Imperialism: Crash Course World History #35Hi, I'm John Green, this is CrashCourse World History, and today we're gonna discuss 19th century imperialism. So the 19th century certainly didn't invent the empire, but it did take it to new heights, by which we mean lows, or possibly heights, I dunno, I can't decide, roll the intro while I think about it.
Yeah, I don't know, I'm still undecided. Let's begin with China! When last we checked in, China was a thriving manufacturing power, about to be overtaken by Europe, but still heavily involved in world trade, especially an importer of silver from the Spanish empire.
Europeans had to use silver because they didn't really produce anything else the Chinese wanted, and that state of affairs continued through the 18th century. For example, in 1793, the Macartney Mission tried to get better trade conditions with China and was a total failure.
Here's the Qianlong Emperor's well known response to the British: "Hither to all European nations including your own country's barbarian merchants have carried on their trade with our celestial empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although our celestial empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders."
But then Europeans, especially the British, found something that the Chinese would buy: opium. By the 1830's, British free trade policy unleashed a flood of opium in China, which threatened China's favorable balance of trade. It also created a lot of drug addicts.
And then in 1839 the Chinese responded to what they saw as these unfair trade practices with...a stern letter that they never actually sent. Commissioner Lin Zexu drafted a response that contained a memorable threat to "cut off trade in rhubarb, silk, and tea, all valuable products of ours without which foreigners could not live."
But even if the British had received this terrifying threat to their precious rhubarb supply, they probably wouldn't have responded because selling drugs is super lucrative.
So the Chinese made like tea partiers, confiscating a bunch of British opium and chucking it into the sea. And then the British responded to this by demanding compensation, and access to Chinese territory where they could carry out their trade.
And then the Chinese were like, "Man that seems a little bit harsh," whereupon the British sent in gunships, opening trade with Canton by force.
Chinese General Yijing made a counter attack in 1842 that included a detailed plan to catapult flaming monkeys onto British ships. Stan, is that true?
All right, apparently the plans actually involved strapping fireworks to monkeys' backs and were never carried out, but still!
Slightly off topic: obviously I don't want anyone to light monkeys on fire. I'm just saying that flaming monkeys lend themselves to a lot of great band names, like the Sizzling Simians, Burning Bonobos, Immolated Marmoset...Stan, sometimes I feel like I should give up teaching world history and just become a band name generator. That's my real gift.
Anyway, due to lack of monkey fireworks, the Chinese counterattacks were unsuccessful, and they eventually signed the treaty of Nanjing, which stated that Britain got Hong Kong and five other treaty ports, as well as the equivalent of two billion dollars in cash. Also, the Chinese basically gave up all sovereignty to European spheres of influence, wherein Europeans were subject to their laws, not Chinese laws.
In exchange for all of this, China got a hot slice of nothing. You might think the result of this war would be a shift in the balance of trade in Britain's favor, but that wasn't immediately the case. In fact, the British were importing so much tea from China that the trade deficit actually rose more than 30 billion dollars.
But eventually after another war and one of the most destructive civil rebellions in Chinese and possibly world history, the Taiping Rebellion, the situation was reversed, and Europeans, especially the British, became the dominant economic power in China.
Okay. So but when we think about the 19th century imperialism, we usually think about the way that Europe turned Africa from this [map] into this [map], the so-called scramble for Africa. Speaking of scrambles and the European colonization of Africa, you know what they say--sometimes to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. And sometimes, you break a lot of eggs and you don't get an omelette.
Europeans have been involved in Africa since the 16th century, when the Portuguese used their cannons to take control of cities on coast to set up their trading post empire, but in the second half of the 19th century, Europe suddenly and spectacularly succeeded at colonizing basically all of Africa. Why?
Well, the biggest reason that Europeans were able to extend their grasp over so much of the world was the same reason they wanted to do so in the first place: industrialization. Nationalism played its part, of course. European states saw it as a real bonus to be able say that they had colonies--so much so, that a children's rhyme in An ABC for Baby Patriotswent, "C is for colonies. Rightly we boast. That of all great countries Great Britain has the most."
But it was mostly, not to get all Marxist on you or anything, about controlling the means of production. Europeans wanted colonies to secure sources of raw materials, especially cotton, copper, iron, and rubber, that were used to fuel their growing industrial economies.
