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The Triumph of Human Empire
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In the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek “the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.  
Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson. As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination. At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.
The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.
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Rosalind Williams is the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is past president of the Society for the History of Technology and the author of several books, most recently Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2013 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. Published 2013.

Printed in the United States of America

22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13      1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978–0-226–89955–8 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978–0-226–89958–9 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226899589.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Williams, Rosalind H.

The triumph of human empire : Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the end of the world / Rosalind Williams.

pages ; cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-226-89955-8 (cloth : alkaline paper) — ISBN 978-0-226-89958-9 (e-book)

1. Fantasy fiction—19th century—History and criticism. 2. Imperialism in literature. 3. Literature, Modern—19th century—History and criticism. 4. Verne, Jules, 1828–1905—Criticism and interpretation. 5. Morris, William, 1834–1896—Criticism and interpretation. 6. Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850–1894—Criticism and interpretation. I. Title.

PN3435.W495 2013



This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper).



Rosalind Williams



To Leo Marx and Tom Hughes


Preface: An Event of Consciousness

1. The Rise of Human Empire


2. Life on the Loire

3. The Empire of Paris

4. Inventing the Geographic Romance

5. The End of the World


6. Life on the Thames

7. Pilgrimage to a Holy Land

8. A River of Fire

9. From Romance to Fantasy


10. Romantic Engineering and Engineering Romance

11. Two Voyages: Inland Waterways and High Seas

12. Worlds of Wonder and Problematic Shores

13. The Romance of Destiny

14. A Rolling Apocalypse






An Event of Consciousness

This book is about the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire.

I am borrowing the term human empire from Francis Bacon, who used it in the early 1600s in a utopian tale in which he imagined the discovery of a new Atlantis. This make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense of territorial control. Instead, Bacon described it as the center of a vast, general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Since Bacon’s time, this enlargement has led to human dominance on this planet far beyond anything he could have imagined. Population, production, and consumption are far greater than what they were in his day. The human-built world is far more extensive and intensive. Most astounding of all, humans can do things never before possible on earth—splitting atoms, creating new lifeforms, altering the composition of the entire atmosphere.

Today we routinely draw upon a familiar cluster of abstract terms to describe this profound alteration in the fabric, at once material and social, of human existence: Globalization, Mobility, Progress, Change, Development, Modernity, Technology, Innovation. They are all dimensions of the larger, longer event of the rise and triumph of human empire. Because that overarching story has so many dimensions and for the most part unfolds only gradually, it may be imperceptible, or nearly so, to individuals during their lifetimes. But even slow changes may quite suddenly crystallize into events of consciousness, when individuals recognize the extent and significance of human domination of the planet.

In the late nineteenth century, such an event of consciousness was triggered by the realization that soon the entire globe would be mapped. The end of the geographical unknown implied the beginning of a new era of history, one of ever-intensifying human presence. Henceforth the world would be both closed and full: No matter where you go, there you are.¹ Settlements would expand; connections would proliferate; non-human life and relics of the human past would be crowded out. Human needs, desires, works, and actions would more and more dominate the planet. It would become more unstable, due to the integrated effects of human-driven changes. The closing of the world frontier implied the disappearance of the unknown, the humanization of the known, and the acceleration of both.

This book retrieves a moment when humans realized they were living through a decisive turning point in the human story, but before this realization had been locked down into formulaic terms. However socialized, consciousness is ultimately located in the individual. This book examines the late-nineteenth-century event of consciousness through three men who were especially alert to historical change and gifted in expressing their apprehensions: Jules Verne (1828–1905), William Morris (1834–96), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94). Their lives offer evidence of the transformation of the conditions of history during their lifetimes. Their works provide rich archives of this event of consciousness, conveying both evidence and insight into its causes and implications.

Although these writers were privileged in so many ways by education, class, and gender, they were not happy with the way the world seemed to be heading. They worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. While realizing the blessings of human conquest of the planet, they mourned what they considered the inevitable losses it entailed.

Verne, Morris, and Stevenson were very different writers in many ways, but they shared two fundamental affinities. In the physical landscape, they repeatedly left the land for the water. In the literary landscape, they headed away from realism towards romance. These tendencies were connected. Water and romance are media of human existence that offer a fresh experience of the world, that open upon new perspectives, that offer understanding, liberation, even transcendence. Two streams run through this book: water and romance.

