5 Troubled Nineteenth Century

Europe in 1815
The boundaries set in Europe by the Congress of Vienna, 1815.

Liberalism and the Revolutions of 1848

After the defeat of Napoleon a second time at Waterloo in 1815, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. The British, who had led the defense against his final invasion, chose St. Helena in the South Atlantic as a permanent home for the exiled Emperor. Napoleon was transported to the island, which was administered by the East India Company, in 1815 and lived there for the rest of his life. He died in 1821, at 51.

At the Congress of Vienna, which ran from November 1814 through June 1815, the old ruling families of Europe got together to try to restore what they thought of as peace and order. To a large extent their priority was trying to restore the status quo ante: the borders that had existed before Napoleon’s conquests and the types of social organization that had prevailed before the French Revolution. The brother of the executed King, Louis XVI, took the French throne as Louis XVIII (the XVIIth Louis had been the dead king’s son, who had died in prison at the age of 10 in 1795); the restored king agreed to return the territories Napoleon had conquered to the nations that had held them previously. As much as possible, the Congress of Vienna tried to turn back the clock and forget that the Revolution and Napoleon had ever happened, while setting up a balance of power to check the possibility of a French imperial resurgence  A European-wide peace would hold until World War One began in 1914.

Chartist Riot
Beginning in 1838, “Chartists” in Great Britain demanded an extension of suffrage to all men over 21, along with other political reforms. Their protests were sometimes suppressed violently by the police. In addition to throwing rocks, apparently the Chartists also launched the occasional cat at the club-wielding bobbies.

But too much had changed to return to the past. Liberals tried to distance themselves from the social leveling and economic redistribution the Jacobins had attempted, identifying instead with ideas like free trade and a limited franchise. But radicals pushed for greater equality and more rights for regular people. For instance, British workers agitated for the right to vote and for a social contract called the People’s Charter in the 1830s and 40s, but conservative Tories blocked the Chartists. Enlightenment-inspired ideas about democracy, popular sovereignty, and new ideas like socialism all came to a head in Europe by 1848, which was known as the Year of Revolutions.

Question for Discussion

  • Why were European rulers so eager to return to the conditions before the French Revolution?


Immigration to the United States

Brigid ODonnell
An image of the Irish Famine published in 1849 in the Illustrated London News.

The Irish Famine, caused by a blight that rendered potatoes inedible, began in 1845.  Potatoes had proved to be an ideal crop for Ireland, and it produced enough of the crop for itself and most of the rest of British Isles—losing this important food source was disastrous for the Irish peasants.  British government aid proved incompetent and ineffective, revealing a scandalous level of prejudice against the Catholic Irish, the first colonized people of the British Crown  Over a million people in Ireland died because of the Famine, and a million more to emigrated to avoid starvation—mostly to the U.S. The population of Ireland, which had been more than 8 million in 1841, never recovered (and is still only about 4.7 million today). Food shortages spread to Scotland and central Europe, where the Czech potato harvest was also reduced by half because of the blight.

In addition to rural famines, a lot of Britain and parts of Europe had begun to industrialize, and poor urban workers were dissatisfied with their wages and living conditions, which will be described below.  In 1848, rebels temporarily took control of Vienna and forced the Austro-Hungarian Empire to end serfdom. Southern Italians revolted against the French still occupying their homeland. And a revolution in France ended the monarchy once again and created the Second French Republic. Although revolutionary movements in the German states were unsuccessful in changing their governments, they paved the way for change and resulted in massive German immigration to the US.


Migration to the US had been slow between the end of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, due to ongoing tensions with Britain and  the Napoleonic conflicts in Europe. But beginning in the 1830s and 1840s,  immigration from Europe exploded, and the United States became a “safety valve” for the underemployed, politically marginalized, and persecuted of Europe. The Irish in the 1840s were followed by Germans after 1848, who remain the largest single immigrant group.  Scandinavians began arriving after the Civil War, and but by the 1890s, most new immigrants came from southern Europe (especially Italians) and from eastern Europe—including large numbers of persecuted Jews from the Russian Empire.

By the end of the 19th century, the majority of Americans were of German ethnicity. Even today, 46 million Americans are of German descent (light blue on the map). The rest of the top five ethnicities are Black or African American (38 million, magenta, Mexican (34 million, pink), Irish (33 million, dark purple), English (24 million, light purple). This population count is complicated by the region in the southeast, stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to northern Texas, where the largest group calls itself “American” and people do not attribute their origin to any foreign nation. These 22 million people are probably mostly of English or Scotch-Irish descent, based on the history of the region. Statewide, the German pluralities range from 11% in Florida to 43% in North Dakota, which explains why the capital is named after Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why was the US considered a “safety valve” for excess European population?
  • Could a large population of “hyphenated” Americans with some connection to their original country pose a problem?


The Industrial Revolution

Social changes in Europe and America are a direct result of the Industrial Revolution – as are many of the changes in the less developed world we will discuss in a later chapter. So before we look at the rest of the world, let’s look more closely at industrialization.

