Two Views of Global Lisbon

In October of 2016, I was exploring the Navy Museum in Lisbon. For a country with such a rich maritime history, I was somewhat disappointed with the museum itself. But as I was wandering through the bookstore on my way out, I came across this incredible book by edited by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and K.J.P. Lowe: The Global City: On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon. Something about the cover of the book grabbed me. I sat down in a corner of the bookstore and began to pour over the rich paintings in the book. These paintings presented an entirely new image of Lisbon in the sixteenth century that ended up completely changing how I teach European maritime expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Despite knowing better, I often fall into the trap of thinking of Europe’s history as white history until quite recently. It’s not that I ignore the diversity of Europe, but I’m not doing things that challenge my own, and often my students’, mental image of what pre-modern Europe looked like. But recent scholarship about the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe has made clear Europe was never white. For many white nationalists and white supremacists, this historically inaccurate image of Europe as white is used to justify their racist beliefs about Europe and the West today. What recent articles have made clear is that there has always been ethnic diversity in Europe, but it wasn’t understood in the same way we think about race or ethnicity today. If we don’t challenge this assumption of a white Europe, we allow our students to continue to imagine historical Europe as an exclusively white region. As I sat there looking at these sixteenth century images of Lisbon, I was reminded of this other scholarship about diversity in Europe I was already familiar with and realized that the image I was presenting of sixteenth century Europe, at this moment of rapidly increasing global interaction, did nothing to challenge the assumption of Europe as white. I also realized that the paintings in my hand were the perfect primary sources around which to construct a new lesson for students.

Discovering the Encounter

I grew up learning about fifteenth through seventeenth century European history as the Age of Discovery, and this problematic name continues to be pervasive in much world history teaching. Discovery suggests that Europeans were previously cut off from other parts of Afroeurasia. Discovery also implies that Europeans were the first to reach the Americas (or the equally problematic “New World”) or that somehow the Portuguese were “exploring” the Indian Ocean. I’m sure the millions of people already living in the Americas would have found it amusing that they had just been “discovered” because Christopher Columbus had arrived, or that the already well established navigational understanding of the Indian Ocean was now being “explored” because Vasco da Gama had arrived. Just to start, we need to stop talking about discovery and exploration and start talking about expansion and encounter. Europeans in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries were engaged in an imperial project of maritime expansion. In the process of expansion, they encountered other peoples from around the world. These encounters profoundly shaped the lives of all people involved. If we begin by discarding the benign language of discovery and expansion and replacing it with the more historically accurate language of expansion and encounter (and colonization in the case of the Americas), we can start to undo some of the Eurocentric interpretations of who Europeans were and what they were doing in this period.

It’s relatively easy to have students understand how European maritime expansion brought violence and armed trade into the Indian Ocean (Europeans themselves wrote extensively about the violence they used) or how spices were now arriving in European ports in greater quantities, but how did European maritime expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries affect the average person in European cities? With the framework of encounter in mind, I want to focus on two images of Lisbon that show how Portuguese maritime expansion transformed people’s daily lives in Lisbon and that also challenge our mental image of what Europeans looked like.

The Chafariz d’el Rei

The first painting is from an unknown Dutch artist and was produced in the 1570s. The Chafariz d’el-Rei in the Alfama District shows the King’s Fountain – the city’s oldest and main fountain that was located right along the Tagus River. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate Lowe explain that the people in the painting were “ordinary people in an ordinary part of Lisbon.”1 As one looks carefully at the painting, it quickly becomes clear that the ordinary people of Lisbon – Lisboetas – were a surprisingly diverse lot. About half the people in the painting look to be of African descent. While many of these people of African descent were probably enslaved, we also know from other sources that there were also some who were freedmen and freeborn. We can also see many of the black Lisboetas interacting with white Lisboetas. Near the front of the fountain enclosure, we see a black Lisboeta man embracing a white Lisboeta woman. In the foreground of the painting, we can also see a black knight of the Order of Santiago. He is wearing black cape with a red cross, as well as white pants, kid boots, a white collar, and a white feather in his cap. The luxurious clothing suggests this black Lisboeta was economically successful as well. The painting shows the diverse community of Lisbon that came together at the fountain on a daily basis. By the 1580s, about 20% of Lisboetas were of African heritage, and they reflected a wide range of social standings. There were also a significant number of other peoples that lived in Lisbon during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As students examine the range of people in this painting, they can begin to understand that Portugal’s expansion along the Atlantic coast of African fundamentally transformed the population of the city.

