Book Summary: “How the Old World Ended” by Jonathan Scott

Title: How the Old World Ended: The Anglo-Dutch-American Revolution, 1500-1800
Author: Jonathan Scott
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Scott explains how the Industrial Revolution was caused by unique historical developments in the Netherlands, Britain and North America.

Key Take-aways

  • The Industrial Revolution was one of the great transformations in world history. It was caused by a unique relationship between Britain, the Dutch Republic and the British North American colonies.
  • The economies of traditional societies were highly constrained by inefficient grain production.
  • The Dutch Republic found a way around these constraints by importing vast amounts of grain from the Baltic region. No longer held back by inefficient grain production, Dutch farmers could diversify into far more profitable agricultural biproducts. These two factors made the Dutch Republic, the dominant commercial and agricultural power of the 17th Century.
  • Without the Agricultural Revolution in Britain, the Industrial Revolution would not have taken place. The Agricultural Revolution took place because southeast England copied many of the agricultural innovations made by the Dutch Republic.
  • Protestant religious refugees from Netherlands, Flanders and France brought critical skills to Britain.
  • The massive migration to British North America created a critical market for British manufactured goods.

Important Quotes from Book

This book is concerned in the first place with how the old world ended, and only secondly with why. Thus its primary interest is in historical process.
The present book considers how by interaction both with the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and with its own unique colonies in temperate-climate North America, Britain became the site for a revolution that changed the world.
Fewer than three hundred years ago there occurred the most fundamental reordering of human existence since the beginning of agriculture. How was this possible, involving as it did the disappearance of an entire and heavily defended way of life? The Industrial Revolution is a major field for economic and social historians. But explaining it requires us to understand a complex of developments across the early modern period.
To begin with, this transformation must be explained in regional and global terms. Between 1500 and 1800, as Europe established its first global colonies, the Anglo-Dutch North Sea region overtook the Mediterranean as the epicenter of material and cultural capital.

Part of the answer to this question hinges upon the development in temperate climate British North America of a unique type of European colony, one established for the settlement of people and culture, rather than for the extraction or cultivation of things. During the eighteenth century this sub-section of European empire became demographically explosive because it was outside the zone of mosquito-borne tropical diseases. This was the most dynamic market driving the growth of British manufactures. It was an economic development rooted in environmental, social, cultural and political history: that of the migrational Protestantism which carried Scots, English, Dutch and eventually Swedish and German pilgrims across the Atlantic on their seventeenth-century errand into the wilderness.

In tying together these European and Atlantic themes, this book offers an account of England’s republican revolution of 1649–53 as a – perhaps the – turning point in modern world history. It was a spectacular attempt to change not only English government but social and moral life in the direction pioneered by the Dutch Revolt and republic from the late sixteenth century. It enacted a revolution in the military-fiscal and especially naval resources of the state to confront and overcome Dutch competition. One result was the Plantation and Navigation system that nationalized and weaponized the Anglo-American economic relationship. It was only within the context of this navally protected trading monopoly that more than a century later the Industrial Revolution could be triggered by the alchemical power of American shopping.

The formative importance of England’s relationship to the United Provinces has long been recognized.23 This book considers its most important consequence, in the first place by situating the relationship within this early modern water world. At its core were two estuarine deltas facing each other across the North Sea: that created by the Maas, Rhine and Scheldt rivers to the East, and the Thames on the Western side. As the Mediterranean had been, so between 1588 and 1688 this body of water became a dynamic axis of world history.

Economic and cultural change in England was regionally uneven. By the early seventeenth century Dutch immigrants fleeing war with Spain accounted for a third of the population of south-east English towns. Of 9,302 resident aliens in London in 1567, 77 per cent were Dutch, leading one scholar to remark that ‘by the turn of the seventeenth century, London might well have been characterised as Europe’s little Netherlands’.32 It was from the same south-eastern counties, as well as from Holland itself, that the majority of seventeenth-century American ‘pilgrims’ emigrated. The settlement of continental North America was an Anglo-Dutch process.
It was the role of the thirteen colonies as consumers of manufactures, rather than a source of raw materials, which helps to explain the first outbreak anywhere in the world of ‘exponential’ industrial growth.

Exponential industrialization was perhaps the most decisive and irreversible rupture in the history of humankind… Normally, at a certain point in demographic recovery within any agricultural society resources per capita began to diminish.

This study argues that what changed this equation over the long term were two developments in particular. One was an agricultural revolution assisted, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, by a new post-Italian type of trade (the Baltic grain trade), or rather an old type placed on a new technological and functional footing. The second was the foundation, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland and English North America, of a new kind of European colony, for the plantation of people and culture, rather than of things. One of these established the basis for the eventual displacement of agricultural by industrial economies by changing agriculture. The other laid a platform for a flood of migrants and their lifeways by displacing and sometimes eradicating indigenous Americans. An Anglo-Dutch revolution knit these two developments together and made the Industrial Revolution an Anglo-Dutch-American story.