Since the time of Bacon, enlargement of human empire has routinely been thought of as historical progress: more power, more knowledge, more wealth, and even, possibly, more fulfilling and just ways of life. This progressive understanding of history was shared by Verne, Morris, and Stevenson, but they also understood that enlargement of human powers could have quite different and more troubling results. They saw another pattern in the history of their times, that of spreading centers of loss and calamity, reinforcing each other in intersecting circles of unpredictability and uncertainty.

We are still struggling to come to terms with these contradictory ways of understanding the triumph of human empire. This book is about a still unfolding event of consciousness, as grasped by three writers exceptionally successful in conveying its depth and significance.


The Rise of Human Empire

JULES VERNE (1828–1905)

In the spring of 1890, at age sixty-two, Jules Verne was one of the most famous writers in the world. More than a quarter century earlier, with the appearance of Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), he had begun publishing a series of adventure novels under the collective title Extraordinary Journeys: Known and Unknown Worlds. These scientific novels, or geographic novels, as he preferred to call them, were a new art form, taking readers to the center of the earth, the North Pole, around the moon, under the sea, and many other thrilling destinations. In the words of one critic, Verne took the novel out of the stale air of the salon and boudoir, opening it up to

air that is free, that is virgin, that has never been breathed before. . . . You are lifted out of your little corner of terrestrial mud, . . . from the mediocrity of closed horizons. You become a citizen of the world in the literal sense of the term. Before you unrolls the scenery of the whole universe. We take possession of the whole earth, the whole firmament.¹

In 1890 Verne was finishing the thirty-seventh book in the series, Mistress Branican, named for the heroine who gallantly sought her missing explorer-husband. (The story was modeled after the true story of the widow of explorer John Franklin, lost in the Arctic in the 1840s.) Sales of Verne’s books were declining, but still he received countless requests for interviews. When the editor of The Youth’s Companion, a children’s magazine published in Boston, asked him for some memories of his past, Verne agreed to write a brief autobiography.

He produced a graceful sketch, mostly reflecting on his boyhood a half century earlier in Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France. In the early 1870s, Verne explained, in order to complete my work, he retired to the provincial city of Amiens, seventy miles north of Paris and forty miles inland from the North Sea on the river Somme. In the years between, he took some real-life voyages in coastal waters off the west, north, and south of Europe, journeys considerably less extraordinary than those of my stories. At the end of the sketch, he summarized his life’s work:

This work [literally task, tâche] is to portray [literally paint, peindre] the entire earth, the entire world, under the form of the novel, by imagining adventures particular to each country, by creating characters particular to the environments in which they act.²

Verne was keenly aware of the paradox that to complete this task he had limited his own world experience. By the spring of 1890 he had settled into an unadventurous routine in Amiens. He rose before the sun, writing in his austere home office until eleven. He lunched alone, typically bolting down his food as a result of various gastrointestinal ailments. After lunch he took a walk near the cathedral of Amiens to the older quarters of the city, where the Somme branched into a maze of narrow streams and canals around small workshops and market gardens. He limped and used a cane. Four years earlier, his apparently deranged nephew Gaston had shot him in the lower left leg outside the courtyard of his home. The bullet had never been removed, and the wound had never healed properly.

Some days Verne would stop by the City Hall. Two years earlier he had been elected to the city council of Amiens, and he was diligent in tending to his duties. On other days he would take a tram, stopping at a pastry shop to revive himself with milk and cake, and then visit his club. There he spent hours reading newspapers and magazines to keep up with current events, especially those related to geography, science, and invention. Verne headed home around five or six in the evening. Sometimes he would dine there; sometimes he went out for dinner in a hotel or café. Once or twice a week he would attend the theater in the evening. Otherwise he went to bed around eight.³

The world had seemed inexhaustibly large when Verne started writing the extraordinary journeys, but by the early 1890s it was rapidly shrinking. The blank expanse on the map of Africa that inspired Five Weeks in a Balloon had been filled in. After publication of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), a series of travelers had reproduced or beaten that record. Polar expeditions were approaching the invisible points at the top and bottom of the globe. In the fall of 1889, Verne had written to his editor that I have not yet finished my life’s work, which is to depict the whole world.⁴ By guarding his time and energy, he still hoped to do this, but he could not prevent the rapid depletion of the unexplored. In the spring of 1890 Jules Verne was running out of time and space.


