Book Review from the September 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Heyday: the 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age', by Ben Wilson. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £8.99)
This history covers the period from 1851 to 1862, from the Great Exhibition in London to the early part of the American Civil War. Britain was at the height of its power at this time, producing 70 percent of the world’s steel in 1851, for instance, and the book’s original hardback edition was subtitled ‘Britain and the making of the modern world’. But there were challenges to this pre-eminence, mainly from Germany and the USA.
One of the themes is technological progress, from the development of the telegraph to the growth of railways, and how this related to the expansion of production, the emergence of a global market and the rapid dissemination of news and other information. The discovery of gold, in California and Australia, resulted in massive population movements, appalling consequences for native peoples and enormous riches (though usually not for those who dug the gold). The gold rush also led to the development of faster ships and an international market for grain and other goods, as there was little agriculture in the areas where the gold was to be found.
Behind all this, however, was slavery, and the dependence of much of the industrialised world on cotton grown in the American south. Over a billion pounds of raw cotton was shipped from ports such as New Orleans to the mills of Lancashire, and arguments over the future of slavery and the possible secession of the slave states resulted in much uncertainty. When the Civil War cut off supplies, the production of cotton on a mass scale spread to countries such as Egypt and India, where the price of cotton rose so much that local manufacturers could no longer afford to purchase it as a raw material.
The other commodity that exerted a global influence was opium, which Wilson claims ‘dictated geopolitics’. Britain had already gone to war with China to enforce its own terms on the opium trade, and this continued with the shelling of Guangzhou in 1856 and the military occupation of Beijing in 1860. Hong Kong had become ‘one of the key hubs of global trade and finance’. Lord Palmerston won a big parliamentary majority in the so-called Chinese Election of 1857, as British electors backed his bellicose policies in the Far East. ‘Free’trade was one of the rallying cries of nineteenth-century capitalism, but it was generally imposed and maintained at the point of a gun.
The 1840s had been a period of economic depression and food shortages, but the 1850s were seen as a decade of boom. Yet in 1857 there was a global financial crash, with bumper grain harvests leading to a big drop in prices, and a realisation that plenty of bank loans would not be repaid. A New York-based bank failed, and many businesses collapsed.
Wilson gives a vivid picture of all these developments and more, including the Crimean War, Russian expansion in the Far East, the Indian Rebellion, and events in Japan. Capitalism expanded on the way to becoming a truly global system, but hundreds of millions of people suffered from poverty and war while this was happening.