European expansion

An industrial world economy

And yet, one hundred years later, at the time of the First World War, next to all of Africa and much of Asia were in European hands. Colonialism had returned with a vengeance. In order to understand this turn of events, we must understand the changes that took place in Europe itself. This is more than anything the story of the industrial revolution.

At the end of the eighteenth century, new ways of manufacturing goods were invented in Europe. Things were now being made in factories and by machines, powered first by steam and later by electricity. Before long cheap, mass-produced goods were flooding European markets. Yet the factories produced many more things than European consumers could buy, and for this reason, it became crucial to find new customers. New sources of raw material were needed too, resources which in many cases only could be found on other continents. These economic imperatives meant that the Europeans took a renewed interest in the world. The eventual result was a second wave of imperial expansion and the creation of an international system completely dominated by Europe.

This time it was the British who took the lead. It was in Britain after all that the industrial revolution started. And the trading stations and colonial outposts which remained in their hands provided them with a head-start. The British also had a navy which was second to none. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century, the British government was dominated by free-traders, by politicians, that is, who wanted to abolish customs duties and make sure that British merchants had free access to foreign markets. It was easy for the British to be in favor of free trade since they were the ones whose factories produced goods most cheaply. The strategy the British pursued was always the same. They approached the ruler of a non-European country and asked for access to its customers and its raw materials. If the country in question agreed, the British established themselves and started buying and selling. But if the country refused, the British would threaten military action. In some cases, the natives eventually gave in and signed a commercial treaty, often referred to as an “unequal treaty.” In other cases, when the natives stood their ground, the result was war.

This is how Britain, step by step, came to establish its worldwide preeminence. The British, that is, had no grand master plan for how to take over the world. Rather, one step led to another, and they were all guided by what at first was regarded as economic imperatives — foreign markets had to be opened up; trading posts had to be defended; British investments abroad had to be made more secure. India illustrates this rather absent-minded logic. Here the British had at first only small trading posts, but in the course of the eighteenth century, they were sucked into the struggles which characterized politics in the fragmenting Mughal Empire. Soon the East India Company made alliances with powerful Indian princes. The carrot which the British dangled before them was access to international markets; the stick which they wielded was the army which the British had brought with them. At the battle of Palashi — known to the English as “Plassey” — 1757, the East India Company defeated the ruler of Bengal and his French allies. As a result, the British suddenly found itself the main power broker on the subcontinent.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to exaggerate Europe’s superiority — at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century is concerned. Many locals defended themselves ferociously and often they had access to military technology which was no worse than that of the Europeans. Thus, even as their colonial empires spread, there were plenty of embarrassing reversals. The British lost wars not only in Burma and Afghanistan but against the Asante and the people of Benin. And in 1857 they came very close to being thrown out of India. The British Empire was enormous to be sure, but Britain itself was tiny. The empire was like an oak tree planted in a flower pot. Meanwhile, the French began their colonial conquest of North Africa. Parts of Algeria were occupied in the 1830s and eventually incorporated into the French state. But here too the Europeans met with ferocious resistance and it took the French more than ten years to conquer Algeria. Since they often were unable to defeat their enemies outright, the French employed what they proudly described as “barbarian tactics.” In the nineteenth century this was more than anything the way the Europeans conducted colonial warfare.

Yet the big prize for European merchants was China. The country had some 350 million people — reputed to represent “a third of mankind” — and they were all, the Europeans were convinced, eager to buy their products. The only problem was that the Chinese authorities only allowed trade in the southern city of Guangzhou — known to the Europeans as “Canton” — and only for part of the year. To the British in particular, this was not nearly good enough. They wanted access to China for their cotton fabrics and their silverware, but in addition, they wanted to sell opium. Opium was the solution to the perennial problem of what to sell to the Chinese. Opium was grown in India by the British East India Company, and before long the exports to China were booming. The only problem was that opium was illegal in China. When the Chinese authorities tried to stop the trade, the British embarked on two wars — the First Opium War, 1839-42, and the Second Opium War, 1856-1860. China lost on both occasions and was eventually forced to open all its ports to foreign trade, including the trade in opium. The traditional international system of East Asia, which had had China at its center, was no more. From being the “Middle Kingdom,” and the country responsible for keeping Heaven and Earth in harmony with each other, China became a peripheral player in an international system controlled by Europe.

The Japanese market was pried open in much the same fashion, although here threats were enough, and it was the Americans who took the lead. Since the early seventeenth century, Japan had had only limited intercourse with the rest of the world, all official trade was restricted to only one city, Nagasaki, in the far south. However, in the summer of 1853, the American Matthew Perry appeared in Edo harbor onboard a steam-driven gunboat, demanding that Japan open up its markets. Initially, at a loss for what to do, the Japanese began making concessions. Eventually, their policy of seclusion unraveled. An important force behind the change in policy was the daimyo, the local rulers, especially the ones in the south of the country who already for a long time had carried on a clandestine trade with the outside world. In 1868, the changes set in motion in this way led to an overthrow of the Tokugawa government. Soon Japan too found itself a small player in an international system dominated by Europe.

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