Posted by: Bevan | November 13, 2013

The Age of Revolution – Globally

How did the age of revolutions from 1750 to 1850 alter the relations between the parts of the world, from Asia to the Americas?

The age of revolutions in the century following 1750 had widespread effects. In terms of global history the century saw political disruptions and economic rebalancing against the backdrop of a new age of global imperialism.
Political revolutions challenged the colonies built up in the Americas by Spain, Portugal, Britain and France. The 13 British colonies instigated these revolutions with rebellion and eventual independence and the creation of the United States. The American Revolution unleashed a cascade of events with its radical notions of equality and rights (based on fashionable Enlightenment ideals). The cost of helping the colonists weakened the absolute monarchy in France contributing to revolution there, in turn inspiring a slave revolt, independence and emancipation in Haiti. Napoleon Bonaparte launched a successful coup after political turmoil in France, and invaded the Iberian peninsula in 1807. Creole elites in Central and South America had maintained their loyalty to the Iberian crowns to avoid social revolution following Indian rebellion. After the fall of the Iberian monarchies imperial control was compromised and revolutions ensued. The result was that virtually all of America (Canada being the principal exception) broke away from colonial control. The United States had created a new political construct based on popular sovereignty and individual rights which was hugely influential on the new nations. Although the new independent nations were non-monarchical power was concentrated in landed male elites. The promise of equality was particularly absent for women and slaves.
The contradictions of the new state’s ‘equality’ would lead to the slave emancipation movement. It could be argued that this was revolutionary as it brought to an end a trade that had been crucial to the lucrative sugar, coffee and cotton plantations and had resulted in twelve and a half million slaves crossing the Atlantic from Africa. The end of the slave trade stopped the drain of people from Africa, but also cut off income leading to the fall of many West African regimes such as the Yoruba kingdom. 
The economic changes of this century were the most profound since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years earlier and arguably resulted in the greatest changes in international relations. Asia had been largely unaffected by the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century, however the old agrarian empires were impacted by two major transformations. The Industrious Revolution was a change where households spent more time working, resulting in increasing surpluses of food allowing increasing non-agrarian populations in northwestern Europe and British North America. The results were the expansion of global trade as even ordinary people could purchase imported goods. New financial services were also developed to finance merchants. The wealth from trade and availability of finance contributed to the other economic transformation – the Industrial Revolution. Technical innovations and investment in manufacturing elevated Britain, then other European nations in the economic world order. Productivity increased exponentially as costs plummeted. Hand spinners in India took 50,000 hours to produce 100 pounds of cotton yarn. By 1825 power looms in Britain were producing the same amount in 135 hours, with increasing quality (1). Improved transport with railways and steamships shrunk the world, allowing the exploitation of energy resources (coal) and import and export of goods over longer distances more cheaply. This also made migration affordable to the less wealthy, making possible increasing migration from Europe in the nineteenth century. 
Relations with Asia were transformed. India underwent a reversal becoming an importer of British textiles and exporter of cotton. A French missionary commented that “Europe no longer depends on India for anything, having learnt to beat the Hindus on their own ground, even in their most characteristic manufactures and industries, for which from time immemorial we were dependent on them” (2). Trade balances reversed as India became a net exporter of gold and silver to pay for cheap textiles. By the early nineteenth century Europe had also reversed trade imbalances with China, and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire had become a significant debtor. China’s economic decline as well as internal weaknesses meant that Europeans were able to more aggressively seek trading advantages, typified most powerfully in the humiliating Opium Wars. Chinese attempts to stem the outflow of silver as well as the sale of Opium by Britain resulted in naval confrontation. China lost and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain as well as more extensive privileges and trading rights for Europeans.
The Americas were vital in the Industrial Revolution. Pomeranz outlines how important sugar and cotton from the colonies were in overcoming Europe’s ‘land deficit’, providing essential calories and manufacturing inputs. Western Europe was able to “transfer handicraft workers into modern industries . . . because the exploitation of the New World made it unnecessary to mobilize the huge numbers of additional workers … needed to use Europe’s own land in much more intensive and ecologically sustainable ways” (3). Precious metals were also an important fuel to trade and ultimately a source of capital accumulation alongside the plantation products of slave labour.
Increasingly extensive global interconnections meant that new ideas of rights and political forms spread quickly following the American revolution. Additionally imperial rivalries and ties meant a cascade of cause and effect – the Seven Years War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, South American independence – dramatic changes bounced back and forth on a global scale. Additionally economic changes brought about by increasing productivity and mechanisation were both fuelled by New World colonies, and led to burgeoning economic power for Western Europe. They also meant reversing trading relationships and relative wealth between Europe and Asia, both in directly imperially controlled regions such as India as well as surviving agrarian empires such as China.


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