The most important Anglo-Dutch cultural link was predominantly Calvinist Protestantism.

Why was the Industrial Revolution so unlikely? The most advanced early modern agricultural economies, in Europe, as in China, were dominated by grain.

Most early modern European economies north of the Mediterranean and south of the Arctic Circle grew grain. The annual yield of a grain of wheat varied between 3:1 and 10:1 – on average 6:1 or 7:1. This meagre product reflected the fact that grain depleted the soil of nutrients, in particular nitrogen.

Ninety percent of what  an agricultural economy produced was food which, especially before refrigeration, was perishable. This was one reason the rhythms of agricultural economies were cyclical, devoted to maintaining continuity from year to year; not linear and cumulative, as industrial societies became able to be. Moreover, not all years were good, the annual outcome being at the mercy of climate and weather which lay outside human control.

Thus if Dutch towns became ‘unconstrained by the limits of the rural economy’, that was made possible by the fishery and the grain trade. To this extent the basis for Dutch industrialization was laid, not by attempting to defeat the closed circle of low grain productivity, but by purchasing the grain elsewhere, from Polish nobles exploiting serfs working with an annual grain yield lower than that in Holland. Yet more importantly for the Anglo-Dutch- American process the grain trade made possible the spread and completion of an agricultural revolution informed by techniques pioneered in Flanders and Brabant as early as the fifteenth century involving ‘cash crops or cattle breeding . . . [and] intensive horticulture which pointed to the virtues of deep digging, heavy fertilizing, culture and continuous weeding’.31 Liberated from the rigidities of monocrop grain production (low fertility, need for fallow, limited and unpredictable yields), Dutch farmers could now produce whatever would fetch the best prices in rich urban markets.

For ‘the first modern economy’, or industrialized state, the Baltic grain trade was crucial. For the subsequent Industrial Revolution, agricultural revolution would be indispensable.

Without the example of Dutch modernizations in agriculture, manufactures, trade and shipping, politics, culture and political economy, the first Industrial Revolution would not have occurred. But it occurred in Britain, rather than elsewhere, because it was the culmination of an Anglo-Dutch-American process.

It was not until after 1750 that large British cities developed outside London. Before then what was crucial was the market demand, and global empire, created by one super-city.

London was fed because throughout the seventeenth century England (first the South-East, then the South, West Country and Midlands) had been transforming its agriculture, mainly by introducing Dutch techniques: fodder crops, systems of rotation eliminating fallow, market gardening, intensive animal husbandry, water meadows, and land reclamation in the Fens.

Without the Dutch agricultural revolution there would have been no English agricultural revolution, or certainly not the one which occurred. Without the English agricultural revolution the spectacular growth of London could not have been sustained. Without supersize London there might have been no revolutionary modernization of the English state, economy and empire.

Three other factors contributed to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Had this not been the case it should have occurred in the Netherlands first, where the major cities collectively had all of these things to a similar degree. One was natural resources, especially of energy. The primary Dutch energy resources, aside from human and animal power, were peat, wind and water. Moreover, almost all the materials for its manufactures were imported. Britain, by contrast, had metal (tin, lead, iron ore) wood, coal (which burned hotter than peat), grain and wool.

The second precondition of the Industrial Revolution, following completion of the Anglo-Dutch Revolution of 1649–1702, was a centralized military-fiscal and imperial power on a scale with which the United Provinces (and eventually France) could not compete. During the eighteenth century ‘the expansion of long-distance trade required.

Yet the most important factor was the third. This was a demand for manufactured products…  only in British North America – not the Dutch East Indies, or Spanish America, or the Caribbean – had there emerged a rapidly expanding European settler population.

This owed less to design than to a climate free of tropical mosquito-borne diseases.

Before the early modern period, among world civilizations Western Europe was unremarkable… Two and a half centuries later Europeans bestrode the globe.

Arising from these circumstances, the Baltic grain trade was the crucial innovation… Without the bulk trades the Dutch economy might have remained merely a second northern Italy, a pocket of rich trade and manufacturing cities surrounded by productive agriculture.

Creating the bulk trades required new types of ship, shipbuilding and materials mostly from the Baltic, a deep well of maritime manpower, waterborne transport networks and mercantile networking, and strong municipal communities free of central government interference.

Once established the trade grew extraordinarily: grain imports from the Baltic in 1460 totalled 6 million kilograms; in 1500, 20 million kilograms; and in 1560, 110 million kilograms. Driving this in the first place was the market furnished by the prosperous, growing and exceptionally urbanized Netherlands.

By liberating the Netherlands from the limits of low-yield grain production the grain trade facilitated an agricultural revolution entailing an increase in livestock which (in addition to meat, butter, cheese and hides) had a dramatic impact on soil fertility. Dutch farmers grew market-garden produce, including vegetables, fruit and flowers; flax, dyestuffs and hops for the textile and brewing industries; and fodder crops – turnips, clover, pulses and legumes – which both kept animals alive over the winter and returned nitrogen to the soil, eliminating the need for fallow.49 Vibrant agriculture supported the growth of urban staples such as textile processing, brewing, porcelain making, the production and finishing of luxury goods.

