Journal of Global History


A British sea: making sense of global space in the late nineteenth century*

Tamson Pietscha1

a1 New College, Oxford OX1 3BN, UK E-mail:


It is the contention of this article that historians of the nineteenth century need to think about notions of empire, nation, and race in the context of the social production of space. More specifically, it posits that the moving space of the steamship functioned as a particularly important site in which travellers reworked ideas about themselves and their worlds. Supporting this contention the article pays close attention to the journeys of J. T. Wilson, a young Scottish medical student who between 1884 and 1887 made three voyages to China and one to Australia. For it was in the space of the ship, literally moving along the routes of global trade, that Wilson forged a particular kind of British identity that collapsed the spaces of empire, elided differences among Britons and extended the boundaries of the British nation.

Tamson Pietsch is the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford.


* I would like to thank Virginia Scharff, Ruth Harris, Jonathan Hyslop, and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their help and useful comments, and Julia Horne, Geoffrey Sherington, and the staff of the University of Sydney Archives for facilitating access to Wilson’s letters. Earlier versions of this paper were presented in York, UK, and at the University of Adelaide, Australia, in 2009.