The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Britain — the ‘Workshop of the World’

Category: 19th century

By the middle of the 19th century Britain established her industrial superiority in the world as well as her dominant position in world trade. The ‘metropolis of capitalism’, as Karl Marx called England increased the number of its cotton-spinning and weaving factories from 1932 to 2483 during the 50s and 60s of the 19th century. By this time the English cotton industry had 30 million mechanical spindles or six times as many as France or the United States of America and twenty times more than Prussia. By 1870 England’s urban population reached 66 per cent of the total population of the country.

However, it was the heavy industry that made the greatest leap forward: the output of pig iron rose from two million to six million tonnes — more than half of the world output. Coal production in the mid-sixties reached 92 million tonnes, which was also more than half of the world output. Railways were rapidly built too. Britain’s volume of external trade was greater than that of Germany, France and Italy put together, and was between three and four times greater than that of the USA. Britain in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century was in the van of economic progress unrivalled as an industrial nation.

The British government tried to enhance the idea of Britain’s industrial supremacy by organizing the first world exhibition in 1851. The Great Exhibition as it was called included show-pieces of industrial progress from many nations; but chief among them were things made in Britain — the ‘workshop of the world’.

Free trade was the natural aim of the strongest trading nation, and this policy was implemented far and wide.

An important aspect of this policy was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 to reduce the high cost of imported wheat. In general import duties were reduced on 750 articles. The manufacturers gained by repeal not through the cheapening of food, which had been their main argument when trying to win popular support, but by a larger flow of imports and a steadily expanding market for their goods. Thus, as the import of wheat from the Levant increased, so the export of Lanchashire cottons rose too. Nothing now stood between the British manufacturer and the markets of the world.

The expansion of the world market was also stimulated by the steady rise of prices following the discovery of gold in California, USA, and in Australia in 1851. In this market British industry had a virtual monopoly.

Engels summed up the whole period thus: ‘The years immediately following the victory of Free Trade in England seemed to verify the most extravagant expectations of prosperity founded upon that event. British commerce rose to a fabulous amount: the industrial monopoly of England on the market of the world seemed more firmly established than ever…’*.

The strengthening of the capitalist state machine continued in this period. From 1837 to 1901 Queen Victoria reigned in England. Despite all the respect and reverence enjoyed by the Queen actual power was concentrated in the cabinet of ministers responsible to Parliament which expressed the interests of the ruling classes. True, Queen Victoria succeeded in exercising a certain amount of influence upon the course of state affairs by utilizing her links with the upper clique. After 1848 the Whigs now represented by the newly-emerged Liberal party — a party of the industrial and trading bourgeoisie — were in power almost without interruption for over twenty years. The Tories had been seriously weakened by the repeal of the Corn Laws, which was a blow at the landlords and gentry who comprised the nucleus of the Tory party. The Tory party was revived and re-united in 1867 when the Conservative party was formed no longer primarily as a party of the landowners but as the party of the new power of finance capital.

The central figure of the Liberal cabinet was Lord Palmerston (1784 —1865), the British Foreign Secretary at that time, who headed the foreign office with short interruptions from 1830 to 1865. A rich Englishman possessing vast lands in Ireland he gained the reputation of being a liberal though in fact pursued a most reactionary home and foreign policy. In his domestic policy Palmerston was opposed to reforms. Palmerston’s policies reflected the hypocritical, bullying, cowardly and stupid conduct of the official and well-to-do John Bull as Karl Marx put it. It was at this time that Punch, the weekly satirical conservative magazine founded in 1841i published a cartoon describing John Bull who became a national symbol of Britain as wearing top-boots, a low-crowned hat, and carrying a cudgel in his hand, a man capable of standing his ground against the most vigorous adversary even when it comes to blows.

The principles underlying British foreign policy in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century were connected with trade and colonial expansion. Based on the principles of ‘splendid isolation’ Britain carried out a ‘free hand’ policy. Without binding herself by argeements or alliances, England could at a decisive moment support any country, thereby gaining considerable advantages. The ‘treacherous Albion’ could incite her rivals to fight each other and in the confusion get the chestnuts out of the fire with someone else’s hands.

