Did British imperialism from the 15th to the early 19th century play a major – or indeed necessary – role in triggering the British industrial revolution?
The fact is that, economically speaking, the British empire was not very big in the early modern period and even late as 1700–1750 was not large (Bairoch 1993: 80; see also Harley 2004: 196).
Its North American territories (the most important part) only became large after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 by which Britain obtained Canada and Louisiana (Bairoch 1993: 81). But then Britain lost its Thirteen Colonies in North America to rebellion in 1776 and formally in 1783.
Even in India, the really great expansion of British territorial gains happened from the 1780s (Bairoch 1993: 81).
The Spanish and Portuguese had richer, larger colonial empires than Britain did, but why didn’t the Spanish and Portuguese undergo an industrial revolution? As late as the 1700s, the Spanish and Portuguese empires even had an export trade five to seven times larger than that of Britain’s empire (Bairoch 1993: 82).
Clearly, the possession of a colonial empire was not a sufficient condition for industrialisation, and, as we will see below, nor was it a necessary condition of the British industrial revolution. Rather, as Bairoch argues, the European conquest of the world occurred more as a consequence of the superior technology and wealth of Europeans (and power politics) which was in turn a result of industrialisation, not a condition for it (Bairoch 1993: 82, 85–86).
The British industrial revolution had its origins in the agricultural revolution of 1680–1700 which accelerated from 1720–1760 and resulted in a large grain surplus even by the 1730s (Bairoch 1993: 80). But that arose from internal progress in the yields of crops and agricultural productivity (Bairoch 1993: 80), not imperial conquests. Many of the necessary technological innovations existed by 1750, but these had nothing to do with British imperialism.
Did non-European markets in the colonies provide a necessary condition for the British industrial revolution? Once again, Bairoch argues cogently that they did not.
The role of colonial trade in spurring industry in England seems very minor. In the 18th century as the first phase of the industrial revolution gathered pace, the total export sector of the UK accounted for between 4–8% of Britain’s GDP, and of this only 33–39% of exports were bound for the Third World. So, crucially, only 2–3% of total output was exported to the Third World (Bairoch 1993: 82).
Even in individual sectors where the importance of exports to the Third World was somewhat higher such as textiles and iron, the contribution of this colonial or Third world demand was not decisive for industrial development (Bairoch 1993: 84).
Now there was one sector in the 19th century in Britain which was oriented largely towards colonial markets: the cotton textile industry (Bairoch 1993: 84–85). The revolution in British textile production was accomplished by technological innovations and use of steam power, all made possible behind high tariff barriers to keep out Indian cotton products.
By 1819/1821 cotton textile exports accounted for about 53% of production and a significant proportion of these went to colonies and the Third World (Bairoch 1993: 85). But this was only one industry amongst many in the industrial revolution, and even if colonial trade markets had been unavailable the sector would still have developed but just at a lower level of production.
Although Bairoch does not directly raise the issue, we can also address the questions: were the profits the British made from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the slave-based production of sugar in the Caribbean necessary for industrialisation? Did they play a fundamental role in capital formation in Britain as a pre-requisite of industrial investment?
Unfortunately for that view, the reality is that the actual capital costs of the investment needed for the industrial revolution were not large at all compared to Britain’s GDP or the incomes of property owners (Harley 2004: 197). The profits from slavery barely rose from 1% of national income in the late 17th century to 1.5% by 1770, and – even if this had been totally eliminated – there were vast amounts of money capital awash in the British economy in the 1700s which could have been used to finance industrial investment (Harley 2004: 197). Moreover, the British financial sector was becoming increasing sophisticated anyway with a role for endogenous creation of credit money leveraged on a commodity money base, Bank of England notes, and the notes of the most credible private banks, so one must guard against simplistic views of the monetary and banking system often assumed in modern literature.
The contribution of the actual slave trade itself to Britain’s economy was trivial, and a significant volume of the trade occurred after the industrial take-off anyway (Eltis and Engerman 2000: 129). Moreover, the Spanish and Portuguese earned far more from the slave trade than the UK did in terms of a percentage of national income, but in neither case did profits from slavery lead to industrialisation in Spain or Portugal (Eltis and Engerman 2000: 131).
Finally, the profits earned from slave-based production of sugar in the Caribbean were not necessary for industrial take-off, nor was sugar some necessary factor input for early industrial production (Eltis and Engerman 2000: 134–135).
But to return to Bairoch’s analysis, what Bairoch does accept – as any sensible economic historian does – is that many colonies in the course of the 19th century could not implement tariff barriers to cheaper European goods, so that there was a process of de-industrialisation in much of the Third World (India being a notable example) (Bairoch 1993: 88–89). But these trends clearly occurred after the industrial take-off in Britain: this de-industrialisation was simply not a necessary condition for the first phase of the industrial revolution nor for the continuing development of it in the 19th century.
In short, if the imperialism and colonial empires had not existed, then all that would have happened is that British per capita GDP in the course of the 19th century would have been slighter lower: the industrial revolution would still have occurred and per capita GDP still have soared. The industrial revolution would not have been stopped.
Finally, in some very interesting analysis not often commented on, Bairoch analyses Western imperialism: was it unique?
As Bairoch notes, the non-Western world also has a long and horrific history of slavery, imperialism and colonialism. There is an almost pathologically dishonest unwillingness to recognise that what the West did from 1500 to c. 1950 (in the period of its direct imperialism) was in essence what non-Western empire after empire has done through the ages.
