Once more: When did globalisation begin?

Is globalisation 50, 500 or  5,000 years old? Most economists take the ‘big bang’ view, and think globalisation happened very recently. Most historians also take the big bang view, but point to globalisation in the distant past, citing famous dates like 1492.  We argued recently in this (O’Rourke and Williamson 2002a) and another journal (O’Rourke and Williamson 2002b) that both views are wrong. Instead, we argued that globalisation has evolved since Columbus, but that the most dramatic change by far took place in the nineteenth century. Economically significant globalisation did not start with 1405 and the first junk armadas heading west from China, or with 1492 and Columbus sailing those little caravels west from Europe, or with 1571, and the arrival in Manila of those stately galleons from Mexico. Globalisation became economically meaningful only with the dawn of the nineteenth century, and it came on in a rush.

It seems to us that no scholar should engage in this important debate about the historical origins of globalisation without first defining terms. Oddly enough, nobody else seems to do so. In contrast, we defined globalisation the way all economists are trained, as the integration of markets across space; and in the articles under discussion we concentrated on one dimension of globalisation, namely commodity market integration. The best way to gauge that historical process of market integration is to measure the extent to which prices of the same commodities converge over time worldwide.

Once more: When did globalisation begin?

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