Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939.
The British Empire has had a recent resurrection in becoming an organising device for world history. With decolonization fading into the past, it has been possible to consider Greater Britain's relative wealth without condemnation or celebration, although both have attended the rebirth. Scholarship on the British world--a more inclusive term than British Empire--has been thriving for a decade or more. The United States has occasionally been granted affiliation until discussion turns to identity. The United States and the Empire feature in Replenishing the Earth, which is a deftly handled comparative history. Some historians of the British world have practiced comparative history by considering the interaction of imperial designs and local innovations. Addressing the British world alone, these historians have dealt with law, gender, popular culture, or political rights in selected colonies, discovering continuities and deviations, themes and variations, imitation and resistance. Others have pursued comparative history by keeping the rest of the world in view. The distinguished historian of New Zealand James Belich has now contributed significantly to the latter approach, and he neither obscures nor dwells on the Empire's blemishes.
Synthesizing literature, Belich explains the British world's prosperity with a thesis in a three pulse rhythm. The first pulse, the boom growth of speculative manias, fleshed out with public works, appeals to Belich for it counters the rationality assumed by neo-classical economists. Rather than a calculating quest for land and export staples, newcomers to frontiers responded to dreams. The initial pulse included public works and household consumption by settlers. Construction expenditures and a settlers' effects economy invigorated importation. Significantly then, imports and extensions of credit from England drove colonial growth. Thus, an alleged resource appetite from the industrial revolution is downgraded. The first pulse collapsed time since it allowed great new cities to emerge within a generation. The second pulse was boom's inevitable bust. The third pulse relied on the development of exports, what he calls "an export rescue" from the bust. This pulse created a branching out and tightening of ties between metropolis and settlements (pp.88-99). To make the point that the British world did not have an exclusive claim to the development rhythm that changed the world, he examines Russian expansion in Siberia (pp.505-13). He could easily have added Central Asia. The general point, however, is well-considered. Russia was colonizing too.
Informal empire appears but Belich points out that when the chips were down Greater Britons preferred dealing with one another, so for example, the benefit of trade and finance were not spread to Argentina quite as readily as to British settlement colonies (p.539). This observation makes fraternal feelings important; they add to under-developed institutional and skewed property distribution as explanations for Argentina's eventual troubles (p.116). When it comes to comparing the British world with other cultural communities, other empires, the challenge is to develop explanations that avoid falling back on discredited justifications alleging a superiority of science and invention, and the presumed unique utility of British institutions. Belich shuns cultural superiority factors--common law, Protestant work ethic, representative institutions--in an effort to provide "a new explanation for the explosive growth of English-speaking societies in the nineteenth century (p.548)." His snipping at neo-classical economics, his emphasis on hype and irrationality in economic development (pp.96-7; 163), may be an instance of current events informing history. Alan Greenspan's understated and late criticism of "irrational exuberance" has a prolonged echo. There is also an older lineage for Belich's accent on boosters (p.153). David Hamer's New Towns in the New World: Images and Perceptions of the Nineteenth-Century Urban Frontier (1990) analyzed civic promotional literature to examine what city-builders in new worlds thought they were doing. Hamer and Belch were colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington.
Demographic, agricultural, and industrial revolutions play parts in Belich's account (p.51). The industrial revolution has been a touchy subject. Several relatively recent writers blasted old English conceits about industrial invention. To put claims of superior western genius in perspective, John Hobson, leaning on Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham's multi-volume project, wrote The Eastern Origins of Western Capitalism. Focusing on armed conquest and exploitation of colonies, Hobson did not convincingly explain the prosperity of the British world. Recently Joel Mokyr and Robert C. Allen articulated a nuanced version of the industrial revolution and its technological innovations, proposing that they emerged from a combination of happenstance--for example London's demand for home-heating coal--plus literacy and numeracy. Continuous invention followed. Belich directly criticizes Kenneth Pomerantz, like Hobson another "Sinocentric" scholar. Pomerantz, the author of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World argued that the industrial revolution occurred in the 1780s and that England's related need for food and resources drove its colonial acquisitions. Belich adjusts the chronology of the industrial revolution to the 1820s and ties his first pulse to irrational drives and imports from England. He reminds us too of Ireland's role in feeding England (pp.445-6).
Belich clears space between himself and other writers to make room for the three pulse argument. This practice imposes coherence on the book, but jeopardizes explanatory opportunities. For example, there is more to the staples thesis of Harold Innis than what is summarized here. For Belich, it is important to downplay metropolitan demand for staples in the first pulse. However, Innis proposed that staples shaped institutional development. Some public works that contributed to the booms of the first pulse were driven by more than hype; hype was present but so too plausible anticipation of clearing bottlenecks for the movement of staples. An uneven distribution of capital and people implies some unusually good and some unusually poor opportunities; entrepreneurs reading the landscape for future returns relied on more than booster seduction. Booms and rescues, the first and third pulses, were associated through the mediation of entrepreneurs and the governments they influenced. The great shock cities of new lands attracted capital to natural potential.
Belich adds a discussion of identity. He may be right in claiming that significant numbers of subjects in the former settlement colonies identified with the Empire/Commonwealth, even into the 1960s. An equally interesting subject, however, is how people combined several identities including the emergent national identities of former settlement colonies, the identities of non-British homelands, and an imperial identity. Clear prose spiced with metaphors and a handful of terms used time and again stabilize a hefty, almost unwieldy book. The fact that Replenishing the Earth covers many jurisdictions while sustaining a memorable argument is a credit to its author.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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