In the spring of 1890 William Morris, who had turned fifty-six toward the end of March, was also a famous writer, but primarily for work done decades earlier. In the 1870s his long narrative poems The Life and Death of Jason (1867) and especially The Earthly Paradise (1868–70) had made him one of the most-read authors in Britain. The poetry he had produced since then, much of it translations of Icelandic sagas, had not been nearly so popular. He enjoyed more commercial and artistic success from the firm he founded in the 1860s that produced carpets, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, and other domestic goods featuring motifs from the natural world of rural England.

Like Verne, around his sixtieth birthday Morris was asked by a magazine editor for an autobiographical sketch. In his case the request came from the editor of the socialist journal Justice, who was especially interested in the motivations for Morris’s conversion to socialism in the early 1880s. Like Verne, Morris used the occasion to declare his own life’s work. Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, he wrote, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation. In a positive direction, he was driven by a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past mankind. For Morris, poetry and decorative arts were primary ways of recovering beauty and meaning when modern civilization was rapidly destroying both.

William Morris resided in London, with his wife Jane and two daughters, in a three-story Georgian brick townhouse on the Thames in Hammersmith, at the western edge of the metropolis. They also rented a large, damp, two-story, stone farmhouse near the village of Kelmscott, far upstream on the Thames. Morris regarded the seventeenth-century manor and village as the embodiment of everything modern civilization was not: human life organized around honest labor, a supportive community, and the beauty and fullness of earthly life.

In April 1890 Morris decided to get out of the city to spend the Easter holiday at Kelmscott Manor. Jane was unwell and did not make the trip, so Morris set out with his two daughters, Jane (usually called Jenny), age twenty-nine, and May, a year younger. Jenny had suffered from epilepsy since she was fifteen. Her parents were constantly concerned about her, especially because she had recently suffered other illnesses.

Jenny, May, and their father walked from their London home to the Hammersmith stop on the Underground. They took the Metropolitan Line (which had just converted from steam to electrical power) to Paddington Station, where they boarded a train heading west to Oxford. There they changed to another train bound for the village of Lechlade, three miles west of Kelmscott. At the Lechlade station they were met by a man working for Morris who drove them to the manor in a small horse-drawn cart called a trap. In accordance with Morris’s socialist convictions, the driver was dressed in ordinary clothes, not in livery (a kind of uniform for male servants, still common then as a sign of subservience).

As usual Morris found pleasure and calm there. On April 5, the day before Easter Sunday, Morris wrote his wife to report: So far so good: Jenny has been quite well & very happy. He told his wife about the pigeons at the house, the herons on the river, the state of the flowers (daffy’s gone).⁷ He did some thinking about talks he was scheduled to deliver to socialist groups in Liverpool immediately after his return. Internal quarrels had been tearing apart the various factions: Morris realized that the group he had founded would soon be expelled from the main party.

He distracted himself by working on two writing projects. One was a utopian romance, as he called it, titled News from Nowhere, already being published in serial form in a socialist journal. Morris worked on the final chapters, which tell of a journey up the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor as it might be experienced in the twenty-second century. He also worked on a story set not in imagined time but in imagined space, a deceptive, troubled glittering plain on a nameless island in a nameless ocean. This story would be published some months later—the first fantasy tale published by Kelmscott Press, an enterprise Morris had begun the previous fall.

By 1890 William Morris, like Jules Verne, was coming to terms with the realization that he would not complete his life’s task. Verne could not write fast enough to keep ahead of modern civilization as it devoured the geographical unknown. Despite his seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity, Morris was concluding that neither poetry, nor romance, nor the decorative arts, nor socialism could do much to keep modern civilization from devouring the beauties of the earth and the historical record of past humankind.


In the spring of 1890 Robert Louis Stevenson was only thirty-nine years old, but he too was a famous author. He had spent his boyhood and youth in Scotland, where he had been educated in the family profession of engineering. Later he migrated southward to England and France to pursue his own ambition to be a writer. These migrations led to others, longer and more arduous, most notably his three-week journey across the Atlantic and North America to northern California, in pursuit of the American woman he loved, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne.

Louis (as his family and friends called him) had always been frail: the transatlantic, transcontinental odyssey nearly killed him. After arriving in San Francisco, he suffered from lung hemorrhages. He assumed he suffered from tuberculosis, at a time when the diagnosis of consumption meant at best the life of an invalid. Louis and Fanny were married in Oakland, and thereafter their lives were organized around the primary mission of keeping him alive. They moved around Britain, Europe, and the United States seeking a healthful place for him, which at that time was understood to be either the mountains or the sea.

