Free Trade, Free Labor and Emigration
FREE TRADE, FREE LABOR
In this lesson, you should learn to define and discuss the following people
- Simon Bolivar, Sepoys, Free Trade, Robert Fulton, Hong Kong, Sphere of
Influence, Quinine, Mass Production, Templates, Free Labor, Labor-Saving
Machinery, Corn Laws, Potato Blight.
In addition, you should have considered and be able to discuss the following
- Why was Spain unable to hold onto her New World empire?
- By what means did Great Britain establish control of the native states of
- How did the European Powers use the doctrine of Free Trade against China
- What caused the Opium Wars?
- What technological advances made European military force superior to those
of China and Japan?
- What technological advances opened the interior of the African Continent
to European exploitation?
- How did the peace that followed the Napoleonic wars affect Europe's
working classes? What was the result?
- What caused the mass emigration from Ireland?
You should also be considering some larger issues:
- For much of this course, we have seen that Western thought, and the
policies that the Westerners adopted on the basis of that thought, has
fluctuated between Realism and Nominalism. Why have Westerners been unable to
develop a stable view of the world and of society?
- We have seen that historians differ on the forces that control the course
of history. Some contend that "The man makes the times", while others believe
just as strongly that "The times make the man". You should be asking yourself
which of these two views you hold and should be clear as to both the virtues
and the dangers of your position on the matter. You should be able to explain
and defend your beliefs.
- Lastly, is conflict between the wealthy and powerful on the one hand and
the working class on the other hand inevitable? Is there such a conflict in
American society today?
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
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
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
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.
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
This text was produced by
Lynn H. Nelson,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998