The last two hundred years of human history is also the story of the Industrial Revolution and its affects.  The life of a peasant living in France, Mexico, China, India, or Ethiopia in 1100 CE was not that different from that of a similar peasant living in the same place 200 years earlier or later. But, because of technology, industrialization, and urbanization, today’s world is considerably different today than it was 200 years ago. In fact, the change has accelerated: we live much differently than our parents did when they were our age. Consider how many of you may be reading this on a hand-held electronic device, which were not all that common even ten years ago. The acceleration of life in many aspects is just one of the results of the unprecedented worldwide technological innovations of the last two centuries.

Even today, there are five necessary inputs that are required for industrialization: capital, technology, an energy source, availability of labor, and consumers. By the late 1700s, Great Britain had all of these and became the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Continental Europe and the United States soon followed.


Power loom
Textiles were the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution, and mechanized factories, powered by a central water wheel or steam engine, were the new workplace.

But, why Great Britain?  Capital—wealth that is invested to create more wealth—was available to merchants and others who benefitted from world trade. The British dominated the slave trade and the corresponding cultivation of sugar during the 18th century, and those involved in the trade accumulated great wealth. Furthermore, the East India Company was also a source of capital through their trade with South Asia in tea and textiles. The Company also was the model for a successful joint-stock company, in which individual investors purchased shares, which spread ownership and limited financial liability, allowing for greater risk-taking. Soon, factories would be following the same joint-stock model in order to accumulate the necessary capital for investment.

New technology also made mass production possible, which first occurred in the British textile industry. The spinning jenny and power looms increased the efficiency of spinning wool and cotton, and then weaving the thread and yarn into cloth. From this beginning, inventors began seeing the possibilities of mechanical production in other areas such as processed foods, clothing, paper, and household items. Even today, countries usually begin on the path to industrialization through the textile and processed food industries.

Great Britain also had abundant energy sources to power the machines. Like flour mills, textile mills initially used the power of rivers to spin water wheels and turbines connected to spinning and weaving machines. Later, the development of an efficient coal-fired steam engine by Scottish the engineer James Watt made it possible to locate factories closer to cities, transportation hubs, workers, and consumers. Both water and coal are still important sources of energy throughout the world.

Agricultural improvements in the previous century and the introduction of new staple crops like the potato, imported from the Americas, produced more food using less labor. Improved nutrition allowed Britain’s population to grow, increasing the number of people available for work in the factories. With a larger population involved in a wage economy, producing goods for others and not for themselves, Great Britain also created consumers for the textiles, foods, and other products manufactured in new factories. Soon, British merchants were selling industrial products to Continental Europe and to an increasingly important market of consumers in Britain’s colonies. The ability to sell manufactured goods to a “captive” colonial market added to the rush for overseas empires by the European powers, the United States, and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Every nation wanted consumers for the products of the “home country” and wanted to lock up the valuable natural resources needed by the industries of the empire.

Question for Discussion

  • What were Great Britain’s main advantages that allowed it to dominate the early industrial revolution?


Spinning Homespun
Hand-spinning yarn to make “homespun” clothing.

The Industrial Revolution saw a gradual transition from handicrafts made in the home or in small shops to manufactures produced in factories, which in itself caused social and economic disruption—and improvement—among ordinary workers and their families. In early America, for example, a regular part of women’s work was spinning thread and yarn from wool, flax, or cotton at home, then weaving cloth and making “homespun” clothing for their families. This was hard, slow work, and took up a lot of women’s time. As soon as they were able to buy cloth from textile mills, women took advantage of the opportunity to devote much more of their time to other tasks around the farmstead. Often, they began market gardening or keeping an extra cow and churning butter to earn “pin money.” Pins were an example of a manufactured product farm families needed that could not be made on the farm. Pins and other such necessities were usually supplied by peddlers who walked across the countryside in the days before easy access to stores, and then later by general storekeepers.

Luddites breaking a loom
Luddites breaking a jacquard loom.


The other side of handicraft manufacture, though, was the type of work done by the Huguenot weavers—descendants of refugee French Protestants—in East London. This was a whole community of people who specialized in weaving using tools and techniques that were available before the advent of large-scale textile mills. They were put out of business by the more efficient manufacturing systems that went along with the new technology, but they did not give up without a fight. Many became “Luddites,” part of a movement of handicraft workers that secretly entered factories and destroyed machinery, blaming the fictional “Ned Ludd” for the acts of sabotage (a word that refers to the wooden clogs workers wore in France, which they would throw into the machinery to break it). Governments were quick to crack down on Luddites – a couple of executions quickly took the wind out of their sails.

As mentioned above, industrialization was possible because farms were  producing high yields in the early 19th century, creating both an available workforce and a consumer market for many of the products of early industry. In addition, nations like Britain with colonies had another lucrative market for manufactures. Even after the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the United States remained a supplier of raw materials like grain, timber, cotton, and salted pork to the former “home country.” In return, Britain shipped its manufactured goods to ports like New York, where they were carried inland on the Erie Canal, and New Orleans, where they made their way up the Mississippi River to the interior. Britain also cultivated trade relationships with other new nations like those of Latin America. British representatives like the envoy sent to Simón Bolívar’s Congress of the Americas worked hard to convince these new nations not to go to the expense of trying to develop their own industries but instead to ship raw materials to Britain in exchange for cheap consumer goods from British factories.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why might “Luddites” or others oppose industrialization?
  • What were the advantages of industrial production?


