Common section

Chapter 19. What a Tangled Web

In This Chapter

• A truly global economy

• Imperialism is back

• Civilizing the savages

You can have too many friends

• The arms race

• Trouble brews in the Balkans

In 1750, Europe was a collection of agricultural states that differed very little from other places around the world. As industrialism, liberalism, and nationalism spread over the next hundred years, though, Europe began to distance itself from the rest of the world, with only the United States running a close second. As the economy became more diverse, fewer Europeans depended solely on agriculture, which meant fewer people suffered from poor harvests or crop failures. Additionally, the advent of railways allowed quick distribution of goods to areas hit by bad harvests. Europe’s economy picked up steam in the second half of the nineteenth century as all of Europe embraced railroads and factories and the general living conditions improved. Europe began to look elsewhere for new markets for its manufactured goods and new sources of raw materials. As it did, it spread European values, ideas, and technology to the rest of the world.

A Global Market

During the nineteenth century, Europe turned the entire world into its marketplace. Europe profited from goods purchased or acquired in other parts of the world and from the European-made goods sold in other parts of the world. Such worldwide trade once seemed unimaginable to Europeans, but technology had conquered previously insurmountable distances. Faster was always better, and railroads certainly facilitated fast movement not only of goods but also people. The construction of railroads on other continents also allowed European goods to be transported to markets far away from port cities. In the period of colonial imperialism, railroads were often built before colonists even moved in.

The steam engine likewise allowed for faster and more efficient transportation of goods around the world. As engineers developed more streamlined ships and more fuel-efficient steam engines, the cost of shipping dropped tremendously. The drop in shipping prices made the transportation of inexpensive goods feasible for the first time. Passengers increased on the steamers, too. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, refrigerated railcars and ships revolutionized the global economy the way steam had done generations before. Refrigerated ships carried huge cargos of meat and other perishable goods to markets all over the world. Refrigerated ships also carried tons of meat from foreign markets back to Europe.

Would You Believe?

The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and then the Panama Canal in 1914 also contributed to the efficiency of global shipping.

There were challenges in the global marketplace, though. European nations constantly faced protective tariffs in competing markets. When a traditional market raised such a tariff, European businessmen were forced to look elsewhere to peddle their wares. At first glance, such tariffs seem detrimental to the economy of the European nations who faced them; in reality, new markets were often discovered that proved even more lucrative. For example, when the United States put tariffs on foreign textiles to protect its own textile industry, Europe found new markets in places like India.

The Growing Gap

The more industrialized Europe grew, the more profitable it became. Europe wasn’t alone, though. For every part of the world that was industrializing, there existed a direct relationship between industrialization and the overall strength of the economy. The average income of people in the industrialized world skyrocketed between 1750 and 1900, whereas incomes in underdeveloped and nonindustrialized parts of the world barely changed. Despite initial sanitation problems and related issues, citizens of the industrialized world also enjoyed longer life expectancies and better overall health and well-being than the regions not yet industrialized.

The disparity between rich and poor nations has been examined and explained from the perspective of two main schools of thought. One school argues that the industrialized nations used innovation and ingenuity to tackle the problems of illiteracy, disease, and the like. The other school of thought maintains that the industrialized nations used their head-start to steal resources and wealth that the undeveloped nations could have used to industrialize, modernize, and improve the lives of their own citizens. There is perhaps some truth in both assertions.

Foreign Investment and Markets

The buying and selling of goods in foreign markets was just part of the secret to Europe’s financial success. European governments and private investors made large sums of money in European and non-European investments alike. Investors put money into the development of railroads and factories in lands that were just being industrialized. As in most cases in Europe, new railroads abroad had virtually no competition and a monopoly was practically guaranteed for at least several years.

Would You Believe?

During the late nineteenth century, nearly a third of all capital for U.S. railroad construction came from European investors.

