Empire and Globalisation – A Review

What Charles Dickens and Mark Twain did for social history, Gary Magee and Andrew Thompson in Empire and Globalisation – Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850 – 1914, (Cambridge 2010), have done for economics. They have made it interesting. I was brought up studying theories of international trade and foreign investment focusing on the dry statistics, without looking at the social context and who was making the trade and the investment decisions.

Magee and Thompson examine the linkages between the centre and periphery (colonies) of the British Empire using the concept of a network to illustrate how there was both outflow and feedback between the parts. This interaction is then related to the process of globalization today, which has as many meanings as there are writers. For me a working one is by D.Held and A. McGrew, “The core of the idea is that the world is undergoing a process of ever-intensifying interconnectedness and interdependence, so that it becomes less relevant to speak of separate national economies, or separate national jurisdictions founded on principles like to (sic) sovereignty of the territorial nation-state.”

Empire and Globalisation covers a relatively short period, 1850 – 1914, by examining flows of migration, international trade and foreign investment. It places a microscope on a small part of John Darwin’s comprehensive After Tamerlane, The Global History of Empire since 1405, (Allen Lane 2007) which sets out the history of many empires over the past six centuries. Both studies are masterpieces of scholarship and help to explain not only globalization but forces resulting in modernization. Here I look at the contribution of Magee and Thompson who examine how networks of people and organizations were responsible for flows of people, goods and investment between parts of the British Empire.


A course on international economics tends to focus on trade and capital flows and not migration, a topic often left to sociologists. And yet it is the actions of individuals, including in this case those who migrated from Great Britain to the dominions and colonies, which influenced the type of goods traded and the foreign investments made.

The chapter on migration documents aspects such as the migratory flows, the agents, railways and shipping companies used, the role of charities and missionary organizations and the remittances sent back to the mother country. Today we think of foreign diasporas in terms of Asians and Hispanics in the US, Australia and Canada. In the 1800s, the British were the diaspora communities in these places and networks of their families and business associates created international linkages.


The examination of trade includes information taken from individual shipping companies such as Elder Dempster, Union Castle and P &O, showing how they focused on trade based on their connections in different parts of the empire, at times with the support of British government policy such as the Navigation Acts. The authors document the formation of Glaxo as a merchant firm in New Zealand and its diversification into groceries, stationery, patent medicines, drapery and ironmongery throughout other parts of the Empire using its family connections.


The chapter on foreign investment, direct and portfolio, uses information on family networks and social interaction to illustrate how decisions were reached as to where and in what sectors to invest. The improvements in information (cable and wireless) and transportation (railways and shipping) technology affected decision making, with investors often having more information about what was going on in the Empire than outside of it. This was not always the case, as for a time, after the US, Argentina was the largest recipient country for UK investment than any place within the Empire. Some label a country like Argentina as part of Britain’s informal empire because of such linkages.

For the period 1850-1914, Magee and Thompson provide a human side to globalization by looking at the flows of people, trade and investment within the British Empire. By 1914 it is relatively easy to see how imperial influences spread throughout the world. Since then, they have become diluted but are still present. Like a red die dumped into the headwaters of a river, there will be a strong reddish colour to begin with, but this will become diluted the further downstream it flows. With the help of historians and economists like Magee and Thompson, I think it can be shown that the Empire’s influence remains substantial in many parts of the world today, and mostly for the benefit of such places, although I recognize that the latter is an arguable proposition. What Empire and Globalisation provides is a set of questions to ask and data to collect which will add significantly to an understanding of globalization today. The scholarly documentation of sources makes it an invaluable reference work.


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