Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age
Ben Wilson
Basic Books, $32.50 (cloth)

On the afternoon of March 22, 1856, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sat alone at his desk in the Senate chamber, intent on finishing some correspondence before the evening mail was collected. Suddenly a voice above him called out, accusing Sumner of libel against South Carolina and one of its senators, Andrew Butler. It was Butler’s nephew, congressman Preston Brooks, and without waiting for a reply, he began to beat Sumner with his cane.

Sumner was a large man, six foot three and 220 pounds in an era when the average American man stood no taller than five foot eight. But with his legs trapped under the heavy mahogany desk, he could not defend himself from the assault. Brooks struck him again and again, until Sumner lurched forward, ripping the desk from its bolts, and collapsed into the chamber aisle, unconscious and covered in blood.

For Americans, the caning of Charles Sumner—the most notorious act of violence in the history of Congress—often figures as a representative moment of the 1850s, the tense and belligerent years before the Civil War. It makes a cameo appearance in Ben Wilson’s sweeping global history of the decade, too. But Wilson is less interested in the origins of the political collision that brought Sumner and Brooks together than in the origins of the material that collided with Sumner’s unprotected head.

The defining feature of the 1850s was not the bitter gridlock of antebellum American politics but the giddy optimism of a new global era.

Brooks’s cane was fashioned from gutta-percha, a hard natural rubber made from Asian tree sap that had become, by 1856, a ubiquitous element of Victorian life, used in everything from raincoats to inkstands to golf balls. Gutta-percha is important to Wilson because it served as the mid-nineteenth century’s dominant form of insulation for underwater electrical wire. Wilson begins his book with the laying of the Channel Cable in 1851, which put Britain in direct telegraph contact with the European continent. He ends it with an account of the innumerable wires that, fewer than twenty years later, threaded the world in copper and gutta-percha, making it possible for the results of horse races in London to arrive almost instantly in Calcutta or Tokyo.

For Wilson, the defining feature of the 1850s was not the bitter gridlock of antebellum American politics but the giddy optimism of a new global era—one lubricated by free trade, accelerated by technological advance, and powered above all by a faith in the endless possibility of human progress. The year 1851, Thomas Hardy later wrote, marked “an extraordinary chronological frontier or transit-line, at which there occurred one might call a precipice in Time.”

This is Wilson’s subject, and his thesis: that the 1850s “provided one of the most concentrated bursts of global change that has been seen in history,” while much of what followed, across the rest of the century, was mere “refinement and extension.” Inter-continental telegraphs, steamships, and railways rolled across Hardy’s chronological frontier, erasing vast distances and fundamentally altering the ways that human beings understood their relationship to each other and to their world. “The pre-modern world was space-bound,” as Tony Judt once wrote, “its modern successor, time-bound.” The critical period in which that transition was accomplished, Heyday argues, were the years just after the midpoint of the nineteenth century.

The heroic and chiefly Anglo-American achievements of the decade—the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the Atlantic Cable between New York and London, the stunningly rapid growth of brand-new cities like Melbourne and Chicago—claim a colorful pride of place in this narrative. At times Heyday exudes the boosterish enthusiasm of its liberal protagonists, with their confidence in the beneficent global power of open markets and swift communication.

Farther away from Fleet Street, of course, the wondrous triumphs of the 1850s often took on a darker hue. Along with its magnificent new technologies and its promises of a laissez-faire utopia, Anglo-American capitalism also had an unfortunate tendency to bring bloodshed and misery wherever it arrived. From Nebraska to Nanjing to New Zealand, Wilson follows the course of empire in the 1850s, tracing the link between the enormous tangible feats of the new Victorian globalists and the equally tangible trail of war, chaos, and ruin they left in their wake.

Paul Gilroy, building on Walter Benjamin, has called for a “primal history of modernity”: an understanding of modernity’s achievements, both physical and intellectual, that acknowledges their inextricable connection to modernity’s crimes. Few moments in the human past offer such a promising field for this idea as the middle decade of the nineteenth century. Wilson has not produced anything much like what Gilroy especially wanted, a history of modernity written from the point of view of enslaved Africans. The dominant voices in this book belong to Anglophone elites. Nevertheless, Heyday does capture something of the way that the progressive momentum of the era both drew on and fed an intensifying exploitation of human labor and human life. This modernized exploitation included African slavery in Cuba, Brazil, and the United States, which in the 1850s flourished as it had never flourished before.

In that sense, Preston Brooks’s battering of Charles Sumner with a gutta-percha cane strikes the reader of Heyday as a representative moment of the global 1850s, too. Gathered by Malay woodsmen, shipped by merchants in Singapore, and processed by factory workers in Islington, gutta-percha girdled the planet in telegraph lines, while also serving as a cruelly symbolic instrument of the Slave Power. Lightweight but firm, Brooks’s cane was the perfect weapon with which to chastise a social inferior, as the South Carolina man regarded the anti-slavery senator. The modern global age, as it dawned in the 1850s, combined extractive colonial labor, miraculous technical innovation, and the brute application of social violence in equal measure.