And in addition to providing the motive for imperialism, European industrialization also provided the means. Europeans didn't fail to take over territory in Africa until the late 19th century because they didn't want to; they failed because they couldn't. This was mostly due to disease.
Unlike in the Americas, Africans weren't devastated by diseases like smallpox because they'd had smallpox for centuries and were just as immune to it as Europeans were. Not only that, but Africa had diseases of its own, including yellow fever, malaria, and sleeping sickness, all of which killed Europeans in staggering numbers.
Also, nagana was a disease endemic to Africa that killed horses, which made it difficult for Europeans to take advantage of African grasslands, and also difficult for them to get inland, because their horses would die as they tried to carry stuff.
Also, while in the 16th century Europeans did have guns, they were pretty useless, especially without horses. So most fighting was done the old-fashioned way, with swords. That worked pretty well in the Americas, unless you were the Incas or the Aztecs, but it didn't work in Africa, because the Africans also had swords. And spears, and axes.
So as much as they might have wanted to colonize Africa in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Africa's mosquitoes, microbes, and people were too much for them.
So what made the difference? Technology.
First, steam ships made it possible for Europeans to travel inland, bringing supplies and personnel via Africa's navigable rivers. No horses? No problem.
Even more important was quinine medicine, sometimes in the form of tonic water, mixed into refreshing quintessentially British gin and tonics. Quinine isn't as effective as modern antimalarial medication, and it doesn't cure the disease, but it does help moderate its effects.
But of course the most important technology that enabled Europeans to dominate Africa was guns. By the 19th century, European gun technology had improved dramatically, especially with the introduction of the Maxim machine gun, which allowed Europeans to wipe out Africans in battle after battle. Of course, machine guns were effective when wielded by Africans, too, but Africans had fewer of them.
Oh, it's time for the open letter? And my chair is back!
An open letter to Hiram Maxim. But first, let's see what's in the secret compartment today. Oh, it's Darth Vader! What a great reminder of imperialism.
Dear Hiram Maxim,
I hate you. It's not so much that you invented the Maxim machine gun, although obviously that's a little bit problematic, or even that you look like the poor man's Colonel Sanders. First off, you're a possible bigamist. I have a long standing opposition to bigamy. Secondly, you were born an American but became a Brit, thereby metaphorically machine gunning our founding fathers. But most importantly, among your many inventions was the successful amusement park ride, the Captive Flying Machine. Mr. Maxim, I hate the Captive Flying Machine. The Captive Flying Machine has resulted in many a girlfriend telling me that I'm a coward. I'm not a coward, I just don't want to die up there! It's all your fault, Hiram Maxim, and nobody believes your story about the lightbulb.
Best wishes, John Green.
All right. So, here is something that often gets overlooked. European imperialism involved a lot of fighting and a lot of dying. And when we say that Europe came to dominate Africa, for the most part that domination came through wars, which killed lots of Africans and also lots of Europeans, although most of them died from disease. It's very, very important to remember that Africans did not meekly acquiesce to European hegemony: they resisted, often violently, but ultimately they were defeated by a technologically superior enemy.
In this respect, they were a lot like the Chinese, and also the Indians, and the Vietnamese, and--you get the picture.
So by the end of the 19th century, most of Africa and much of Asia had been colonized by European powers. I mean, even Belgium got in on it, and they weren't even a country at the beginning of the 19th century. I mean, Belgium has enjoyed like, 12 years of sovereignty in the last 3 millennia.
Notable exceptions include Japan, which was happily pursuing its own imperialism, Thailand, Iran, and of course Afghanistan. Because no one can conquer Afghanistan, unless you are--wait for it--the Mongols. [Mongol montage]
It's tempting to imagine Europe ruling their colonies with the proverbial topaz fist, and while there was always the threat of violence, the truth is a lot more complicated.
Let's go to the Thought Bubble.
In most cases, Europeans ruled their colonies with the help of, and sometimes completely through, intermediaries and collaborators. For example, in the 1890's in India, there were fewer than 1,000 British administrators supposedly ruling over 300 million Indians. The vast majority of British troops at any given time in India, more than two-thirds, were in fact Indians under the command of British officers.
Because of their small numbers relative to local populations, most European colonizers resorted to indirect rule, relying on governments that were already there but exerting control over their leaders.
