This paper provides an introduction to some cutting edge developments in world history by focusing on the history of empires in the period before the West dominated the globe. Students therefore have the opportunity to explore pre-modern societies outside of the West on their own terms and in all their cultural diversity.
This was the period that saw the first real seaborne empires launched from Europe following Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1498. The oceanic exploits of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and then British that followed, therefore form one focus of the course. However, the heart of the paper lies in Asia, with the great territorial empires that sprawled across the Eurasian landmass: the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, and the realms of China, Japan and Southeast Asia. (There is also an opportunity to study the New World and Atlantic Africa).
Students will reflect on the methods the ruling elites of these vast new states used for governing disparate regions, how their plans were made and undone by demographic and economic expansion or the implacable force of climate change, and what ideologies and forms of justification they devised. Did it follow, for example, that imperial centres would conceive of the peoples on their borders as barbarians, or even racially inferior? How could they harness or defuse the explosive potential of religious fervour or the movements of missionaries? What inspired the rebellions against them? The other major thematic concern is the extent to which the whole world participated in an ‘early modern’ age: can we identify this period as the first genuine phase of globalization? Can we trace similar changes in administrative innovation, commercial growth, or even newly emancipated forms of intellectual life across such different societies? If we can identify some common developments, how then can we explain the fact that by the end of the period the great agrarian empires suddenly seemed vulnerable? If it is possible to consider the Portuguese as mere waterborne parasites in 1500, by 1800 the British were more like locusts devouring large chunks of India.
The question of a global ‘early modernity’ represents one of the most controversial areas of modern historiographical debate, with significant implications for the return of grand narrative and visions of the long term. The course also represents an introduction to doing comparative history in a systematic way, and should help students prepare for the Disciplines paper in finals. The other main method of world history is also introduced: with connected history, historians have become more imaginative in tracing the ways in which far-flung societies were interconnected in sometimes unexpected ways, through the circulation of millenarian ideas associated with kingship among a number of Islamic realms, or the political consequences of the dissemination of firearms. Understanding encounters across cultural divides is part of this: how should one interpret Jesuit reports from the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, or Persian ambassadors writing about their encounter with Theravada Buddhism in the royal city of Ayudhya?