Rua Nova does Mercadores

The second painting is from an unknown Flemish artist and was produced sometime between 1570 and 1621. It shows the busy commercial street the Rua Nova dos Mercadores. (At some later point, the painting was cut in half, which is why there is a line down the middle of the painting.) The Rua Nova no longer exists, but it was one of the busiest commercial streets in Lisbon. From contemporary maps of Lisbon, we know that the street was in the heart of sixteenth century Lisbon, as well as being right near the Tagus River. From other sources, we also know that the Rua Nova was one of the most well known commercial streets in Lisbon.

Looking closely at the people in the painting, we again quickly notice how diverse they are. There are a wide range of skin tones, and people in a wide range of dress. While some of the clothing styles are difficult to recognize, others are easy to make out. For example, in the lower right corner of the painting is an African woman wearing bright, patterned clothing carrying a basket on her head. Most likely she is an enslaved African woman. The range of people in this painting “and the routine activities depicted show numerous points at which black and white interacted.”2 There are other people wearing patterned cotton textiles, which would have been arriving from India.

Besides the increasingly diverse population, another way we can recognize how Portuguese expansion was transforming the daily lives of Lisboetas is through some of the animals in the painting. On the bottom left of the painting are two boys playing with a monkey. Monkeys are not indigenous to Portugal, and they most likely arrived in Lisbon from Africa. Even more surprising is the dog in bottom center of the painting with a bird in its mouth. A close examination of the bird reveals it to be a turkey. Turkeys were from the Americas, and had only just recently begun to show up in Europe. A chapter in book discusses how the inclusion of the Turkey in the painting most likely was a deliberate choice meant to highlight the new global connections and the way they were transforming Lisbon.

Conclusion

The details in these two paintings that I have discussed are just some of the ways in which students can easily see how European maritime expansion and colonization were profoundly affecting the lives of Europeans living in the larger cities. By choosing to look at these paintings with our students, we can begin to challenge the notion that European expansion was simply something that happened to peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Instead, students can see how this expansion fundamentally transformed Europe as well and contributed to a far more ethnically diverse Europe than we might imagine.


  1. Gschwend, Annemarie Jordan and K.J.P. Lowe. The Global City: On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2015, 28.  
  2. Gschwend and Lowe, 68.  

Don’t Call It a Comeback: Afroeurasian Revivals in the Fifteenth Century

Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years
I’m rocking my peers
Puttin’ suckers in fear
Makin’ the tears rain down like a monsoon
Listen to the bass go boom
Explosions, overpowerin’
Over the competition I’m towerin’
Wrecking shop when I drop these lyrics
That’ll make you call the cops
Don’t you dare stare, you better move
Don’t ever compare
Me to the rest that’ll all get sliced and diced
Competition’s payin’ the price

– LL Cool J “Mamma Said Knock You Out”

I thought I was just being witty with the title, and then I realized that the first verse of LL Cool J’s classic was the perfect set up for thinking about Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century with his mention of the monsoon. It may be a stretch, but we need to find ways to make this world history stuff interesting for fifteen year olds (or forty something teachers thinking they’re still hip).

Many years ago I got frustrated with AP World History teachers on the old listserv complaining about the Renaissance not being included in the AP World History curriculum. In response I developed a lesson based on Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors painting which explored the non-European elements in the painting (I’ll be talking about this painting more in the next post.) I then expanded on this lesson in an earlier post on Globalizing the Renaissance. I’ve realized that while this topic is important, it helps to understand the context in which I usually teach it. Given that many teachers will begin the new AP World History courses around 1400, it seems like talking about the my framing of the fifteenth century is a good starting post for thinking about how we decolonize world history.

