Magazine article History Today

Did Europe's Mercantilist Empires Pay?

Magazine article History Today

Did Europe's Mercantilist Empires Pay?

Article excerpt

European imperialism or the direct intrusion of power into the political, economic and social affairs of other peoples and other continents is represented in a history which goes back five centuries to the voyages of discovery and which is now almost at an end. That experience can be periodised into four phases: the long era of mercantilism, 1492-1846; the brief period of free trade which is symbolised by Britain's repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and which lasted down to the Great War; neo-mercantilism which marked the inter-war years; and the final phase of decolonisation and retreat from empire after 1945.


During the mercantilist era (the period addressed here) colonies, plantations, property rights and modes of conducting trade emerged to control the marketing of primary produce and minerals and to set unequal terms under which surpluses from Asia, Africa and the Americas were exchanged for the manufactured goods, temperate farm produce and commercial services sold by European merchants on world markets. Through superior military technology and advanced forms of political and business organisation Western Europeans either plundered and colonised the resources of other continents or reduced the weaker economies of Eastern Europe (the so-called semi-periphery) to conditions of dependency. They promoted forms of labour control (slavery and peonage at the periphery and serfdom and sharecropping at the semi-periphery) which maintained prices of exports sold on European markets close to subsistence wage costs.

Over time the imposed institutions of a European mercantilists and imperialistic economic order created patterns of specialisation and sustained terms of trade which helped the economies of Western Europe industrialise and achieve rising standards of living. At the same time and through their connections with Europe, the economies of the periphery (and semi-periphery) were pushed towards primary production, monoculture and to slower rates of growth.

Alas, the tightly defined concerns pursued here might be castigated as `repressively occidental' because they will not cover either the origins of imperialism or accord attention to Europe's impact (negative and positive) upon Asia, Africa and the Americas. Instead the analysis is confined to the benefits from mercantilist empires conceived and measured in terms of long run macro-economic outcomes for a small sample of European societies including Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and England - a survey of the links between European investment in empire over the centuries from 1492 to 1846 and economic growth. The `pay off' is supposedly embodied, not so much in the wealth of towns, churches, conquistadors, merchants and aristocrats who made fortunes from empire, but in the industrialisation of a continent.

By the second half of the nineteenth century progenitors of modern, urban and industrial market economies that we Europeans happily inhabit today had already appeared on our continent, but what were the connections between the advanced countries of Western Europe and their commitments to oceanic trade, maritime outposts and colonial possessions? What mechanisms emanating from commerce with Asia, Africa and the Americas operated to promote the long-run development of globally successful economies in Western Europe? Just how important were relations between the metropolis and its colonies for the latter's long-term evolution into economic systems that eventually provided such relatively high standards of living for their populations? Was it not the case (as the opponents of overseas expansion insisted almost from the very beginning) that commitments to empire operated to weaken European economies, to retard their development and ultimately to restrain progress towards affluent societies?

Such antitheses are interesting to pursue because most European economies industrialised without seriously committing capital, manpower, entrepreneurial talent and military forces beyond the borders of Europe. …

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