focuses on technological innovations like steam power to show the progression from cottage industries to textile mills. Although he emphasizes the role that cotton played in Britain’s industrialization of the textile industry, Spielvogel grossly neglects to address slavery and its devastating role as a link between industry and capitalism. Most academic historians agree with the Eric Williams’ 1944 assertion that capitalism and slavery are inherently linked and that its abolition only occurred as an empirical measurement of dollars and sense, rather than altruistic motives. Sven Beckert addresses similar concepts in his recent best seller on the inter-dependence between Britain’s cotton empire, slavery, and capitalism.[2] We must start teaching our children about slavery as a violent foundation for the development of the modern capitalist economy, especially in a history of empires and world history.

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Quote from the original illustration reads: “Well yes! It is certain that cotton is more useful to me than wool.” Courtesy of PeterPappas.com.

Equally negligent is Spielvogel’s failure to address the role of women in industrialization. Joan Wallach Scott reminds us that most histories of the Industrial Revolution—including the classic The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson—are gendered, as women are marginal in these narratives. Maxine Berg furthers this analysis by pointing out that the majority of deskilled textile workers were women – despite their absence in the archives – and that machines were designed with women and child laborers in mind.[3] Spielvogel simply recycles the trope of ‘separate spheres,’ in which women belonged in the home and men in industry. What might have seemed like a minor omission is anything but; in so doing he robs students of the opportunity to understand the whole picture of European industrialization and society.

Chapter 13 focuses on mass society and democracy from 1870-1914, and employs a capitalist-centered, teleological approach to history. In other words, the growth of industrial prosperity allowed for investment, technological innovation, and general widespread improvement in society. Spielvogel focuses on the West enjoying a higher standard of living and often generalizes when discussing Europe and ‘class.’ Though it is important for students to know and acknowledge Marx, trade unions, and tensions between working, middle, and elite classes, the categorization of ‘class’ varied across Europe. This is particularly significant in Eastern Europe, a place rarely covered in this textbook. And Spielvogel misses an important opportunity here. Where is the Ottoman Empire in this story? What about the Russian Empire? How do these geographical entities fit into his larger narrative on mass society and democracy? Their absence from the story suggests that such areas were not actually European.  In fact, this entire chapter seems to fit only in this unit because of time period, rather than theme, as it falls out of the purview of ‘European imperialism’, and instead could be classified simply as the history of ‘Western Civilization.’

We must start teaching our children about slavery as a violent foundation for the development of the modern capitalist economy, especially in a history of empires and world history.

Chapter 14 attempts to cram an entire 114 years of ‘imperialism’ into roughly 30 pages, which is obviously no easy feat. The opening timelines for this chapter show “Africa, Asia, and Latin America” on one, and “the world” on the other. Unfortunately, according to this chapter, the only ‘significant events’ of the 19th century stem from their relation to European (mostly British) empires. This includes David Livingstone’s arrival in Africa in 1841, Great Britain’s annexation of the west coast of Africa, and the period of western rule in 1900 in Southeast Asia (448-9). Here is a missed opportunity to highlight subaltern narratives and the impact of colonies and the colonized on the empires, rather than recycling the now outdated top-down approach. To Spielvogel’s credit, he does attempt to include featurettes of influential non-Europeans such as Menelik II, Shaka Zulu, or Sayan San in ‘People in History’ mini sections. These are small efforts at being more inclusive, but hardly justify or ameliorate the Eurocentric framing of the entire chapter.

Spielvogel’s cardinal mistake, however, is in his attempt to define empire: “Imperialism, the extension of a nation’s power over other lands, was not new. Europeans had set up colonies and trading posts by North America, South America, and Africa by the 16th century” (450). The main issue here is the timing—his refusal to contextualize empire in its non-European form before, during, and after the 16th century presents students with a lie that the only type of empire is the European kind. In an attempt to discuss the motivations behind colonization, Spielvogel recklessly states ‘rationales’ for empire without further evaluation, which ultimately ignores the reality of economic exploitation and racial violence as inherent conditions of imperialism. Stating Europeans wanted to ‘civilize primitive people’ and fulfill the ‘white man’s burden’ without contextualizing these philosophies as wrong and violent furthers the Niall Ferguson-esque notion that the empire was good and left its colonized regions better off. Or, as H.L. Wesseling’s European Colonial Empires grossly characterized it: “the problem with empire was not that there was much, but too little.”[4]

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“The British Methods in War,” Harper’s Weekly, February 15, 1862. Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly.

The final chapter of this unit, “East Asia Under Challenge,” seems to have good intentions in shifting the focus to non-European entities. Unfortunately, the results reify the recurring theme of this unit: non-European events are only significant in their relation to Europeans. One of the chapter’s ‘guiding questions’ captures this sentiment: “What elements of Japanese culture were affected by ideas of Western civilization?” (490). Similarly, Spielvogel depicts the arrival of Western Europeans to China as such: “The coming of Westerners to China affected the Chinese economy in three ways. Westerners: (1) introduced modern means of transportation and communications; (2) created an export market; and (3) integrated the Chinese market into the 19th c. world economy” (499). Categorizing Western Europeans—and Americans—as saviors throughout Asia (and the larger world) robs the colonized of their own autonomy.

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Original caption: “The pigtail has got to go!” Puck, 1898. Courtesy of MIT.edu.

In many ways, this book illustrates the failure of world histories to adequately incorporate non-European experiences. The use of victim vs. hero binaries, tired stereotypes about the West’s modernity and the East’s ancient culture, and the absence of women’s experience in empire (which is an equally rich and burgeoning field)[5], are some of the major problems with Spielvogel’s version of history. The main issue, however, is that as a textbook much of what it delivers is perceived by students as fact. If we educate our students to only read Western European texts, to assume that Western civilization is the only history worth studying, that Europeans brought modernity, or that slavery and other colonial atrocities on non-Europeans were justified, then we not only fail to provide them with an accurate account of the past, but equally diminish their ability to look beyond their position of privilege in America.

Recommended Readings

Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

FullSizeRenderChelsea Davis is a current PhD student at George Washington University. She received her BA from the University of Delaware and MA in Global and Imperial History from Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests include modern British Imperial history, agricultural and environmental history, and labor history. Her current dissertation project will focus on 19th century transnational exchanges in agricultural knowledge to improve Britain’s colonial vineyards in South Africa and Australia.

Notes

[1] For more works on European industrialization and Britain’s Industrial Revolution see Tom Kemp, Industrialization in 19th Century Europe (London: Longman, 1985); Joel Mokyr, The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); William Sewell, Work and Revolution in France: the Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); and Kathleen Canning Languages of Labor and Gender: Female Factory Work in Germany, 1850-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[2] See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944) and Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2015). For more on capitalism and slavery, see Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

[3] Maxine Berg, “What Difference Did Women’s Work Make to the Industrial Revolution?” History Workshop,” 35 (1993): 22-44.

[4] H.L. Wesseling, European Colonial Empires 1815-1919, (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group) 2005.

[5] For further reading on the role of women in the British Empire, see Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); and Mrinialini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: ‘Manly Englishmen’ and ‘Effeminate Bengali’ (New York: Routledge, 2003).

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1 comment on “Review: An Era of European Imperialism, Unit 3 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Back to School: The Activist History Review Reviews High School History Textbooks – The Activist History Review

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