Portrait of Adam Smith
Portrait of Adam Smith, 1790

The role of governments in industrialization should not be overlooked. Official British trade missions argued the benefits of “free trade” now that Britain’s manufacturers had gained the advantage in producing low-cost goods. But the devotion to free markets championed by Adam Smith and his disciples was new-found. When inexpensive cotton calicoes from India in the 1720s had begun to be preferred for making English clothing, the domestic wool industry had pressured Parliament into passing the Calico Acts to prohibit their import. But later, when the British textile industry began using technology that gave Britain an advantage in cotton cloth production, the government did not consider the complaints of the East London weavers, and even took steps to protect trade secrets and prevent too rapid a technology transfer to help British industry profit on its innovations. Britain began producing cotton cloth even more inexpensively than India—and suddenly the British began preaching about “free trade” and pushing to erase any tariffs or regulations that might prevent British textiles from dominating world markets.

The governments of Continental Europe and the United States quickly tired of simply being a source of raw materials for British factories and a market for British goods. To support economic development, these governments began taxing imports with tariffs to protect emerging industries from a flood of British manufactured goods. Tariffs increased the price of imports to consumers, encouraging them to buy the now-competitive domestically-produced goods. Protection from foreign competition has helped many fledgling industries get off the ground in developing nations. However, if industries remain protected, they may have less incentive to become internationally competitive in price or quality. Governments that choose to constantly raise tariffs run the risk of subsidizing their industries’ inefficiencies and reducing the welfare of their consumers as industrial improvements in other countries lower the price of imported products.

Transportation, Steam Power, and Interchangeable Parts

Most histories begin the Industrial Revolution with steam engines and many mention that by the 1820s steam-powered looms had displaced the hand weavers in the cotton industry. This description actually misses a whole generation of innovation and growth when textile mills were powered by water. The Scottish textile factories of New Lanark, for example, were begun in 1786 by David Dale using water-power technology developed by Richard Arkwright in the 1770s. New Lanark was built on the Clyde River in Scotland, and all of its machines were powered by the river until the mills closed in 1968. The American textile mills in New England that dominated the world market in the second half of the 19th century also used water power. The men who started the Boston Manufacturing Company, that built the cities of Lowell and Lawrence in Massachusetts to take advantage of the water power of the Merrimack River, visited New Lanark in 1811 to learn the technology before they began their venture.


The Clyde River and New Lanark in 2009


Robert Owen and his partners had bought the mills in 1799 from David Dale, Owen’s father-in-law. Sensitive to the negative social changes that industrial growth had brought to other parts of Britain, Owen built schools for the children of his workers and social organizations for the families. He put an end to the long-standing custom of forcing workers to buy only from the company store and tried to make New Lanark a real, living town. Owen’s partners had objected to his philanthropy, claiming that healthy, happy, well-educated workers did not really boost the bottom line. Rather than fight with them, Owen simply bought his partners out.

Questions for Discussion

  • What are the pros and cons of tariffs?
  • Why would an industrialist like Robert Owen be concerned about his workers’ social welfare?



Erie Canal map
The present route of the Erie Canal, which is pretty close to its original route.

The initial expansion of transportation networks for mass-production industries was also water-based.  In industrializing countries, canal-building became a craze from the 1820s through the 1840s. Many local canals connected newly-established towns and villages to markets all over the United States, Great Britain, and continental Europe. The Erie Canal in New York State, for instance, connected Buffalo, on Lake Erie, to Albany, where the canal met the Hudson River, navigable all the way to New York City. Over 350 miles (580 kilometers) long when completed in 1825, the Erie Canal included thirty-six locks to ease barges down a gradual decline of more than 550 feet (170 meters). As agricultural goods shipped down the Canal eventually made their way to markets in industrializing East Coast cities, pioneers established farms all along the Canal, and the Erie Canal was key to the western settlement and expansion of the United States, especially before 1865. Canal laborers were frequently Irish immigrants, who often settled nearby, once the canal was built.

Steam power soon became extremely important in transportation, as well. Until steam engines were put on riverboats, shipping had depended on either wind and river currents or on human and animal power on canal towpaths. Goods could easily be floated south from farms on America’s rivers for example, but it was much more difficult and expensive to ship products against the currents to the frontier. Flatboats and rafts accumulated at downstream ports such as New Orleans and were often broken down and burned as firewood. Steam engines made it possible to sail upstream as easily and quickly as down, causing an explosion of travel and shipping that radically changed frontier life. Ocean-going steamships made travel and shipping quicker and safer and allowed travelers and merchants to keep to regular schedules.


The Clermont
“Consternation at the sight of Fulton’s monster,” from an 1870 story of the Clermont’s first voyage up the Hudson River.

Steam engines were a product of early European industrialism. The first steam patent was granted to a Spanish inventor named Jerónimo Beaumont in 1606, whose engine drove a pump used to drain mines. The French scientist Papin built his steam piston in 1630 after visiting the Royal Society in London and Englishman James Watt’s 1781 engine was the first to produce rotary power that could be adapted to drive mills, wheels, and propellers. Robert Fulton, an American inventor who had previously patented a canal-dredging machine, visited Paris and caught steam fever. Fulton sailed an experimental steamboat model on the Seine, and then returned home and launched the first commercial American steamboat on the Hudson River in 1807. The Clermont was able to sail upriver 150 miles from New York City to Albany in 32 hours. In 1811, Fulton built the New Orleans in Pittsburgh and began regular steamboat service on the Mississippi.

