Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam, 1830-1930
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In his preface, Darwin explains that he has chosen to look at port cities in the steam age as a way to examine globalisation, which he suggests is not a new phenomenon but one that has happened in waves throughout history, influencing how various societies developed, rose and fell over time. He concentrates on European-led globalisation, and includes the Americas in that since they were connected to and influenced by Europe. However, since the various European empires claimed territory in so much of the world, the book roams widely over the entire globe, showing that the interconnectedness we sometimes think of as “modern” is in fact merely a continuation of historical trends.
Darwin starts with a clear explanation of port cities, what differentiates them and how they first developed far back in history. He is excellent at explaining things simply enough for non-specialists to understand, and uses his early chapters to give the relative newcomer to the subject the background knowledge that will help when, in the later chapters, he discusses specific port cities in more detail. So he explains how some ports developed as entrepôts because of their geographical location, making them convenient places for the exchange of goods, while staple ports grew up to facilitate trade in a specific local produce or manufacture, such as wool, spices and, later, rubber, etc.
He explains how shipping operated pre-steam when its reliance on trade winds to a large degree determined routes, and how physical restrictions on moving goods and produce across land meant that the hinterland on which a staple port could rely was restricted in size. This background makes it easier to comprehend how revolutionary steam was, enabling ships to make more direct journeys in shorter times, while on land railroad-building could mean the difference between a port’s rise or fall. He also discusses the impact of the building of the Suez canal on port cities, some of which benefited from the new routes available, while others lost their geographical advantage. Steam power brought its own restrictions – the need for coal and, in the case of trains, a fairly flat accessible landscape.
While I found all this background informative and useful, the real interest of the book came for me when Darwin reached “modern” times – from the pre-Columbian years of the 15th century, when the European empires were tentatively beginning to reach out across the globe, discovering new worlds to trade with, and sometimes to conquer. Darwin makes it clear, however, that in many cases conquering wasn’t necessary as a means to develop trade, and that often port cities and their hinterlands remained firmly in the control of local magnates although the Europeans largely controlled the transport of goods.
The arrival of steam reduced journey times and therefore the costs of travel and of imports and exports, fuelling the industrial growth of western European nations and expanding their imperial reach and ambitions. Darwin quotes a statistic which, while I’m sure it will be correct, I still find quite unbelievable – that “By 1899 all but 2 per cent of the world’s manufactured exports came from nine Western countries.” The massive inflow of raw materials and outflow of finished products created an immense global economy, where catastrophes in one part of the globe could have an impact half a world away. Speed of journey times also meant that it was easier for people to move around the globe, so that colonisers no longer had to spend most of their lives cut off from their home nation, and there was a huge growth in passenger transport as a result. News, too, could travel more quickly, especially with the development of cable, so that the world economy began to react more quickly to events.
The latter two-thirds or so of the book takes us around various of the major port cities of the 19th century, giving a more detailed look at how and why they rose, developed and, where relevant, fell. Darwin starts in North America, for example, discussing New Orleans and its growth on the back of the cotton trade underpinned by the slave trade, and later giving way to New York, which had harbourage more suited to the larger ships of the steam age, and which was an entry point for mass immigration as well as produce. Montreal is an example of a port that initially relied primarily on its local hinterland for its staples – fur and lumber – although it gradually extended into the interior by the ambitious building of transcontinental railroads. From North America, Darwin follows the same format for ports in India, Asia, Africa and, of course, in Europe itself. Highlights for me were the ports about which I knew least and which seemed most “exotic” to me – Singapore, Calcutta, Shanghai, etc.
In each case, Darwin gives an idea of the power structures and economic features of the port, and the culture of those who lived there. He concentrates less on the politics and more on the practicalities of how empires operated as huge trading enterprises, and how the port cities they used for this also acted as melting pots of ideas and cultures, and often too as spreaders of diseases across the globe. Since length restrictions mean that each port only gets a shortish entry, a lot of information is packed into a few pages, and Darwin often assumes that the reader will be aware of the background history, especially of the various empires which claimed ownership of the territories under discussion. For a newcomer to the subject, I’d highly recommend reading Darwin’s own earlier wonderful history of the British Empire, The Unfinished Empire, which provided me with most of the background I needed to fully appreciate this more targeted history.
(Bookish aside: I spent a lot of time while reading this thinking back to various books I’ve read – Heart of Darkness, The African Queen, etc. – where steam and empire played a part. It occurred to me that this will be a great book to refer back to any time I’m reading a colonial-era novel set in one of these ports, to remind me of the local culture of the time and the port’s place within the history of empire.)
A great read – Darwin has the ability given to few historians of making his books eminently readable by the non-historians among us, bringing his subject to life and explaining the context as well as giving us the facts. The book contains many maps of regions, routes and ports which help to clarify the text, and also has illustrations of some of the ports in the form of photographs or drawings from the time. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.