Along the same lines, European investors financed other things necessary for development and settlement of unindustrialized lands. The desire to invest in foreign markets greatly benefited banking centers in Europe, too, who gladly loaned huge sums of money to Europeans for capital investments. Britain invested more heavily than any other European nation of its day and a large percentage of British investments went to the Americas.

Opening the East

Europeans had managed to trade with the isolated Asians who lay beyond Russia even as far back as the Middle Ages. As European society seemed to advance, though, China, in particular, seemed to retreat into a deepening isolation. A superiority complex combined with a genuine desire to never be like the strangers from Europe influenced the Chinese to carefully guard their empire.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the few European traders allowed into China were restricted to the city of Canton. While in town, the foreigners were made to follow strict laws, trade only with certain merchants, and refrain from the worst of all possible activities: selling opium. Opium is a drug derived from certain poppy flowers that has intoxicating and painkilling side effects. Codeine and morphine are derived from opium.

The British grew opium in India, which it owned through imperialism, and then smuggled the opium into China. The opium trade with China grew so lucrative that opium smugglers begged British officials to find a way to gain access to other Chinese cities. When the Chinese government decided in 1839 to clamp down on opium smuggling in Canton, the Brits refused to sign a promise not to smuggle opium. One British ship defied the British refusal to sign; the captain signed and made his way into Canton. The Chinese attempted to protect another British ship that did the same, and shots were fired. Thus began the Opium Wars.

Would You Believe?

The Japanese were even more isolationist than the Chinese until 1853, when American gunboats led by Commodore Perry threatened Japan with war if Japanese ports were not opened for trade.

The British had their way with the Chinese; British gunboats attacked coastal cities and occupied wherever they pleased. They even seized the Chinese tax barges full of valuable goods. The British firearms drew little resistance. The British strangled the Chinese into submission in 1842 and forced the Treaty of Nanking. Britain won the island of Hong Kong along with a sizable payment of cash. The British also won the right to trade in more Chinese cities. Several years later, the two countries fought the Second Opium War with practically the same result. Britain had managed to bully its way into the Chinese market against China’s wishes. Europe had opened up the East—by force.

Europeans Scatter Throughout the World

Because of the overall rise in Europe’s standard of living and the new scientific and medical knowledge during the nineteenth century, Europe’s population doubled between 1800 and 1900. The fact that over 400 million people lived in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century is staggering when you consider that tens of millions of Europeans emigrated elsewhere during the nineteenth century. These migrants moved mostly to areas where other white immigrants lived, places like the United States, Australia, and parts of South America.

Define Your Terms

To immigrate means to enter a country to settle. To emigrate means to leave a country for settlement elsewhere.

Each European nation’s experience with immigration was different. People did not leave all the nations in Europe at the same time or for the same reasons. Many British left after industrialization fully saturated the British Isles, while nations like Germany began to retain population after industrialization.

The overwhelming majority of those who migrated from European nations were rural farmers. They were neither the wealthy landowners nor the poorest of the poor; they were just farmers with poor land. Many farmers with little or no land went to the United States and Australia, where governments were giving away large tracts of land just for settling there. Another large group of immigrants were artisans who were squeezed out of business by the cheaper goods of industrialization. Although some migrated from Europe to escape legal or financial troubles and others left because industrialization had put them out of work, most simply wanted to make a better living. Some immigrants fled their countries to escape religious persecution, as was the case for so many Jews in the late 1800s. Most migrants were relatively young, often under the age of 35.

There were several benefits of the European migrations for the rest of the world. First, the immigrants took with them pieces of their native land: traditions, dress, language, cuisine, religion, and more. The influence of so many cultures undoubtedly contributed to the development of places like Australia, Canada, and the United States. Second, just as other parts of the world were industrializing and needing workers, here were plenty of Europeans ready and willing to work. Third, frontiers like the American west needed settlers and hardworking families to develop the virgin territory. Again, here were Europeans anxious to get land and opportunity. Fourth, the mass exodus from Europe relieved population pressures there. Had all the Europeans stayed home in the nineteenth century, the quality of life for many would have remained dismal their entire lives.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!