Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
In this lesson, you should learn to define and discuss the following people and terms:
In addition, you should have considered and be able to discuss the following topics:
You should also be considering some larger issues:
The wave of Liberalism that had led to the French Revolution had not been confined to the North American colonists and the French. The rebellion of the Black slaves of Haiti and their establishment of an independent state was an indication that the revolutionary spirit was wide-spread. It was Napoleon, however, who indirectly led to the further revolutions of the Americas. French troops invaded Spain in 1808, the king of Spain "abdicated", and Napoleon's brother became King Joseph I. The Spanish people rose against the French and began a guerilla war that would last for the next six years (1808-1814). During that time, Mexico, Central America, and the Spanish possessions of South America rebelled and, under the leadership of "The Liberator", Simon Bolivar, gained their independence.
By 1816, the close of the Napoleonic era, the old sea-borne empires had disappeared except for a few island holdings, and the old imperial powers faced new challenges. They had lost the developed economies and agricultures of their old colonies, and some of these colonies, particularly the United States of North America, were quickly become commercial rivals. In a sense, the work of the European powers to end the slave trade was aimed at limiting the manpower available to their old colonies and thus slowing their economic growth. At the same time, however, this lessened the value of the Europeans' holdings along the African coast and lost them the revenues that the slave trade had brought them. In any event, the European powers no longer needed African slaves since the remaining "empty" lands were not suited for plantation culture and the lands that the Europeans coveted -- India and China above all -- were themselves well- provided with native laborers.
In the course of the Seven Years' War, the British had bested the French in a struggle for domination of trade with India and, in the next few years, developed a tactic that would enable the Europeans to extend their power greatly. The British recognized that it was neither their racial or religious superiority over native peoples that had allowed their soldiers to defeat native forces much larger than their own, but was a matter of equipment and discipline. Although the Turks and Indians could make better rifles than the Europeans, they made them by hand and so could not produce enough to equip large armies. European factory methods of mass production permitted them to turn out great quantities of arms and, even if these were somewhat inferior to the weapons of others, to equip large armies. The problem was to find the men. The British solved this difficulty by recruiting natives and training them as if they were Europeans. These native levies, called Sepoys in India, allowed the British to gain political (and economic) control of almost all of India by 1840. The general arrangement allowed the Europeans to extend their military power far further than had been possible in the past.
This is where the policy of Free Trade became an important aspect of European doctrine. By the 1830's, the great goal of the European commercial powers was to open up China as a market and as a source of goods and raw materials. China was the most populous country in the world, and probably the wealthiest. It had been powerful enough to dictate the terms on which it would trade with the Europeans, had restricted them to tiny trading posts and had so managed its trade that it usually make a considerable profit. European traders were restricted to the coast, their goods had to pass through Chinese customs and pay tariffs to the Chinese governments, and they could only reach the vast markets of the Chinese interior by working through native Chinese merchants who usually managed to take the lion's share of any profit. The Europeans proclaimed that the Chinese government was interfering with Free Trade and sought some way of tapping the wealth of China in spite of government interference.
The British solution was ingenious and quite amoral. In India, they developed the means of producing considerable quantities of opium. They then convinced the Chinese merchant partners to smuggle the illegal stuff into the interior and sell it relatively cheaply. Within a very few years, they had created a large market in the interior of people who were addicted to a substance the supply of which they controlled. The Chinese government tried every possible method of stopping this traffic, but their own people, forced by the cravings of their addiction, would risk their lives, if necessary, on behalf of the British merchants and their trade. The Chinese government was finally driven to desperate measures, declared an embargo on European trade, and sent their navies to blockade the European trading stations. The British merchants cried for help, invoking the British policy of "Free Trade", and, in 1839, the British sent a fleet to their rescue.
