The Making of the Modern World

Course lead: Prof Gurminder K Bhambra


Mural of Toussaint Louverture on a Paris street corner
Toussaint Louverture by Jeanne Menjoulet licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Most accounts of the modern world, or ‘modernity’, define it in relation to the processes of industrialization and democratization that were seen to occur in Western Europe in the long nineteenth century. These processes, having been initiated in Europe, were then believed to have spread around the rest of the world. Such narratives are deficient in at least two ways. First, they fail to address the broader contexts of dispossession, colonization, enslavement, and appropriation that were the conditions of the ‘European’ revolutions. Second, they rarely acknowledge other historical events and processes as equally significant in the ‘making of the modern world’. In this module, we look at the ways in which colonial processes have structured both the making of the modern world and the accounts of the modern world.


1. The Haitian Revolution

Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Sussex

The French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence tend to be seen as the revolutions that brought into being the modern world. While both events opened up the political process to increasing proportions of their populations and established general or universal understandings of citizenship, these have come to be regarded as problematic. For example, citizenship was only available to white males over a particular age who held property. Women were denied the vote, as were black people and white men without property. One of the few constitutions of the time that did not make colour a bar to political participation was that of the Haitian Revolution. In this session, we consider the significance of the Haitian Revolution and discuss its contribution to the making of the modern world.

2. Colonial Dispossession and Extraction

Dr Su-ming Khoo, National University of Ireland, Galway

The historical development of the modern, capitalist world economy systematically bound colonizers and colonized into unequal relationships of extraction, colonization and dispossession over the past 500 years and more. Material realities are central to understanding what we mean by ‘colonization’ - of materials, life and labour. Colonialism occupied land and turned people and nature into human and natural resources for a singular aim – the accumulation of capital. Historical processes of extraction, dispossession, replacement and extinction drove colonization and ecological imperialism as structural imperatives of modern capitalism. Land-grabbing, wars and slavery connect with the extensive spread of commercial monocultures as economic structures displacing and threatening much of the world’s human biological and cultural life with extinction. Law and conservation have colluded in these colonizing processes – ‘emptying’ lands and displacing or dispossessing indigenous nature and people, in order that material resources can continue to be extracted, monetized and mobilized for the accumulation of capital.

3. Enclosures and The Making of the Modern World

Prof Imogen Tyler, University of Lancaster

It has long been argued that the enclosure of land in England facilitated the agricultural and industrial revolutions that transformed Britain into a modern capitalist state. Yet the connections between land enclosures within England and the English-led colonial enclosures that were taking place at the same time have been less explored. This session examines connections between the enclosure of land and people within England and within the colonial world (from the 16th century). In contrast to nation-bound understandings of English capitalist modernity, which focus on land enclosures, the Industrial revolution, and the formation of a new class society within England, this session is concerned with English colonial enclosures on a global scale, and with understanding Britain as an Imperial State, whose multiracial class society was forged through Empire.

4. Gendering Modernity: Black Feminist Perspectives

Dr Lisa Palmer, Stephen Lawrence Research Centre

In the making of modernity, questions of gender and sexuality constitute the very structures of power by which modernity is produced, organised and understood. Equally, it is not possible to talk about the gendering of modernity without also showing how these structures of power are inherently racialised. To illustrate these points, this session will examine the social category of ‘womanhood’ through Sojourner Truth's speech, ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ in order to trace the figure of the enslaved African woman and her labour within the making of the modern world. Hortense Spillers’ concept of the ‘ungendering’ of African women under conditions of enslavement will be engaged along with Oyèrónkè Oyěwúmi’s arguments on the imposition of colonial western gender categories in Yorubaland. The aim here is to provide some illustrations of the ways gender and racialisation are explicitly bound to colonial world making in ways that continue to have an imprint onto the contemporary lives of Black women.

5. Gendering Modernity: Postcolonial and Decolonial Perspectives

Prof Anne Phillips, London School of Economics

From (at least) the eighteenth century onwards, European philosophers and historians have represented the status of women as a crucial marker of a society’s level of civilisation, and have seen modernity as the era when women came to be accepted as individuals in their own right. In this framing of distinctions between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, it became one of the justifications for colonialism that it supposedly rescued women from precolonial abuses. The contrast is however highly contentious, and particularly so when ‘modernity’ so often maintained and intensified gender difference. Ideas about the superior treatment of women in modern societies continue to shape political discourse today.

6. Enslavement and the Black Atlantic

Forthcoming ...

7. Indian Indenture in the British Empire

Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Between 1834 and 1920, two million men, women, and children were taken from India, by the British, to labour on sugar colonies across the empire under temporary contracts called indentures. The majority of these workers never returned to India and the system of indenture, under which they were bound, has all but been erased from British colonial history. In this lecture, I reflect on how and why this silencing took place. I additionally refer to acts and forms of resistance utilised by indentured labourers and share ideas about the important contemporary contributions of the global Jahaji Bhai – the international indentured labour diaspora – who are currently working towards greater public knowledge of the system of indenture and its legacies.

8. Decolonisation

Dr Meera Sabaratnam, SOAS University of London

In the modern world, the main type of formal political organisation has gone from being ‘empires’ to ‘nation-states’. But how did this happen, what was left behind and what does it mean? More importantly, why do people still talk about decolonisation today? This session maps out how and where decolonisation unfolded with a particular emphasis on the twentieth century. It looks at the different ideas of liberation that underpinned it, how people organised themselves, how this was met by imperial powers and what the results were in different contexts. The session also examines why struggles for ‘decolonisation’ are ongoing and spreading to the former centres of empire. It concludes by thinking about the dynamics of decolonisation as a significant force shaping the modern world.