The other transportation technology enabled by steam power, of course, was the railroad, which was even more revolutionary than the steamboat. In spite of their power and speed, steam-powered riverboats depended on rivers or occasionally on canals to run, but a railroad could be built almost anywhere. Suddenly, the expansion of commerce was no longer limited by the routes nature had provided into the frontier.


Tom Thumb
1831 newspaper illustration of a locomotive (likely the Tom Thumb) in Baltimore.

Small railroads using horses were already common in mining operations in Great Britain and Europe before the advent of steam power. The first railroads in the United States had actually been built on the East Coast before a steam engine was available to power them. Trains of cars pulled by horses looked a lot like stage-coaches on rails. But after Englishman George Stephenson’s locomotives began pulling passengers and freight in northwestern England in the mid-1820s, Americans quickly switched to steam. The first locomotive used to pull cars in the United States was the Tom Thumb, built in 1830 for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Although Tom Thumb lost its maiden race against a horse-drawn train, Baltimore and Ohio owners were convinced by the demonstration of steam technology and committed to developing steam locomotives. The B&O railroad, which had been established in 1827 to compete with the Erie Canal, already advertised itself as a faster way to move people and freight from the interior to the coast. Adding steam engines accelerated rail’s advantage over canal and river shipping.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why were canals and steam power so transformative?
  • What was the advantage of railroads over steamships?


Factories housed machinery that was too large or too expensive to be used in home production, or that used power sources like steam or water power that weren’t available to small-scale producers. The machines themselves usually displaced workers, like when the water-powered looms of New Lanark destroyed the careers of hand-loom weavers by producing large quantities of cloth at a low cost the weavers couldn’t match.  However, the new industries also created new jobs. And often, although it took fewer people to weave a given amount of cloth using the new technology, the new industries were usually producing products for much larger (sometimes even global) markets. So much cloth was made in the new industrial textile centers like New Lanark in Scotland or Lowell in America that there were often a lot of new jobs – sometimes more than had previously been available in that region.

The new factory jobs required less skill than artisanal craftwork, especially when the worker was making a larger number of standardized products. Previously, a carpenter needed to be a skilled craftsman to design and assemble a custom-built chair, but with industrialization, a less-skilled lathe operator could turn large quantities of legs that could be assembled into any number of chairs of a standard pattern. Workers doing lower-skilled jobs became as standardized as the things they made, and could be employed at a much lower cost. While more people might be working in a new factory compared to an old-fashioned craft workshop, each worker’s wages would almost always be lower.

And starting a factory was not the same as starting a craft workshop. It was no longer a slow organic process where an apprentice became a master craftsman, developed a clientele, opened his own business, then hired a few workers or apprentices of his own. The people who started factories were often not even experts at the process they were going to do – they were capitalists and investors who had access to the large sums of money needed to erect a factory and fill it with technology and workers. A class of owners grew, who had little or no connection to the workers they employed.


First cotton gin
“First cotton gin” from Harpers Weekly. 1869 illustration depicting the cotton gin’s first use 70 years earlier.

American inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) is remembered for the cotton gin, which removed the seeds from cotton fiber much more quickly than they could be picked out by hand. The cotton gin helped propel the American South into world leadership in raw cotton. By the 1850s, American plantations supplied 80 to 90% of the world cotton market. But Whitney’s most important contribution to industrialization was his technique for using machine tools to produce interchangeable parts for firearms. With Whitney’s standardized, machined parts, it no longer took a skilled gunsmith to build a weapon. Anybody with basic skills could assemble and also disassemble, repair, and maintain a rifle or handgun. Weapons became more reliable and the technique was quickly applied to other industries. Of course, since most of the intelligence in the job had been moved into the machine, the machine gradually became more valuable and the machine operator less. Whitney’s process made guns more reliable and less expensive, but he turned not only the gun parts into interchangeable parts, but also the factory employees themselves. The process continues today: in the Tesla car factory, robots running sophisticated software do most of the skilled tasks like welding, while a smaller number of human workers spend most of their time moving assemblies from place to place and programming the robots.

Question for Discussion

  • How does technology affect workers and their jobs?


Socialism: Addressing the Negative Effects of Industrialization

Although it produced quality products at low prices for a growing consumer market, industrialization disrupted the lives of workers.  Since jobs were in factory towns and cities, people moved from rural areas to growing metropolitan areas.  The change was often very abrupt for those who migrated: they lost the slower rhythms of agricultural life to the time clock and subway schedules of the accelerated industrialized world.

Additionally, people were cut off from communities in which they had lived for generations, and forced to find new social relations—or fall into lonely and desperate lives. Although jobs were the attraction for the new migrants, there was no guarantee of permanent positions in the new economy. Financial cycles of boom and bust affected urban workers the most. Families were disrupted by unemployment, while traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity could be challenged when the male breadwinner was replaced by a spouse or daughter as the main source of family income, leading to violence, alcoholism and abandonment of the family by men.