I teach in 70 minute blocks that meet two or three times per week. I cover the fifteenth century over three days. The students have already spent time reviewing what they’ve learned about Afroeurasia in their previous world history course, being introduced to the concept of the thirteenth century world system, the Mongols, the Black Death, and the onset of the Little Ice Age. In short they understand the thirteenth century as a sort of high point of Afroeurasian integration and the fourteenth century as one of disruption to many existing patterns of exchange. We also keep referring back to this updated map of the thirteenth century world system that appears in Strayer’s Way of the World.

For the first two days of our discussion we rely heavily on Carter and Warren’s Forging the Modern World and Marks’ The Origins of the Modern World (the two main books in my class) as well as excerpt about Portuguese Prince Henry’s motives from Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. We talk about the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the voyages of Zheng He, the role and function of the Indian Ocean, the Delhi Sultanate, Timur’s Empire, the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, West Africa, East Africa, slavery in Afroeurasia, and Europe’s revival. I know it seems like a lot, but these two books treat these topics concisely and do a great job of placing all these issues in the framework of a revival of states and trade in Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century. I also make use of this map from Philippe Beaujard’s “The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems before the Sixteenth Century”.
As we work our way through these different regions of Afroeurasia, students keep comparing the two world system maps to see what is changing and what is staying the same.

By the end of the two days, students hopefully have come to understand how many different parts of Afroeurasia were rebounding politically and economically after the multiple disruptions of the fourteenth century. Students also are able to see how Portugal’s maritime expansion into the Atlantic Ocean was part of a larger European desire to gain access to the many products produced and grown in other parts of Afroeurasia. Instead of framing Europe’s fifteenth century revival and Portugal’s project of maritime expansion as something new or unique (as too often happens in history courses that take 1450 or 1500 as a starting point), the narrative is flipped into one in which Afroeurasia revolves around the Indian Ocean and Europeans are on the periphery.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the Renaissance and where it fits in the fifteenth century.

Decolonizing Modern World History

For the last couple years, I have been struggling to figure out what I want to do with this blog. When I began posting more regularly during my sabbatical in 2015-2016, I imagined it to be a place to reflect on my ideas about world history pedagogy. For the most part, that is what the posts have been about, but I’ve struggled with maintaining momentum. I find I get distracted by random projects and being active in other online fora for discussing history education.

This past spring and summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about the recent update about the changes to the AP World History curriculum. As a former co-chair of the committee that revised the original world history curriculum and wrote the key concepts back in 2009-2010, I feel more than a little invested in keeping the longue durée approach to world history. I won’t bother to go over all the reasons for keeping the longer version of world history. You can find all the relevant articles at Save AP World and World History Teachers Blog, as well as some excellent discussion on episodes 36, 37, and 39 of On Top of the World: A History Podcast.

At the same time, I’m also less outraged than most teachers given my unique teaching situation. At Friends Seminary, we have been teaching a two year world history sequence for over thirty years. My students will continue to learn world history in a way that allows them to see the long term picture. For more than fifteen years, I have been teaching the second year of that two-year world history sequence. We split the courses at the year 1300, so I’ve long thought about how to construct a meaningful world history course covering the last 700 years. One of the main complaints about the new version of AP World History is that the new course will be “Eurocentric.” While there is some truth to the claim, I actually think most of what people have said regarding this point is problematic. Simply teaching the history of the world since 1200 is not inherently Eurocentric. Many world history teachers seem to think that Eurocentrism is simply teaching about Europe. It’s not. One of the most popular posts on the blog has been Eurocentrism and the Myth of East Asian Isolation. I argued that Eurocentrism is about failing to “view historical events and processes (e.g., industrialization, development of representative governments, secularism) in Europe as just one _regional_ pattern of historical development…[and assuming] that the European pattern is somehow a universal standard.”

