Social Transformation in the 18th Century for AP European History (page 2)
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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.
The rise in population created more mouths to feed. The existence of a vast colonial empire of trade created an increasingly wealthy merchant class who both bought land from, and affected the behavior of, traditional land-holding elites. The result was the destruction of the traditional manorial system in which land-owning elites (lords of the manor) held vast estates divided into small plots of arable land farmed by peasants for local consumption and vast grounds known as commons where peasants grazed their livestock. That system was slowly replaced by a market-oriented approach in which cash crops were grown for sale and export.
The shift to cash crops created pressure that led to the reorganization of the social structure of the countryside. The traditional land-owning elites abandoned their feudal obligations to the peasantry and adopted the attitude of the merchant class. Cash crops created a demand for larger fields. Landowners responded by instituting a process known as enclosure because of the hedges, fences, and walls that were built to deny the peasantry access to the commons, which were now converted to fields for cash crops. Later, the land owners extended enclosure into other arable lands, breaking traditional feudal agreements and gradually transforming much of the peasantry into wage labor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, three-quarters of the arable land in England had been enclosed informally or "by agreement" (though the peasantry had not, in fact, been given any choice); after 1750, the process continued more formally as land was enclosed via acts of Parliament.
The increase in population also created greater demand for the other necessities of life, particularly clothing. In the feudal system, all aspects of textile production had been under the control of guilds (which were organizations of skilled laborers, such as spinners and weavers), who enjoyed the protection of the town officials. Membership in a guild was gained only through a lengthy apprenticeship. In that way, the guilds kept competition to a minimum and controlled the supply of textiles, thereby guaranteeing that they could make a decent living. In the eighteenth century, merchants faced with an ever-expanding demand for textiles had to find a way around the guild system; the result was a system of rural manufacturing known variously as cottage industry or the putting-out system.
In the putting-out system, merchants went into the countryside and engaged the peasantry in small-scale textile production. Each month, the merchant provided raw material and rented equipment to peasant families. At the end of the month, he returned and paid the family for whatever thread or cloth they had produced. Initially, peasant families supplemented their agricultural income in this way; eventually, some of them gave up farming altogether and pooled their resources to create small textile mills in the countryside. As the system grew, the guilds of the town were unable to compete with the mills; cottage industry replaced the urban guilds as the center for textile production.
The new system of rural manufacturing went hand-in-hand with the shift to market-oriented agriculture; the destruction of the manorial system could not have been accomplished if some of the cash flowing into the economy had not found its way into the hands of the rural population. The creation of cottage industries provided the cash that enabled rural families to buy their food rather than grow it themselves.
However, the social change that accompanied the destruction of both the manorial system and the guilds also brought hardship and insecurity. The enclosure movement meant that thousands of small landholders, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers lost their land and their social status. Forced to work for wages, their lives and those of their families were now at the mercy of the marketplace. The destruction of the guilds produced similar trauma for the artisans and their families. For both the peasantry and the artisans, the economic and social changes of the eighteenth century meant the destruction of their traditional place and status in society: they were now faced with both new opportunities and great insecurity.
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