Backstory to the industrial revolution: part 1

So to recap: I traced the roots of modern wealth to the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain in the late 18th century and spread through Europe and the United States in the 19th century. Then we got diverted into a somewhat abstract discussion of why the IR permitted such a profound transformation in living standards and human capabilities, based on the massive multipliers in energy output allowed by new technologies.

It really was a profound transformation. That seems worth emphasising. The book Peasants Into Frenchmen describes the widespread and chronic nature of poverty and hunger in the pre-industrial French countryside, reporting one proverb: “As fa! Mandja ta ma, garda l’aoutro per dema!” Roughly, ‘You’re hungry? Eat your hand, save the other for tomorrow.’* Today the typical citizen of France, or any other high-income country, is a city-dweller, literate, enjoys a varied and nutritious diet, has access to healthcare, and a long life expectancy. 200 years ago, the typical Frenchman or typical anybody was the opposite in all respects. Not to mention your airplanes and smart phones and whatnot. Things are better now.

The dark side to the story is that, as a technological and economic gap grew betweeen the countries of Europe and the rest of the world, the former had few scruples exploiting their advantage over the latter. India was colonised by Britain; China was forced into unwilling trade arrangements at gunpoint, as was Japan; and Africa was carved up as Europe’s hunger for resources grew and new bulk transportation technologies (rail, steamship) developed.

So why did Europe (and its offspring, the US) become the world’s power centre? Why did the Industrial Revolution happen there? You can find much more estimable opinions than mine on the matter; but the truth is, no one really agrees on the causes.

Let’s leave structural causes alone for the moment, and take a simpler narrative approach. In what follows I’m going to try to tell the ‘back story’ as I currently understand it.

The backwater of Eurasia

Roll the clock back a millenium. In 1000 AD, western Europe is a fairly unlikely candidate for world domination. The power and wealth of Eurasia is concentrated in the east: the Song dynasty in China, the Islamic world, India, the Byzantine empire. Europe is a backwater, poor and undeveloped, on the fringes.

This hadn’t always been the case… sort of. Southern Europe, under the Roman empire up to ~400 AD, had boasted numerous cities and active trade, centred on the Mediterranean. The trade ceased and most of the cities dwindled away in the centuries following the western Roman empire’s fall, the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’ But northern Europe, beyond the old Roman borders, was effectively a pioneer frontier, ‘settled’ under the Frankish rulers who succeeded the Romans.

By around 1100, Europe was growing in population and began to rapidly reurbanize. Trade links strengthened with the mainstream Eurasian economy, or at least with Europe’s wealthy Islamic neighbours. The bulk of this trade was routed through the city-states of the Italian peninsula, like Venice and Genoa. Europe was still a backwater, but at least an upwardly-mobile one.

The Mongols

In the 13th century, a new power upended the old Eurasian order and tilted Europe onto a new path.

The nomads of the Mongolian steppe were always formidable warriors. Genghis Khan introduced (or rather imposed) the magic ingredient of political unity. The resulting fighting force conquered central Asia, China, Russia, and much of the Muslim world.

The Mongols brought destruction on an epic scale. To take one example, Baghdad, the foremost city of Islam for half a millenium, was devastated. Western Europe was relatively unscathed, however. The Mongols invaded Hungary twice, but made it no further west.

The bigger impact on western Europe was quite unintentional on the Mongols’ part, and came when they settled down to rule. The so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ made it comparatively safe for merchants to travel overland all the way from the Black Sea to China, through Mongol-controlled territory. A number of Italian traders took advantage of this opportunity, most famously Marco Polo. For the first time ever, Europeans could obtain the wondrous products of the far east at their source, rather than purchasing them from Muslim middlemen. They were pretty stoked.

Good things don’t last forever. The Mongol empire disintegrated into competing states, the land route once more became impassible, and the European merchants were back where they were before.

With one crucial difference: now they knew where ‘spices’ came from, and the dream was ignited of finding another direct route.


In the second part, I’ll cover colonialism and the rise of science.

 

* Possibly in Occitan?

 

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One thought on “Backstory to the industrial revolution: part 1

  1. Pingback: Backstory to the industrial revolution: conclusion | David Oliver's blog

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