The European conquest of Africa and Asia, 1750-1914

History must be understood, not ignored

     In my last post, I tried to succinctly describe an historically important example of what I am calling “the dialectic of domination and development.”  I tried to show that the Iberian conquest of vast regions of the Americas was an important causal factor in the modernization of agriculture and the expansion of craft manufacturing of Northwestern Europe during the sixteenth century (see “The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, 16th century,” May 25, 2021).

     This is not a matter of idle intellectual or historical curiosity.  Humanity today must focus on finding the road to overcoming the dialectic of domination and development, the historic human tendency to base development on the conquest and superexploitation of other lands and peoples.  Nations must discover the road to economic development and prosperity through the creation of a world-system based in cooperation and mutually beneficial trade among nations, as is being proposed today by the neocolonized.  The great leaders and great nations today are and will be those that can lead humanity to a more just and democratic world-system, leaders who have grasped all of the structures of domination and superexploitation of our time, in order that these unjust structures can be transformed.

     In the wake of the sixteenth century Iberian conquest of the Americas, Northwestern Europe in the early seventeenth century, with its economies beginning to modernize and its modern nation-states being forged, was poised for the conquest of the world.  But being human, they had to first catch their breath.  Wallerstein describes the period of 1640 to 1815 as a second stage of the modern world-system, characterized by a slowdown in the rate of development, with alternating cycles of expansion and contractions.  Wallerstein notes that this period of stagnation was not a terminal crisis, and it was overcome in accordance with the established structures of the world-economy, resulting in their consolidation.  Throughout this stage, both core and peripheral elites had an interest in preserving the core-peripheral relation.  Peripheral elites found the relation profitable, and core manufacturers continued to need the raw materials flowing from the periphery to the core.  So the modern world-economy passed through the period of stagnation with the basic core-peripheral relation intact.  The boundaries of core, periphery, and semiperiphery continued to be the same as they had been developed during the sixteenth century, with minor changes.

      The third stage of the modern world-system was characterized by a significant territorial and economic expansion.  In the third volume of The Modern World System, published in 1989, Wallerstein writes that from 1750 to 1850, the Ottoman Empire, the Indian subcontinent, the Russian Empire, and West Africa were incorporated into the periphery of the European world-economy, thus expanding core access to raw materials for manufacturing and to markets for manufactured goods.  The process of peripheralization involved structural changes in the economies of the four regions, in order to attain their integration in the world-economy in a form that maximized capital accumulation in the core. 

      In order to attain the necessary structural changes in their economies, these four zones had to be integrated politically into the world system.  This could be accomplished either by pre-existing states transforming themselves into states within the interstate system, adapting to the economic requirements of the world-system; or by the replacement of pre-existing states with new political structures.

      The political integration of the state in the four regions was attained in different ways. The Ottoman Empire was in a process of disintegration, and it had lost its control of the processes of production in much of its territory.  In this weakened position, it was compelled to accept the demands of Britain and France, which had an increasing economic and political presence in the region.  In the case of the Indian subcontinent, Britain ultimately decided that the most effective course of action was the creation of a state under direct British colonial control over a large area that subsumed different pre-existing empires and smaller political structures.   The Russian Empire, consumed with internal conflict, decided that its least unfavorable course of action was incorporation into capitalist world-economy in terms demanded by the global powers.  In West Africa, there was no pre-existing empire with which to negotiate terms.  There were many strong, slave-selling states and a multitude of small states that were militarily and politically weak.  In this situation, Britain and France created larger political entities under English and French colonial administration.  In all four regions, therefore, the political integration of states into the world-system was accomplished, establishing the political conditions for their peripheralization.

     The process of peripheralization involved four main changes in these regions.  (1) They were converted into exporters of raw materials through the expansion of cash crop agriculture.  There were dramatic increases in the export of indigo, raw silk, opium, and cotton from India; of mohair yarn, raw silk, and cotton from the Ottoman Empire; of hemp, flax and wheat from Russia; and of slaves, palm oil and peanuts from West Africa.  Most of the products exported from the four regions functioned as raw materials for manufacturing in Western Europe or as products of food consumption in Western Europe, although the Indian opium and cotton headed for China and the West African slaves brought to the West Indies had different functions. 

     (2) Systems of coerced labor were established.  Cash crop production was not attractive to peasants, since it took time away from the subsistence production necessary for survival.  As a result, they were forced, directly or indirectly, to engage in cash crop production, using various mechanisms of coercion, taking a variety of economic and legal forms.

     (3) Manufacturing was reduced or eliminated.  India, for example, had been one of the world's major centers of cotton textile production prior to 1800, but by 1840, Indian textile manufacturing had virtually disappeared as a result of British colonial economic policies, with a tariff structure that favored British manufactures.  Colonial economic policies destroyed not only Indian textile industry but also its iron and steel industries.  Similarly, the manufacturing export capacity of the Ottoman Empire greatly declined from the 1780s to the 1850s, as a result of a French duty on Ottoman imports of manufactured cotton cloth and British competitive advantage through mechanization of its textile production, driven by the ongoing expansion of the world-economy.  In addition, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the British imposed on the Ottoman Empire a commercial accord that functioned to destroy manufacturing in Egypt and Syria.  Russia also suffered a significant decline in iron manufacturing, although Russia was able to resist to some extent British efforts to promote her deindustrialization by virtue of tariff protection for its industry, accompanied by a strong domestic market and a strong military.  In West Africa, cotton and iron manufacturing were able to compete at first with British manufacturing, but West African manufacturing was undermined by cheap British imports during the early nineteenth century, facilitated by the political incapacity of West African manufacturers to protect their industries. 