During a bitterly cold winter at Saranac Lake, in upstate New York, an American publisher offered Stevenson a commission to write letters about a South Seas cruise. Stevenson and his wife hoped the warm climate would improve his health more than the frigid one had. Consequently, on a June morning in 1888 they sailed out the Golden Gate of San Francisco, on board the Casco, a chartered yacht, headed for the Marquesas. After visiting them and other island groups, including Hawaii, Stevenson discovered that

gratitude and habit were beginning to attach me to the islands; I had gained a competency of strength, I had made friends; I had learned new interests; the time of my voyages had passed like days in fairyland; and I decided to remain.

When he wrote this at the end of 1889, his plan was to resettle in England and spend winters in the South Pacific. He surveyed the islands offering regular mail service and decided that Upolu, the main island of the Samoan group, would be his winter home. The Casco arrived at the harbor of Apia, on Upolu, on December 7, 1889. Within weeks Stevenson purchased a 314-acre estate there and made arrangements to clear the land and build a house.

At Easter 1890 Louis and Fanny were in Sydney, Australia, on their way back to England.⁹ On April 10 Stevenson sent a two-sentence cablegram to one of his closest friends there: Return Islands four months. Home September.¹⁰ Why the abrupt change of plans? Louis had caught cold in Sydney, leading to a recurrence of lung hemorrhages. Besides being in no shape for extended travel, he was embroiled in a political dispute and did not want to desert the lists he had just entered. A self-righteous Presbyterian minister had published a nasty pamphlet attacking Father Damien, a flawed but selfless priest to lepers in Hawaii. Louis wrote an open letter in response, defending Father Damien and denouncing the minister for hypocrisy. He went on to condemn the whole destructive tide of Western religion, weapons, and money swamping the island world of Polynesia.

Louis and Fanny returned to the warm waters of the South Pacific. Fanny managed to book three passages on a trading vessel, the Janet Nichol; Louis was carried on board rolled up in a blanket. His health slowly improved as they sailed to New Zealand and back to Samoa. On May Day he was able to join Fanny to ride horseback to check on the land-clearing and house-building on Upolu. Then they reboarded the Janet Nichol to visit other Polynesian islands.¹¹

By fall 1890 Stevenson realized he would never return to Britain. He and Fanny settled in a small wooden house in the hills while their permanent residence was being finished. When American historian Henry Adams visited him there, he wrote a friend in astonishment: Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless, dressed in very dirty striped cotton pyjamas and mismatched stockings.¹²

Stevenson spent hours bushwhacking, writing a friend that nothing is so interesting as weeding, clearing and path-making. In November, as he was clearing a path through the woods, an idea for a story just shot through me like a bullet in one of my moments of awe, alone in that tragic jungle.¹³ The idea became a short story, The Beach of Falesá. It was a new kind of romance, a tough romance about what he lamented as the unjust (yet I can see the inevitable) extinction of the Polynesian Islanders by our shabby civilisation.¹⁴ In the South Seas Robert Louis Stevenson made it his life’s task to bear witness to the island world of Polynesia as it approached extinction.


For today’s reader, the world in which these three writers lived is recognizably modern. Verne, settled in a provincial city of sixty-four thousand, was well connected to robust communication networks that informed him about contemporary science, exploration, and engineering through museums, libraries, learned societies, and clubs. William Morris took subways and trains for getaway trips to the country, where he exchanged daily letters with his wife and returned to make a speaking tour covering many miles and reaching large audiences. Stevenson planned to spend half the year in the South Seas and half in England, confident that communication networks would allow him to continue publishing for a global audience.

If this world seems familiar to us, for Verne, Morris, and Stevenson it was startlingly new. When Verne sketched boyhood memories for the children’s magazine, he reflected that since he was born in 1828:

I have seen the birth of phosphorus matches, fake collars, cuffs, letter paper, stamps, pants with free legs, the overcoat, the opera-hat, the ankle boot, the metric system, steamboats on the Loire, called inexplosible because they blew up a little less often than the others, omnibuses, railways, tramways, gas, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph! I am of the generation between these two geniuses, [George] Stephenson [inventor of the steam locomotive] and [Thomas] Edison!¹⁵

The three writers expected that the world would continue to change dramatically and rapidly, and they were right. In 1890 nearly every imaginable measure of material growth—human population, industrial production, resource consumption, energy use, species extinctions—all of which had been slanting upward since the later eighteenth century, began to show a sharp hockey stick upward turn, with no end in sight.¹⁶ Perceptive and creative observers like Verne, Morris, and Stevenson realized that they were experiencing a turning point in history as human beings entered into a new relationship with the earth. Since the emergence of Homo sapiens, human history had taken place against the ground of non-human nature. During their lifetimes, human activities came to dominate nearly everything that happened on the planet.

