Raising the Curtain: Trade and Empire

Yet Another Outtake from "Slouching Towards Utopia?: An Economic History of the Long Twentieth Century, 1870-2016"

Il Quarto Stato

Raising the Curtain: The Long Twentieth Century—Trade and Empire

The extent to which the navies and trading fleets of the great European sea-borne empires of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries shaped the industrial development of western Europe has always been one of the most fiercely-debated and unsettled topics in economic history. That European expansion in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were catastrophes for the regions of west Africa that were the sources of the slave trade; for the Amerindians of the Caribbean; for the Aztecs, Incas, the mound-builders of the Mississippi valley; and for the princes of Bengal and others who found themselves competing with the British East India Company in the succession wars over the spoils of India’s Moghul Empire—that is not in dispute.

But how much did pre-industrial trade and plunder affect European development? That is not so clear.

It is clear is that even at the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century trade not in luxuries but in staples had begun to profoundly shape history. For the first time transoceanic trade mattered not just for a ruling elite but for an economy as a whole. The export of cotton from the American South and had mattered. Without the appetite of British and New England factories for cotton and the power to ship ginned cotton to them cheaply, the slaves of the American South in 1860 would have been what they were for George Washington in the 1790s: a quarter of your wealth that you were willing to free, at least upon your death, because it was the right thing to do. By contrast, for Jefferson Davis it wasn’t his land but rather his slaves that were three-quarters of his wealth—and so the U.S. Civil War of 1861-5 came.

Early-nineteenth century cotton showed what late-eighteenth century sugar had prefigured. The export of sugar from the Caribbean islands and Latin America (and also tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and so forth) meant that European agriculture did not have to grow nearly as much flax or raise as much wool or produce as many calories. It provided an extra edge to the British economy: as if there was perhaps one additional ghost worker who did not have to be fed or paid alongside every ten.

That, from the perspective of 1870, was what the expanded intercontinental division of labor and the higher productivity that resulted from it had done up to that point.

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