Cities were often unprepared to receive so many people so quickly. Inadequate housing, sanitation, and transportation contributed to environment degradation and psychological stress. In the following illustration of London in the 1840s,  consider life for people who grew up on farms now living under these conditions, with no sign of plant life to be seen:

"Over London–by Rail"
“Over London–by Rail”, from Gustave Doré’s 1872 book, London: A Pilgrimage.

Many intellectuals took up the challenge of rethinking how to make society more just for industrial workers.  While the U.S. War of Independence had inspired discussion of governments formed by “we, the people,” and the French Revolution had spread the idea of legal equality of all citizens under law, a new understanding of capital and labor seemed to be needed. Workers in the new industries provided all of the labor at low wages and in dangerous conditions, while often absentee owners and investors reaped the profits. A number of industrialists such as Robert Owen tried to make their factories more humane, embracing the cooperative movement and even improving workers’ welfare with schools for their children and social gatherings. However, many business owners did not see their responsibility to workers extending beyond providing a wage for the work they performed.

Karl Marx, a German philosopher, criticized the growth of capitalism and industrialization, and brought a new analysis to economic thinking. Marx saw industrialization as the last stage of human development, a final struggle between two opposites that would create something new. According to Marx, this last battle was between the more numerous workers, whom he called the proletariat and the industrial capitalists, the bourgeoisie. Marx believed the proletariat would inevitably defeat the bourgeoisie, seize the factories, and create a socialist utopia.

After the final battle, Marx predicted a world where the workers or their government controlled the “means of production”, the factories and farms. Instead of religion, which Marx said was “the opiate of the people”, workers would develop a “class consciousness” that would help extend the worldwide proletarian revolution. Marx imagined a global working class  that transcended nations, races, and ethnic groups—his vision was for an international dictatorship of the proletariat, where all workers would unite regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, or any of the identities that had prevented European nations from forming a lasting empire.

“Pyramid of Capitalist System”, published in 1911 by The International Publishing Company, Cleveland OH.

Karl Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels, published their ideas in the Communist Manifesto in February, 1848, just as Europe entered a year of attempted revolutions. Since these upheavals did not bring the promised dictatorship of the proletariat, Marx (who went into exile in London) continued to publish his theories and predictions, and organized the first Marxist socialist parties. He died in 1883, by which time various socialist and social democratic parties had participated in elections, but he did not live to see an actual “socialist” revolution, which would finally occur in Russia in 1917.

Even so, by the time of Marx’s death, his ideas and other forms of socialism were motivating labor organizers to form unions in which workers could negotiate for better wages and working conditions with owners, under threat of striking—stopping work at a factory and preventing others from replacing them at the machines. Socialism and communism, and their influence in governments and labor relations, will be examined more fully in later chapters.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why did many workers find industrial cities challenging to live in?
  • Consider socialism’s criticism of capitalism. Is it justified? Are Marx’s expectations realistic?



As mentioned previously, industrialization depends on a stable foundation of agriculture to provide enough food for workers to increase the population and provide enough food for people to eat. As farming becomes more efficient, not everyone needs to focus on subsistence and workers are available to move to cities and take jobs in factories. The remaining farms become bigger and take on the responsibility of feeding the growing urban populations.

Earlier agricultural societies in Europe had depended on crop rotation to rebuild soils after periods of intensive planting. But as farmers saw an opportunity to earn money in the market, feeding urban industrial workers, some were unwilling to accept the idea that a significant portion of their farms would be fallow each year. They preferred to amend their soils rather than waiting for fertility to regenerate naturally. But few farmers had access to enough manure to supplement all their soil. Luckily, there was an alternative.

The first commercial fertilizers were made from guano, the droppings of seabirds living on islands off the western shores of South America. Guano comes from the Quechua Indian word Wanu, which means any excrement used as a soil additive. Guano was dry, light, and highly concentrated. Natives of the Andes have mined guano on the coast and islands for at least 1,500 years, and Spanish colonial records noted that Inca rulers had considered protecting the cormorants that were the main source of guano so important, that disturbing the birds’ nesting areas a capital offense. Guano was carried from the coast up into the Andes on the backs of llamas, for use on the terraced farms surrounding highland cities like Machu Picchu.


Workers mining guano on a Peruvian island, 1860.​

Although surrounded by ocean, the islands off the western coast of South America are arid. Like the deserts they face on the mainland, some experience no annual rainfall at all. Seabirds such as cormorants and pelicans have lived on these islands by the millions, for thousands of years. Over that time, they’ve left literal mountains of droppings, which due to the lack of rain have simply piled up. The guano contains the ideal percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to make it an excellent fertilizer without any mixing. It simply needs to be chopped off the mountain, ground up, and spread on fields.


The Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt visited the islands around 1802, and publicized guano’s value as a fertilizer throughout Europe. Seeing a lucrative business opportunity, Europeans and Americans fell on the area in a guano rush, and by the middle of the century several nations had enlisted the work of Chinese peasants in a Pacific labor system that has been compared with the slavery of the Atlantic world. Although the Chinese workers were technically free, many were debtors who had been tricked into labor contracts promising work in California. Once they reached the guano islands and realized they had been duped, there was no way off. Over a hundred thousand Chinese workers were imported to the islands in the second half of the nineteenth century.