While the hockey stick graphs now provide dramatic material evidence of this turning point, the trends were not so evident at the time, as the upward break was just beginning. At the time the most dramatic evidence for the changed relationship between humanity and the earth was the imminent culmination of the European project, launched in the Renaissance, of surveying the entire planet, all its lands and water, from pole to pole. In the Western world the 1890s are well known for their pessimistic mood arising from the looming fin de siècle, the end of the century. Even more troubling was the prospect of fin du globe, the end of the world not in time but in space.¹⁷

Americans have known this event as the closing of the frontier, as analyzed by Frederick Jackson Turner in an 1893 lecture to the American Historical Association on the occasion of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Turner had been in charge of the Census Bureau, and the main evidence for his thesis was the disappearance of a visible demographic frontier line in federal census data. For the first time the country would lack open land to the west, a new condition that Turner asserted would pose new challenges for American democracy.

But it was not just the American frontier that was closing.¹⁸ From the viewpoint of Europeans, lightly populated land was disappearing all around the globe. One of the most perceptive, French social scientist Gabriel Tarde, asked in a treatise on economic psychology published in 1902:

Is it necessary to recall that the earth is not infinite, and that our civilization is close to having invaded it all?

The end of the world, this great terror of the Middle Ages, is destined to become a source of anguish again in another sense. It is no longer in time but in space that this terrestrial globe reveals itself as inextensible; and the deluge of civilized humanity already hurls itself at its limits, at its new Pillars of Hercules, these ones insurmountable. What are we going to do when soon we will no longer be able to count on external markets, Asian, African, to serve as a palliative or derivative for our discords, as outlets for our merchandise, for our instincts of cruelty, of pillage and of prey, for our criminality as well as for our overflowing birthrate? How will we manage to reestablish among ourselves a relative peace which has had as its condition for so long our conquering projection outside ourselves, far from ourselves?¹⁹

The closing of the world frontier had specific geopolitical consequences at the time Tarde was writing, as European nation states competed to claim areas on the planet where political order was weak or nonexistent. In particular, a scramble for Africa started in the mid-1880s, after European powers, meeting in Berlin, made a deal defining rules of competition in Africa, specifying regions in which each could pursue ownership of land without interference from the others. By the time Tarde was writing in 1902, nine-tenths of the African continent had been claimed for Western ownership.

Something more fundamental was going on than a race for imperial holdings. All over the world, long-existing tribal and nomadic societies were disappearing. For millennia such societies had coexisted with government-organized ones, not always peacefully, but always enduring on the fringes of states and empires. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, tribal and nomadic societies were for all practical purposes eliminated.

To call this the closing of the frontier is far too tame to describe the relentless violence of this genocide. Its speed and finality were mainly due to a revolution in firearms. In 1890 United States Army soldiers armed with machine guns ended the Indian wars at the massacre of Wounded Knee. Argentina conquered the Indian territories that non-indigenous people called the Desert, pushing the national border south almost to Tierra del Fuego. Chile expanded into territories long held by the Araucanian tribes, using machine guns, cannons, repeating rifles, railroads, and telegraphs to defeat tribesmen armed with lariats, slings, and lances.

The scramble for Africa that had its diplomatic climax at the Conference of Berlin had its military climax in 1898 at the battle of Omdurman on the upper Nile. In the words of Winston Churchill, then a war correspondent: Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk and insignificant loss to the victors.²⁰

When Tarde was writing in 1902, imperial expansion was synonymous with expansion of mostly European nation states. His description of this invasion provides two important reminders about this expansion. First, he was not endorsing it. The subjects of his sentences may have a positive sound (civilization, civilized humanity, we), but the verbs convey disgust for what these actors do: pillage, prey, commit crimes, promote discord, and, he implies, breed without restraint. Along with Verne, Morris, and Stevenson, Tarde held a highly ambivalent view of Western civilization. He recognized the material superiority of its means but also the uncivilized brutality of its ends.

