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Book Review


Wolfgang Reinhard, ed., Empires and Encounters, 13501750. Cambridge: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. viii + 1152. Bibliography and Index. $39.95 (cloth).


     This book is a massive and detailed study of change and interaction in the early-modern world driven to a large extent by the effects of empire-building. Running between 160 and 200 pages (not including endnotes), each chapter is a book-length treatment of a supra-regional area of the world whose cohesion is defined not so much by static geographic markers like continents as by dynamic forces like climatic conditions, population growth and decline, migration, economic change, state formation, cultural exchange, and trade. Oceans, in fact, figure more prominently than continents in conceptualizing these "cultural-geographical macroregions" (7). The authors delight in breaking up standard continental framings to create a more dynamic understanding of global history in the early-modern era, and this structure frames the overall argument of the volume.

     The volume's editor, Wolfgang Reinhard, wrote the fifty-page introduction which frames the enterprise. In the German tradition of historiography, he seems to prefer the term "global history" to "world history," reserving the latter for the shared histories of regions or supra-regions that formed "cultural worlds." He calls the subjects of each chapter "worlds" which had their own coherence even as they "did begin to interact" with each other in this period, forming the "'prehistory' of the global here and now" (3). While he is aware of the dangers of a teleological and Eurocentric view of global history, he in fact defends them as "inescapable" framings given how the world developed after 1750 (47). The other authors are more consequential in their avoidance and critique of teleological and Eurocentric history and often relegate Europeans to a peripheral role until the mid-seventeenth century at the earliest.

     The first chapter, by Peter Perdue, "Empires and Frontiers in Continental Eurasia," covers only part of continental Eurasia, excluding India, Persia, the Ottoman realms, and most of Southeast Asia, and includes Russia but not Poland. While eschewing a strictly continental perspective, except for Central Eurasia, his subchapters (China, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) remain surprisingly contained within the frameworks of modern nation-states. While one may worry that including Russia in Asia might feed "Western" prejudices since the sixteenth century that Russia was really an "Asiatic despotism," Perdue makes the case that it really was an Asian-oriented state before 1700 and Peter the Great so its inclusion in this chapter seems right. He argues that the general trends were "the expansion of empires and the consolidation of independent states . . . the elimination of borderland zones . . . and the concomitant extension of commercial networks" (55).

     Chapter Two by Suraiya Faroqhi, "The Ottoman Empire and the Islamic World," has a more limited scope: it analyzes two empires, the Ottoman and the Safavid. The Ottoman Empire bridges three continents and the focus of the chapter is on Southwest Asia, Southeast Europe, and North Africa as an intercommunicating zone based on Turkish suzerainty. Her approach typifies the overall approach of the book: the standard continents are broken apart and their histories reassembled based on human actions. Geography is only partly destiny as the Ottoman Empire united for a few centuries parts of three continents into one cultural and economic zone and served to link the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Presenting new Turkish research on the Ottomans, she argues that the empire did not enter a period of continual decline after 1566 but adapted well to new conditions of global history for another three hundred plus years.

     We return to a large geographic frame in the third chapter, Stephen Conermann's "South Asia and the Indian Ocean," which spends an equal amount of space on the Indian subcontinent and on the other lands bordering the Indian Ocean from East Africa to the Ottoman and Safavid empires to Indonesia. His key arguments are that "Europeans did not enjoy a monopoly of expansion" in this period and "brought little new to the Indian Ocean" except new forms of organized violence and that the Mughal Empire "developed into the greatest imperial power of the early modern period and that above all succeeded in establishing a global network that spread beyond the Indian Ocean to create a global network of economic contacts" (392). Europeans, in fact, mainly adapted to pre-existing economic and cultural practices. He advocates a mental re-mapping of the region in which "we diverge from a relatively immobile and essentializing form of geography, which focuses on characteristic traits such as values, languages, material practicalities, or forms of marriage ('trait geography'), toward a way of seeing that places at the forefront processes such as mobility, migration, development, conflict, colonialization, and hybridization" (395396) in which integration and fragmentation co-exist.

