Miles Ogborn


On his book Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550-1800

Cover Interview of May 07, 2009

The wide angle

After a number of years researching, writing and teaching on global history (and what I call global historical geography) I was struck with two things.  First, the unappealing nature of most introductions to global history.  It seemed to me that there were important, and relevant, issues here for how people were and are part of processes of globalisation.  But they were not being set out for readers in accessible and interesting ways.  Second, judging by the popular works of history and biography that were appearing on bestseller lists and being reviewed in the newspapers, there was an audience for well told stories which set individual lives against the backdrop of the significant histories of which they were a part.  Such works as Linda Colley’s Captives and The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, or William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, spring to mind as engaging their readers with tales that are once intimate portrayals of individuals and, at the same time, dependent upon the grand sweep of imperial history.

The book was, then, an attempt to bridge that gap.  Instead of just outlining global processes and patterns – the networks of Atlantic trade, or the making and unmaking of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade – the book would explain those processes through the lives of people who were part of them.  Whether the record of people’s lives was preserved in vast volumes of published letters and papers, or through a single forgotten document, they could find a place in this global history.

Instead of taking a single life, as in the standard biography, Global Lives takes forty-two lives of a hugely diverse range of people.  Some of these would be well known, and already the subject of book-length biographies themselves, or even films: Captain Cook, or Walter Ralegh, or Pocahontas.  Others would be known to historical specialists only: Thomas Thistlewood, a Jamaican plantation overseer who left extensive diaries, or Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest, navigator and artist who accompanied Cook on part of his first voyage through the Pacific.  Still others would be almost completely unknown, hidden away in the archives: Essa Morrison, a poor young woman from London’s riverside, prosecuted for theft from a drunken sailor, or the enslaved African who took a gun and shot the captain of the slave ship Felicity during a ship-board revolt in 1789.

What emerged from this process was a sort of kaleidoscopic view of globalisation.  There were many processes, networks and patterns, each of which was shifting and changing.  There were many many people positioned in different ways in relation to these processes, all working to shape their lives and those of others.  Without losing sight of the big picture, I have tried to illuminate the telling detail.

I wrote Global Lives having finished a more specialist book on writing and the East India Company (Indian Ink, 2007), and it has helped me to prepare for future work on communication in the Caribbean.  What I have taken from Global Lives into that work is the importance of being true to the lives of historical subjects while understanding them as part of processes that they themselves would have seen only partially.