The Long 19th Century

Terms to Know:

Discussion Question:

The "Long 19th Century" as it has been called by historian Eric Hobsbawm, laid the foundations for our own era, and gave us many of the attitudes that we still have today, towards science, towards art and culture, towards the relationship of European/Western culture with the rest of the world. In the 19th Century, Industrialism found its feet, its energy, and much of its final form. This period also sees the redefinition of class in European societies to reflect economic, rather than status, realities. We also can trace in the 19th century the growth of what Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob have called "Heroic Science" - a radically altered view on the use and efficacy of science, and on the importance of those who practice science - that throws Galileo's formulation of the godliness of science out the window. With heroic science came a steady eroding of the religious point of view in the life of educated individuals in most European societies. The state also eroded the power of religion in a number of ways in this period, most notably through the roughly simultaneous creation in England, France, and Germany of public education systems financed and vetted by the state itself. While these events occurred in each society for different reasons, their net effect in all three places was to place the values of the state in the driver's seat. Their impact included the replacing of religion with the nation as the chief focus of loyalty in the lives of most citizens. For the first time a majority of citizens gained access to education. Continued growth in the workforce and improvements in technology led to further efficiencies in manufacturing and distribution, the creation of national markets, and an international trade network that made possible trans-regional economies of scale. In line with this, however, most of the 19th century saw a growing contentiousness between the factory owning class and the working class. This culminated with the analyses of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, who predicted that population would grow at exponential rates, and the food supply would not continue to grow fast enough to keep up. Ricardo suggested that this would mean increasing competition for jobs, whose creation would also not keep pace with the population, thus leading to constantly decreasing wages for workers.

While this doomsday scenario did not pan out, it did send a chill through many of those who read the ideas of these two thinkers.
Further, reform bills in England in the 1830's to remove much of the most scandalous factory abuses of labor - including the use of children under 6 years old, and refusal to educate children, were not enough to satisfy laborers, who became increasingly restive. Their greatest spokesmen were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - both members of the factory-owning middle class, but both concerned with social justice, and the historical reasons for the current difficulties. The ideas of Marx and the testimony of Engels still lives with us today in a number of different forms.
Finally, the West's technology, its satisfaction with its own achievements, and perception that other cultures were not as strong or as economically successful combined with manufacturing and science to make it possible for the Western nations collectively to conquer or indirectly control more than 80% of the population of the planet.

Whatever else it was, the "long 19th century" (1789-1914) in Europe was a time of growth and optimism, of scientific achievement, and economic change. Social, political, and business sectors of society came together, sometimes cooperatively, and sometimes in conflict, as they never had before. More people became aware of, and participated in, the larger world. This spawned a new burst of intellectual energy as Europeans tried to understand their place in the world, and the reasons for their being in that place. Controversy, struggle, and contention lived side by side with progress, growth, and success.

We entered the long 19th century with our discussion of the French Revolution. In that lecture, one of the most prominent points (I hope!) was the emergence in France of a middle class with the money and education and desire to begin to play a leading role in government and business - the only thing they needed was the opportunity. The emergence of the middle class as a power base in society occurred almost simultaneously in several major societies in Europe, including France, England, Italy, and Germany. Ironically, while the members of that class probably had much in common in a trans-national sense, they separated themselves from each other through an increasingly competitive nationalism.

In fact, it was the middle class that was best positioned to take advantage of the innovations England had seen in the century before, and of the ideals presented by the American and French revolutions. The appeal of the ideas of rights, and the guarantee, which Napoleon and the Americans had written into their laws, of private property, out of bounds of the state, was nearly universal. The ideals of John Locke, who had inspired a generation of American revolutionaries with his arguments about social structure and the rights of government and citizen, came to be seen as the natural way for society to be organized, based, as they were, on rational analysis - a scientific way of looking at the world.