This means, second, that imperial expansion would not always be synonymous with expansion of nation states. The activities of taking over markets, committing crimes, and pillaging the weak do not depend upon political territorial control. Rampant colonism, as one scholar has called it, can take place without formal colonization.²¹ There are other ways to accomplish these ends. The deluge continues with or without nation states as primary drivers, nor does it necessarily depend on Western expansionism. Other non-Western peoples can join in this rush to exploit the world, if they adopt the material means of the West and its crudely materialistic goals.

Enlargement of the bounds of human empire is not the same as the spread of human settlement. In fact the enlargement of human empire often brings displacement or elimination of long-settled peoples, who have organized their world around sustainability. The invading force is of humans whose way of life is organized around gain, whose conquering projection seems unstoppable so long as there is a beyond for pillage, overflow, and escape. When the beyond disappears, humankind must reorganize around other values and habits, or risk disintegration into chaos. That is why the completion of the world map, which charted the imminent end of the beyond, was a source both of anticipated triumph and of, in Tarde’s word, anguish.


This was not the only source of anguish in the air of European civilization at the turn of the twentieth century. The accession of Queen Victoria to the British throne in 1837 had marked the end of fifty years of revolution, both industrial and political. From then on, Britain, Europe, and North America began a steady expansion of manufacturing and imperial might.

Before long, however, there were cracks indicating that this expansion would not continue indefinitely, at least not along the lines imagined earlier in the nineteenth century. The year 1848 brought a series of revolutionary outbreaks. These events, in the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Manifesto responding to them, showed that the specter of Communism was haunting all the powers of Europe.²² The Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 broke the long post-Napoleonic peace within Europe. Its evolution into the bloody Paris Commune in 1871 demonstrated that the specter of revolutionary class conflict was stalking Europe more than ever.

The economic depression of the 1870s strengthened such fears, as well as those that the globalization of trade and markets might not necessarily work to the advantage of Europeans. In the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm, writing of common anxieties of what he called The Age of Empire:

The culture of the age was threatened by its own cultural products. Democracy produced socialism, the fatal swamping of genius by mediocrity, strength by weakness. . . . In that case was it not essential to reconsider all these values and ideals and the system of ideas of which they formed a part?²³

Of those values, ideals, and systems of ideas, none was more foundational than belief in the reality of the physical universe as described by modern science, as it had consolidated in the 1700s around Newtonian physics. As the 1800s progressed, however, scientific inquiry began to point to some unsettling conclusions. Research into thermodynamics helped improve the efficiency of steam engines, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics—the rule that usable energy declines over time—seemed to imply that the universe was headed for far-off but inexorable heat death. This prospect revived the terror of the Middle Ages of the imminent end of the world in time. The scientific law became a metaphor for a pervasive cultural anxiety, afflicting the Old World as well as the New, that the closing of the frontier would reduce the creative forces that had powered energetic Western societies to such dominance.²⁴

As the age of steam gave way to that of electricity, scientific research was again critical in understanding the new source of power—and again raised troubling questions about the larger universe. In the 1870s James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated with mathematical rigor the common operating laws of electricity, magnetism, and light. His equations predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves, which promised to enlarge human powers to signal through space (as they did some years later, following Hertz’s experiments with what we now call radio waves). But experimentalists were puzzled when they failed to detect the ethereal medium on which electromagnetic theory seemed to depend. The enlargement of human ability to act into the universe brought with it a corrosion of trust in the reality of the universe.²⁵

Maxwell himself was dedicated to finding measurements that he considered eternal and exact, corresponding to and generated by transcendental reality. Others engaged in similar research argued that the sources of authority in science were only pragmatic, determined by human-generated authority and habit. In exploring the universe, these neo-positivist scientists and philosophers argued, humans find not objective quantities but instruments; instead of encountering the universe, we encounter only ourselves. In science too, the beyond seemed to be disappearing. No matter where researchers went, there they were. In practical terms progress was still possible, but it ceased to be grounded in an understanding of the reality of the universe.²⁶ At the same time that world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.²⁷

