The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Towards the Industrial Revolution

Category: 18th century

The wars of the 18th century were almost all fol­lowed by the acquisition of new colonies. The colonies already established were growing rapidly both in wealth and population. The American colonies had about 200,000 inhabitants, and between one and two million fifty years later.

Between 1734 and 1773 the white population of the British West Indies rose from 36,000 to 58,000 and the slave population at least in proportion, as overseas trade in African slaves was flourishing then. It was the slave trade that made some British merchants as well as seaport towns extremely rich.

The West Indies were, indeed, the most profitable of British possessions. In 1790 it was calculated that £70,000,000 was invested there against £18,000,000 in the Far East and that their trade with England was almost double the imports and exports of the East In­dia Company. The richest West Indian planters, unlike the inhabitants of the British American colonies, formed an integral part of the English bourgeoisie.

Such a continuous increase of colonial wealth and trade provided a constantly rising market for British goods, a market for which the small scale, hand pro­duction methods of the home industry were hardly adequate. And the large scale and long wars of the 18th century created not only a steady demand for British goods, but for goods of a special kind, for stan­dardized goods.

The wars were waged by professional armies that now wore regular uniforms. Hence, they needed thou­sands of yards of cloth to dress them, they needed boots as well as muskets, bullets, bayonets and so on. Not only the British armies had to be fed, clothed and equipped, but many of the armies of Britain’s allies, who depended equally upon the British subsidies and its industry to keep them in the fields.

It was this demand for ever-increasing quantities of standard goods that caused the Industrial Revolution.

The wars of this age gave golden opportunities to all those who had the capital or the credit to take up army contracts, and the floating of loans and the remit­tance of subsidies to the allied powers were equally pro­fitable. These contracts were freely jobbed and bank­ers and army contractors formed a permanent and not too reputable section of all 18th century parliaments.

There was a continuous interpenetration of the landed aristocracy and the banking and merchant class­es. In every generation bankers and merchants acquired aristocratic titles and bought landed estates. The pos­session of land gave a social status which could not be obtained in any other way. Often their descendants could hardly be distinguished from the true aristocrats.

At the same time landowners began to invest their profits in industry and commerce. The younger sons of landed families often went into trade.

This chain of events led in England to the Indus­trial Revolution.

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