     (4) Large-scale economic units were created, resulting in the concentration of economic power.  Low-wage plantations and large estates emerged, with small-scale producers trapped by debt peonage.

     Thus, the peripheralization of the Indian subcontinent, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and West Africa during the period 1750 to 1850 converted these regions into producers of raw materials for export, utilizing forced labor, facilitating the concentration of economic and political power, and creating the conditions for the emergence an elite class in the peripheralized region with an economic interest in the perpetuation of the core-peripheral relation.  The process of peripheralization reduced the standard of living of the majority, as resources of land and labor were used for the purpose of producing raw materials that were sent to Western Europe.  On the other hand, the peripheralization of these regions functioned to the advantage of Western Europe, in that it provided cheap raw materials for its manufacturing and markets for its manufactured goods. 

     At the same time, the expansion of production and commerce facilitated by the peripheralization of these regions enabled the world-economy to overcome its stagnation and to enter into a period of unprecedented geographical and economic expansion, which promoted the further industrial development of Britain.  British textile manufacturing was restructured during the period 1780-1840, made more efficient by the development of larger scale and more mechanized enterprises.  These technological transformations in industry gave Britain an advantage over other core states.  In addition, greater access to raw materials and markets after 1780 promoted the industrial development of other nations of the West, particularly France, Belgium, the western region of what would become Germany, Switzerland, and the northern states of the United States.

     Subsequently, the territorial expansion of the world-system proceeded apace.  Andre Gunder Frank, in his 1979 book Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment, reports that from 1815 to 1914, European nations, particularly Britain and France, established colonial domination over new territories.  Vast regions were peripheralized, so that the modern world-economy became truly global in scope. 

    In Southeast Asia, nearly all of the territories were conquered by European powers during the nineteenth century, resulting in direct European colonial administration, and thus the incorporation of the territories into periphery of the world-economy.  By the dawn of World War I, the British had occupied Burma and Malaya, the French controlled Indochina, the Dutch ruled the Netherlands East Indies, and Portugal held on to Portuguese Timor. The U.S. intervention in the Cuban war of independence, known in the USA as the Spanish-American War, resulted in the transfer of control of the Philippines from Spain to the United States.

       During this period, many of the agricultural and handicraft systems of Southeast Asia were destroyed.  Its land was converted into the production of raw materials for export to Europe.  And the region was forced to import European manufactured goods, leading to the destruction of its traditional handicraft systems.  The unequal rate of exchange between European manufactured goods and Southeast Asian raw materials promoted the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Southeast Asia.

      Neither China nor Japan was conquered and peripheralized.  Both were empires, and they had the military capacity to resist the European invasion into Southeast and East Asia.  China, however, was in decline, and she was compelled to accept commercial treaties that undermined Chinese economic autonomy.  These “unequal treaties” were to become a source of resentment in twentieth century China.

     The industry and village handicrafts of the Arab world were destroyed during the period.  When Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, Mohammed Ali attempted to stimulate national and industrial development.  But Egypt had insufficient political autonomy within the Ottoman Empire to establish the necessary tariff protection.  When Egypt was seized and occupied by Britain, its deindustrialization continued.  Lord Carver, who governed Egypt between 1883 and 1907, observed that "Some quarters [of Cairo] that formerly used to be veritable centers of varied industries - spinning, weaving, ribbon making, dyeing, tent making, embroidery, shoemaking, jewelry making, spice grinding, copper work . . . have shrunk considerably or vanished."  At the same time, the Egyptian countryside was converted into cotton plantations with a small landowning class.  Similar developments occurred throughout the Arab world.

     At the Berlin colonial conference of 1884, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain agreed to a partition of Africa.  The partition had to be implemented in practice by means of military invasions of the continent, and the Africans responded with tough resistance.  But the superior military technology of the Europeans and the decentralized political structures of the Africans gave the Europeans the advantage.  The historian Basil Davidson described 1880 to 1900 as the years of the conquest of Africa, followed by a two-decade “‘period of pacification’ in which the installation of colonial rule was made complete.”

     Accordingly, several regions of Africa were converted into single-crop export zones during the nineteenth century.  Agricultural products, including palm oil, peanuts and other oil-seeds, and cocoa, as well as minerals, were exported.  Mining operations and large-scale commercial agricultural enterprises were owned by European entrepreneurs and companies.  There also was supplementary cash crop production by peasants, usually coerced through such mechanisms as the hut tax.  Inasmuch as peasant income from the production of cash crops was no greater than the tax, the peasants were in effect producing without compensation.  The tax revenues collected from the peasants were used to develop the transportation infrastructure for the exportation of the raw materials to the core. 

     Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the conquest of the world by the principal European nations was virtually complete.  Beginning in the early years of the sixteenth century and culminating in the twentieth century, the European project of domination involved conquest of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, North America, North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and much of Southeast and East Asia (except China and Japan).  In the wake of the conquest, colonial empires were established, functioning to develop and maintain the peripheralization of the conquered regions and to repress any popular resistance to colonial domination.  In this way, the foundation was established for the underdevelopment of vast regions of the world and the development of the nations of the core of the world-system.

      In my next column, I will discuss slavery in the USA, as a dimension of the global process of economic and territorial expansion during the nineteenth century.

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