Europe's New World - Growing Trade Intertwined with Imperialism

Europe's New World - Growing Trade Intertwined with Imperialism

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Europe's New World - Growing Trade Intertwined with Imperialism


The distinction of white linen, the rare treat of sweetness, the still rarer taste of coffee that made its drinkers sparkle, and the cravings they've inspired. Limited access to water influenced drinking habits, cooking, hygiene, and sartorial (tailoring/clothing) practices. Housewives and laundresses coped with mountains of dirty linen by the river or by the pond. The great sent their laundry to the American islands for a whiter wash; the poor rioted for soap as well as bread. Society moved from an economy of scarcity and salvation to one of plenty and prodigality. But the move was slow and spotty. The world we have lost was ripe for rejectionIn the mid-eighteenth century Britain the world's greatest trading nation. Manufacturers export a wide variety of textiles and hardware. Rich London and Bristol merchants imported tropical goods and more modest provincial merchants dealt in Baltic timber and grain. Two century earlier, England had been an economic backwater, exporting unfinished heavy woolen cloth to the Low Countries for further finishing before their sale throughout Europe. During the century and a half after 1750, British firms and British investors provided leadership in industrial revolution technology and policy shift that created a fully globalize trading world. The bulk of Britain's trade remained focused on nearby areas of Europe. Exports remained primarily woolen cloth but some change was underway by 1660. At the beginning of the seventeenth century British merchants exported heavy unfinished woolen cloth to more advanced textile centres in the Low Countries for finishing and final sale. After 1568, revolt in the Spanish Netherlands and the Thirty Years War severely disrupted this trade. Many skilled Protestant craftsmen and merchants escaped the horrors of war and religious prosecution on the Continent and brought their skills and capital to England. English firms began to produce lighter, more finished, woolen (and worsted) cloth – the New Draperies – and established a flourishing trade with southern Europe independent of the Low Countries. Although Britain's European trade developed and remained the source most trade, the rise of long-distance trade attracted the attention of contemporaries and historians. These trades introduced exciting new goods — printed calicos and silks, porcelain, sugar, tobacco and tea — to everyday use in the eighteenth century and expanded European horizons. The trade demanded large capital and new forms of organization. The East India and West India merchants epitomized new wealth, sophistication and political influence that had accumulated in London as a result of a commercial revolution.

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The Dutch East India Company led the way early in the seventeenth century by displacing the Portuguese in the Spice Islands and innovating in business structure. In 1612 the company shifted its organization from adventures in individual voyages — as had long been common in European long-distance trade — to a company with a permanent capital that was not redistribute to the investors at the end of each voyage. The British company soon adopted similar structure (Neal 1990). The companies' success rested on mobilizing the large capital that supported permanent presence in East. The heavily capitalized companies required not only profitable trading ventures but also a secondary market for company shares. This market developed in the already quite sophisticated seventeenth century Dutch and English capital markets. The Dutch company's control of Java and the Spice Islands forced the British to relocate to India – a second best solution – and obtained spices by Asian trade. The companies flourished for two centuries on the basis of their organizational skill and military strength, their trading monopolies and the success, particularly of the English company, in developing European markets for Indian cotton textiles and Chinese tea. Europe's Asian trade exhibited a peculiarity that is as central to its understanding as the institutional innovations of the East India Companies. While Europeans eagerly imported Eastern goods, little corresponding eastward flow of European goods developed. Instead, trade was financed by an eastward flow of gold and silver that many Europeans (and subsequent historians) found disturbing. In fact, trading had become multilateral and the bullion and specie come from America. European demand for Eastern goods was certainly high, but Asian demand for gold and coin was so great that the rise of European trade with the East should be seen primarily as a consequence not of trade routes to the east but of the discovery of America.

The American Trade

In the eighteenth century, two American crops – sugar produced on the slave plantations of the West Indies and Tobacco from Virginia and Maryland – played a greater role in British (and European) trade than did all trade to the East. The Europeans introduced sugar cane from the Mediterranean, but the sugar trade depended unambiguously on American resources. Before Columbus's voyages, sugar was expensive — a spice or medicine of the well-to-do and item of ostentatious consumption by kings and princes (Mintz 1985, 44-90). The Spanish and the Portuguese introduced sugar into the Canaries and Madeira in the fifteenth century and begun the practice of importing African slaves to provide labour. While the price fell somewhat, sugar remained extremely expensive. Columbus introduced sugar into the West Indies and the Portuguese began cultivation in northern Brazil about a generation later. Informed investors quickly realized that with a suitable labour force the West Indian islands and north-eastern Brazil could produce large quantities of sugar at a cost far below the pre-Columbian European price. The history of Caribbean for the next two centuries is largely that of exploiting opportunities for sugar cultivation with capital and labour imports (if one is willing to encompass the slave trade in such an anodyne phrase).

Over the years

The past few decades have seen no lessening in the intensity of debates and discussions concerning the place of empires in the early modern and modern worlds. These debates have if anything been aggravated, and at times grown more confused in their conceptual terms, partly because of the advent of the current known as ‘post-colonial studies', in which historians of India have played a quite significant part.
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