RHS Presidential Lecture — ‘European Exploration, Empires, and the Making of the Modern World’

20 December 2023

European Exploration, Empires, and the Making of the Modern World’



Emma Griffin

RHS 2023 Presidential Lecture
held on 24 November 2023
at Mary Ward House, London, and online





The British industrial revolution has long, and rightly, been regarded as a turning point in world history, and the question of why it all began in Britain has produced a large and lively literature.

In the past twenty years, our understanding has been considerably enhanced by the repositioning of events in eighteenth-century Britain within global history frameworks. Yet this has resulted in some unwieldy comparisons between Britain, a small island, on the one hand; and very large, continental land masses – India, China, and North America – on the other.

In this lecture, Emma Griffin suggests a far more meaningful comparative approach may be developed by turning to some of Britain’s nearest neighbours in continental Europe. By looking at European nations, similar in size, existing outside Britain’s empire, and indeed in some instances with imperial holdings and ambitions of their own, it is possible to shed new light on the complex and contested relationship between empire and industrialisation, and offer new answers as to why Britain industrialised first.

Emma Griffin is President of the Royal Historical Society, and Professor of British History and Head of School at Queen Mary University of London.


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