The expansion of the vast colonial empire, the conquest of new markets were in the focus of British foreign policy. India and the Far East were of special importance. British expansion continued in India which was regarded as the most precious jewel in the British Crown. The English colonizers used the carrot and stick policy: they enjoyed the support of an army of sepoys (native soldiers driven by hunger and privation to serve in the British army) trained by English officers, they bribed the small princes and landowners. Railways were built deep into the country to foster the penetration of cheap English goods and take back cotton and other raw materials. Thus in the 19th century India was flooded with cheap English factorymade fabrics. The devastating effect of this influx of English goods into India brought with it grave consequences. Millions of weavers ruined by English competition starved to death.

The people of India never yielded to British oppression. When the country was split revolts took place in different parts of its territory. However, when all India was conquered by the British a national liberation movement flared up. This revolt is known in British history books as the Indian Mutiny or the mutiny of the sepoys, but in India as the First Indian War of Independence. All India was involved in a mass uprising against British rule in 1857 — 9. Even Delhi was seized by the rebels and the British administration was overthrown. The main forces of the uprising were comprised of peasants and artisans who were poorly equipped and badly organized. Moreover the feudal lords bribed by the colonizers betrayed their own people. Britain with all its technical might suppressed the uprising with medieval cruelty. The main forces of the sepoys were blocked in Delhi which was recaptured in September 1857. The mutineers were not simply executed, they were tied to the cannons and then blown to pieces by the firing guns. The unrest continued well until 1859 when it was finally crushed. Pursuing the aim to tighten its grip in India the British government abolished the East India Company, stationed 65,000 British troops in the country. India was reduced to the status of an imperial province of the British crown headed by a viceroy.

On the basis of its gains in India, Britain continued to extend its empire in Asia and the Far East. In 1852—3 southern Burma was annexed and joined to India. The seizure of Singapore in 1819 provided excellent facilities for the British fleet to extend its naval operations in the Pacific. Together with Gibraltar and Aden which was seized in 1839 it formed a strategic safeguard system to protect British trade and colonial interests in India, South-East Asia and the Far East. It was in this period that Britain opened up China gaining access to the huge Chinese market.

The Opium Wars fought by Britain in 1839—42 and in 1856—8 and 1860 (together with France) to force the Chinese to buy Indian opium against their will was mainly aimed to break down the barriers which prevented the free export of British goods to China. After the first war, Hong Kong which later became an important strategic base was annexed and five ‘treaty ports’ opened to British traders. China was completely humiliated for the Nanking Treaty was signed on a British gunboat in 1842. The second war opened the way for the penetration of the Yangtse basin. British colonial gains in Afghanistan and Iran were far from being secure because of tough local resistance, however, important markets were won in this region to the benefit of the Lancashire cotton manufacturers.

British colonial expansion and the consolidation of British interests in the Middle East inevitably led to a clash between England and Russia. The desintegration of the Turkish empire, the struggle of the Slavs and other peoples for their independence against Turkish yoke raised the question of the future of these territories. If Russia moved south and defeated Turkey, she might secure her ancient dream of Constantinople and way out into the Mediterranean which was a threat to Britain’s control of the approaches to the Suez Canal and to her links with India. Other European powers, France and Austria included, were also involved. However, Britain and Russia were the main antagonists. The Crimean War of 1853—6 ended in a severe defeat of tsarist Russia. Britain and France gained access to the Turkish market. However, the main result of the war was the neutralization of the Black Sea. Russia was forbidden to fortify any harbours on the Black Sea or to keep any warships there.

Meanwhile, Britain went on extending its colonial empire. She possessed two kinds of colonies: colonies proper and the so-called dominions. In the former like India where there was a large native population the status of the inhabitants was that of slaves and British colonial rule was absolute. In the latter like Canada, Australia, New Zealand with a sparse native population which was either exterminated or driven into reservations and the lands were taken over by white settlers selfgovernment and dominion status were granted to the settlers. The British bourgeoisie remembered well the drastic consequences of the American War of Independence and did not want a similar repetition in any of the white colonies.

