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Britain and the Birth of the Modern World
When did the modern age begin? According to the historian Ben Wilson, the answer is September 24, 1851, as a tugboat pulled a British survey vessel, HMS Blazer, from the Thames down to Dover. Aboard was a 200-ton iron cable, some 25 miles long, destined to be unwound onto the bed of the English Channel. It might sound banal, but few technological experiments in our history have been more eagerly anticipated. Five days afterwards, officials sent a pulse of electricity down the cable; moments later, a cannon on the gates of Calais boomed in reply. Distance had been defeated; the era of instant communications was at hand.
"This conquest gained by science over the waves must ever remain recorded as amid the greatest of human achievements since record has existed of the mighty feats accomplished by man," declared The Times. Now "the whole earth will be belted with electric current", wrote another observer. "It shows that nothing is impossible to man."
In an era when we take instant worldwide communication for granted, it is easy to underestimate the astonishing impact of the
Channel cable. Later, Thomas Hardy wrote that 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, marked 'an extraordinary chronological frontier...a precipice In this in time'. Wilson agrees. sweeping global history, he argues that the 1850s marked the point when the forces that define our age, from technological innovation and financial globalisation to free trade and crusading newspapers, first swept across the world.
This was the heyday of the telegraph, the railway and the steamship, tearing down the physical old, with Britain in the barriers of forefront of change. "I may say without any vainglorious boast, or without great offence to anyone, that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation," declared Lord Palmerston, prime minister in the second half of the decade. "Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of nations."
Although pick- and- mix global histories are ten a penny, they are rarely terribly satisfying, usually whisking the reader from one continent to another with little intellectual coherence or narrative momentum. But Wilson's account of the 1850s is a wonderfully engrossing and intelligent read. Although he covers a vast range of subjects (the Australian gold rush, the opening of Japan, the Indian Mutiny, the unification of Italy), almost every page reinforces his thesis about the power of technology and the advance of globalisation. He has clever and entertaining things to say about even the most apparently banal topics, tracing the Victorian enthusiasm for beards, for instance, to the impact of the War, where British soldiers Crimean were encouraged to grow them to guard against chills. He even manages to make the history of Minnesota exciting, conveying the
sheer bustle and optimism as legions of frontiersmen, pioneers and get-rich-quick merchants poured into the American Midwest.
I once spent a year in Minnesota, the dullest place on earth. Never would I have believed that a historian could make it so interesting. Yet progress came at a punishingly heavy cost. On the American plains, tens of thousands of covered wagons
ploughed west through the dust, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of stock animals. They left so much rubbish, notes Wilson, that the desert looked like a battlefield, strewn with 'everything imaginable, from pots and pans, stoves and mining tools to, outlandishly, a huge metal safe and a diving bell complete with its equipment'. The ecological damage alone sounded the death knell to the civilisation of the plains Indians. Over the plains, wrote one onlooker, there hung a 'sense of decay and impending extinction' - precisely the same sense of looming disaster that hung over the Aborigines and the Maori, the Xhosa and the Zulus,indigenous people from Madagascar to Brazil, crushed beneath the steamroller of progress.
If the 1850s was an age of tremendous optimism, it was also an astonishingly bloody decade. The Crimean War, where the superpower rivalries of Britain, France and Russia cost at least half a million lives, was a conflict fought with the latest technology, from shell-firing artillery to screw-propeller steamships.the dullest place
However, Wilson also makes a compelling case that modernity itself was the cause of bloodshed. In British India, for example, the reforming governor- general, the Marquess of Dalhousie, dreamt of launching the three 'great engines of social improvement, which the sagacity and science of recent times had previously given to western nations - I mean Railways, uniform Postage and the Electric Telegraph'.
But many Indians were unsettled, even outraged, by the importation of western modernity. When fighting broke out in Meerut and Delhi in May 1857, the rebels cut telegraph cables into bullets and tore down telegraph poles to fire from their cannons. At Allahabad, rebels blasted away at railway engines and ripped up the track. 'There seemed,' said one witness, 'to be an especial rage against the railway and the telegraph.'
Then as now, though, the momentum of change was unstoppable.
Wilson's book reaches a kind of climax in August 1858 with the laying of the Atlantic cable from Newfoundland to Ireland, a joint effort by the USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon. In New York, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in celebration as cannons fired and rockets exploded overhead. 'Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, goodwill towards men,' read the first electric message between London and New York.
Nothing better captured the extraordinary technological optimism of the day; Benjamin Disraeli wrote that it was 'a privilege to live in this age of rapid and brilliant events'. But as Wilson powerfully shows, millions of people across the world probably felt very differently. There are always victims as well as victors from change - a lesson that we have, I think, never properly learnt.
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