I thought about this issue a lot during my three weeks this summer volunteering at Taktse International School in Gangtok, Sikkim in India. I went there to serve as a resource person for the history teachers, but I ended up teaching the high school history classes for three weeks. All of sudden I found myself having to teach the Cambridge IGCSE History 0470. Although the course is called “Modern World History,” it didn’t look like any modern world history course I’ve taught over the last fifteen years. I spent those three weeks primarily teaching about the Cold War. When I first looked at the Ben Walsh textbook that is used for this course, I was a little shocked. The Cold War is viewed entirely from an American and Soviet perspective. The section on the Korean War didn’t even talk about what the war looked like from the perspective of the Korean people. I won’t even begin to talk about the complete lack of anything on Third Worldism. (If you want to know more about Third Worldism, check out Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. Cambridge’s Modern World History course is the quintessential Eurocentric world history course, and there was no way I could spend three weeks teaching that way. Instead of sticking to the resources in the textbook, I augmented the classes with primary sources and charts that helped the students see the events of the Cold War from the perspective of peoples in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. At the end of the three weeks, I talked with the students about their time with me teaching world history. All of them expressed how grateful they were for my approach to the material.

This experience at Taktse has been on my mind as I continue to think about the changes to the AP World History curriculum, world history in general, and the future of this blog. In the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have lots of great conversations about “Decolonizing the syllabus” and “Decolonizing world history.” I now know where I want to go with the blog. More than ever, I think world history teachers need new resources to make sure they don’t treat the new version of AP World History as a Eurocentric world history course and we all need to be talking about how we decolonize world history more and more. My plan is to post once or twice a month, and each post will explore a well known topic in modern world history from a global perspective. Tomorrow I’ll be posting the first of three posts about Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century. These posts will build off ideas I previously explored in my post on Globalizing the Renaissance

The image at the beginning of this post is from Yvette DeChavez’s site. You can purchase posters or shirts with the image – support her!

P.S. I want to make it clear that I do not support the CollegeBoard’s decision to abbreviate the AP World History. A good world history course should adopt the longue durée approach. I simply want to focus on sharing my own experiences of teaching modern world from a global perspective.

Healing the Sick Man of Europe

If the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was going through a period of transformation, rather than beginning a 400 year decline, it would seem that the Empire, which collapsed in 1922, had to be declining in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While it’s true that the Empire lost substantial territory, too much focus on the territorial loss and the collapse of the empire can blind us to the important positive developments taking place in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Supposedly Sick Man of Europe


If we look at the map of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, talking about decline seems logical. We can easily see that the Ottomans lost control of more than half their territory. On the eve of the First World War I, the Ottoman Empire had contracted to the area around Istanbul, Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. At some point during the middle of the nineteenth century, European diplomats, believing that the Ottoman Empire was near its end, began calling the Ottoman Empire the “Sick Man of Europe.”

In thinking about this epithet, there are two important points. The first is that European diplomats using this phrase saw the Ottoman Empire as part of Europe. From our present day perspective, we tend to think about the Ottoman Empire as being in the Middle East. World history courses treat the Ottomans as an Islamic or Middle Eastern empire. In courses about the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire tends to be the most important state. While the Ottomans were undisputedly a Middle Eastern state, since the fifteenth century, the Ottomans were also a European state. Even if European diplomats believed that the Ottoman Empire was dying, they also believed it was a European state that was dying.

The second point to consider is how this popular epithet influences our understanding of the history of the Ottoman Empire in its final two centuries. It’s easy for students to hear this epithet and become focused on why the Ottoman Empire collapsed and what came after it. As a teacher, I know that I am often asking my students to explain why particular empires collapse. The issue with this teleological focus is that it can blind us to the significance of Ottoman reform and modernization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu argues:

the attempt to frame late Ottoman history in a narrative of imperial collapse to the relentless drumbeat of the march of progress — usually associated with Westernization, nationalism, and secularization — prevents a clear understanding of the developments in question.

In the rest of this post, I want to shift the focus away from Ottoman decline and toward the ways in which the Ottoman state evolved and adapted. These transformations allowed it not only to survive for so long, but also to assert greater control over the territory that it continued to rule over.

The Eighteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

Having acknowledged that the Ottoman Empire contracted significantly during the nineteenth century, the question becomes what was still dynamic about the Empire. If we look at the state itself, we quickly see that while the Ottomans ruled over far fewer people, the state’s ability to rule over these people had increased substantially. In her Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, Karen Barkey argues about the important changes of the eighteenth century:

The seeds of transition from empire to a different political formation were sown in the eighteenth century. The central and local structures of the empire began to take a different shape, connecting nodes and further decreasing peripheral segmentation.

After centuries of adaptive and flexible policies that had maintained the Ottoman Empire as a relatively decentralized empire, the rulers of the state began the process of transforming the Empire into a more centralized nation-state. Barkey focuses on a few key eighteenth century developments in the Ottoman Empire: the emergence of new movements of opposition to the state that began framing “a new state-society compact,” the commercialization of the Ottoman economy, and “the widespread growth of tax farming as a significant form of revenue collection.” These transformations, according to Barkey, highlight the ways in which the Ottoman Empire continued to evolve and adapt. She also emphasizes that these adaptations should be seen as “a sign of flexibility and pragmatism, not a sign of decline.” It’s also worth noting that the methods of reform adopted by the Ottomans sometimes reflected and sometimes diverged from European methods of political and economic reform. These reflections and divergences remind us that the European model of reform was not the only model; there were multiple ways that states modernized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Nineteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

The Ottomans’ transformation of the state continued into the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1839, Ottoman rulers implemented the Tanzimat, the a series of reforms that reshaped the nature of the Ottoman state. The Tanzimat included laws guaranteeing property rights, prohibiting bribery, replacing tax farming with a more consistent system of taxation, abolishing differential treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims and different ethnic groups, encouraging a more secular vision of the Empire, and establishing equitable universal conscription of males into the military. The Constitution of 1876 is often seen as the culmination of these reforms, since it formalized and codified nearly fourty years of legal changes. These changes not only highlight the ways in which the Ottomans were adapting elements of European states, but also indicate the increasing strength and centralization of the Ottoman state. Hanioğlu argues that the three individuals (Mustafa Reşid Pasha, Mehmed Emin Âlî Pasha, and Keçecizâde Mehmed Fu’ad Pasha.) responsible for these reforms also mark a shifting balance of power within imperial rule. Instead of competition between different factions within the state, “the bureaucratic cadres of the Sublime Porte [the name for the entrance gate to buildings housing the Ottoman bureaucracy ] oversaw the entire administration of the state, ruling the empire until 1871 with only trivial interference from the imperial palace or the ulema.” The Tanzimat also marked a reassertion of Istanbul’s power over the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. According to Hanioğlu, the leaders of the Tanzimat implemented “new regulations that would make local administration uniform throughout the empire.” After fourty years of the Tanzimat, there was a major shift in the governance of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Sultan Abdul Hamid II seized control of the government and suspended the two-year old Constitution. While Abdul Hamid is known for suspending the Constitution of 1876 and promoting a more Islamic vision of the Empire, he also continued the centralization of the state and expanded the central government’s influence over the provinces. One way in which he combined these two trends is in his call to build the Hijaz railway. Ostensibly promoted as a way to link the major cities of the Empire to Mecca to facilitate the hajj, it was also a way to more easily move soldiers and officials across the Arab provinces. Abdul Hamid also reorganized and expanded the Ottoman bureaucracy in a way that made it increasingly dependent on him personally. Hanioğlu argues:

Abdülhamid II in fact envisioned efficient administration of the empire by a modern bureaucracy headed by a cadre of technocrats. Accordingly, bureaucratic reform picked up perceptible speed during his reign. At the sultan’s behest, a host of new bureaucratic schools were established, including the Royal Academy of Administration, which became a college.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued its long-standing practice of evolving and adapting its systems and practices for ruling over its vast territory. Whereas the early history of the Empire was characterized more by flexibility and localized practices, the last two centuries of the Empire increasingly became characterized by centralization and standardization.