Science played a huge part in the world of the 19th century middle class European. By 1833, Sir Charles Lyell of Great Britain had published his 3 volume work Principles of Geology In it, Lyell made clear that Geology showed a history of the planet that was far longer than the various numbers which had been arrived at by counting the years mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. This was controversial enough. However, Lyell also made the claim that to some extent religion had hindered the understanding of the world by encouraging faulty reasoning and false beliefs. This was neither the beginning, nor the end. In the 18th century, of course, Philosophes such as Voltaire had been critical of religion in general for this reason. However, people like Lyell, and David Levi-Strauss brought not only rational thought, but the analytical process of "hard science" as we call it today, to these criticisms. The middle class, having been educated in schools where science was taught, were familiar with this form of reasoning, and comfortable with the requirement that claims to truth be presented along with evidence in the form of repeatable experiments or existing physical proof. This group of people quickly came to believe that nothing was true unless it looked like science. This led to a crisis of faith in the European middle class, who left the church in droves during the 19th century.

In the same context, in 1859, Charles Darwin, after having returned from a voyage on board the HMS Beagle, published his Origin of Species. According to Darwin, after quite thorough research, every living organism present in his world had evolved from a single living organism in the remote past. His research also suggested that this evolution was random, and occurred over millions of years. The key element in Darwin's theory was his idea of "natural selection" by which an organism, by passing its traits down to the next generation, tends to keep random changes which help it to survive in its environment. Over millions of generations, these changes literally change species, cause some to divide from others, etc. This had tremendous impact, not only on the religious communities of the time, many of whom were absolutely opposed to this idea at all, but also on the thought of social theorists, philosophers, and the like.

In 1863, Thomas Henry Huxley became the first scientist to apply Darwin's ideas directly to humans, as was very successful in his attempt, showing that there was every possibility that humans were related to other species of animals through biological similarities.

In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, which was far more controversial because in it he proposed that human institutions and religions were evolutionary in origin, and caused further evolution themselves. This, of course was quite upsetting to the religious establishment, because it made their beliefs into little more than a survival mechanism arrived at randomly at the whim of nature. It was appealing to others, however, because it did contain scientific style reasoning, and since heredity had come to be understood after Gregor Mendel did his experiments with pea hybridization, published in 1866. This, perhaps predictably, led to a host of other theories on the relationship of evolution and humans, and later human society.

Herbert Spencer, theorized that human progress followed a general law of progress, and defined that as meaning that any species that was progressing was in the process of moving from simple, homogeneous form to a complex and broad group of functional individuals. This meant, for Spencer, that human society was in the process of becoming more individualized, and human manufacturing and trades more specialized. As he put it, "The calico manufacture locates it self in this county, the woollen­cloth manufacture in that; silks are produced here, lace there; stockings in one place, shoes in another; pottery, hardware, cutlery, come to have their special towns; and ultimately every locality becomes more or less distinguished from the rest by the leading occupation carried on in it. Nay, more, this subdivision of functions shows itself not only among the different parts of the same nation, but among different nations. That exchange of commodities which free ­trade promises so greatly to increase, will ultimately have the effect of specializing, in a greater or less degree, the industry of each people." In other words, while each location within a society will come to have its own economic function and place in society, as humans become more complex, each society will also become specialized and do for humanity what it has evolved to be good at. This led to an argument known as Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism was the theory that humans were subject to evolution and natural selection, like any other species. This led to a number of theoretical avenues. For some, what Huxley called pejoratively the "gladiatorial view" of human evolution, and rejected, meant that Spencer's growing complexity led to a competition for nearly every position, resource, and place that existed within human society, with the effect that individuals who suffered from difficulties, including physical and mental disabilities, would be weeded out from the human race. This, the gladiatorialists contended, was a desirable outcome, because it ensured that each individual was evolved to suit the needs of society as well as those of themselves. Another, and related theory, took these ideas to mean that whole cultures and ethnicities were suited to different things in a kind of hierarchical way. Evidence of this can be seen in Mazzini's thoughts on nationalism, in which he proposes that human nations consist not just of common language and common history, but also of a common destiny, God-given, that leads them in the direction they must go.

