CLA News / Book Review: “The Gun, the Ship & the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World”, by Linda Colley


I have recently finished reading The Gun, the Ship & the Pen (“GSP”), a book in which Prof Colley – the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, at Princeton University – traces the global historical development of written constitutions from the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution to the present day. GSP’s title is apt, for the book’s overarching theme is that the increasing burden of warfare required the adoption of constitutions which provided for more resourceful States; that technological innovation, especially to steam engines, increased the potency of warfare; and that these same technologies facilitated the spread of constitutional ideas. For instance, Prof Colley demonstrates how the Mexican War of Independence led to the drafting of an 1821 constitution – the Plan de Iguala – in which Peninsular Spaniards and American Creoles would enjoy equal rights. A translation of this draft found its way to Calcutta, via the British East India Company, and was published in the Calcutta Journal. Its editors, James Silk Buckingham and Rammohan Roy, hoped that the egalitarianism of the Plan de Iguala would inspire the liberation of an ethnically and socially divided colonised India.

However, the subtler themes of the book are what I found – and what I believe that a CLA readership would also find – most interesting about it, especially the coverage of constitutional novelisation outside of what Prof Colley describes as the “Euro-American” world. For example, in the chapter dedicated to Oceania, GSP shows how Pitcairn’s 1838 constitution was the first in the world to grant equal female suffrage. In another chapter, Prof Colley demonstrates how Tunisia’s 1861 qânûn al-Dawla al-tunisyya was the first written constitution in the Islamic world.

Beyond its fascinating and fresh subject matter, GSP is an excellent read on account of its style. It is easy to get into, as a non-historian, and it is very compelling. At under 500 pages, cover to cover, its length is the rare balance of digestible while providing enough fodder for the curious reader. As such, I highly recommend GSP to the CLA!

A perfect read for the daily commute, for those seeking an engaging read and a break from legalese.

Maximilian Taylor

YCLA Representative for England and Wales