Global Lives aims to offer an introduction to global history between 1550 and 1800. Focusing on Britain’s changing relationships with the rest of the world, it sets out the contours of the forms of globalisation, or global connection, that developed across this two hundred and fifty year period. However, this is not simply a survey of the “Big Picture” history of the rise of the British empire. In order to engage readers with processes such as European settlement in North America, the slave trade, and navigation in the Pacific, Global Lives tells this history through over forty brief biographies of a range of individuals from Queen Elizabeth I to Mai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain.
This unique combination of global history and biography – the big picture and the fine-grained detail – aims to breathe some real life into what are too often thought about as abstract and anonymous historical and geographical processes – the development of trade routes, the spreading of settlement and the forging of empires.
In Global Lives, those who lived out these globalising processes are put centre stage. The history of early modern globalisation is told through the biographies of rulers and revolutionaries, the enslaved and the free, and profiteers and pirates. Each person is understood as trying to operate in the circumstances within which they found themselves. Each person is seen as trying to make a difference, for good or ill, for themselves and others. Each person, whether they travelled long distances or stayed close at home, is seen as playing a part in making this new global history and geography.
“What I have taken from Global Lives 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.”
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.
The nature of this book is that it is full of close-ups. It is made of the details of people’s lives, and the ways that they shaped and were shaped by global processes. One of the most surprising glimpses of a life is of a seventeenth-century woman known as La Belinguere. She appears in a chapter entitled “Into the Atlantic: the triangular trade?” La Belinguere, also known as Marie Mar or Maguimar, was the daughter of a former rule of Niumi, a small independent state on the northern bank of the River Gambia in West Africa. She was a powerful woman whose name probably derived from ‘linger’ a Jolof title of respect denoting women with legal powers. She possessed a large fortune in gold, slaves and cattle that she had made translating for and trading with the Europeans who had come to the coast to trade in enslaved Africans. She was one of several women brokers (known as nharas) who opened the way for these European traders to enter Luso-African and African trading networks. This was done though “country marriages,” familial and economic arrangements to which the women brought their family connections, linguistic skills and trading expertise, and to which the European men brought trade goods.
La Belinguere’s life was lived at the intersection of cultural and economic worlds. There is a vivid description of her from the director of the French Compagnie de Sénégal, Michel Jajolet de La Courbe, who dined with her in 1686: “She was garbed in a very elegant man’s shirt and a small Portuguese-style corset which emphasised her figure, and for a skirt she wore a beautiful African cloth … from Sao Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. She had a very fine muslin coiled around her head in the shape of a turban raised a little in front. She had a gracious manner and a gift for conversation, and spoke Portuguese, French, and English as well, indicative of the extensive commerce she carries on with all nations.” They ate millet bread and rice from West Africa, chillies and pineapples originally from the Americas, bananas from South Asia, and the brandy La Courbe had brought from France as well as Portuguese wines.
Although La Courbe was quite clearly taken with La Belinguere, he recognised her power. He described her as the “reef” on which many Europeans had been “shipwrecked,” and depicted her as Circe to his Ulysses. She showed her power in the spring of 1687 when there was a fight at a party in the fort on James Island in the Gambia River from which the English Royal African Company had traded since the 1660s. Another nhara was injured by a knife-wielding Englishman, Cornelius Hodges, and the ruler of Niumi took the chief English merchant hostage and halted their trade. Taking advantage, La Belinguere formed an alliance with the French agent La Coste and recruited a network of Luso-African traders able to break the Royal African Company’s monopoly of the upper river trade.
La Belinguere’s story shows a number of things. It demonstrates the intertwining of the personal and the global. Trading networks whose implications span out across the Atlantic were forged from personal connections such as those between La Belinguere and the Frenchmen La Courbe and La Coste. Her life also demonstrates the control of West Africans over the terms of trade on their coast, even the trade in enslaved people. She is part of a larger story of why African merchants did not need to directly extend their own trading networks across the oceans as European and American merchants did, and thus why the patterns of Atlantic trade looked as they did. Finally, and most simply, she demonstrates that there were powerful women merchants whose lives blended cultures and animated economic forces who were living and working in West Africa in the late seventeenth century.
“Individuals’ actions depend upon the actions of others. Those who wish to act to change the world must work through the actions – conscious and unconscious, routine and exceptional – of others who are trying to prosecute their own projects, or just trying to get by.”
What emerged from the process of writing this book was perhaps more interesting than I imagined when I set out to produce a work that my students (and hopefully others) would find accessible, appealing and perhaps surprising. The need to think through the role of people’s actions and understandings in the broader processes of global change led me to think carefully about how we understand action and agency. In part this was simply a reaffirmation of the notion (from Karl Marx) that people make history but not under conditions of their own choosing. But it was also a recognition that those actions and the conditions within which they occur are more closely interwoven than accounts of globalisation usually make out. Individuals’ actions depend upon the actions of others. Those who wish to act to change the world must work through the actions – conscious and unconscious, routine and exceptional – of others who are trying to prosecute their own projects, or just trying to get by. I would like to think that this recognition of action in relation to the processes of globalisation can underpin a hopeful stance in relation to the possibilities of global change.
Miles Ogborn is Professor of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680-1780 (Guilford, 1998) and Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (University of Chicago Press, 2007). He was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2001 and has been honoured as the inaugural Distinguished Historical Geographer (2009) by the Association of American Geographers.