The Effects of Centralization

This increased centralization, not surprisingly, was often resisted by peoples around the Empire. Hanioğlu shows how a wide range of peoples pushed back against the Ottoman imperial officials. Whether it was Christians in the Balkans, bedouins among the Arab nomadic populations, or Arabs in Mount Lebanon, there was an empire wide trend of resistance by formerly loosely-ruled peoples to the new, more invasive practices of the Ottoman government. In some regions of the empire, this resistance was successful. During the late nineteenth century, Christians in the Balkans successfully led nationalist independence movements in Bulgaria and Serbia.

At the same time, the Ottomans also managed to reassert control over other parts of the Empire. In 1870, the Ottomans sent forces to Yemen and reestablished nominal control over much of the country. Also during the 1870s, the Ottomans reestablished control over Transjordan. They set up Salt as a regional capital, stationed soldiers in the region, and asserted control over the formerly independent Bedouin tribes. The Ottomans even began to encourage migration of Ciracassians and Palestinians to the region and linked Transjordan to the rest of the Arab provinces through the Hijaz railway.

What happened in Transjordan and Yemen also happened across much of Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Even as the Ottomans lost control of territory in the Balkans and North Africa, their ability to govern their remaining provinces increased.

The Ottomans as an Imperial Power

Another way to think about the increased power of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century is to consider its ability to project its influence beyond its borders. In an interview on the Ottoman History Podcast, Mostafa Minawi discuss “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa.” Chris Gratien, who interviewed Minawi, expands on his ideas in an article of the same name. As Europeans powers sought to expand their power into Africa, they also viewed the Ottomans as needing to be included in discussions at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. According to Gratien, the Ottomans participated in these meetings by:

closely following the legal terms of the conference in order to claim parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as the “hinterland” of their remaining North Africa provinces. Likewise, they tried to hold their European competitors in Africa, such as France and Britain, to these terms in order to stop the contraction of their empire. In this way, they used these new agreements to assert their sovereign position on the world stage.

Gratien also explains how:

Ottoman activities in Africa went beyond formal claims. They sought to establish telegraph lines and other political and cultural connections with the local Sanusi order in order to lay claim to a tangible presence on the ground. Here, Minawi notes the potential dangers of labeling the Ottomans as another colonial power, because their strategies differed markedly from those of some of their European contemporaries. Rather than asserting themselves as the rightful and hegemonic rules of a borderlands region, they represented themselves to their local interlocutors as alternative allies to the otherwise impeding arrival of European colonial rule.

Based on both their participation at the Berlin Conference and actions they took on their own, the characterization of the Ottomans as the “sick man” obscures our ability to see the ways in which the Empire was still a surprisingly strong state able to project its power into Africa right up until the end of the nineteenth century.

Conclusion

Over the course of this post and the previous post on the Ottomans, I have suggested that the tendency to view the Ottoman Empire after the death of Süleyman in 1566 as a long history of decline is problematic. Not only did the Empire last for nearly 450 years more, but in many ways the political power of the Empire was surprisingly quite strong. The Ottoman government developed multiple strategies over the years to rule over a large amount of territory. At times these strategies mirrored ones adopted by Europeans, but at other times the Ottomans adopted unique strategies. So often the challenge in world history is to escape the Eurocentric assumptions that shape our narratives. If we can use a few detours along the less traveled narrative roads of world history, hopefully our students will be better able to figure out how to navigate the world of world history on their own rather than continuing to rely on outdated Eurocentric maps.


Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on March 18, 2016.

A Global Historical Take on American Debates about Free Trade

In teaching world history, one of the main global economic themes we frequently discuss has been trade connections between different regions of the world. And if we focus on the period from 1750 to present, we see a recurring debate between those individuals, movements, and states that have advocated for economic protectionism and those that support free trade. For those teachers who want to connect current events to world history, the debate about American trade policies in the current presidential primaries offers some opportunities for some rich discussion. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Jared Bernstein argues that American politicians after decades of support for free trade and free-trade agreements are now beginning to reject them:

For decades, free-trade agreements, called F.T.A.s, have been one of the most solid planks in the platform of economic elites and establishment politicians. True, the occasional political candidate like Ross Perot argued against one deal or another and even President Obama ran on “renegotiating” the North American Free Trade Agreement, but once elected, presidents of both parties sought and ratified trade deals with a wide variety of countries. 
 Those days may well be over. What changed

Bernstein also believes this shift is a positive one, at least for American workers. I’m not going to engage Bernstein’s arguments about the merits of this shift. Instead I want to provide some historical context for this shift and think about how we might approach the issue in the classroom.

