Full Steam Ahead to the Modern World

Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World
Ben Wilson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson   462pp   £25

This is an engaging history of the capitalist world in the 1850s, which stitches together vivid stories of entrepreneurs and adventurers from the United States to New Zealand. Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World sometimes feels like an exciting Phileas Fogg travelogue, with Ben Wilson’s finger spinning round a mahogany globe in his study and us with it. But that is the strength of Heyday because, as Wilson points out, this is not a history of the British Empire but ‘a history of Britain in the world’. 

The Great Exhibition of 1851 bellowed the technical innovations of the world’s first industrial nation at a moment when liberalism, free trade and internationalism were at their zenith as ideas. In practice, the gunboat spoke louder than words, but even Lord Palmerston sincerely believed that Britain’s free trade Empire was different, writing ‘we have achieved triumphs, we have made aggressions but we have made them of a very different kind. The capital and skill of Englishmen are spread over the whole surface of the globe’.

It was a German immigrant,  Julius Reuter, who made capital spread faster. Having once used carrier pigeons to exchange stock prices, Reuter seized on telegraphy and founded his news agency in London in 1851 in the year a Channel cable was laid.  This was a moment akin to the birth of the Internet, which linked the money markets of Europe in real time and provided news of wars as well as commodities. Such was the excitement in the City of London in 1851 that 200 young traders took part in an unruly game of football on the floor of the normally staid Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, in India, the civil servant, John Kaye, believed telecommunications had made Indians realise ‘the great truth that Time Is Money’ and hoped it would undermine the authority of ‘their spiritual guides’.   

Native peoples did not always see it that way. The brutal modernisation of India under Governor-General James Ramsey was a cause of the Indian uprising of 1857 that sent spasms of anxiety and hope around the world. Ramsey’s vast networks of railways and telegraph wires enabled the British to rule more effectively – and that, not native primitivism, made them a target. As Indian rebels blew up tracks and used telegraph cable to make bullets, John Kaye noted ‘an especial rage against the railway and the telegraph’.   

Modernisation also coincided with more land-grabbing from indigenous rulers and a greater sense of racial superiority over those less in command of technology. In 1857 the naturalist Brian Hodgson observed that ‘knowledge and respect’ for Indians and their customs had given way to casual racism since he had arrived 40 years previously. ‘Now’, he lamented, ‘one hears ordinarily and from the mouths of decent folks nothing but contemptuous phrases (nigger &c) applied to the people’.  

Britain owed its power not only to the plundering of its Caribbean, Asian and African colonies but also to the rapacious development of the United States after 1776, which happily sold its former master whatever Britain needed to rule others. One motive for modernising India had been to make its cotton industry more productive so that Britain was less dependent on cotton from the southern slave states of America; yet, as Wilson observes, slavery was ‘reaching its grim apogee in the 1850s’. Over a billion pounds of raw cotton was still leaving the South for the 2,500 textile factories of Lancashire by the end of the decade, a generation after the abolition of slavery in British territories. This hypocritical connection was noted by the Alabaman racial theorist, Josiah Nott, who wrote of ‘an indissoluble cord, binding the black [slave] to human progress’. 

The indissoluble cord between the Old World and the New became a physical reality in 1858 with the laying of an Atlantic cable by steam-powered ships. The first transatlantic message was transmitted on August 16th. It read: ‘Europe and America are united by telegraphic communication. Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, goodwill to all men.’    

There was little peace to be had at the end of a rifle. The British used millions of American guns to conquer and rule, tipping the balance away from once mighty armies of Chinese, Maori and Zulu warriors. After Samuel Colt exhibited his revolutionary ‘six-shooter’ at the Great Exhibition, American arms experts were brought in to oversee mass production of revolvers and rifles at the government’s arms factory at Enfield. The Times compared Colt to the inventor of vaccination, Edward Jenner, claiming that modern guns were a ‘new method of vaccination’ on ‘rude tribes’.      

With guns went beards, which became fashionable in the 1850s as a symbol of middle-class muscularity, from Dickens to the explorer Richard Burton; the beard was ‘decidedly un-aristocratic’, writes Wilson, ‘redolent of the hard life of the frontier’. Hence, the military ban on them was lifted in 1858 during the Crimean War, when aristocratic amateurism was being criticised for military failures. Wilson handles such cultural trends so well that it is a pity there are not more of them in his book. There should also be more consideration of religion as a motivator of entrepreneurs in an age when faith and technology still went hand in hand for millions. 

Heyday is part of a fashionable genre that re-assesses the impact of British power, the best known of which is Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. The strength of this magnificent book is Wilson’s awareness of ‘modernity’s close connection with barbarism’. To acknowledge that progress came at a high price for most people is not to belittle British achievements; it merely puts them into a proper historical perspective. As William Gladstone once remarked: ‘The English piously believe themselves to be a peaceful people; nobody else is of the same opinion.’ 

Richard Weight is a historian of modern Britain and the author of Mod: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement (Random House, 2015).

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