“Of all decades in our history, a wise man would choose the eighteen-fifties to be young in.” So declared the English historian G.M. Young, who knew his Victorian decades well enough to make an educated choice. Another English historian, writing some years later, took a somewhat different perspective in the introduction to his Age of Capital: 1848-1875. “The author of this book,” admitted Eric Hobsbawm,

cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt, for the age with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for its titanic material achievements and by the effort to understand what he does not like. He does not share the nostalgic longing for the certainty, the self-confidence, of the mid-nineteenth century bourgeois world.

It is Young, not Hobsbawm, whom Wilson has chosen for his epigraph, and whose spirit of dauntless Victorian exuberance commands the first third of Heyday. Following the work of James Belich, whose book Replenishing the Earth (2009) traced the nineteenth-century growth of a settler-colonial “Angloworld,” Wilson draws connections between booming English-speaking colonies all over the globe. The famous California gold rush of 1849 receives less attention than the equally dramatic 1851 rush in Victoria, which helped Australia’s population double in five years and knitted together a Pacific commercial world that included China, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.

More originally, perhaps, Wilson develops an extended comparison between New Zealand and Minnesota. In 1850 these were two apparently unpromising lands on the far fringe of Anglophone empires—sparsely settled by whites and dominated by much more numerous indigenous populations. But over the course of the next decade both territories saw a rapid influx of white colonists and the spectacular growth of cities like Wellington and St. Paul.

The Minnesota capital, one 1854 traveler wrote, was “the best specimen to be found in the States of a town still in its infancy with a great destiny before it.” At the head of the navigable Mississippi, linked by future railroads to Chicago and the Great Lakes, the infantile St. Paul of the 1850s already boasted more newspapers than Manchester and Liverpool put together. Wilson’s vivid portrait of such new “urban frontiers”—driven by self-fulfilling speculative prophecy as much as any clear economic logic—illustrates both the dynamism and the instability of this explosive moment of colonial expansion.

Of course, it was not just the Angloworld that boomed in the 1850s. For the English traveler Richard Burton, a journey through the North American West called to mind a wide range of similar imperial environments. The midcentury world abounded with confident European conquerors seeking to subdue stubborn local populations: the French in Algeria, Senegal, and Southeast Asia, the Russians in the Caucuses and Central Asia, the Dutch in Sumatra, even the Spanish in Morocco. Nor was Burton the only contemporary observer to draw such parallels: as secretary of war from 1853 to 1857, Jefferson Davis explicitly modeled U.S. Army troop deployments in the West on French military strategy in Algeria.

Anglo-American capitalism had an unfortunate tendency to bring bloodshed and misery wherever it arrived.

The middle section of Heyday focuses largely on the fits and starts of European imperialism in Asia. Wilson’s starting-point is the almost unfathomable vastness of the Russian Empire, which at midcentury stretched all the way from Warsaw to Sitka, Alaska. In a decade of mammoth territorial seizures, the single largest extortion probably came in 1858–1860, when Russia took the Amur River region from Qing China—an area larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Wilson’s account of the Crimean War focuses on the Russian effort to conquer and resettle the Caucuses, a struggle that rivaled any contemporary European conflict for brutality and civilian dislocation. (Why the fighting in the Caucuses, but not parallel wars in Wyoming or Queensland, merits the term “ethnic cleansing” seems to be primarily an accident of geography.)

From the Caucuses Wilson leaps across Eurasia to India, China, and Japan, as each absorbed the shocks of the 1850s in its own way. What they all had in common was chaos. The great Indian Mutiny of 1857 was the largest indigenous rebellion in the long history of the British Empire. As Wilson makes clear, the revolt was both triggered and ultimately defeated by the intensification of Britain’s imperial presence, through railroads, telegraph lines, and the commitment of the Raj to make India a source of raw materials, rather than a rival in domestic production.

Nowhere, however, was peaceful rhetoric about “free trade” more directly yoked to the violent use of state power than in mid-nineteenth century China. Locked in a ferocious civil war with Taiping rebels—the second deadliest conflict in human history—the Qing dynasty was ill-prepared to resist the British demand, in the name of open commerce, to open its ports to Indian-grown opium. The ensuing war led to the sack of Canton, the plunder of Beijing, and such overall destruction that the commanding British officer, the melancholy Lord Elgin, admitted he feared that “I am earning for myself a place in the Litany, immediately after plague, pestilence and famine.” Such sentiments did not prevent Elgin from ordering the burning of the ancient Summer Palace, “a solemn act of retribution” for the Chinese abuse of British prisoners. As for Japan, which was forcibly “opened” to trade by Matthew Perry’s fleet in 1853, the country was perhaps better prepared to resist the stormy arrival of Western capitalism. Yet even there the collision proved violent enough, with simmering conflict between modernizers and traditionalists that eventually spilled into assassination and war. “The peaceful world is now shaken up,” went one popular Japanese song of the 1850s, “those above quake, those below quiver.”

