Questions of periodization

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UNIT IV: 1750-1914

The era between 1750 and 1914 C.E. was one of clear European hegemony. In the previous era (1450 to 1750 C.E.), Europeans had tilted the balance of world power away from Asia, where powerful civilizations had existed since ancient times. However, despite growing European influence based on sea trade and colonization, major land-based empires in Asia still influenced long-distance trade and shaped political and economic conditions around them. In this era, Europe not only dominated the western hemisphere, as it had in the last, but it came to control the eastern hemisphere as well. How did they do it? Part of the answer lies in a set of discoveries and happenings that together constitute an important "Marker Event" - the Industrial Revolution. Another set of philosophical and political events were equally important - the establishment of democracy as a major element of a new type of political organization - the "nation."


Very important characteristics that distinguish 1750-1914 from previous eras in world history include:

  • European dominance of long-distance trade - Whether by "unequal treaties" or colonization, sea-based trade gave European countries control of all major trade circuits in the world.

  • "Have" and "have not" countries created by Industrialization - The Industrial Revolution gave huge economic and political advantages to countries where it occurs over countries that remained primarily agricultural.

  • Inequalities among regions increase due to imperialism - Industrialized countries set out to form overseas empires, sometimes through colonization and other times by economic and/or political domination.

  • Political revolutions inspired by democracy and desire for independence - These revolutions continue to the present, but "seed" revolutions that put new democratic forms of government in place occurred during this era. The "nation" emerged as a new type of political organization.

We will analyze these important characteristics of the period by examining these topics:

  • Changes in global commerce, communications, and technology - Patterns of world trade and contact changed as the Industrial Revolution revolutionized communications and commerce. Distances became shorter as the Suez and Panama Canals cut new channels for travel, and new technology meant that ships were faster than before. Railroads revived land travel.

  • Demographic and environmental changes - Huge numbers of people migrated to the Americas from Europe and Asia, so that population in the western hemisphere grew dramatically. The slave trade ended, and so did forced migrations from Africa to the New World. Industrialization had a huge impact on the environment, as demands for new fuels came about and cities dominated the landscape in industrialized countries. Industrialization also increased the demand for raw materials from less industrialized countries, altering natural landscapes further.

  • Changes in social and gender structures - Serf and slave systems became less common, but the gap between the rich and poor grew in industrialized countries. We will explore the controversy regarding changes in women's roles in response to industrialization. Did women's status improve, or did gender inequality grow?

  • Political revolutions and independence movements; new political ideas - Absolutism was challenged in many parts of the globe, and democracy took root as a result of economic and social change and Enlightenment philosophies that began in the 17th century. "Nations" arose as political entities that inspired nationalism and movements of political reform.

  • Rise of western dominance - The definition of "west" expanded to include the United States and Australia, and western dominance reached not only economic and political areas, but extended to social, cultural, and artistic realms as well.

Although coercive labor systems as such declined during this era, new questions of equality and justice emerged as west came to dominate east, and the gap between the rich and poor grew larger, particularly in the most prosperous countries.


By 1750 international trade and communications were nothing new. During the 1450-1750 era Europeans had set up colonies in the Americas so that for the first time in world history the western and eastern hemispheres were in constant contact with one another. However, after 1750 the pace of trade picked up dramatically, fed by a series of economic and technological transformations collectively known as the Industrial Revolution.


Remember that to be called a Marker Event in world history, a development should qualify in three ways:

  • It must cross national or cultural borders, affecting many civilizations.

  • Later changes or developments in history must be at least partially traced to this event or series of events.

  • It must have impact in other areas. For example, if it is a technological change, it must impact some other major areas, like government, belief systems, social classes, or the economy.

Like the Neolithic Revolution that occurred 10,000 years before it, the Industrial Revolution qualifies as a Marker Event according to all of the above criteria. It brought about such sweeping changes that it virtually transformed the world, even areas in which industrialization did not occur. The concept seems simple; invent and perfect machinery to help make human labor more efficient - but that's part of its importance. The change was so basic that it could not help but affect all areas of people's lives in every part of the globe.

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the late 18th century, and spread during the 19th century to Belgium, Germany, Northern France, the United States, and Japan. Almost all areas of the world felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution because it divided the world into "have" and "have not" countries, with many of the latter being controlled by the former. England's lead in the Industrial Revolution translated into economic prowess and political power that allowed colonization of other lands, eventually building a worldwide British Empire.


