How did the age of revolutions from 1750 to 1850 alter the relations between the parts of the world, from Asia to the Americas?

The century between 1750 and 1850 was truly an age of revolutions. Besides major political revolutions such as the American and the French Revolutions, major changes in energy and land use for agriculture, manufacturing, transportation and warfare – commonly known as the Industrial Revolution – drove equally revolutionary changes in the global economic system, intellectual worldviews and global balance of power. This age of revolutions saw most parts of the world subordinated within a more deeply interconnected global economic system with industrialized Britain at its apex. The following paragraphs will describe how five major changes in the relations between world-regions were driven by various revolutions in the century.


First, between 1750 and 1850, most European colonies in the Americas became independent politically. In an indirect way these were the consequence of the fiscal crises caused by the Seven Years’ War (1757-1763) primarily between Britain and France. American colonists revolted against British imposition of taxes, and succeeded in a large part because of French financial and military support. (9-3) French financial distress led Louis XVI to call the Estates-General in 1789, which ignited the French Revolution. Its motto of “liberty, equality and fraternity” was taken up by slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1792. (9-4) The success of this Haitian Revolution in 1804, further weakening of Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, and the spread of nationalism after the French Revolution combined to create a series of independence movements in Latin America. By 1820’s, most of Latin America had achieved independence. (9-4) With political independence, some old linkages ended; for example, Manila Galleons no longer sailed from Mexico. (5-4) Meanwhile, some independent states would become increasingly important as raw material (e.g. cotton) source and export market for Britain’s industries. (9-2)


Second, trans-Atlantic slave trade came to an end by 1850 with industrialization both reducing the demand of labor in the Americas and increasing the supply of European dislocated labor. Meanwhile, Enlightenment values and the Haitian Revolution also fed the abolitionist movement. Britain led this by declaring Atlantic slave trade illegal in 1807. In 1840’s, Europeans’ migration to the Americas eclipsed Africans’ migration. (6-3) If we juxtapose this picture with the Trek Boers’ pushing back natives in South Africa in the 1820’s, (9-1) we may even say that between 1750 and 1850 sub-Saharan Africa had changed from a source of labor to a source of land for Europeans.


Third, Ottoman Empire turned its focus away from eastern Islamic lands to Europe. Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), an Ottoman province, led to the foundation of an autonomous nationalist Egyptian regime under Mohammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849), who “made special appeals to the British as a destination that Egypt might send its commodities, and as a place to which the British might look for investing funds.” (10-3) Shortly afterwards, Ottoman sultan Mahmud II would start a process of reform called Tanzimat in 1839 with many ideas borrowed from Europe. (10-3)


Fourth, beginning with British East India Company's success in Bengal with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, (8-2) in the subsequent century Britain would expand its position in India from several coastal trading fortresses to being the colonial master of the whole of India. The critical period for British victory in India was arguably the 20 years from 1779 (when the Bombay Presidency lost a war with the Marathas) to 1799 (British capture of Mysore’s capital Seringapatam). (1) British focus on India after losing its North American colonies (9-1) and the de-prioritization of its Mysore alliance by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were among the many reasons for British success. Between 1757 and 1857, economically India also degenerated from being the most competitive cotton textile producer in the world to being a hinterland of raw cotton supply and an export market for the British textile industry. (11-3)


Last but not least, industrialized Britain with resources from India reversed its relationship with China. Silver began to flow out of China by 1828 as the British established a huge Chinese market for opium grown in India. (10-4) Qing efforts to stop the inflow of opium resulted in the British victory in the First Opium War and the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. (10-4) British victory was based on its all-iron steam-powered gunboats, the fruit of the British Industrial Revolution in the field of warfare. Without such military advantage, for example in 1793 when Qing refused British diplomatic requests through Lord McCartney, Britain would have to continue trading with China on China’s terms.


In summary, the age of revolutions dismantled the older “Atlantic system” characterized by Europe drawing wealth from colonies in Americas using slave labor from Africa. Instead, Europe, especially industrialized Britain, would economically and/or politically subordinate all other parts of the world – including the Middle East, India and China – within a more interconnected global system by 1850.


Works cited:

(1) p.238-240, A History of India, Fourth Edition (2004), by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund

All other references are from the lectures. I have simplified references to the lectures by using for example (9-4) to represent lecture 9, segment 4.


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