European History Pt. 22 — Economic Changes

In the last section, we talk a brief break from the strict narrative of history to look at the wider cultural context that held sway over most of Europe. Now we’re going to take some time to look at the economic situation. The timeframe the book adopts for this synoptic section is the entire 18th century (1700s).

The book makes two things clear from the start.

1. “The economic system of the eighteenth century, while it contained within itself the seeds of later industrialism, represented the flowering of the older merchant capitalism, domestic industry, and mercantilist policies which had grown up since the sixteenth century.

2. “Thus, while it is true to say that most people still lived in the country, it would be false to say that their lives and labors were devoted to agriculture exclusively.” The book goes on to explain that the beginnings of industry were primarily began in the country.

The Dutch. As always, the dutch continued to be a key economic force. In the 18th century. They had gotten so rich in the previous 200 years that they just lent out their capital to other people. They were huge investors in the bank of England as it exploded in power and importance, especially after 1800.

Asia. Asia would only accept gold from Europe,l which led to a continuous scramble for more of the precious yellow metal. For instance, Europe’s exploitation of the gold coast was in part driven by the need to pay in gold for the spices and other goods that these countries badly wanted from India and China, etc.

Sugar.  The book makes the point that the economic value of sugar taken from slave plantations in the 1700s was enormous. It was more than the output from Asia, and more than the output from the rest of America. Here the book is referring to huge, slave-driven output of places like Barbados, St. Kitts, and others.

Slavery. Starting in 1650, slavery took place in the colonies in north america, but after 1700, it became extremely widespread. Remember, at this time, far more African made the trip to the Americas than people from Europe. The “Atlantic” migration was a black phenomenon.

Western Europe. A huge portion of western Europe’s amazing enrichment during this time was built off of slavery. The west in turn, with access to the Americas, was able to trade with Eastern europe including Poland and Russia. This brought further wealth to the western European powers and further “culture” in the form of tobacco and tea to the east.

Other random observations: One sees how power begets power in this stage of history. Remember, the landowning aristocracy in Europe started with power over labor in a feudal scenario. Labor was emancipated, but these elites, who were not all that rich (relative to their peasants they were of course very rich) were able to parley their political power into economic power as they enriched themselves through the slave and spice trade. The book writes, “the two forms of property, borgeois (capital, shipping, investment) and aristocratic (land), tended to merge.” Partly through marriage.

Next time will be Europe after the war of Spanish Succession.


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