Frederick Lugard, who was Britain's head honcho in Nigeria for a time, called this "rule through and by the natives." This worked particularly well with British administrators, who were primarily middle class men but had aristocratic pretensions, and were often pleased to associate with the highest echelons of Indian or African society.
Now, this isn't to say that indigenous rulers were simply puppets. Often, they retained real power. This was certainly true in India, where more than a third of the territory was ruled by Indian princes. The French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia were ruled by Arab monarchs, and the French also ruled through native kings in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
For the most part, Europeans could almost always rely on their superior military technology to coerce local rulers into doing what the Europeans wanted. And they could replace native officials with Europeans if they had to. But in general, they preferred to rule indirectly. It was easier and cheaper. Also, less malaria.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So while we can't know why all native princes who ruled in the context of European imperialism put up with it, we can make some pretty good guesses. First of all, they were still rulers. They got to keep their prestige and their fancy hats, and to some extent their power. Many were also able to gain advantages through their service, like access to European education for themselves and for their children. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was the son of an Indian high official, which made it possible for him to study law in England.
And we can't overlook the sheer practicality of it. The alternative was to resist, and that usually didn't work out well. I'm reminded of the famous couplet, "Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not."
But even with this enormous technological advantage, it wasn't always easy. For example, it took 25 years, from 1845 to 1870, for the British to fully defeat the Maori on New Zealand. Because the Maori were kick-ass fighters who had mastered musketry and defensive warfare. And I will remind you, it is not cursing if you're talking about donkeys.
In fact, it took them being outnumbered three-to-one with the arrival of 750,000 settlers for the Maori to finally capitulate. And I will remind you that the rule against splitting infinitives is not an actual rule.
Those of you more familiar with U.S. history might notice a parallel between the Maori and some of the Native American tribes, like the Apaches and the Lakota, a good reminder that the United States did some imperial expansion of its own as part of its nationalizing project in the 19th century.
But back to Africa. Sometimes African rulers were so good at adapting European technology that they were able to successfully resist imperialism. Ethiopia's Menelik II defeated the Italians in battle, securing not just independence but an empire of his own.
But embracing European-style modernization could also be problematic, as Khedive Ismail of Egypt found out during his rule in the late 19th century. He celebrated his imperial success by commissioning an opera, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, for the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1871. Giuseppe Verdi, by the way--no relation to John Green.
And Ismail had ambitions of extending Egypt's control up the Nile, west toward Lake Chad. But to do that, he needed money, and that's where he got into trouble. His borrowing bankrupted Egypt and led to Britain's taking control over the country's finances and its shares in the Suez Canal that Ismail had built, with French engineers and French capital, in 1869. The British sent in 1,300 bureaucrats to fix Egypt's finances, an invasion of red tape that led to a nationalist uprising, which brought on a full-scale British intervention after 1881 in order to protect British interests.
This business imperialism, as it is sometimes known, is really at the heart of the imperialistic impulse. Industrialized nations push economic integration upon developing nations, and then extract value from those developing nations, just as you would from a mine or a field you owned.
And here we see political history and economic history coming together again. As western corporations grew in the latter part of the 19th century, their influence grew as well, both in their home countries and in the lands where they were investing.
But ultimately, whether the colonizer is a business enterprise or a political one, the complicated legacy of imperialism survives. It's why your bananas are cheap, why your call centers are Indian, why your chocolate comes from Africa, and why everything else comes from China.
These imperialistic adventures may have only lasted a century, but it was the century in which the world as we know it today began to take shape.
John Green talks fast. I type faster. Use this to help complete your guided notes.
Capitalism and Socialism: Crash Course World History #33Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we're going to talk about capitalism.
Yeah, Mr. Green, capitalism just turns men into wolves. Your purportedly free markets only makes slave of us all.
Oh god Stan, it's me from college. Me from the past has become me from college. This is a disaster! The reason he's so unbearable, Stan, is that he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of other people's narratives. And that means that he will never ever be able to have a productive conversation with another human in his entire life.
So listen, me from the past. I'm gonna disappoint you by being too capitalist. And I'm gonna disappoint a lot of other people by not being capitalist enough. And I'm gonna disappoint the historians by not using enough jargon. But what can I do? We only have twelve minutes! Fortunately, capitalism is all about efficiency.
So let's do this, me from college: Randy [Ransom] Riggs becomes a best-selling author, Josh Radnor stars in a great sitcom, it is NOT going to work out with Emily, and do NOT go to Alaska with a girl you've known for ten days. Okay, let's talk capitalism.
