Published by EH.Net (December 2019)

Tirthankar Roy and Giorgio Riello, editors, Global Economic History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. xiv + 370 pp. £26 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4725-8843-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sumner La Croix, Department of Economics, University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa.

Tirthankar Roy and Giorgio Riello invited twenty-one contributors to explore one specific question: Why does a global perspective on economic history matter? The volume focuses on the last five centuries and takes the Great Divergence as the fundamental phenomenon around which our understanding of global economic history should be organized. The Great Divergence refers to the gap in wages and living standards that emerged, sometime between 1700 and 1800, among the most successful economies in Europe and the most successful economies in the Middle East, China, and India.

The first seven of the book’s nineteen chapters are devoted to reviewing our understanding of the Great Divergence, which has generated an enormous literature in history and economic history since Ken Pomeranz’s 2000 book on this topic. In this volume (chapter 1), Prasannan Parthasarathi and Pomeranz review this debate and criticize researchers who argue that the divergence emerged as early as the late seventeenth century in India and China (Broadberry and Gupta, 2015) and those who argue that the application of science to produce useful productive knowledge was the “critical” development in the early years of the industrial revolution in Europe (e.g., Mokyr, 2016). Jack Goldstone (chapter 2) provides a lucid chapter on the dating of the Great Divergence that features discussions of “efflorescent” growth in leading economies prior to the nineteenth century. (Efflorescent growth occurs when a brief spurt in productivity leads to several decades of high but ultimately unsustainable output growth.)

Patrick O’Brien (chapter 3) and Karel Davids (chapter 4) consider “useful and reliable knowledge and technology as two of the key factors explaining differing trajectories of global economic change” (p. 10). Both express some skepticism that changes in science and philosophy were accumulating in Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that ultimately led to the Great Divergence. Regina Grafe and Maarten Prak’s (chapter 5) interesting chapter considers how changes in organizations and institutions across different levels of society were both a response to and a cause of economic growth. Trevor Burnard (chapter 6) reviews how the development of plantations in the Americas contributed to British and French growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Maxine Berg (chapter 7) considers how changes in global consumption patterns affected the emergence of the Great Divergence.

The next set of chapters addresses a broad set of factors behind the emergence of the world economy after 1500. In their wide-ranging survey of the growth of global trade, Tirthankar Roy and Giorgio Riello (chapter 8) argue that “soft globalization” — trade in luxury goods — was an important precursor to the nineteenth century emergence of “hard globalization” — mass trade in commodities. J.R. McNeill (chapter 9) provides a succinct review of interactions between the global environment and the world economy, including such topics as the Columbian exchange, the environmental consequences of plantation economies, the effect of industrialization on the environment and “a rumination upon the concept of the Anthropocene” (p. 158). Alessandro Stanziani (chapter 10) contrasts the development of free labor forces in Britain and France, and the rise of indentured labor as slavery was abolished. Kaoru Sugihara (chapter 11) discusses how differential resource endowments affected industrialization in different parts of Asia from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and then briefly reviews the process by which industrialization diffused throughout Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. Bernd-Stefan Grewe (chapter 12) discusses the recent use of “commodity histories,” “commodity chain” and “value chain” approaches in economic history and then applies and critiques applications of these approaches to the study of gold in the world economy. And Youssef Cassis (chapter 13) provides a short survey of the rise of global finance from 1850 that focuses on the rise of international financial centers in both developed and developing countries.

The volume closes with six short (13-20 pages each) tightly-argued chapters that provide regional perspectives to global economic change over the past 400 to 500 years: Gareth Austin (Africa), Alejandra Irigoin (South America), Debin Ma (East Asia), Peer Vries (Europe), Bishnupriya Gupta and Tirthankar Roy (South Asia), and J. Thomas Lindblad (Southeast Asia). The chapter by Alejandra Irigoin is particularly worth reading, as it stands as a plea for more research by economic historians on how trade flows in the Pacific Ocean evolved from their origins in the Spanish trade in silver and Chinese goods in the seventeenth century and how they ultimately affected the global economy.

The book benefits from lucid writing by its contributors who cover extensive terrain in a small amount of space as they argue for a more global perspective on virtually every important issue addressed by economic historians. The literature on the New History of Capitalism appears in several chapters, with some authors dangerously close to ignoring its many flaws in their acknowledgement of its insights (Hilt, 2017; Olmstead and Rhode, 2018). The volume is relatively short, just 359 pages, given its ambitions to cover so many topics and to provide regional overviews spanning several centuries. The brevity may be due to the authors’ desire for the book to serve as a textbook for global economic history courses (as stated on the back cover), but the brevity comes at the cost of giving too little attention to European developments. For example, the authors refer repeatedly to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolution but tell the reader almost nothing about it. As a textbook, it cannot stand alone, but as a stimulating summary of some of the new contributions to global economic history, it is well worth reading.


Broadberry, Stephen, and Bishnupriya Gupta. “The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices, and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500-1800,” Economic History Review 59 (2006), 2-31.

Broadberry, Stephen, Hanhui Guan, and David Daokui Li. “China, Europe, and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980–1850,” Journal of Economic History 78 (2018), 955-1000.

Hilt, Eric. “Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the ‘New History of Capitalism,’” Journal of Economic History 77 (2017), 511-536.

Mokyr, Joel. A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Olmstead, Alan, and Paul Rhode, “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism,” Explorations in Economic History 67 (2018), 1-17.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Sumner La Croix, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa, is the author of Hawai‘i: Eight Hundred Years of Political and Economic Change, University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Copyright (c) 2019 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2019). All EH.Net reviews are archived at