The Industrial Revolution helped England greatly increase its output of manufactured goods by substituting hand labor with machine labor. Economic growth in Britain was fueled by a number of factors:

  • An Agricultural Revolution - The Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without a series of improvements in agriculture in England. Beginning in the early1700s, wealthy landowners began to enlarge their farms through enclosure, or fencing or hedging large blocks of land for experiments with new techniques of farming. These scientific farmers improved crop rotation methods, which carefully controlled nutrients in the soil. They bred better livestock, and invented new machines, such as Jethro Tull's seed drill that more effectively planted seeds. The larger the farms and the better the production the fewer farmers were needed. Farmers pushed out of their jobs by enclosure either became tenant farmers or they moved to cities. Better nutrition boosted England's population, creating the first necessary component for the Industrial Revolution: labor.

  • A technological revolution - England also was the first to experience a technological revolution, a series of inventions built on the principles of mass production, mechanization, and interchangeable parts. Josiah Wedgwood developed a mold for pottery that replaced the potters wheel, making mass production of dishes possible. Many experimented with machinery to speed up human labor, and interchangeable parts meant that machines were more practical and easier to repair.

  • Natural resources - Britain had large and accessible supplies of coal and iron - two of the most important raw materials used to produce the goods for the early Industrial Revolution. Also available was water power to fuel the new machines, harbors for its merchant ships, and rivers for inland transportation.

  • Economic strength - During the previous era, Britain had already built many of the economic practices and structures necessary for economic expansion, as well as a middle class (the bourgeoisie) that had experience with trading and manufacturing goods. Banks were well established, and they provided loans for businessmen to invest in new machinery and expand their operations.

  • Political stability - Britain's political development during this period was fairly stable, with no major internal upheavals occurring. Although Britain took part in many wars during the 1700s, none of them took place on British soil, and its citizens did not seriously question the government's authority. By 1750 Parliament's power far exceeded that of the king, and its members passed laws that protected business and helped expansion.


The earliest transformation of the Industrial Revolution was Britain's textile industry. In 1750 Britain already exported wool, linen, and cotton cloth, and the profits of cloth merchants were boosted by speeding up the process by which spinners and weavers made cloth. One invention led to another since none were useful if any part of the process was slower than the others. Some key inventions were:

  • The flying shuttle - John Kay's invention carried threads of yarn back and forth when the weaver pulled a handle, greatly increasing the weavers' productivity.

  • The spinning jenny - James Hargreaves' invention allowed one spinner to work eight threads at a time, increasing the output of spinners, allowing them to keep up with the weavers. Hargreaves named the machine for his daughter.

  • The water frame - Richard Arkwright's invention replaced the hand-driven spinning jenny with one powered by water power, increasing spinning productivity even more.

  • The spinning mule - In 1779, Samuel Crompton combined features of the spinning jenny and the water frame to produce the spinning mule. It made thread that was stronger, finer, and more consistent than that made by earlier machines. He followed this invention with the power loom that sped up the weaving process to match the new spinners.

These machines were bulky and expensive, so spinning and weaving could no longer be done at home. Wealthy textile merchants set up the machines in factories, and had the workers come to these places to do their work. At first the factories were set up near rivers and streams for water power, but other inventions later made this unnecessary. Before the late 1700s Britain's demand for cotton was met by India, but they increasingly came to depend on the American south, where plantation production was speeded by Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, a machine that efficiently separated the cotton fiber from the seed. By 1810 southern plantations used slave labor to produce 85 million pounds of cotton, up from 1.5 million in 1790.


Once the textile industry began its exponential growth, transportation of raw materials to factories and manufactured goods to customers had to be worked out. New inventions in transportation spurred the Industrial Revolution further. A key invention was the steam engine that was perfected by James Watt in the late 1790s. Although steam power had been used before, Watt invented ways to make it practical and efficient to use for both water and land transportation.

Perhaps the most revolutionary use of steam energy was the railroad engine, which drove English industry after 1820. The first long-distance rail line from the coastal city of Liverpool to inland Manchester was an immediate success upon its completion in 1830, and within a few decades, most British cities were connected by rail. Railroads revolutionized life in Britain in several ways:

1) Railroads gave manufacturers a cheap way to transport materials and finished products.

2) The railroad boom created hundreds of thousands of new jobs for both railroad workers and miners.

3) The railroad industry spawned new industries and inventions and increased the productivity of others. For example, agricultural products could be transported farther without spoiling, so farmers benefited from the railroads.