A dramatic example of this paradox came at the end of 1895, when the first images made by penetrating rays, soon called x-rays, began to reach the public. By early 1896 photographs of living hands with rings on the fingers, or holding bouquets, or with broken bones, quickly leapt from the laboratory to the popular press. To see the inside of the body, the skeleton in the living being, was exciting but unsettling. What was matter when these things—they seemed to be both waves and particles, so even their thing-ness was unclear—could penetrate through flesh, paper, wood? Understanding the universe seemed to require understanding of that which seemed to pervade everything and yet was resolved to nothing.²⁸

As the age of geographical discovery was closing, a new age of scientific discovery was opening. Direct involvement in the latter was a minority phenomenon, however, restricted to at most a few thousand individuals concentrated in Germany, Britain, and France. Most people could not readily transfer desire to explore the tangible, human-scale world of physical geography to a ghostly one constructed in the laboratory, detected only through complex instruments and dependent upon specialized knowledge.²⁹

To use Hobsbawm’s striking analogy, many Western Europeans in the late nineteenth century felt like travelers looking out the window of humanity’s train while it moved steadily forward into the future, seeing a landscape that was unanticipated, enigmatic and troubling. . . . Had they entered the wrong train? Worse: had they entered the right train which was somehow taking them in a direction they neither wanted nor liked? Did they even know that what they saw was real?³⁰ Fifty years after the ascension of Queen Victoria to the British throne, Western power was triumphant but also running low on space and self-confidence.


In 1887 the publishing firm of Edward Stanford issued the London Atlas of Universal Geography, dedicated to the sovereign (see plates 1–4). The Jubilee Atlas, as it came to be called, is a hefty undertaking—a folio volume of ninety maps. Like all atlases, it is more than a collection of maps: it tells a story.³¹ Given the occasion, the main story line celebrates the British Empire, as it had risen to global supremacy during Victoria’s reign. British-controlled territories are shaded in imperial red (which prints more like pink). Of all places on earth, the British Isles get what may appropriately be called the lion’s share of attention in fourteen pages of maps, some subdivided into multiple smaller ones.

In the Jubilee Atlas, the mission to chart the globe is inseparable from the race to claim it. The first four maps of the atlas, which collectively portray the whole earth, show a few remaining blank patches. There is still a large uncharted area in central Africa, where the scramble to claim it was getting underway. Uncharted patches in western Australia and the Northwest Territory of Canada are already claimed by the British. Expeditions are closing in on the North Pole: the names of recent exploration parties are listed in red type in the vicinity of upper Greenland, which is left incomplete. The South Pole remains even more mysterious. One hemispheric map alludes to a probable Antarctic Continent, indicating this still-unconfirmed possibility.

One story line of the Jubilee Atlas is that of humankind’s imminent conquest of the geographical unknown. The atlas also tells the story of human domination of the known through rapidly expanding large technological systems of transportation and communication. The hemispheric maps portray a network of submarine telegraph cables, specifying which nation laid them and when. They show steamship routes across the oceans, with notations indicating the number of days needed to travel between major ports. The ports are linked with inland cities by railway lines. A map of the British railway system, for example, shows distances measured in miles and in travel time from London, with frequency of service indicated by the thickness of the railway line.³²

Still another story line is that of relentlessly expanding urban settlements. The map of Inner London shows a dense web of subways, roadways, and bridges, connected to water-based systems by docks, canals, and ferries. The map of Outer London shows the metropolis erupting like a volcano into what had been the agricultural heartland of England. Other maps of the British Isles underscore this story of urban sprawl through detailed charts and production statistics recounting the decline of pasturage and agriculture in southeast England.

The atlas forecasts an increasingly humanized world. Exploring expeditions will fill in the interior blanks of the continents, trace rivers to their origins, and approach the poles. Empty or lightly inhabited space will recede. Cities will expand as pastures and fields disappear. The globe will be more and more tightly wired by systems of communication and transportation. The earth is no longer a stable habitat for humanity, durable and predictable, but the site of dynamic processes driven by human goals and interests.³³

The Jubilee Atlas was republished periodically, with prefaces to new editions detailing changes since the previous one. The preface to the third edition of 1904 notes that twenty of the plates in the 1887 edition had been replaced by newly engraved ones. Many of the new maps show non-European lands in more detail, including ones of Persia, the Philippine Islands, and various parts of Central and South America. Instead of one map of Australia, there are now five. Africa now gets seven.

Similarly, Central London is allotted not one but four maps. There is an entirely new map of the Port of London, showing major docks with notations of the largest vessels they could handle. The decline of agriculture and pasturage around London has been so precipitous that statistical maps showing these uses for land have been eliminated altogether.