So capitalism is an economic system, but it's also a cultural system. It's characterized by innovation and investment to increase wealth. But today, we're going to focus on production and how industrial capitalism changed it. Stan, I can't wear these emblems of the bourgeoisie while Karl Marx himself is looking at me, it's ridiculous.
I'm changing! Very hard to take off a shirt dramatically.
So let's say it's 1200 CE and you're a rug merchant. Just like merchants today, you sometimes need to borrow money in order to buy the rugs you want to resell at a profit, and then you pay that money back, often with interest, once you've resold the rugs. This is called mercantile capitalism, and it was a global phenomenon, from the Chinese, to the Indian Ocean trade network, to Muslim merchants who would sponsor trade caravans across the Sahara.
But by the 17th century, merchants in the Netherlands and in Britain had expanded upon this idea to create joint stock companies. Those companies could finance bigger trade missions and also spread the risk of international trade. But the thing about international trade is that sometimes boats sink or they get taken by pirates, and while that's bad if you're a sailor because, you know, you lose your life, it's really bad if you're a mercantile capitalist because you lost all your money. But if you own one-tenth of ten boats, your risk is much better managed. That kind of investment definitely increased wealth, but it only affected a sliver of the population and it didn't create a culture of capitalism.
Industrial capitalism was something altogether different, both in scale and in practice. Let's use Joyce Appleby's definition of industrial capitalism: "An economic system that relies on investment of capital in machines and technology that are used to increase production of marketable goods."
So imagine that someone made a Stan machine (by the way Stan, this is a remarkable likeness) and that Stan machine could produce and direct 10 times more episodes of Crash Course than a human Stan. Well, of course, even if there are upfront costs I'm going to invest in a Stan machine so I can start cranking out 10 times the knowledge - Stan, are you focusing on the robot instead of me? I AM THE STAR OF THE SHOW. Stanbot, you're going behind the globe.
So when most of us think about capitalism, especially when we think about its downsides - long hours, low wages, miserable working conditions, child labor, unemployed Stans - that's what we're thinking about. Now admittedly, this is just one definition of industrial capitalism among many, but it's the definition we're going with.
All right, let's go to the Thought Bubble.
Industrial capitalism developed first in Britain in the 19th century. Britain had a bunch of advantages - it was the dominant power on the seas, and it was making good money off its trade with its colonies, including the slave trade; also, the growth of capitalism was helped by the half-century of civil unrest that resulted from the 17th century English Civil War.
Now, I'm not advocating for civil wars or anything but in this particular case it was useful because before the war, the British crown had put a lot of regulations on the economy: complicated licenses, royal monopolies, etc. But during the turmoil it couldn't enforce them, which made for freer markets.
Another factor was a remarkable increase in agricultural productivity in the 16th century. As food prices started to rise, it became profitable for farmers, both large and small, to invest in agricultural technologies that would improve crop yields. Those higher prices for grain probably resulted from population growth, which in turn was encouraged by increased production of food crops.
A number of these agricultural improvements came from the Dutch, who had chronic problems feeding themselves, and discovered that planting different kinds of crops, like clover, that added nitrogen to the soil and could be used to feed livestock at the same time, meant that more fields could be used at once. This increased productivity, eventually brought down prices, and this encouraged further innovation in order to increase yield to make up for the drop in prices.
Lower food prices had an added benefit: since food cost less and wages in England remained high, workers would have more disposable income, which meant that if there were consumer goods available, they would be consumed, which incentivized people to make consumer goods more efficiently, and therefore more cheaply. You can see how this positive feedback loop leads to more food, and more stuff, culminating in a world where people have so much stuff that we must rent space to store it, and so much food that obesity has become a bigger killer than starvation.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So this increased productivity also meant that fewer people needed to work in agriculture in order to feed the population. To put this in perspective, in 1520, 80% of the English population worked the land. By 1800, only 36% of adult male laborers were working in agriculture, and by 1850, that percentage had dropped to 25.
This meant that when the factories started humming, there were plenty of workers to hum along with them. Especially child laborers. So far all this sounds pretty good, right? I mean, except for the child labor - who wouldn't want more, cheaper food? Yeah, well, not so fast.
