Social Transformation in the 18th Century for AP European History
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In the eighteenth century, Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France surpassed Spain, Portugal, and Holland as the dominant economic powers in Europe. They did so by controlling the majority of the increasingly lucrative triangle of trade that connected Europe to Africa and the Americas. The resulting wealth and prosperity set in motion a series of innovations that radically changed European agricultural and manufacturing production, which in turn produced changes in the social structure of Europe. Competition between Britain and France, and the desire of their eastern European rivals to catch up, led to innovations in diplomacy and war, the twin processes by which eighteenth-century European rulers built and expanded their states.
The Triangle of Trade
The phrase triangle of trade refers to a system of interconnected trade routes that quadrupled foreign trade in both Britain and France in the eighteenth century. Here are three characteristics of the triangle of trade:
- Manufactured goods (primarily guns and gin) were exported from Europe to Africa.
- Slaves were exported to serve as labor in European colonies in North America, South America, and the Caribbean.
- Raw materials (especially furs, timber, tobacco, rice, cotton, indigo dye, coffee, rum, and sugar) were exported from the colonies to Europe in exchange for the slaves and manufactured goods.
Prior to the eighteenth century, the primary destination of Africans taken into slavery by their rivals had been either the Mediterranean basin or Asia. The eighteenth-century expansion of the European colonies greatly increased the demand for African slaves and reoriented the slave trade to the west. The majority of slaves were destined for the West Indies and Brazil, with about 10 percent going to colonies in North America. The transportation of African slaves across the Atlantic on European trade ships was known as the Middle Passage. As many as 700 slaves per ship were transported, chained below deck in horrific conditions. It is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Africans were transported each year during the height of the eighteenth-century slave trade.
Breaking the Traditional Cycle of Population and Productivity
The enormous wealth generated by the British and French colonies and the triangle of trade created pressure for social change that eventually affected the whole population. The effects were felt more strongly in Britain and led to changes that, taken together, constituted the first phase of an Industrial Revolution that began in Britain and then spread eastward throughout Europe, breaking the traditional cycle of population and productivity.
The traditional cycle worked like this:
- Population and productivity rose together, as an increase in the number of people working in an agricultural economy increased the agricultural yield.
- Eventually, the agricultural yield reached the maximum amount that could be produced given the land available and the methods in use.
- For a while, population would continue to rise but eventually, as the number of people far outstripped the agricultural yield, food would become scarce and expensive.
- Scarcity and high prices would eventually cause the population to decline.
- When the population was safely below the possible productivity, the cycle would begin again.
In the eighteenth century, several developments related to new wealth combined to break the cycle:
- Agriculture became market-oriented.
- Rural manufacturing spread capital throughout the population.
- Increased demand led to technical innovation.
The new market orientation of agriculture created a shift from farming for local consumption to a reliance on imported food sold at markets. The introduction of rural manufacture put larger amounts of currency into the system and made the working population less dependent on land and agricultural cycles, thereby breaking the natural check on population growth.
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