At the far ends of the earth, The Arctic Regions are rendered in detail, with the coastline of Greenland clearly drawn even in the far north. The continent at the South Pole is now shown, its edges marked and the most recent expeditions labeled. In the 1904 edition of the atlas, the ultimate conquest in mapping the globe—reaching the poles—is in sight.³⁴

One of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of the Four, is set in 1887 or 1888, around the time the Jubilee Atlas was published. In this story Holmes, who frequently consults atlases and gazetteers, takes a large volume down from the shelf and remarks to Watson: This is the first volume of a gazetteer which is now being published. It may be looked upon as the very latest authority. Holmes may be the fictional paragon of rationality, but the story suggests that he too struggles with fin du globe anguish: the tale begins and ends with him shooting up with cocaine to escape the dull routine of existence.³⁵

By the publication of the 1904 edition of the Jubilee Atlas, its authority was no longer unquestionable. In a final note to the preface, the editor advises readers that maps may now be obtained separately, so they themselves can insert the new ones in the folio volume. For all its weight and authority, the atlas admits its own imminent obsolescence. It can no longer keep pace with the expansive bounds of human empire.


The phrase human empire comes from a haunting tale by Sir Francis Bacon titled New Atlantis (Latin 1624, English 1627), in which he imagines a storm-tossed European ship lost in the South Seas, in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world. The vessel providentially washes up on an uncharted island, where the ship’s company discovers descendents of survivors of the lost city of Atlantis, a superior race that has established there a great research foundation, Salomon’s House. Most of the fable recounts the Preparations and Instruments they use. First, however, Salomon, the Father of the House who oversees its activities, explains its purpose in a single sentence:

The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.³⁶

There is no article the before human empire. It is not like the Roman Empire or any other territory-based empire that wields power by extracting tribute from the ruled. Human empire is limited in territory to one fantasy island. Its rule comes from command of knowledge and powers that can make all things possible in multiple ways regardless of political boundaries.

When the concepts and practices of history arose in Greece of the fifth century BCE, the historical record was defined as the words and deeds of humans, set in the context of much larger, more enduring, more powerful structures and forces of non-human nature. Those actions and words of human beings were small, frail, and brief compared to the non-human stage on which they were performed—but they were special to humans as a species, and marked the separation between them and the rest of creation.³⁷

In Salomon’s House, the historical record was defined as the progressive conquest of non-human nature. Rather than being the greater whole in which humanity is embedded, nature was transformed from humanity’s Mother to a problem child. Humans asserted responsibility for knowing and controlling the rest of nature. In today’s language, the historical mission was redefined as turning the earth into a smarter planet to better meet our needs and wants.³⁸

The turning point in history described in this book—the realistic claim of human civilization as a whole to world domination—has recently been named the age of the Anthropocene, meaning the age of man and denoting an unprecedented human ability to alter the planet. However realistic this may be as a description of the current relationship between human and natural history, it does little to help us understand the distinctiveness and finer detail of human history. The same sweeping abstraction is true of the terminology of first nature being displaced by second nature. Again, this may be true, but it is not helpful in understanding in historical time how this displacement happened and how it was perceived as happening. Neither term begins to convey the power politics and violence inherent in the process of enlarging the bounds of human empire.

The language and concepts of ecology, ecosystems, and the earth sciences, as well as of technologies and technological systems, have grown to be and will continue to be indispensable in understanding the material manifestations of these transformations.³⁹ This book emerges from a humanist’s—more specifically, a historian’s—concern for apprehending and describing the new conditions of human experience.⁴⁰ Here I am paraphrasing philosopher and cultural critic Hannah Arendt, whose analysis of the human condition permeates every page of this study. In her book by that title, she asserts that the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.⁴¹ Our relationship with our planetary home involves meaning and purpose as well as material resources. What is it like to live in the self-created circumstances of human empire? How does it work? How does it feel?


The Jubilee Atlas reminds us that Europe is a little cape on the vast continent of Asia.⁴² In this corner of the world, consciousness of the three dimensions of the triumphant human empire—expansion, intensification, and acceleration of human-driven activities—was especially acute. Europeans, unlike Americans, had no illusions about the availability of wide open spaces. They lived in a part of the world that was long settled and for the most part densely settled. They were well aware that any space for their future expansion was distant and across the water, and that integration with the European homeland would