One of the ways the British achieved all this agricultural productivity was through the process of enclosure, whereby landlords would reclaim and privatize fields that for centuries had been held in common by multiple tenants. This increased agricultural productivity, but it also impoverished many tenant farmers, many of whom lost their livelihoods.
Okay, for our purposes capitalism is also a cultural system, rooted in the need of private investors to turn a profit. So the real change needed here was a change of mind. People had to develop the capitalist values of taking risks and appreciating innovation. And they had to come to believe that making an upfront investment in something like a Stan Machine could pay for itself and then some.
One of the reasons that these values developed in Britain was that the people who initially held them were really good at publicizing them. Writers like Thomas Mun, who worked for the English East India Company, exposed people to the idea that the economy was controlled by markets. And other writers popularized the idea that it was human nature for individuals to participate in markets as rational actors.
Even our language changed: the word "individuals" did not apply to persons until the 17th century. And in the 18th century, a "career" still referred only to horses' racing lives.
Perhaps the most important idea that was popularized in England was that men and women were consumers as well as producers and that this was actually a good thing because the desire to consume manufactured goods could spur economic growth. "The main spur to trade, or rather to industry and ingenuity, is the exorbitant appetite of men, which they will take pain to gratify," so wrote John Cary, one of capitalism's cheerleaders, in 1695, and in talking about our appetite, he wasn't just talking about food. That doesn't seem radical now, but it sure did back then.
So here in the 21st century it's clear that industrial capitalism - at least for now - has won. [Aside to Marx] Sorry buddy, but you know, you gave it a good run. You didn't know about Stalin.
But capitalism isn't without its problems, or its critics, and there were certainly lots of shortcomings to industrial capitalism in the 19th century. Working conditions were awful. Days were long, arduous, and monotonous. Workers lived in conditions that people living in the developed world today would associate with abject poverty. One way that workers responded to these conditions was by organizing into labor unions. Another response was in many cases purely theoretical: socialism, most famously Marxian socialism.
I should probably point out here that socialism is an imperfect opposite to capitalism, even though the two are often juxtaposed. Capitalism’s defenders like to point out that it’s “natural,” meaning that if left to our own devices, humans would construct economic relationships that resemble capitalism. Socialism, at least in its modern incarnations, makes fewer pretenses towards being an expression of human nature; it’s the result of human choice and human planning.
So, socialism, as an intellectual construct, began in France. How’d I do, Stan? Mm, in the border between Egypt and Libya.
There were two branches of socialism in France, Utopian and revolutionary. Utopian socialism is often associated with Comte de Saint Simon and Charles Fourier, both of whom rejected revolutionary action after having seen the disaster of the French Revolution.
Both were critical of capitalism and while Fourier is usually a punchline in history classes because he believed that, in his ideal socialist world, the seas would turn to lemonade, he was right that human beings have desires that go beyond basic self interest, and that we aren’t always economically rational actors.
The other French socialists were the revolutionaries, and they saw the French Revolution, even its violence, in a much more positive light. The most important of these revolutionaries was Auguste Blanqui, and we associate a lot of his ideas with communism, which is a term that he used. Like the Utopians, he criticized capitalism, but he believed that it could only be overthrown through violent revolution by the working classes.
However, while Blanqui thought that the workers would come to dominate a communist world, he was an elitist. And he believed that workers on their own could never, on their own, overcome their superstitions and their prejudices in order to throw off bourgeois oppression.
And that brings us to Karl Marx, whose ideas and beard cast a shadow over most of the 20th century. Oh, it’s time for the Open Letter? An Open Letter to Karl Marx’s Beard.
But, first, let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today. Oh, robots. Stan Bots! Two Stan Bots, one of them female! Now I own all the means of production. You’re officially useless to me, Stan. Now, turn the camera off. Turn the ca-- I’m going to have to get up and turn the camera off? Stan Bot, go turn the camera off.
Hey there, Karl Marx’s beard.
Wow, you are intense. Karl Marx, these days there are a lot of young men who think beards are cool. Beard lovers, if you will. Those aren’t beards, those are glorified milk mustaches. I mean, I haven’t shaved for a couple weeks, Karl Marx, but I’m not claiming a beard.
You don’t get a beard by being lazy, you get a beard by being a committed revolutionary. That’s why hardcore Marxists are literally known as “Bearded Marxists.” These days, that’s an insult. But you know what, Karl Marx, when I look back at history, I prefer the bearded communists. Let’s talk about some communists who didn’t have beards: Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Joseph freakin’ Stalin with his face caterpillar.