All across Heyday Wilson is hard at work laying narrative and thematic cables to link the far-flung global events of the 1850s. Often these efforts pay off, as when he is able to show the impact of the Crimean War on Anglo-American relations in the Caribbean, or, following the historians Steven Platt, Don Doyle, and Sven Beckert, connect the U.S. Civil War to Britain’s China policy, Italian unification, and cotton growing in India.

Yet occasionally Heyday’s relentless globalism strains too far. Comparing the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, the American abolitionist John Brown, and the Japanese samurai scholar Yoshida Shōin, Wilson reports: “all three were intolerant of discussion and compromise and believed that symbolic demonstrations of self-sacrifice could transform the world.” To be sure. Just as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Taiping leader Hong Xiuquan, and Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth all believed that nationalist rebellions could lead their people to independence. But they had little else in common. Lumping disparate figures together under such a capacious frame risks putting the global cart before the historical horse, privileging long-distance superficialities over the dismayingly provincial context that often best explains historical events.

Wilson’s primary documents are Anglo-American newspapers, magazines, and travel narratives, and Heyday bears many of the strengths and a few of the weaknesses of this source base. The book abounds with atmospheric, often surprising descriptive detail: the Great Plains along the Oregon trail, for instance, transformed by 1852 into a traffic jam of jostling migrants, wagons, and stock animals so dense that informed travelers brought goggles to protect their eyes from dust. But at times Heyday also partakes of the breathless suppositions and cheerful hyperbole that suffused the nineteenth-century press. Rather ordinary diplomatic contretemps between Britain, France, and the United States appear here as dangerous collisions that pushed major powers to the brink of war. And Wilson, like his Victorian subjects, is overly fond of grand statements. If only Britain had been more forthright in its dealings with the Caucasian guerilla Imam Schamyl, he writes, the Eurasian balance of power would have changed fundamentally, and the “the second half of the nineteenth century would have been very different.”

The true master spirits in Heyday are globetrotting Brits like Burton, William Howard Russell of the London Times, and the journalist-cum-government agent Laurence Oliphant. A kind of global Gump of the 1850s, Oliphant began the decade as a barrister in British Ceylon, toured booming Minnesota (where he bought land in a failed metropolis of the future, Superior City), conducted secret Crimean War negotiations in the Caucuses, joined William Walker for his filibuster conquest of Nicaragua, accompanied Lord Elgin during the sack of Canton, schemed with Garibaldi in Turin, and ended the decade as first secretary of legation in Japan, where in 1861 he survived a sword attack by a traditionalist samurai. Wilson’s book keeps pace with this dizzying itinerary, and the narrative rewards are many. Yet as a guide to the convulsions of the 1850s, the track of Oliphant, Russell, and the rest produces more giddiness than enlightenment.

To be sure, some of the sharpest analysts of the midcentury world were equally giddy about its prospects for transformation. Wilson’s introduction quotes at length from Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848): “In the place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction.” Wilson takes the measure of Marx’s raw excitement about the arrival of modernity, which rivaled any banker or railroad magnate: the staggering triumphs of the bourgeoisie were necessary to prepare the way for proletarian revolution. Yet in many ways Heyday’s portrait of the 1850s owes far more to the spirit of twenty-first century capitalism than Marx or any other contemporary thinker.

At the end of the book, Wilson makes the comparison explicit:

A communications revolution, globalization, the remaking of the news industry, military interventions in Asia, spectacular debt-fueled booms, catastrophic busts, the ripping apart of settled patterns of work, the waning of one superpower and the waxing of others, the popularity of beards—the parallels with our own time are striking.

This is hardly meant to be a triumphalist account of either past or present. Yet conspicuous in its absence from Wilson’s list is the word that meant everything to Marx and Engels: “production.” Heyday’s special focus on global communication, commerce, and finance mirrors our present-day view of the world economy, whose characteristic representatives are Google and Goldman Sachs. But strangely it elides a foundational element of the era’s transformations: the arrival of industrial production.

Wilson celebrates the 1850s as a spectacular moment of global connection and collision, from the Summer Palace to the United States Senate. Yet taking a slightly broader view of the nineteenth century, it becomes obvious that the forces driving these dramatic engagements did not emanate out of telegraph lines. The two thousand miles of Atlantic Cable did require an audacious vision of global connectivity, as Wilson emphasizes, but it also required enormous resources of labor and capital. The latter came first from a quintet of millionaire bankers and industrialists in New York, who later raised even more cash from cotton brokers in England. But why did all these men have all this money available to fund this utopian engineering project? Wilson does not attempt to answer such questions.

In Capital (1867), Marx famously enjoins his reader to leave the “noisy sphere” of market circulation, “where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone,” to enter

the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold hangs the notice, “no admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare.

Heyday is a ripping good read and at times a shrewd critique of what Hobsbawm called the certainty and the self-confidence of this period. But it is also a book that zips across the gutta-percha cables from St. Paul to Bombay without very much attention to the not-always-so-hidden abode of labor relations, class struggles, and social transformations that put them there. It is, in some sense, an Age of Capital without the capitalism. A truly primal history of modernity will have to reckon not only with capitalism’s connectors, but its producers, too.