World 1871 CE

A truly world-spanning civilization is emerging, based in Europe and America. It is characterized by unceasing scientific, technological and social advance.

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World history in 1871 - the West triumphant


This period in world history witnesses the continuing emergence of a truly world-spanning civilization. It is a process driven by the rise of modern, industrial economies in the West, with the resulting intensification of Western influence around the world. The British Empire is at the forefront of this development.

Industrialization has not only has not only been spreading; it has also been progressing at an ever-increasing rate. Technological advances of the period include telegraphy, sewing machines, reinforced steel, machine guns and typewriters.

Global trade has continued to expand. The advent of steamships is making long-distance transport speedier and less expensive. The construction of the Suez Canal has helped link European nations with their growing interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and strengthened their military capabilities of those regions. North America has seen the European-offshoot societies of the USA and Canada reach the Pacific, enabling them (mainly the USA) to flex their commercial and political muscles in that ocean.

Growing industrialization has given Western nations a sharper appetite for overseas commodities, as well stimulating an aggressive drive for overseas markets. No part of the world is immune from it.

Western adventurism, whether in its commercial, missionary, military or political dimensions (or a combination of all four). Few local societies have an effective answer to this entirely new kind of challenge. They suffer the consequences in disease, social dislocation, political destabilization and growing economic and political dependence on the West.

It is facile to paint too gloomy a picture of these developments. Expanding trade and wealth brings benefits to many local groups, enabling them to seize economic opportunities well beyond the gift of traditional agricultural societies. Continuing advances in Western science mean that Europeans and Americans bring with them the most effective health care on the planet. Western values, especially as practiced by many missionaries, involves a greater respect for women than found in many non-Western countries, and a more inclusive attitude to education and opportunity.

All told, however, it is hard to conclude otherwise than that this stage of world history, seeing as it does the emergence of global civilization, is traumatic for many of the peoples on the planet.


In Europe, these decades have seen railway networks spreading across the continent; the dramatic expansion of towns, old and new; the emergence of new social groups – an industrial working class and a burgeoning middle class; and linked to all this, political revolution. Many parts of western and central Europe have seen the rise of democratic institutions. In some countries these coexist uneasily with the traditional governing structures inhabited by monarchs and aristocrats, but in country after country they now exert an influence which cannot be ignored. Most notably of all, two major new states have appeared on the map of Europe, Germany and Italy.

The international political situation within Europe has been marked by sharpening rivalries between the leading powers. These have been exacerbated as they eye up the potential gains to be had from taking advantage of an enfeebled Ottoman Empire (and suspect other powers of doing the same). A war in the Crimea (1853-46) between Russia, in the one side, and an alliance led by Britain and France, on the other, leaves the “Eastern Question” (as it is called) unsettled, and it will come back to haunt Europe.

The Middle East

In fact, decline of the Ottoman Empire is far from being a simple process. The empire in fact is experiencing a resurgence of effectiveness in much of the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. Egypt meanwhile continues to develop as an independent kingdom – at least, independent from Ottoman rule. However, it is falling increasingly under British economic domination. This is part of a broader picture of increasing European influence in the Middle East, with the French making the running in Syria and the Levant, and the British in Iran, the Gulf and Egypt. The opening of the great strategic asset of the Suez Canal in 1869 has only strengthened European interest in the region.


In Africa, the Atlantic slave trade is now at last in steep decline. European nations, especially Britain and France, have established their power over some coastal enclaves, and expeditions of exploration are gradually mapping the interior of the continent. The explorers find a continent still suffering from the aftermath of the great upheavals which engulfed southern and central Africa after the Zulu conquests. The prevailing disorder, plus the continuing operations of the Indian Ocean slave traders, are warming European popular opinion, especially in Britain, to the idea of a mission to impose order on Africans, by force if necessary. Nevertheless, in 1871 the vast territories of the Africa interior still by and large remain beyond the reach of Europeans.

South Asia

The case is far otherwise with the Indian sub-continent, which is now completely under the control of the British. A brief but violent challenge to British power in the Great Rebellion (or “Indian Mutiny”, as the British called it) of 1857-8 was crushed, and India remains the outstanding example of European imperialism. British power has continued to expand in the region, towards central Asia and into Burma.

South East Asia

In South East Asia, European domination – French, British and Dutch – has continued to grow. This process has been accompanied by the mass immigration of Chinese settlers fleeing the poverty and turbulence in their homeland.

East Asia

The impact of Western nations on East Asia has varied from country to country. Korea has managed to keep Westerners largely at arms length. Japan, however, has been forced to end its isolation and open its economy to Western influences in the wake of American military expeditions in 1852-4. After a period of confusion, Japan has now begun to modernize itself, so as to assert its rights in the face of Western domination.

The giant Qing Empire in China has been profoundly shaken by direct and indirected Western influences. Attempts to put a stop to the rampant smuggling of opium by Western traders led to two humiliating Chinese defeats (1839-42 and 1858-60), and the imposition of unequal treaties prizing open the country to Western commercial and missionary activity.

Much more catastrophic than this was the Taiping rebellion (1850-65), whose causes were rooted in Chinese conditions but which was at least partly inspired by Western ideas. Before the rebellion was crushed it had cost as many as 40 million lives, making it the second deadliest conflict in the history of the world. Since then some limited attempts at modernization have been undertaken, but this is being compromised by growing hatred of the West and all it stands for, felt throughout all classes of Chinese society. This xenophobia encourages a deep suspicion of the modern technology of the Westerners.

North America

Both North and South America have seen mass immigration, mostly from Europe, but to a lesser extent from China and Japan. In North America, the USA and Canada have expanded right across the continent, a geographical reflection of their dramatic demographic and economic growth. Because of its more moderate climate, the USA is by far the larger nation in all but strictly territorial terms.

For several decades, the USA’s expansion fueled tensions between its northern and southern parts, which led to a vicious Civil War (1861-5). Since the war, the USA, with northern interests now firmly in the saddle, has renewed its economic expansion, whilst the defeated South experiences a difficult period of reconstruction.

South and Central America

In South and Central America, political stability has been elusive, as strong men – caudillos – have asserted their authority in most countries. They rule primarily in the interests of the wealthy, while the majority of the population remains in poverty. South America sees one of the most deadly wars in the history of mankind, relative to forces involved, when Paraguay, with breathtaking foolishness, fights its neighbors, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Its people pay a terrible price.


The Pacific islands are experiencing the full effect of Western intrusion into their region. Some islands are falling under European rule, while all experience disease and social dislocation to a lesser or greater extent. In some, the British bring in thousands of laborers from the Indian sub-continent, thus altering the racial mix and storing up tensions for the future.

White exploration and settlement of Australia and New Zealand continue apace, creating new, dynamic Western-style nations.

Next map: the world in 1914

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Revolution and Empire: Modern Europe 1750-1900

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Late Imperial China 1760-1901

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