In looking at Bernstein’s initial claim about the recent popularity of free trade among economic elites, it depends on which regions of the world we look at. There’s no doubt that after World War II, First world states generally agreed on the virtues on free trade and economic liberalization. In 1944, fourty-four states agreed to what has become known as the Bretton Woods System. This system was a series of economic agreements designed to encourage trade, loosely regulate the global economy, and prevent the global economy from slipping back into a depression after the end of the War. The United States and its Western European allies during the Second World War supported a vision for the global economy based on free trade.

At the same time, not all economic elites supported this vision of free trade. The Soviet Union, which attended the Bretton Woods discussions but did not ratify the agreements, rejected the emphasis on free trade. In the following two decades, as dozens of former colonies gained their independence, many of them joined the Non-Aligned Movement and embraced a “third world vision” for themselves. In his The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad argues that many of the states in the Third World advocated for cartels to regulate the prices for raw materials to protect themselves against the free trade policies of the First World capitalist states. Prashad claims that “the Third World states worked to create cartels of primary commodities, so that the producer nations could band together to get good prices for their products.” Going back to Bernstein’s claims about “elites” supporting free trade, it might be useful to help students understand that it was primarily elites in First World countries that were ardent advocates of free trade.

The support for free trade definitely began to increase globally in the 1970s and the 1980s. Since then, a significant number of individuals in First World states, including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have advocated for neoliberal economic policies. Support for neoliberalism spread globally during the 1990s and early 2000s. Manfred Steger and Ravi Roy have written a good short overview of neoliberalism and its spread. Bernstein’s argument about elites supporting free trade makes more sense only if we consider the last two decades. A good issue to consider in discussing this increasing popularity of free trade is why so many state leaders around the world adopted free trade after initially opposing it. Steger and Roy’s book is a good resource for this discussion.

If we want to provide even more historical context for the United States and other countries supporting or questioning free trade, there are a number of other ways we can frame the issue for our students. Marc-William Palen has just published The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846–1896. He examines how in the century before the United States became an advocate for free trade, many of its politicians were ardent supporters of economic protectionism. Palen has also published a “short” version of his argument in a recent article on the Imperial & Global Forum. Palen argues that the United States’ support of protectionism was partially a response to Britain’s support for free trade at the time and related to the beginning of American imperial expansion. Palen himself is aware of the present day implications of his arguments:

The long-term effect of this political and ideological struggle over empire and economic globalization remains very much with us now. For example, much like in the late 19th century, free trade initiatives like the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership are increasingly coming under conspiratorial fire and are associated with US economic imperialism.

Palen’s arguments help us think about how we can push students to look at what is seemingly a “domestic” issue in the presidential primaries and consider how calls for protectionism are connected to shifting priorities in American foreign policy and the United States’ standing in the global economy.

We can push this discussion with our students even further back in time and broaden our geographic scope. In an earlier post, I considered the Eurocentric tendency to depict East Asia as isolationist in the Early Modern period. In the conclusion to that post, I speculated about how our historical interpretations of China and Japan’s trade policies might relate to the debate about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It might be worth reminding our students that shifting attitudes in the United States about free trade don’t have to be seen in dramatic terms rejecting or supporting fundamental economic ideas. Bernstein’s claims about recent political debates marking “the end of the era of Free Trade Agreements” may encourage students to see this event as major shift or to make judgments about this shift. It might be helpful for students instead to think about the discussion of protectionism as just another historical transformation.


Originally published at paperlesshistory.com on March 14, 2016.