Guano was so profitable that the U.S. Congress passed a Guano Islands Act in 1856. The law provided an incentive for American sailors to find and claim undefended islands for America by giving the discoverer exclusive rights to the guano recovered. Islands claimed under the Guano Islands Act include parts of the Hawaiian chain, Midway Atoll, part of American Samoa, and several islands still disputed with Colombia. The guano islands off the western coast of South America were so valuable that two wars were fought over them. Chile and Peru fought Spain in the Chincha Islands War, 1864-66, and defeated the Spanish Empire. Then, once Spain’s claim had been successfully set aside, Chile took many of the guano islands from Peru, along with the nitrate fields of the Atacama Desert, in the War of the Pacific, 1879-83.


The Atacama Desert, now controlled by Chile, is the driest place on Earth.​

After about 1870, guano was overtaken as a source of nitrogen by nitrate-rich desert soils called Caliche. These soils were discovered in the Atacama desert, a region regarded as the driest place on earth that lay partly in Chile, partly in Peru, and partly in Bolivia. When all three nations rushed to extract and process the Caliche, Chile challenged its northern rivals for the nitrate fields. Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific extended its border northwards to encompass the Atacama desert, including all the coastal territory that had belonged to Bolivia. Many ethnic Bolivians living around the port city of Arica still dream of throwing off the Chilean yoke and winning their country access to the Pacific again.


Defeating its northern neighbors in the War of the Pacific made Chile the undisputed power on the west coast of the Americas and generated an economic boom. The nitrate Chile monopolized was valuable both as a fertilizer and as a key ingredient in explosives and munitions. But mining and processing nitrate from Chile’s desert soil required much more capital than digging guano. Chile attracted British investors, and soon joint ventures began shipping a million tons of nitrate per year out of the South American desert. Production grew steadily until 1914, when World War I created new incentives for Britain’s enemies to find an alternative to Caliche nitrate. We will discuss this shift to an economic form of imperialism, by European nations, Britain, and even the United States, in the next chapter.

Question for Discussion

  • Why did fertilizer become important enough to fight wars over?


19th Century China and Japan

As described in Chapter Two, the origins of the modern world begin in China and by 1500, under the Ming dynasty, population, culture and technology was flourishing, and Confucian-trained government officials administered the empire.  However, after tremendous successes including the voyages of Zheng He, a degree of corruption and misrule crept into Ming imperial rule by the next century, allowing the armies of the Manchu, from north of the Great Wall, to instal a new dynasty, the Qing (“Pure”).

The new Qing emperors reinvigorated the Confucian ruling class, and China once again enjoyed a high degree of social stability, economic prosperity, and international trade.  However, Qing society rested on the laurels of previous accomplishments, regarded foreigners as ignorant barbarians, and was not receptive to expanding European influence in the region, led by the British.

By the mid-1700s, the British East India Company dominated trade and the administration of India. British ships carried Indian cloth and other products to the rest of the world; the tea dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773 came from India. The East India Company was very interested in opening up Chinese markets to trade, but China was self-sufficient and uninterested in anything the British had to offer. Chinese teas, jade, silks and porcelain were in high demand in the West, but the only payment China would accept was silver. For centuries the silver of the New World had been making its way into the Chinese economy, where it became the money supply of the world’s largest economy. The East India Company’s supply of silver was limited.


Chinese opium smokers
19th-century western illustration of Chinese opium smokers.

Luckily, India provided the Company with an alternative: opium from poppies, harvested in India and Burma. Although the Qing had outlawed opium imports in 1729, the East India Company controlled a virtually unlimited supply. At the beginning of the 19th century an annual average of 4,500 trunks of opium were reaching smugglers on the South China coast. The Company focused on importing opium into China, where addicts were willing to pay in silver. By 1839, over 40,000 133-pound chests of opium were bought by Chinese drug dealers. More than 1% of China’s 400 million people became addicted – many of them rich bureaucrats. China rapidly shifted from being a magnet for silver with a huge trade surplus to a net importer whose treasuries were rapidly dwindling.


Lin Zexu
Commissioner Lin Zexu, dubbed “Lin of Clear Skies” for his moral integrity.

Some Chinese officials wanted to legalize opium so the empire could tax it, but Confucian moralists won the policy debate. In 1839, the emperor sent one of China’s most distinguished officials, Lin Zexu, to the trading settlement of Canton to stamp out the opium trade. Lin blockaded the European trading district, raided and searched the foreigners’ warehouses, confiscated 20,000 chests containing 1200 tons of opium, and dumped it all into the ocean. The East India Company complained about its losses in London, and Queen Victoria sent a fleet including four steam-powered battleships. Lightly-armored Chinese war junks, designed to fight river pirates, were severely outgunned. The limited range of Qing cannon compared to British artillery allowed the invaders to pummel Chinese defenses from a safe distance.


The Treaty of Nanking (called the “Unequal Treaty” by the Chinese) opened five Chinese ports to European traders, gave the British the island of Hong Kong, and required China to establish diplomatic relations with Great Britain as an equal power rather than continuing to treat all foreigners as barbarians unworthy of official notice. The Chinese were also compelled to pay Britain for the opium Lin had destroyed. China’s embarrassing defeat by the British was followed by another defeat in the Second Opium War (1856-60) that resulted in another unequal treaty giving access to French and Russian merchants. By the 1890s, 90 ports of call were available to more than 300,000 European and American traders, diplomats, and missionaries.


