World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). 173 pp, $19.95.

     For both its strengths and weaknesses, Robert B. Marks' book, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative, presents a very useful tool for world history courses, undergraduate and graduate, as well as offering new concepts for scholars still locked in rigid territorial or national studies. Marks traces the development of international trade and its impact from 1400 until after 1850 by stressing the universal nature of the industrial revolutions, trade networks, and empire building; and he connects each element with the ever-growing gap between nations involved in world trade. Like many texts written in the last three years, Marks begins and ends with the events of 2001. The composition in this concise book is clear and topics are interestingly presented, while the source references make it useful for classroom research projects. Although appreciating the complex nature of what Marks attempts here, this reviewer had a suspicion, which grew throughout the book, that this is an Asia-centric presentation of a heretofore Euro-centric topic: Africa and the Americas still do not play active roles in creating the "modern world." 1
     Marks' introduction instructs the reader in the elements of a non-Eurocentric study and states clearly the perspective necessary to achieve a "polycentric" world view. This section of the book is particularly valuable for the manner that major points are outlined for a study in world trade. He takes this topic even further, however, when he defines the "biological ancien regime" and hints at the changes to come when "massive biological exchange would radically alter" trade relationships by 1600 (38-39). The processes of 19th century industrialization, then, created the transition from a world where life depended upon renewable (solar) sources of energy to a world where people and their trade priorities created radically altered environments. In these altered environments, mass production of raw materials depended upon non-renewable energy sources and, therefore, resulted in the destruction of environments. 2
     Perhaps because of his own work on the environmental nature of trade between China, India and Europe, Marks documents these exchanges most completely and convincingly. After providing a superb summary of China's industrial background, Marks recounts the transitions of Indian Ocean trade after the entry of the Portuguese in the late 15th century. Portuguese merchants had no possessions of value to trade to Asians when they entered the trade. However, they resolved the barriers this situation created through the use of force—initiating a pattern of action that continued to define European traders long afterward. And while this point is not new in the scholarship, Marks sets it in a larger global context of internal European economic competition as well as ecological destruction in regions of production along trade routes. 3
     Weaknesses within The Origins of the Modern World are not irreparable or fatal, but they detract from the book's usefulness. As mentioned above, the book tends to downplay the roles African and American peoples played in creating the modern world. Indeed, the book could be strengthened considerably by presenting more information about the continuances and changes of intercontinental and international trade among African nations during this entire time period. Even more problematic, however, is the assumption presented here that the peoples of the Americas before the Columbian Exchanges engaged in little manufacturing and/or international trade. According to Marks, the Americas after European conquest became passive generators of raw materials that supplied Asian and European manufacturing growth without fully participating in the demise of the "biological ancien regime" and without developing "modern" characteristics. This omission is not explained, and the bibliography reveals a lack of sources for such information. 4
     In short, The Origins of the Modern World is a helpful account of the principles and organization of trade in world history, written from a global perspective. The outline Marks gives his readers is extremely valuable and may be used easily to complete the story he starts with this little book. Although he fails to incorporate Americans and sub-Saharan Africans into his narrative, this instructor is confident that other scholars will do so soon. 5
Mary Watrous-Schlesinger
Washington State University

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use