4) Railroads transported people, allowing them to work in cities far away from their homes and travel to resort areas for leisure.


The Industrial Revolution occurred only in Britain for about 50 years, but it eventually spread to other countries in Europe, the United States, Russia, and Japan. British entrepreneurs and government officials forbade the export of machinery, manufacturing techniques, and skilled workers to other countries but the technologies spread by luring British experts with lucrative offers, and even smuggling secrets into other countries. By the mid-19th century industrialization had spread to France, Germany, Belgium, and the United States.

The earliest center of industrial production in continental Europe was Belgium, where coal, iron, textile, glass, and armaments production flourished. By 1830 French firms had employed many skilled British workers to help establish the textile industry, and railroad lines began to appear across western Europe. Germany was a little later in developing industry, mainly because no centralized government existed there yet, and a great deal of political unrest made industrialization difficult. However, after the 1840s German coal and iron production skyrocketed, and by the 1850s an extensive rail network was under construction. After German political unification in 1871, the new empire rivaled England in terms of industrial production.

Industrialization began in the United States by the 1820s, delayed until the country had enough laborers and money to invest in business. Both came from Europe, where overpopulation and political revolutions sent immigrants to the United States to seek their fortunes. The American Civil War (1861-1865) delayed further immigration until the 1870s, but it spurred the need for industrial war products, all the way from soldiers' uniforms to guns to railroads for troop transport. Once the war was over, cross-country railroads were built which allowed more people to claim parts of vast inland America and to reach the west coast. The United States had abundant natural resources; land, water, coal and iron ore; and after the great wave of immigration from Europe and Asia in the late 19th century; it also had the labor.

During the late 1800s, industrialization spread to Russia and Japan, in both cases by government initiatives. In Russia the tsarist government encouraged the construction of railroads to link places within the vast reaches of the empire. The most impressive one was the Trans-Siberian line constructed between 1891 and 1904, linking Moscow to Vladivostock on the Pacific Ocean. The railroads also gave Russians access to the empire's many coal and iron deposits, and by 1900 Russia ranked fourth in the world in steel production. The Japanese government also pushed industrialization, hiring thousands of foreign experts to instruct Japanese workers and mangers in the late 1800s. Railroads were constructed, mines were opened, a banking system was organized, and industries were started that produced ships, armaments, silk, cotton, chemicals, and glass. By 1900 Japan was the most industrialized land in Asia, and was set to become a 20th century power.


Industrialization greatly increased the economic, military, and political strength of the societies that embraced it. By and large, the countries that benefited from industrialization were the ones that had the necessary components of land, labor and capital, and often government support. However, even though many other countries tried to industrialize, few had much success. For example, India tried to develop jute and steel industries, but the entrepreneurs failed because they had no government support and little investment capital. An international division of labor resulted: people in industrialized countries produced manufactured products, and people in less industrialized countries produced the raw materials necessary for that production. Industrial England, for example, needed cotton, so turned to India, Egypt, and the American south to produce it for them. In many cases this division of labor led to colonization of the non-industrialized areas. As industrialization increased, more iron and coal were needed, as well as other fibers for the textile industry, and the British Empire grew rapidly in order to meet these demands.

Many countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia became highly dependent on one cash crop - such as sugar, cotton, and rubber - giving them the nickname of "Banana Republics." Such economies were very vulnerable to any change in the international market. Foreign investors owned and controlled the plantations that produced these crops, and most of the profits went to them. Very little of the profits actually improved the living conditions for people that lived in those areas, and since they had little money to spend, a market economy could not develop.

Despite the inequalities, the division of labor between people in countries that produced raw materials and those that produced manufactured goods increased the total volume of world trade. In turn, this increased volume led to better technology, which reinforced and fed the trade. Sea travel became much more efficient, with journeys that had once taken months or years reduced to days or weeks. By 1914 two great canals shortened sea journeys by thousands of miles. The Suez Canal built by the British and French in the 1850s linked the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, making it no longer necessary to go around the tip of Africa to get from Europe to Asia by sea. The Panama Canal, completed in 1913, did a similar thing in the western hemisphere, cutting a swath through Central America that encouraged trade and transportation between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.


