Britain’s Influence on the Industrial Revolution Free Essay Example

Britain by 1850 had arguably become the greatest powerhouse since the Roman Empire, an unrecognisable state of affairs from where it had been merely decades before.

During this period of dominance Britain experienced what has been dubbed as an ‘Industrial Revolution’ that is to say a complete restructuring of manufacturing practices which permitted a faster rate of development and growth for the country beyond anything ever seen previously. The question therefore is why Britain? Why did arguably the biggest economic development in history occur in a country that prior to this had always been of secondary importance in the wider European framework.

A third wheel so to speak amongst the more affluent kingdoms of Europe. Accordingly it seems logical to reason that there were key differences between Britain and the rest of Europe; economically, socially and indeed politically that meant that the Industrial Revolution was more suited to the former and not the latter. It is these differences and how they made this the case that will be discussed throughout the course of this essay.

In terms of economics, Britain over the previous two centuries had certainly established for themselves key trade links with colonies and ex-colonies such as America and indeed other major powerhouses most notably China and India. This is best exemplified in England’s East India Trading Company, established in 1600, which had the monopoly in the trade and sale of luxury goods within Britain although other private individuals were also involved in such enterprises.

The significance of these examples should not be understated as it meant that the capital necessary for industrialisation was readily available as Maxine Berg points out in Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain’ when discussing one such commercial voyage’, ‘Hickey’s profits in the 1770s and 1780s would have been more than enough to fund the building and machinery of several large Arkwright type cotton factories’.

Similarly, another important aspect of the British economy at that time was indeed that of the Slave Trade1 in fact it has even been put forward as the primary precursor known in historiography as the William’s Thesis i.e. the idea that profits from the Slave Trade were used to directly finance the Industrial Revolution.

Although more recently the William’s Thesis and its subsequent neo-classical interpretations have somewhat been discredited it should be noted that capital from the Slave Trade accounted for at least 10% of investments into Industry at the time of the Revolution2 meaning its importance cannot simply be ignored. After all in the words of Eric Williams himself, “the triangular system made an enormous contribution to Britain’s Industrial Revolution’ guilty he may be for overstating its importance however, one would be foolish to dismiss its importance out-rightly.

In addition it is necessary to consider the political situation of Britain and compare this with that of other countries in Europe for as impressive as these figures appear it is not these alone that set Britain apart from the rest of Europe. One must understand the politics behind Europe’s relative economic decline for Europe, long before Britain had had a history of trade of luxury goods what with the Spanish and Portuguese explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama; explorers whose trips to the New World greatly widened the colonial horizons of Europe and dramatically changed the economic fortunes of both countries.

Likewise the Dutch East India Company, Britain’s main rivals in the area, at one point far outstripped them in terms of tonnage of goods almost five times over3. Politics therefore gives one additional insight into why Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution for example it is clear that during this period Britain enjoyed relative peace and stability when compared with her counterparts. Take France, who went bankrupt funding the American War of Independence and consequently underwent a dramatic political Revolution in 1789 causing vast turmoil and even terror among the Aristocratic class.

One can see why amongst such turmoil and political uncertainty an Industrial Revolution such as came to pass in Britain was not on the agenda for France Contrastingly, whilst France was on the verge of losing all political institutions Britain was in the process of reforming and ameliorating their long established ones as seen by the introduction of the Metropolitan Policing Act in 1829 and the Poor Laws in 1834.4 This was clearly a country whose institutions were in their comparative prime, and were able to administratively oversee the again showing marked differences between Britain and the rest of Europe and why indeed Britain was the host of the first Industrial Revolution.

On the other hand, Spain, once a main rival of Britain’s, had experienced significant decline particularly during the 18th century with the Spanish War of Succession. Correspondingly, despite minor economic reprisals during the Bourbon rein, Spain’s decision to go to war the New French Republic and defeat saw it become a satellite of Napoleon’s France by 1808 not indeed without large scale rebellion which is thought to have cost the French up to 100,000 military deaths.

One can deduce from this therefore that the economic decline of Spain that had begun in the 17th century particularly in Castile, the most affluent area of the country, combined with the political insecurity that the country suffered during the late 18th and early 19th Century meant that the country was facing far too many pressing issues such as quasi-annexation by the French to even consider an Industrial Revolution, had they even the resources to entertain such fantasies.

Moreover in the 19th century there was a dramatic cultural shift in Britain due largely to the Enlightenment movement which at its heart were the principles of reason, rational thinking and problem solving. As one would expect these principles were natural accompaniments to science and scientific discovery indeed Europe previously had experienced a Scientific Revolution at the turn of the 17th Century. Enlightenment values were far from unique to Britain at this time, having arguably come from the ‘Philosophes’ in France such as Rousseau and Voltaire indeed it has been said that ‘scientific and rational approaches became the fashion of the world” at this time and not simply of Britain.

Thus one must again delve deeper in order to answer why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain. The answer to this however is quite simple and that is the abundance of enlightened British engineers/inventors and their marriage with capitalist entrepreneurs. A perfect example of such cooperation between business and great thinkers is seen between James Watt and Matthew Boulton whose joint venture has been dubbed by Asa Briggs as the ‘classical partnership’ of the time and saw the total restructuring of the steam industry. As mentioned previously the rest of Europe with its declining economies and political upheavals most significantly in France had nor the time nor resources to devote to the intricacies of technology when the continuation of their nation states and political systems were in jeopardy.

Europe certainly had prominent thinkers at the time and people who were capable of advancing technology for example it was a Frenchman who built the first steam engine prototype and it was a Spaniard who built the first steam propelled submarine prototype 9however the cultural, economic and political conditions simply did not allow them to prosper in the same way as they did in England.

To conclude, it is apparent that was vast differences between Britain and Europe at this time economically, politically, socially and to a lesser extent culturally and that these understandably impacted on why Britain was the first to Industrialise in the full sense of the word. What should be noted however is that it is not individual factors that produced an Industrial Revolution, it would have been difficult, for example, to have had an industrial revolution without great thinkers however had these thinkers not had the financial support of the venture capitalists their inventions simply could not have been mass-produced on the scale that they were.

Likewise, had the government not been stable enough to sanction, support and intervene at points when necessary to support the Revolution then the actions of both would have been null-in-void. In short it was the amalgamation of all of these together that made Britain a world away from its European counterparts and indeed made it a utopia for advocates of the Industrial Revolution.

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