During the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution wore on, European productivity and technology continued to improve. Social Darwinists took this as evidence that they were superior to other civilizations, and this became one of the many reasons given to explain why European nations had the right, and the ability, to subjugate other nations. The argument went forward, and can be found in Rudyard Kipling's The White Man's Burden, published in McClure's Magazine in 1899, to suggest that Western colonization of the rest of the world was, in fact, a kind of evolutionary tutelage, in which Europeans were both taking their place as the world leaders, and helping other societies to evolve into their own functions as well. Since this was valuable, and the teaching required resources, it was justified to use the resources from the conquered countries, including human labor, to provide the needed economic growth for the Europeans to continue caring for their evolutionary charges.

Of course, this was not the only argument put forward as to why the newly powerful European nations should colonize the globe. One reason was simply that they could, given their new technology, which included a tremendous and ever-growing new stock of weapons, and transportation that allowed them to project force across the globe. Although the number of men they could move was still tiny by contemporary American standards, the technology they possessed was so far in advance of that of most people they encountered that their projection of force was most frequently successful.

This meant, however, that, since conquest cost money, it could only be undertaken where some economic reward might be found. This argument was rapidly taken up and colonies were, for a time, expected to support themselves and provide profit to the mother country. While profit certainly did come in for private businesses, there is no evidence that any Western colonizing power ever made a profit overall in imperialist endeavors. Therefore, this argument was largely hollow.

Perhaps less hollow, if no less shallow, was the argument that controlling an empire meant prestige for a nation. This had to do with the demonstrated ability to take and hold territory, which proved both military and economic strength, and the willingness of members of the conquering society to take on extended commitments in defense of their own goals - in a sense, this demonstrated war readiness. So the possession of colonies came to be a (rather inaccurate) measure of national strength, and a point on which members of the society could compete, as fans of different sports teams do, with other Westerners.

Finally, there was a utilitarian argument which put all of these on the sideline, and claimed that the growing needs of industry required raw materials, and that those raw materials could be found in other countries. If they were not being used, or could not be adequately defended, it was the economic destiny of industrialized nations to find and exploit those cheap raw materials. This came, ultimately, to be perhaps the most powerful of the justifications of imperialism applied in the case of Africa.

Africa was the most stunning example of the speed at which imperialism could work. At the 1884-1885 conference in Berlin fifteen European countries divided up the continent, cutting straight through entire tradional African societies. The reason was simply that each European power wanted access to resources in Africa, and so they drew straight lines across the map with a ruler as the most convenient way to gain access to those resources.
Imperialism in China, which never came under the direct rule of any foreign power, was somewhat different. Economic needs and the position of China geographically, economically, and politically, in the world, meant that no one country could be allowed such imperial control. So China was occupied partially, in a series of treaty ports based on the models of Hong Kong and Macau. Most of these treaty ports had a Chinese section, and then on average five to seven different “concessions” – sectors under the control of one of the imperialist powers present in the city. Shanghai, for example, had a Japanese, a German, and an English concession, among others. Tianjin had Russian, Japanese, English, and French concessions. So China was, as Ruth Rogaski has said, a "hypercolony”. Within each of the concessions, political and legal control was granted to the concessionary nation under a treaty term known as extraterritoriality.

India was again a different situation. By 1857, India came almost entirely under British rule, though it had been to one degree or another earlier than that, as well, because of the presence of the British East India Company. The East India Company had gained the status of an Indian territorial ruler in the late 18th century, and had slowly, through acting as a tax-collecting agent and performing military and naval duties for the increasingly crippled Mughal emperors, gained control over larger portions of the subcontinent. By 1857, when sepoys, Hindu and Muslim soldiers trained by the British, rioted because of British callousness toward their religious beliefs, the British had gained political control and even a degree of popularity among India's ruling classes. After 1857, and the putting down of the rebellion, force of arms, efficient administration, and barely realized promises to bring industrialization to India helped the British maintain control and replace the Mughals as the sovereign rulers.

In almost each case, the details of imperialism were unique, and no single standard for rule, law, or economic activity existed. Still, the justifications of imperialism often danced to the same tune. It seems very much, as Louise Young has said, that imperialism, intentionally or not, came to be as much about transforming the metropole – the central imperializing culture – as it was about ruling and transforming the colonies.