     Chapter Four, "Southeast Asia and Oceania" by Reinhard Wendt and Jürgen G. Nagel, explores shared traits of both regions as well as differences in political organization and economic and cultural life but with a focus on mainland and maritime Southeast Asia and Chinese, Japanese, and European connections to the region. While recognizing and discussing the diversity and heterogeneity of Southeast Asia and Oceania, to create a coherent rather than a fragmented narrative, they purposefully highlight the elements that these regions have in common: wet/dry seasons, highland and lowland societies, and maritime orientations, among others. The authors recognize that some historians will critique the inclusion of Oceania with Southeast Asia as the imposition of a common framework on disparate regions but they believe the benefits to historical understanding outweigh the shortcomings. The chapter makes the empirical case for their choice. The authors detail the thriving commercial, economic, cultural, and political life of Southeast Asia and the successive waves of Indianization, Sinicization, and Islamization, and hint at later Europeanization. Due to the desire to gain control of spice-producing regions and the stronger state structures in mainland Southeast Asia, Europeans in the early modern period (mainly the Portuguese and Dutch) established a greater presence and colonial control in maritime (or insular) Southeast Asia. Contact with Europeans did not initiate, but did help accelerate, "internal structural developments" and "the region's integration into the global market" (693). While the history of Oceania is woven into the overall narrative, due to a deeper and more extensive archival record, the chapter focuses on Southeast Asia with Oceania getting extensive treatment in the concluding section with a discussion of the first peopling of Oceania (including New Zealand and Australia) and 'the second age of discovery" and the European encounter with the region from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

     The final chapter, "Europe and the Atlantic World" by Wolfgang Reinhard, to some extent bookends the Introduction by giving Europe prominence. Unlike the other authors who downplay the role of Europeans in the early-modern world, Reinhard plays up their role, especially that of "Latinate Europe" (England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal). His specific analyses are nicely nuanced and well supported, but they are often undermined by sweeping generalizations like Europe "impose[d] a common economic and cultural system on the people of these other two continents [Africa and the Americas]" (739). He repeatedly shows that Africans and Americans resisted Europeanization so these sweeping claims seem more ideologically than historically grounded and more than a little teleological if not triumphalist. He is the only author who points to developments well beyond 1750 when Europe became a major global force. He also insists on talking about a unified European "culture" when he really means minority elite culture so an analysis grounded in class differences would have prevented this kind of overgeneralization as well. He does begin the chapter with a section on Atlantic Africa which tries to integrate developments there with those occurring elsewhere on the globe but his discussion of Latinate European history, which lasts over eighty pages, reads like a Western Civilization story with a greater inward focus than the other chapters had. The chapter returns to the "encounter" theme of the volume's title in the final section on "The New Atlantic Worlds" where Reinhard incorporates the latest research in explaining the relationship between West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. He has detailed sections on the Spanish Atlantic, the Portuguese Atlantic, the Dutch Atlantic, the Jewish Atlantic, the African Atlantic, and the French and British Atlantic and, despite his rather self-contained discussion of European history making western Europeans the driving force of historical developments, he concludes the chapter (and the book) by saying that, since trade with Africa, the slave trade, and plantation commodities were produced by Africans, "then it is clear that Africans should be accorded a new key role in the development of Europe and the Atlantic world, and the 'Black Atlantic' takes on a quite different complexion" (941).

     Each chapter presents a comprehensive overview that is almost encyclopedic in its detail and sweep, yet written in an accessible style that summarizes economic, cultural, religious, political, social, technological, environmental, and martial developments and explains their interrelationship and causal connections over a 400-hundred year period. With the partial exception of Reinhard, the approach of the authors is polycentric rather than Eurocentric, Sinocentric, Afrocentric, or Indocentric. Each author offers fresh insights based on his or her extensive reading of recent historiography within an interpretive framework which follows fairly closely the model of "traditions and encounters" pioneered by Jerry Bentley.1 That approach is fruitful but it also has some limitations which detract from the overall impact of the book.

     Except for Perdue, the contributors are German scholars of world history (one is a Turkish scholar who was resident in Germany and taught at a German university) and their contributions were expertly translated from German by Peter Lewis. The volume presents a great opportunity for English-language readers to see how scholars from other countries approach issues of world history.

     The endnotes are extensive and excellent as is the selected bibliography which has mainly English- and German-language sources but also many in French and Turkish. The notes and bibliography are arranged by chapter and offer extensive resources for teachers and scholars of world history and the images and maps provide appropriate visuals to orient the reader to the regions discussed. That said, the map on page 135 is incomplete—the Black and Mediterranean Seas are labeled but not shown—and the map on page 348 too rigidly delimits spheres of religious belief.

     Despite its length and the above critiques, the book is a remarkable condensation of current scholarship on key regions of the modern world. Teachers can profitably mine the book for information for lectures and student assignments and to read up on the latest scholarship on early-modern global history. The volume can also orient beginning researchers, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates to key issues in global history. It could easily be assigned reading in a semester-length course on global history from ca. 1300 to ca. 1800.

Alex Zukas is Professor of History at National University in San Diego, California. His research areas are early-modern and modern European and world history with specialties in social/labor history and the history of cartography. He is the author of numerous articles on social and labor history and the history of cartography. The most recent have appeared in Labour History Review, Journal of World History, and World History Connected. You may contact him at



1Jerry H. Bentley, "Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History," The American Historical Review 101, 3 (1996): 749770; Jerry H Bentley and Herbert F Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000); and Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, and Kären Wigen, eds., Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007).



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