A naval engagement
Armored, steam-powered British warships were able to easily destroy Chinese junks built for coastal defense.

Questions for Discussion

  • Were the British justified in their response to China’s demand for silver in payment of their manufactures?
  • What was the social impact of opium addiction on China?


The weakness of the Qing empire against foreign aggression was exacerbated by the ongoing opium crisis and by crumbling infrastructure and famine in the countryside. Magistrates and officials addicted to opium were ineffective and often diverted money that should have been spent maintaining dams and irrigation canals to their own uses. A series of peasant revolts swept through south China in the 1850s and 1860s, most notably the Taiping Rebellion which killed 30 million people over a fifteen-year period. The leader of the rebellion was Hong Xiuquan, a young man who had become unhinged after failing the grueling civil service exam four times. Hong had a vision and declared he was the little brother of Christ who had been sent to China to rid the land of the Manchu foreigners and their Confucianist culture. When Hong captured Nanjing and in 1853 made it the capital of the Taiping, he first killed all the Manchu men and then marched the women outside the city and burned them to death.

Hong’s brutality and his strange interpretation of Christianity may have alienated some Europeans, but his ban on opium use antagonized more. Europe and Britain threw their support behind the Qing dynasty they had just defeated in the Opium Wars. Hong and his allies were unable to avoid the temptation to quarrel and plot against each other, which weakened their leadership. Two Taiping attempts to take Shanghai in 1860 and 1862 were repelled with British and French assistance. In 1864, the Qing and their European allies retook Nanjing and ended the regime, but the resistance continued until 1871, when the last Taiping army was completely wiped out by government forces.


Taiping Rebellion
A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan’s insular self-confidence was also challenged by forced contact with foreigners in the 19th century.  The Japanese home islands have been united under the same imperial dynasty since the 5th century CE; the current emperor comes from the longest line of any monarch in the world. As an independent island nation, the Japanese were able to selectively accept or reject ideas and innovations from China, the powerful empire to the west.  Often they would modify and incorporate aspects of Chinese culture, like writing and Buddhism, to their own circumstances, Native Japanese Shinto religion, for instance, embraces the teachings of Buddha.

Beginning in the late 1100s, the emperor ruled indirectly, ceding power to Shoguns, who commanded an army of lesser nobles known as samurai. The Shoguns held back invasions by Mongol armies in the 1200s and maintained a large degree of separation for the empire from outside religions and cultures. This self-isolation ended in the mid-19th century, when the United States, which had been largely shut out of European-dominated China, decided to try and open trade with Japan.

Commodore Perry's visit
Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s visit of Kanagawa, near the site of present-day Yokohama on March 8, 1854.

American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in July 1853 with a squadron of four warships and threatened to open fire on the capital if the Japanese refused to negotiate. To demonstrate, Perry destroyed several buildings around the harbor. The American fleet withdrew to allow the Japanese to consider their options and  when they returned a year later, the Japanese agreed to a “Treaty of Peace and Amity.” Three years later a “Treaty of Amity and Commerce” was signed, offered to the Japanese by American diplomats as a less-invasive alternative to the aggressive colonialism of Britain and France in China following the Opium War.

The Japanese decided, “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.” Modernization and the embrace of new technology went hand in hand with reorganization of the national government in what became known as the Meiji Restoration. The 15th Tokugawa shogun resigned in November 1867 and direct control of government was restored to the Emperor Meiji. The samurai class (which numbered nearly 2 million) was slowly disbanded and a nationwide universal military draft was instituted in 1873. Disgruntled samurai rebelled in 1876, the Satsuma Rebellion grew into a short civil war in which the newly-formed Imperial Japanese Army won a decisive victory. The industrialization of Japan accelerated, building the strong nation we will see taking its place on the world stage in the next chapter.


Weak China
Satirical drawing in the magazine Punch ( September 1894), showing the victory of “small” Japan over “large” China.

Meanwhile, in China, other rebellions such as the Nian Rebellion (1853-68), the Panthay Rebellion (1855-73), and the Dungan revolt (1862-77) continued to challenge the Qing regime. In 1895, China lost its control of its tribute state Korea to Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War. The humiliating defeat for the Qing empire showed their efforts to modernize China’s military had failed and was a catalyst for a series of political actions led by revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen. China ended the nineteenth century under the control of European powers and generally considered to be “the weak man of Asia.”

Questions for Discussion

  • Compare the Taiping Rebellion to the US Civil War, which happened about the same time. How were the two conflicts similar and different?
  • Why do you think Japan was more able to rapidly respond to the challenge of western culture?

Primary Sources


Looking over the public documents accompanying the tribute sent (by your predecessors) on various occasions, we find the following: “All the people of my country, arriving at the Central Land for purposes of trade, have to feel grateful to the great emperor for the most perfect justice, for the kindest treatment,” and other words to that effect. Delighted did we feel that the kings of your honorable nation so clearly understood the great principles of propriety, and were so deeply grateful for the heavenly goodness (of our emperor):—therefore, it was that we of the heavenly dynasty nourished and cherished your people from afar, and bestowed upon them redoubled proofs of our urbanity and kindness. It is merely from these circumstances, that your country— deriving immense advantage from its commercial intercourse with us, which has endured now two hundred years—has become the rich and flourishing kingdom that it is said to be!