So, yeah, Karl Marx’s beard, it’s my great regret to inform you that there are some paltry beards trying to take up the class struggle these days.
Best Wishes, John Green
Although he’s often considered the father of communism, because he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto, Marx was above all a philosopher and a historian. It’s just that, unlike many philosophers and historians, he advocated for revolution.
His greatest work, Das Kapital, sets out to explain the world of the 19th century in historical and philosophical terms. Marx’s thinking is deep and dense and we’re low on time, but I want to introduce one of his ideas, that of class struggle.
So, for Marx, the focus isn’t on the class, it’s on the struggle. Basically Marx believed that classes don’t only struggle to make history, but that the struggle is what makes classes into themselves. The idea is that through conflict, classes develop a sense of themselves, and without conflict, there is no such thing as class consciousness.
So, Marx was writing in 19th century England and there were two classes that mattered: the workers and the capitalists. The capitalists owned most of the factors of production (in this case, land and the capital to invest in factories). The workers just had their labor. So, the class struggle here is between capitalists, who want labor at the lowest possible price, and the workers who want to be paid as much as possible for their work.
There are two key ideas that underlie this theory of class struggle. First, Marx believed that “production,” or work, was the thing that gave life material meaning. Second, is that we are by nature social animals. We work together, we collaborate, we are more efficient when we share resources.
Marx’s criticism of capitalism is that capitalism replaces this egalitarian collaboration with conflict. And that means that it isn’t a natural system after all. And by arguing that capitalism actually isn’t consistent with human nature, Marx sought to empower the workers.
That’s a lot more attractive than Blanqui’s elitist socialism, and while purportedly Marxist states like the USSR usually abandon worker empowerment pretty quickly, the idea of protecting our collective interest remains powerful. That’s where we’ll have to leave it for now, lest I start reading from The Communist Manifesto.
But, ultimately socialism has not succeeded in supplanting capitalism, as its proponents had hoped. In the United States, at least, “socialism” has become something of a dirty word.
So, industrial capitalism certainly seems to have won out, and in terms of material well-being and access to goods and services for people around the world, that’s probably a good thing.
Ugh, you keep falling over. You’re a great bit, but a very flimsy one. Actually, come to think of it, you’re more of an 8-bit.
But how and to what extent we use socialist principles to regulate free markets remains an open question, and one that is answered very differently in, say, Sweden than in the United States. And this, I would argue, is where Marx still matters.
Is capitalist competition natural and good, or should there be systems in place to check it for the sake of our collective well-being? Should we band together to provide health care for the sick, or pensions for the old? Should government run businesses, and if so, which ones? The mail delivery business? The airport security business? The education business? Those are the places where industrial capitalism and socialism are still competing. And in that sense, at least, the struggle continues.
First, here's the PowerPoint from 1/3.
Now on to Crash Course Industrial Revolution
Here's the file for the guided notes
Here's the Video
Here's the transcript if you missed anything
Coal, Steam, and The Industrial Revolution: Crash Course World History #32Hi, I’m John Green; this is Crash Course World History, and today we’re going to discuss the series of events that made it possible for you to watch Crash Course. And also made this studio possible. And made the warehouse containing the studio possible. A warehouse, by the way, that houses stuff for warehouses. That’s right, it’s time to talk about the Industrial Revolution.
Although it occurred around the same time as the French, American, Latin American, and Haitian Revolutions - between, say, 1750 and 1850 - the industrial revolution was really the most revolutionary of the bunch.
Me from the past: No way, dude. All those other revolutions resulted in, like, new borders and flags and stuff.
We’ve studied 15,000 years of history here at Crash Course, Me from the Past. And borders and flags have changed plenty, and they’re going to keep changing. But in all that time, nothing much changed about the way we disposed of waste or located drinking water or acquired clothing. Most people lived on or very close to the land that provided their food.
Except for a few exceptions, life expectancy never rose above 35 or below 25. Education was a privilege, not a right. In all those millennia, we never developed a weapon that could kill more than a couple dozen people at once, or a way to travel faster than horseback. For 15,000 years, most humans never owned or used a single item made outside of their communities. Simon Bolivar didn’t change that and neither did the American Declaration of Independence.