The Industrial Revolution significantly changed population patterns, migrations, and environments. In industrialized nations people moved to the areas around factories to work there, cities grew, and as a result an overall migration from rural to urban areas took place. This movement was facilitated by the growth of railroads and improvement of other forms of transportation. This era also saw migrations on a large scale from Europe and Asia into the Americas, so that the overall population of the western hemisphere increased. However, this movement did not translate into a decrease of population in the eastern hemisphere. Particularly in Europe, the Agricultural Revolution improved nutrition, especially as the potato (transported from the New World in the previous era) became a main diet staple for European peasants.


Even as we may debate whether slavery and the slave trade came about because of racism or economic benefit, we may argue about why both ended during this era. From the beginning, as the Atlantic slave trade enriched some Africans and many Europeans, it became a topic of fierce debate in Europe, Africa, and the Americas in the late 18th century. The American and French revolutions stimulated these discussions, since both emphasized liberty, equality, and justice, topics that fed a strong abolitionist movement. Because most slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write, most outspoken abolitionists were free whites in England and North America. However, Africans themselves took up the struggle to abolish slavery and the slave trade, rising in frequent slave revolts in the 18th and 19th centuries that made slavery an expensive and dangerous business. Probably the most famous African spokespersons was Olaudah Equiano, a west African who published an autobiography in 1789 that recounted his experiences as a slave in Africa and the New World. He later gained his freedom, learned to read and write, and became active in the abolitionist movement. Many people read his works, heard him speak, and were influenced to oppose slavery.

Despite the importance of the abolitionist movement, economic forces also contributed to the end of slavery and the slave trade. Plantations and the slave labor that supported them remained in place as long as they were profitable. In the Caribbean, a revolution, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture resulted in the liberation of slaves in Haiti and the creation of the first black free state in the Americas. However, the revolution was so violent that it sparked fear among plantation owners and colonial governments throughout the Caribbean. In the late 18th century, a rapid increase in Caribbean sugar production led to declining prices, and yet prices for slaves remained high and even increased.

Even as plantations experiences these difficulties, profits from the emerging manufacturing industries were increasing, so investors shifted their money to these new endeavors. Investors discovered that wage labor in factories was cheaper than slave labor on plantations because the owners were not responsible for food and shelter. Entrepreneurs began to see Africa as a place to get raw materials for industry, not just slaves.


Most European countries and the United States had abolished the slave trade before the mid-19th century: Britain in 1807, the United States in 1808, France in 1814, the Netherlands in 1817, and Spain in 1845. Ardent abolitionists in Britain pressured the government to send patrol ships to the west coast of Africa to conduct search and seizure operations for ships that violated the ban. The last documented ship that carried slaves on the Middle Passage arrived in Cuba in 1867.


The institution of slavery continued in most places in the Americas long after the slave trade was abolished, with the British abolishing slavery in their colonies in 1833. The French abolished slavery in 1848, the same year that their last king was overthrown by a democratic government. The United States abolished slavery in 1865 when the north won a bitter Civil War that had divided the southern slave-holding states from the northern non-slavery states. The last country to abolish slavery in the Americas was Brazil, where the institution was weakened by a law that allowed slaves to fight in the army in exchange for freedom. Army leaders resisted demands that they capture and return runaway slaves, and slavery was abolished in 1888, without a war.


Various immigration patterns arose to replace the slave trade. Asian and European immigrants came to seek opportunities in the Americas from Canada in the north to Argentina in the south. Some were attracted to discoveries of gold and silver in western North America and Canada, including many who made their way west from the eastern United States. However, European and Asian migrants who became workers in factories, railroad construction sites, and plantations outnumbered those who were gold prospectors.

By the mid 19th century European migrants began crossing the Atlantic to fill the factories in the eastern United States. Increasing rents and indebtedness drove farmers from Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia to North America, settling in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys in search of land. The potato famine forced many Irish peasants to make the journey, and political revolutions caused many Germans to flee the wrath of the government when their causes failed. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most immigrants to North America were from southern and eastern Europe, fleeing famine, poverty, and discrimination in their countries of origin.

While migrants to the United States came to fill jobs in the developing industrial society, those who went to Latin America mostly worked on agricultural plantations. About 4 million Italians came to Argentina in the 1880s and 1890s, and others went to Brazil, where the government paid the voyage over for Italian migrants who came to work on coffee plantations after slavery was abolished. Others came from Asia, with more than 15,000 indentured laborers from China working in sugarcane fields in Cuba during the 19th century. Chinese and Japanese laborers came to Peru where they worked on cotton plantations, in mines, and on railroad lines.

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