But, during the commercial intercourse which has existed so long, among the numerous foreign merchants resorting hither, are wheat and tares, good and bad; and of these latter are some, who, by means of introducing opium by stealth, have seduced our Chinese people, and caused every province of the land to overflow with that poison. These then know merely to advantage themselves, they care not about injuring others! This is a principle which heaven’s Providence repugnates; and which mankind conjointly look upon with abhorrence! Moreover, the great emperor hearing of it, actually quivered with indignation, and especially dispatched me, the commissioner, to Canton, that in conjunction with the viceroy and lieut.-governor of the province, means might be taken for its suppression!

Every native of the Inner Land who sells opium, as also all who smoke it, are alike adjudged to death. Were we then to go back and take up the crimes of the foreigners, who, by selling it for many years have induced dreadful calamity and robbed us of enormous wealth, and punish them with equal severity, our laws could not but award to them absolute annihilation! But, considering that these said foreigners did yet repent of their crime, and with a sincere heart beg for mercy; that they took 20,283 chests of opium piled up in their store-ships, and through Elliot, the superintendent of the trade of your said country, petitioned that they might be delivered up to us, when the same were all utterly destroyed, of which we, the imperial commissioner and colleagues, made a duly prepared memorial to his majesty;—considering these circumstances, we have happily received a fresh proof of the extraordinary goodness of the great emperor, inasmuch as he who voluntarily comes forward, may yet be deemed a fit subject for mercy, and his crimes be graciously remitted him. But as for him who again knowingly violates the laws, difficult indeed will it be thus to go on repeatedly pardoning! He or they shall alike be doomed to the penalties of the new statute. We presume that you, the sovereign of your honorable nation, on pouring out your heart before the altar of eternal justice, cannot but command all foreigners with the deepest respect to reverence our laws! If we only lay clearly before your eyes, what is profitable and what is destructive, you will then know that the statutes of the heavenly dynasty cannot but be obeyed with fear and trembling!

Your honorable nation takes away the products of our central land, and not only do you thereby obtain food and support for yourselves, but moreover, by re-selling these products to other countries you reap a threefold profit. Now if you would only not sell opium, this threefold profit would be secured to you: how can you possibly consent to forgo it for a drug that is hurtful to men, and an unbridled craving after gain that seems to know no bounds! Let us suppose that foreigners came from another country, and brought opium into England, and seduced the people of your country to smoke it, would not you, the sovereign of the said country, look upon such a procedure with anger, and in your just indignation endeavor to get rid of it? Now we have always heard that your highness possesses a most kind and benevolent heart, surely then you are incapable of doing or causing to be done unto another, that which you should not wish another to do unto you!

Our celestial empire rules over ten thousand kingdoms! Most surely do we possess a measure of godlike majesty which ye cannot fathom! Still we cannot bear to slay or exterminate without previous warning, and it is for this reason that we now clearly make known to you the fixed laws of our land. If the foreign merchants of your said honorable nation desire to continue their commercial intercourse, they then must tremblingly obey our recorded statutes, they must cut off for ever the source from which the opium flows, and on no account make an experiment of our laws in their own persons! Let then your highness punish those of your subjects who may be criminal, do not endeavor to screen or conceal them, and thus you will secure peace and quietness to your possessions, thus will you more than ever display a proper sense of respect and obedience, and thus may we unitedly enjoy the common blessings of peace and happiness. What greater joy! What more complete felicity than this!

Let your highness immediately, upon the receipt of this communication, inform us promptly of the state of matters, and of the measure you are pursuing utterly to put a stop to the opium evil. Please let your reply be speedy. Do Do not on any account make excuses or procrastinate. A most important communication.

Quotes from Robert Owen

“To preserve permanent good health, the state of mind must be taken into consideration.” (The Book of the New Moral World)

“Eight hours daily labour is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and for the remainder of his time, every person is entitled to education, recreation and sleep.” (“Foundation Axioms of Society for Promoting National Regeneration”, 1833)

“Is it not the interest of the human race, that everyone should be so taught and placed, that he would find his highest enjoyment to arise from the continued practice of doing all in his power to promote the well-being, and happiness, of every man, woman, and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or color?” (17th of “20 Questions to the Human Race”, 1841)

“As there are a very great variety of religious sects in the world (and which are probably adapted to different constitutions under different circumstances, seeing there are many good and conscientious characters in each), it is particularly recommended, as a means of uniting the inhabitants of the village into one family, that while each faithfully adheres to the principles which he most approves, at the same time all shall think charitably of their neighbors respecting their religious opinions, and not presumptuously suppose that theirs alone are right.” (Rules and Regulations for the Inhabitants of New Lanark)

“The working classes may be injuriously degraded and oppressed in three ways:

1st — When they are neglected in infancy
2nd — When they are overworked by their employer, and are thus rendered incompetent from
ignorance to make a good use of high wages when they can procure them.
3rd — When they are paid low wages for their labour                                                                                             (Two Memorials on Behalf of  the Working Classes)
“To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.” (The Social System)

“To preserve permanent good health, the state of mind must be taken into consideration.” (The Book of the New Moral World)

Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx & Engels, 1848

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.





Media Attributions


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Modern World History Copyright © 2021 by Dan Allosso and Tom Williford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book