There had been great technological progress during the Napoleonic wars, and this progress was perhaps nowhere as dramatic as in the area of steam power. In 1807, Robert Fulton, an American, had demonstrated the first successful steamboat. European navies were soon building steam-powered warships and gunboats and, by 1818, iron was being used in ship building, and, in the following year, the first ship crossed the Atlantic under steam power. At the same time, and one must remember that Napoleon had begun his career as an artillery officer, the science of ballistics (essential for the accurate aiming of big guns) was perfected, and new methods of gun constructed made possible the construction of powerful and yet smaller and lighter rapid-firing artillery. There were many other areas of advance, but it should be enough to say that the European fleet that arrived off the shores of China in 1839 was unlike any that part of the world had ever seen.
It completely destroyed the fleets that the Chinese sent against it and then steamed up the coast, shelling Chinese ports and coastal cities. It sent its smaller boats upriver, against the current, to the interior that sail-driven ships could never have reached, where they demonstrated to the Chinese populace that no part of the country was now save from European military power. By 1842, the Chinese government capitulated, ceded Hong Kong to the British, opened up several ports to free trade, and established a low maximum tariff on all imported goods. In 1854, a small fleet of the United States navy forced the Japanese government to open up their country for trade. Unlike the Chinese, however, the Japanese decided that they would develop their own economic and military power by reshaping their nation, insofar as it was necessary, upon the European model. The rest of the century saw a scramble by European countries each to establish their own sphere of influence, areas in which they controlled and exploited.
The bark of the chincona tree of Central America contained a substance called quinine that was effective in combatting fevers. Its value in this regard had been recognized as early as 1646, but it was not until 1830 that it was found that, when taken in regular doses, it could actually prevent such diseases as malaria. This discovery, plus the development of steam-driven ships, opened Africa to the Europeans. The great rivers of Africa spill down from a central plateau that reaches near the coast. Thus there are rapid only a short distance up the rivers that can be traversed only by a powered vessel. The French and British had used early steam-powered gunboats to penetrate the interior, but few of their crews returned alive. The rest had died of fever. With the introduction of refined quinine used as a preventive measure, this problem was eliminated, and the French and English, with some other European nations trailing behind them, began to carve up Africa and to exploit its immense natural resources.
At the close of the Napoleonic wars, Britain still had an extensive empire, partly because it had taken the lead in European exploration of the Pacific during the eighteenth century. There were the fertile lands of New Zealand and the great continent of Australia in the South Pacific, as well as numerous other islands, some of them quite extensive, such as New Guinea. Britain had also managed to hold on to Canada in North America. Most of these lands were not densely populated, and Britain, as well as other European countries who held similar "empty" lands faced the challenge of finding the people to settle them. Europe's industrial development solved this problem.
Sixty years (1756-1815) of almost continual war or preparation for war had demanded that the European nations, particularly Great Britain and France, increase their production significantly while, at the same time, an appreciable portion of its work force was drained off into their armies and navies. The result had been the development of techniques of Mass Production and of labor-saving machinery. By the end of the period, most factories were using water or steam power to drive their machinery and templates that multiplied the production of a single worker many times. The adoption of Free Labor, the right of a worker to sell his labor to the highest bidder, drew workers to the most efficient and profitable manufacturers and encouraged others to develop the means of competing for scarce labor.
With the coming of peace, however, the situation for the worker changed a good deal. With the reduction of military forces, the demobilized soldiers and sailors were added to the work force, and, with a decreased demand for military goods, markets contracted and many manufacturers went out of business and used their capital for investment in the new overseas markets. At the same time, the population of Europe continued to rise and manufacturers continued to develop labor-saving machinery that reduced the demand for workers. The free market for labor now worked exclusively to the advantage of employers, and these employers, naturally enough, offered the lowest possible wages that would secure them the workers they needed. Moreover, "free trade" meant that they were not liable to the heavy taxes that would be necessary to support public services. Although technological and scientific advances improved life generally, the economic condition of the mass of the population fell far behind economic growth, and the gulf between the rich and the others grew steadily wider.
