Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914

Book Cover

Book Title

The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Pub., 2004


Bayly, C.A.


The birth of the modern world is situated in the period between the later part of the eighteenth century and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. C.A. Bayly thus described "the birth of the modern world" not as something which some people or some regions did to others less favored or deserving, but as a series of transformations in which most of the people in the world participated, and to which most of them contributed, not simply as the objects or victims of the successes of others, but actively, independently, creatively.

Therefore, a history of connections and processes is aimed at, rather than a simple view of diffusion outward of modernity from a dominant, "rational" European or American center. The book thus insists on the importance of the activity of colonized and semi-colonized non-European peoples, and most importantly, considers the role of subordinated groups within the European and American society in shaping the contemporary world order.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book discusses the old regimes and its transition to modernity; revolutions in the world that impacted the speed and nature of modernization, industrialization; ideologies during the age of imperialism as well as the nature of the transition to modernity, with its acceleration between c.1890-1914.

Chapters 3,4,6 and the final chapter construct a history of world events organized in chronological sections within the long period from 1780 to 1914. Their aim is to select and emphasize specific connections between broad series of political and economic changes. Chapter 3, for example, reemphasizes the ideological and political links between the revolutionary age in Europe and North America in the generation after 1776 and the contemporary surge forward of European dominance over non-Europeans in the "first age of global imperialism". One can also look forward to the consideration within the same field of analysis of late-nineteenth century nationalism, imperialism and ethnic exclusions in Chapter 6. The book ends with a brief overview of the period before the First World War, when diplomatic rivalries and international economic transformations were in the midst of encountering the contemporary system of states and empires and feeling the pressures of other dominating states in the international arena.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The reverberations of critical world events, such as the European revolutions of 1789 and 1848, had arguably spread outwards and merged with political convulsions arising within other world societies. On the other hand, events outside the emerging European and American 'core' of the industrial world economy, such as the mid-century rebellions in China and India, impacted back on that 'core', molding ideologies and shaping new political and social conflicts.

Bayly argues that all local, national or regional histories must be global histories, leading to the big question of what served as critical driving forces which accounted for the world's growing interconnectedness and uniformity in the course of the "long'" nineteenth century. Bayly proposes that the economic dominance of western Europe and North America was the root of this increased connectedness. In 1780, the Chinese Empire and the Ottoman Empire were still powerful, world-class entities, and most of Africa and the Pacific region were ruled by indigenous peoples. In comparison, by 1914, China and the Ottoman states were on the point of fragmentation. In this way, Europe was able to act as the dominating power in the context of weakness and decline in Asia. However, a study of this period has to show how over large parts of the world, European domination was only partial and temporary.

The term "modern" may have multiple meanings, but the book interestingly accepts the idea that an essential part of being modern is thinking that you are modern. It was the aspiration to be "up with the times" and a continuous process of emulation and borrowing. The fifteenth to nineteenth century was also a period of the modern age because poorer and subordinated peoples around the world imagined of enhancing their status and lives by adopting badges of this mythical modernity, whether they were umbrellas (in the case of Burma), or new religious texts which acted in both their spiritual and political roles.

Furthermore, the book takes the view that contemporary changes were so rapid, and interacted with each other so profoundly, that this period could justifiably be described as the "birth of the modern world". It encompassed the rise of the nation-state, which demanded a further centralization of power or loyalty to an ethnic solidarity, alongside a massive expansion of global commercial and intellectual linkages. The international spread of industrialization and a new style of urban living compounded these deeper developments. Hence, the book argues that between 1780 and 1914, the societies of the world had become more uniform since more rapid communications, larger political entities, and ambitious ideologies of "civilization", both Western and non-Western, were powering this transformation.

Annotated by Michelle Djong