You have electricity? Industrial Revolution. Blueberries in February? Industrial Revolution. You live somewhere other than a farm? Industrial Revolution. You drive a car? Industrial Revolution. You get twelve years of free, formal education? Industrial Revolution. Your bed, your antibiotics, your toilet, your contraception, your tap water, your every waking and sleeping second: Industrial Revolution.
Here’s one simple statistic that sums it up: Before the industrial revolution, about 80% of the world’s population was engaged in farming to keep itself and the other 20% of people from starving. Today, in the United States, less than 1% of people list their occupation as farming.
I mean, we’ve come so far that we don’t even have to farm flowers anymore. Stan, are these real, by the way? I can’t tell if they’re made out of foam or digital. So what happened? TECHNOLOGY! Here’s my definition:
The Industrial Revolution was an increase in production brought about by the use of machines and characterized by the use of new energy sources. Although this will soon get more complicated, for our purposes today, industrialization is NOT capitalism - although, as we will see next week, it is connected to modern capitalism. And, the industrial revolution began around 1750 and it occurred across most of the earth, but it started in Europe, especially Britain. What happened?
Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
The innovations of the Industrial Revolution were intimately interconnected. Like, look, for instance, at the British textile industry: The invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay in 1733 dramatically increased the speed of weaving, which in turn created demand for yarn, which led to inventions like the Spinning Jenny and the water frame. Soon these processes were mechanized using water power, until the steam engine came along to make flying shuttles really fly in these huge cotton mills.
The most successful steam engine was built by Thomas “They Didn’t Name Anything After Me” Newcomen to clear water out of mines. And because water was cleared out of those mines, there was more coal to power more steam engines, which eventually led to the fancying up of the Newcomen Steam Engine by James “I Got a Unit of Power and a University Named After Me” Watt, whose engine made possible not only railroads and steamboats but also ever-more-efficient cotton mills.
And, for the first time, chemicals other than stale urine, I wish I was kidding, were being used to bleach the cloth that people wore - the first of which was sulfuric acid, which was created in large quantities only thanks to lead-lined chambers, which would’ve been impossible without lead production rising dramatically right around 1750 in Britain, thanks to lead foundries powered by coal.
And all these factors came together to make more yarn that could be spun and bleached faster and cheaper than ever before, a process that would eventually culminate in $18 Crash Course Mongols shirts. Available now at DFTBA.com. Thanks, Thought Bubble, for that shameless promotion of our beautiful, high-quality t-shirts available now at DFTBA.com.
So, the problem here is that with industrialization being so deeply interconnected, it’s really difficult to figure out why it happened in Europe, especially Britain. And that question of why turns out to be one of the more contentious discussions in world history today.
For instance, here are some Eurocentric reasons why industrialization might have happened first in Europe: There’s the cultural superiority argument that basically holds that Europeans are just better and smarter than other people. Sometimes this is formulated as Europeans possessing superior rationality. By the way, you’ll never guess where the people who make this argument tend to come from - unless you guessed that they come from Europe.
And then, others argue that only Europe had the culture of science and invention that made the creation of these revolutionary technologies possible. Another argument is that freer political institutions encouraged innovation and strong property rights created incentives for inventors.
And, finally, people often cite Europe’s small population because small populations require labor-saving inventions. Oh, it’s time for the Open Letter?
An Open Letter to the Steam Engine. But first, let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today. Oh, it’s a TARDIS. Truly the apex of British industrialization.
Dear Steam Engine,
You know what’s crazy? You’ve really never been improved upon. Like this thing, which facilitates time travel, probably runs on a steam engine. Almost all electricity around the world, whether it’s from coal or nuclear power, is just a steam engine.
It’s all still just water and heat, and it speaks to how truly revolutionary the Industrial Revolution was that since then, it’s really just been evolution.
Best Wishes, John Green
So, you may have heard any of those rationales for European industrialization, or you may have heard others. The problem with all of them, is that each time you think you’re at the root cause it turns out there’s a cause of the root cause. To quote Leonardo DiCaprio, James Cameron, and coal mine operators, “We have to go deeper.”
But, anyway, the problem with these Eurocentric why answers, is that they all apply to either China or India or both. And it’s really important to note that in 1800, it was not clear that Europe was going to become the world’s dominant manufacturing power in the next hundred years. At the time, China, India, and Europe were all roughly at the same place in terms of industrial production.