This study identifies three transnational migrations of constitutive importance to the Anglo-Dutch-American process. The first involved Protestants fleeing from sixteenth-century Germany and France into the Netherlands, and then in some cases from the Netherlands into England. The second saw early seventeenth-century Scots and English Protestants sheltering in the Netherlands and then crossing the Atlantic alongside other Scots and English migrants to Ireland and the American colonies. Finally, after 1660, English dissenters seeking liberty of conscience in the Netherlands and the American colonies overlapped with French Huguenots fleeing to the Netherlands and England, feeding, after the Glorious Revolution, into a more general migration of European Protestant people, culture and capital into a world city.6 At that point London, having anchored an Anglo- Dutch-American history since at least 1620, became capable of embedding it within a European enlightenment culture and a global commercial and military system.

The passions provoked by a struggle for the survival of European Protestantism played a decisive role in English and Scots politics until 1714 and beyond. The fiscal and ideological consequences of the demand for European military involvement underlay the fall of the early Stuart monarchy (which had been British, not simply Scots or English) and its replacement by a modernized economic, military and fiscal superpower. This state product of the Anglo-Dutch revolution of 1649–1702 was supranational and outward looking: Anglo-Dutch, Anglo-Scots, Anglo-German and Anglo-American.

Yet from 1649 the English military-fiscal state would indeed be entirely reformed along Dutch lines, building upon the first excise tax introduced by Parliament in 1643.47 In the longer term Excise became foundational, not only to the modern and eventually globally dominant British military-fiscal state constructed between 1649 and 1760. Excise levied upon domestic manufactures combined with tariffs against imports financed the comprehensive system of state protection and regulation crucial to the eighteenth-century development of British industries such as silk, linen, cotton, iron, potteries, malt, beer, spirits, leather, soap, candles, paper and glass.

The revolution of 1649 created a new military superpower… Although English republicans understood this development in political and moral terms, it was more importantly the result of a step change in the material resources available to the state. This began during the Civil War with abolition of the old parliamentary taxes (subsidies; first fifteenths and tenths) and their replacement by excise (a tax on consumption) and assessment (a land tax) – customs duties remained. In addition the republic funded its military ventures by the proceeds of delinquency compositions and the sale of royal and Episcopal lands.

The third and most powerful component of the modernization of the fiscal-military state would be the permanent provision of public credit.

The sudden prioritization of trade and naval power was the most revolutionary development of these years.

Between 1649 and 1653 there was a fourfold increase in the size of the navy. This enabled the writ of the new government to run not simply in British or European waters, but across the Atlantic.

From the outset British empire, unlike Dutch or French, entailed large-scale domestic migration. The 1630s ‘was the beginning, in the British Isles, of an extraordinary period of emigration, a demographic phenomenon that would not be matched until the 1760s.

This was the crowning achievement of the Anglo-Dutch Revolution. Early modern Europe was governed by territorial monarchies and small, sometimes maritime, republics and/or cities. The former were culturally and socially aristocratic and the latter mercantile. But in the later seventeenth century a new European great power emerged that was a territorial monarchy within which a landed aristocracy, enriched by the economic changes of the period, beginning with those revolutionizing agricultural productivity, became fully participant in its new commercial economy. The way in which Britain’s ruling class in both Houses of Parliament intertwined hereditary nobility and a mercantile, manufacturing and financial oligarchy had no European parallel.8 The strict separation of the world of work from socially mandated aristocratic idleness which applied elsewhere had disappeared (though not the distinction between money and land, with its status implications).

By 1700 London stood at the apex of an Atlantic European economy, a Protestant Enlightenment culture, and a global trading empire. It had presided over the breaking and remaking of the fiscal-military state. Alongside its port and ships it offered networks of information, exchange and expertise. The institutional development of the city catered to the increasing accumulation of international capital so that if by 1730 Dutch commercial supremacy had been superseded by that of Great Britain, this was partly financed by Dutch and Huguenot immigrants and investors.

The Dutch War of Independence (1565–1648), Anglo- Dutch revolution (1649–1702), American War of Independence (1775–83) and French Revolution (1789–98) were all intertwined. They constituted a single interconnected sequence by virtue of their practical contexts, and also their cultural and political objectives.

Within this context, the Industrial Revolution constituted the third in a three-hundred year-long sequence of Anglo-Dutch-American demand-driven innovations. For the first, the Dutch bulk trade in grain (and alongside it the fishery), market stimulus had come from the exceptionally urbanized Netherlands, and then from the large cities of the Mediterranean. The second, England’s seventeenth century importation of the Dutch-pioneered agricultural revolution, accompanied by expansion of its commercial economy, was driven by the extraordinary tenfold growth of London. In this third case the explosive demand in question was not for food, but for manufactured produce.

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