In addition, the repressive and conservative governments of the post-Napoleonic period were quite different from those of the Liberal ideals for which the common people had fought. The governments demanded universal military training but paid their conscripts very little for their loss of time and earning power, and they were hostile to active Liberals, workers seeking means of gaining a greater share of the wealth of the nations, religious minorities refusing to support the state religion, and to ethnic minorities under their control. Broad discontent led to a wave of European revolts in the year 1848, revolts that were suppressed, sometimes with considerable savagery. There were numerous groups of Europeans who were anxious to leave such conditions and to seek homes where there would be more freedom and greater opportunity. This was the beginning of a great wave of emigration from Europe, a movement that would continue until the middle of the twentieth century and that would carry more than fifty million Europeans to new homes.
Most European Americans are descendants of these immigrants and are, naturally enough, interested in the movement. It was quite complex, however, and different ethnic groups emigrated at different times and for different reasons. One example must suffice for all. Great Britain had not accepted free trade to such an extent that it was willing to endanger what it considered necessary home industries. One of the pursuits that it wished to protect was grain production, and so it had maintained the Corn Laws, which put a prohibitive tariff on imported grains. This meant that the British working class paid substantially more than the world market place for bread, flour, and many other basic foodstuffs. It seemed evident to many that free trade in this case, allowing foreign grain to compete in British markets would mean cheaper food that would allow the workers to accept low wages and so reduce the cost of British-made goods, which would give Britain a competitive edge in the world market for manufactured. Despite mass protests and even riots by the working class to relieve them of this burden, the government refused to consider repealing the Corn Laws. One might note that the British Parliament was dominated at the time by the land-owning class, whose income depended upon the rents they received for the use of the farmland they owned.
The people of Ireland, although oppressed by a British government that treated their country as if it were simply a colony of England, had flourished because their land proved to be very favorable for the cultivation of the potato, a New World food plant. The population of the island had grown to some eight million, all dependent upon the potato for their staple diet, and potatoes were cultivated throughout the land. It was in about 1840 that the potato blight, a plant disease that attacked and killed potato plants, first appeared in the island. It spread very swiftly, and the Irish were soon undergoing a severe famine in which tens of thousands died of starvation. Britain did not produce enough grain to supply the Irish, but the British government still refused to allow the free importation of foreign grain. Some nations, including the United States of North America, were willing to ship free wheat to Ireland as humanitarian aid, but even this was prohibited by the British. It was only after the Irish potato crops had been completely destroyed and the population of the country had dropped from about eight million to about two million, that the British government reconsidered their position and embraced free trade even as it applied to Great Britain itself (1846).
Not all of those four million Irish had died of starvation, although many had indeed done so. Many came to the United States and plunged into whatever employment was open to small farmers, most of who knew no trade, were illiterate, and had never before travelled more than a few miles from their village homes. They provided the United States with soldiers for the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, and with the laborers who dug the canals that were then the major means of heavy transport in North America. Accustomed to the parish life of their Catholic faith, few ventured into the lightly-populated frontier, but tended to settle in the larger cities of the country -- Boston and New York, particularly. In time, they became a quite numerous group within the American population; there are more Irish-Americans than Irish, and more Irish-Americans in Boston or New York than in Dublin.
Those Irish who stayed in Ireland and survived the "Hard Times" conceived a hatred for British control that led to revolt and partial independence in the early years of the twentieth century and that continues today in the form of continued although low-level fighting for control of those parts of the island to which Britain refused to give up.
This was only one aspect of the beginning of a world-wide phenomenon in which vast populations are on the move. The forces of free trade, free labor, and capitalist exploitation of the working classes has set to peoples of the world in motion, and the ethnic map of the globe is still changing.
The Mining Company offers a pleasant and useful site on The 19th Century that is worth visiting. THE AGE OF METTERNICH (1815-1848) and THE REVOLUTIONS OF 1848 cover the period up to the crisis of the mid-nineteenth century and the suppression of the liberal movements.
NATIONALISM AND THE MAKING OF NATIONS and THE INTELLECTUAL ENVIRONMENT OF THE 19TH CENTURY complete the survey that begins with the sites mentioned above. If you have time and the interest, The Irish Famine, 1845-50 and The Great Famine Commemoration with give you a somewhat greater insight into this sorry episode.
This text was produced by
Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998