First, let’s look at China. It’s hard to make the European cultural superiority argument because China had been recording its history since before Confucius, and plus there was all that bronze and painting and poetry.
It’s also kind of difficult to make a blanket statement that China was economically inferior to Europe, since they invented paper money and led the world in exports of everything from silk to china. I mean, pre-Industrial Revolution, population growth was the surest sign of economic success, and China had the biggest population in the world. I guess that answers the question of whether they’re digital.
It’s also difficult to say that China lacked a culture of invention when they invented gunpowder, and printing, and paper, and arguably compasses. And China had more free enterprise during the Song dynasty than anywhere in the world.
Some argue that China couldn’t have free enterprise because they had a long history of trying to impose monopolies on items like salt and iron. And that’s true, but when it comes to enforcing those monopolies, they also had a long history of failure. So really, in a lot of ways, China was at least as primed for an Industrial Revolution as Britain was.
So, why didn’t it happen? Well, Europeans - specifically the British - had two huge advantages: First, Coal. When you trace the story of improved transportation, or communication, or industrial efficiency, or better chemical manufacturing, it always comes back to coal, because the Industrial Revolution was all about using different forms of energy to automate production.
And, England had large supplies of coal that were near the surface, which meant that it was cheap to mine, so it quickly replaced wood for heating and cooking and stuff. So that encouraged the British to look for more coal. The only problem with coal mining, aside from it being, you know, like, deadly and everything, is that the coal mines flooded all the time. I guess coal mining is also a little problematic for, like, the health of, you know, like, the planet.
But, because there was all this incentive to get more coal out of the ground, steam engines were invented to pump water out of the mines. And because those early steam engines were super inefficient, they needed a cheap and abundant source of fuel in order to work - namely, coal, which meant they were much more useful to the British than anyone else. So steam engines used cheap British coal to keep British coal cheap, and cheap British coal created the opportunity for everything from railroads to steel, which like so much else in the Industrial Revolution, created a positive feedback loop. Because they run on rails, railroads need steel. And because it is rather heavy, steel needs railroads.
Secondly, there were Wages. Britain (and to a lesser extent the Low Countries) had the highest wages in the world at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1725, wages in London were the equivalent of 11 grams of silver per day. In Amsterdam, they were 9 grams. In Beijing, Venice, and Florence, they were under 4. And in Delhi, they were under 2.
It’s not totally clear why wages were so high in Britain. Like, one argument is that the Black Death lowered population so much that it tightened labor markets, but that doesn’t explain why wages remained low in, like, plague-ravaged Italy. Mainly, high wages combined with cheap fuel costs meant that it was economically efficient for manufacturers to look to machines as a way of lowering their production costs. To quote the historian Robert Allen: “Wages were high and energy was cheap. These prices led directly to the industrial revolution by giving firms strong incentives to invent technologies that substituted capital and coal for labor.”
Ugh, Stan, I’m a little worried that people are still going to accuse me of Eurocentrism. Of course, other people will accuse me of an anti-European bias. I don’t have a bias against Europe. I love Europe. Europe gave me many of my favorite cheeses and cross-country skiing and Charlie Chaplin, who inspired today’s Danica drawing.
Like, the fact of coal being near the surface in Britain can’t be chalked up to British cultural superiority. But the wages question is a little different because it makes it sound like only Europeans were smart enough to pay high wages.
But here’s one last thing to consider: India was the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles, despite paying basically the lowest wages in the world. Indian agriculture was so productive that laborers could be supported at a very low cost. And that, coupled with a large population, meant that Indian textile manufacturing could be very productive without using machines, so they didn’t need to industrialize.
But more importantly from our perspective, there’s a strong argument to be made that Indian cotton production helped spur British industrialization. It was cotton textiles that drove the early Industrial Revolution, and the main reason that Britain was so eager to produce cottons was that demand was incredibly high. They were more comfortable than woolens, but they were also cheaper, because cottons could be imported from India at such a low cost.
So, Indian cottons created the market and then British manufacturers invested in machines (and imported Indian know-how) to increase production so that they could compete with India. And that’s at least one way in which European industrialization was truly a world phenomenon. For those of you who enjoy such highly contentious and thorny, cultural historical debates, good news. Next week, we’ll be talking about capitalism.
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