Guest post: William Farrell on ‘Global history from below?’

William Farrell is a PhD student in the history department at Birkbeck, exploring silk and globalisation in eighteenth century London. This is his contribution to online symposium ‘The Future of History from Below’ (#historyfrombelow). The original text and all other symposium entries are available on The Many-headed Monster – a collaborative blog focusing on English society and culture in the early modern period.

Could there be a meeting of global history and history from below?1 The participants at the Birkbeck workshop seemed sceptical I have to admit. The key works in global history have been Big History syntheses. The key works in history from below, on the other hand, have deliberately used a smaller scale.

Despite these signs of a dialogue of the deaf, I still think the potential for a ‘global history from below’ is there. We shouldn’t forget that micro-history is supposed to be a rich, empirical testing ground for arguments about wider social change. Equally, many of the articles in the Journal of Global History or Journal of World History do actually use a case study method. There should, therefore, be many places were these apparently contrasting traditions meet.

The research on sailors and slavery in the Atlantic world provides an example of how the two approaches can influence each other. Marcus Rediker’s books on sailorspirates and the slave ship are the most well-known, if controversial, examples. He, Philip D. Morgan and others have done several things that overlap with the global history agenda. They have answered Brecht’s ‘who built Thebes?’ question, by focusing on those worked the shipping routes and plantations that were at the heart of the Atlantic system. One effect of this has been to unsettle the old narrative and geography of proletarianization. The history of work and workers can no longer be written around the rise of the factory in northern Europe.

Going further, some historians have emphasized the active role of subaltern groups in Atlantic history. Whether slave rebellions ‘ended slavery’ or not, they clearly deeply unsettled planters and imperial governments, forcing them to make changes in how the system was run.2 Historians have also shown the transnational nature of the Atlantic world was something experienced from below. Some ships’ crews were multi-ethnic, and a rough-and-ready cosmopolitanism could emerge on board and in port. At the same time, the enslaved from West Africa were remaking their cultures in the new context of the plantations.

Historians are also investigating the lives of sailorspirates and slaves in the Indian Ocean. There is clearly potential to link the two regions up either through comparing the experiences or looking for interactions. The ‘sailors and slaves’ model can also be used to explore other areas of early modern history. For instance, Beverly Lemire is looking at how sailors were often the avant garde of fashion. They were some of the first European consumers, from any social class, of exotic goods like printed cottons and tobacco.

Finally it’s worth noting that an existing source we are all familiar with – the Old Bailey Online – can be used to explore some of these themes. The historical background material on Old Bailey Online highlights its potential as a source for the history of minority communities. But it can also be used for a more dynamic account of international labour mobility.

Take the textile industries in London. It is quite clear from going through the evidence of textile workers that many used the army and the sea as a means of temporary employment during downturns in their fickle trade. Henry Cockale told the Ordinary of Newgate that ‘wanting Work, [he] went to sea’. Thomas Bonney enlisted on board The Lyon ‘when Business was a little dull’. The detailed defence of Robert Campbell, who described himself as ‘a weaver, and sometimes a seaman’, provides a snapshot of how someone might have gone about being taken onto a ship, and the pressures that led him to do so.

It is even possible to get at the patterns of unemployment and out-migration using, for example, the East India Company’s recruitment records. What has often been called the crisis period in the silk and woollen industries from 1719 to 1722 was a time of increasing recruitment of London weavers into the army. Why was it a crisis period? Well contemporaries blamed imports coming from … the East India Company. There is an irony there to say the least. But it also suggests that the categories of ‘soldier’ ‘sailor’, ‘artisan’ and ‘labourer’ were quite fluid in reality. This is one small way to link a metropolitan ‘history from below’ with grand changes in world markets.


I take ‘global history’ to mean two things: a) study of periods of increasing interconnection between different parts of the world b) non-Eurocentric comparative world history. Some global histories aim to do both at the same time.

There is a parallel here with how Tim Hitchcock sees the changes in eighteenth century criminal justice and poor relief, as an interactive process between the poor, institutions and policy makers.

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