We can run through the list of imperialist powers in history that provide direct precedents for what the West did in its period of supremacy:
(1) the Achaemenid Persian empire (from the 6th to 4th centuries BC), which conquered a vast territory from Egypt, all of the Middle east to central Asia.As Bairoch notes:
(2) successive dynasties of the Chinese empire, which conquered and ruled vast numbers of non-Chinese people in central Asia, and for over 2000 years exercised an indirect imperial power over Korea, Japan and parts of South Asia.
(3) the Arab empire from the 7th to 12th centuries AD and their Turkish successors the Seljuks, which conquered the Middle east, Iran, central Asia, parts of India, north Africa, and Spain.
(4) the Mongol empire, which conquered vast territories from China to the Middle East and southern Russia, in the process committing mass murder on a scale which in per capita terms may be unmatched in human history.
(5) the Ottoman empire from the 15th to the 20th century, a highly aggressive empire which conquered the Byzantine empire, much of the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, Hungary, and the Crimea.
“The fact that all these empires did not expand beyond a certain size is not attributable to a lack of colonial appetite but to the military and economic constraints of that period, which set limits on the extent of the largest empire … . But this does not imply that the non-European colonial empires were small, especially in relative terms.” (Bairoch 1993: 145).If the Mongols had had access to the military technology of 19th century Europeans, they would easily have conquered the whole planet and in the process committed genocides undreamt of in human history.
What about the European slave trade? The slave trade in Africans conducted by Westerners lasted for about three centuries from the early 1500s to about 1870 and it is estimated that there were about 11–11.5 million victims (Bairoch 1993: 146). This was a horrific crime, and no rational person would deny it.
But this was not as brutal as the Arab slave trade in black Africans, as Bairoch notes:
“Compared to the European slave trade, that conducted by the Islamic world started earlier, lasted longer and, crucially, involved a larger number of slaves. It began in the seventh century and lasted to the end of the nineteenth. For this whole period, the transport of people from sub-Saharan Africa to the Muslim world totalled 14–15 million, of which some 8–8.5 million were from 1500 to 1890. ….The mass castration of black African slaves (often boys) in the Arab slave trade was particularly brutal and increased the death toll because the operation was very dangerous. African slaves were also subject to forced death marches across the Sahara desert on their way to slave markets and horrific conditions in slave ships bound for the Middle East and India.
There are now fewer descendants of slaves in the Islamic world than in Christian America. This is due to the fact that a great number destined for the Islamic world were castrated. Furthermore, their mortality was high and their birth rate low. In fact, the ‘visible’ descendants of those slaves can be estimated at only a few million in the Middle East (including North Africa), whereas in America their number is approximately 70 million.” (Bairoch 1993: 147).
For instance, the transportation of African slaves to the Arab state of Zanzibar on ships was described by the British abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1840:
“Captain Moresby, to whom I have already alluded, described to me the passage coastways, in the following terms:— ‘The Arab dows, or vessels, are large, unwieldy, open boats, without a deck. In these vessels temporary platforms of bamboos are erected, leaving a narrow passage in the centre. The negroes are then stowed, in the literal sense of the word, in bulk; the first along the floor of the vessel, two adults, side by side, with a boy or girl resting between or on them, until the tier is complete. Over them the first platform is laid, supported an inch or two clear of their bodies, when a second tier is stowed, and so on until they reach the gunwale of the vessel.In addition, the medieval Middle East slave trade also involved the exploitation of many black Africans used in economic slavery in south Iraq and also in Africa (e.g., in the state of Zanzibar).
‘The voyage, they expect, will not exceed twenty-four or forty-eight hours: it often happens that a calm, or unexpected land-breeze, delays their progress: in this case a few hours are sufficient to decide the fate of the cargo; those of the lower portion of the cargo, that die, cannot be removed. They remain until the upper part are dead, and thrown over, and, from a cargo of from 200 to 400 stowed in this way, it has been known that not a dozen, at the expiration of ten days, have reached Zanzebar. On the arrival of the vessels at Zanzebar the cargo are landed; those that can walk up the beach are arranged for the inspection of the Imaum’s officer, and the payment of duties—those that are weak or maimed by the voyage are left for the coming tide to relieve their miseries. An examination then takes place, which for brutality has never been exceeded in Smithfield.’” (Buxton 1840: 165–166).
It is also now largely forgotten that European themselves were for many centuries the victims of this slave trade conducted from the Middle East and north Africa from the 700s AD down to the 1800s and the number of victims probably numbered more than 2.5 million (see Davis 2004).
And who was it who ended the slave trade? As Bairoch notes, it was the British empire and European interventions which largely stamped out slavery on our planet (Bairoch 1993: 147).
All in all, Bairoch has demonstrated that:
(1) colonial exploitation was not a necessary precondition for the British industrial revolution, andBIBLIOGRAPHY
(2) Western imperialism has by no means been unique.
Bairoch, Paul. 1993. Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes. Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York and London.
Davis, Robert C. 2004. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK and New York.
Eltis, David and Stanley L. Engerman. 2000. “The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain,” The Journal of Economic History 60.1: 123–144.
Harley, C. Knick, 2004. “Trade: Discovery, Mercantilism and Technology,” in Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: Industrialisation, 1700–1860. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 175–203.