After the American revolution English convicts were deported to Australia and it was used as a convict colony well into the 19th century. The discovery of gold in 1851 attracted many settlers and stimulated the rapid development of the country. By 1890 there were six colonies in Australia, all of which had acquired self-government. In 1901 the British Parliament recognized the Commonwealth of Australia. Large sheep-breeding farms were set up and the country became a major exporter of wool and meat. Industry began to develop too especially in the last.

The British gained control of New Zealand in 1840. In New Zealand the local Maori population attempted to resist when their land was taken away from them. The English sent an army of 20,000 which for three whole years exterminated the Maori people. In a short time the number of Maori dwindled from 80,000 to 30,000. Eventually the white settlers dominated the country. The settlement obtained a large measure of self-government in 1853.

In Canada which abounded in forests the owners hired workers to fell the trees for timber — a major item of Canada’s exports. Large grain-producing farms emerged too and later industry began to develop. However, trouble between English and French residents of Canada and disputes over the boundary of the USA and Canada caused the English Parliament to send Lord Durham to investigate the situation. In his report (1839) he recommended more self-government. As a result, the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867. It became a federal state with 9 provinces and received a two-house parliament, a cabinet and a governor-general who represented England.

The foreign policy of Britain was aggressive and solely motivated by the imperialist ambitions of the English bourgeoisie. Fulfilling the interests of the City bankers and the Lanchashire capitalists Britain waged expansionist wars and supported most reactionary regimes in Europe — the Turkish and Austrian empires. A state of mind called jingoism had developed among the British ruling-class. The feeling was expressed in a music-hall song of 1878 when the British government was supporting the Turks in their war against Russia:

“We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got

the money, too”.

The 1850s and 1860s were years of growing antagonism between England and Ireland. Beginning with the 17th century the lands in Ireland belonged to the English landlords many of which never lived in the country. The bulk of the Irish peasants were turned into tenant farmers. Moreover, the tenant in Ireland was little better than a labourer, and his landlord would dispense with him and evict him at will. The landlord in Ireland enjoyed the right to raise rents and ignore the improvements which might have been put into a landholding by a tenant’s hard work. The position of the Irish peasants was desperate.

The new free trade policy of Britain doomed the fate of Ireland: small peasant farming was being ruthlessly destroyed. Industrial crops were introduced on the large estates and much land began to go back to pasture which needed less labour. The peasants were mercilessly evicted from the land. As there was none or little outlet of industry in the towns there was much distress on the land.

The small Irish tenant grew wheat to pay the rent while potato was the main crop produced for food. Meanwhile Ireland was approaching the dreadful crisis or the ‘Great Famine’. Her population in 1845 was about eight million, ofwhom half were wretchedly poor and dependent on the potato for food, at a time when Ireland was intensely cultivated and some three-quarters of the soil was under wheat and other crops. In September 1845 the potato blight appeared and it was not till 1848 that the Great Famine ended in complete exhaustion. In the course of this dreadful visitation, by death from famine or fever or by emigration to America the population fell from over 8 millions to 6,5. All this time food was exported to England with British troops guarding their despatch from the desperate hungry crowds. The Famine, the worst event of its kind recorded in European history staggered the conscience of Europe. British policy in Ireland evoked widescale condemnation all throughout Europe and America. Emigration to America set in with a vast and steady flow and continuing for the next hundred years kept the population at home in a state of decline and made a greater Ireland in America than the remainder at home.

The Famine, the mass evictions, the huge rents imposed by the landlords, the enforced emigration — these were the root causes of a new upheaval of the national liberation movement in Ireland. The spirit of rebellion became videspread in the country.

However, the liberation movement in the country was dominated by petty bourgeois revolutionaries, the Fenians (the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood), who advocated conspiracy and terrorist activities which was a reflection of the peasants’ despair and hatred caused by the mass evictions. The First International headed by Karl Marx was in ardent sympathy with the liberation struggle of the Irish people, but Marx sharply condemned the terrorist acts of the Fenian leadership, which caused enormous harm to the Irish people. The conspiratorial tactics of the Fenians, the lack of mass support of the peasantry which they claimed to represent precipitated the defeat of the movement. The Fenian uprising of 1867 was severely crushed by the British authorities and its leaders were executed.

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