I have read in the Economic Nobel's prize Thomas Piketty's book the following sentence (translation is mine):

"The Enlightenment movement and the Industrial Revolution were partially based on the colonies"

I am wondering to what extent is this sentence true? I mean, what specific resources or mechanisms help the Industrial Revolution (First or Second) or the Enlightenment Movement to start or to maintain themselves?

It could be seen on the Internet, as comments stated, how the industrial revolution use colonies: get cotton from India for example. But this was not the basement of Industrial Revolution, since a consistent industrial system already existed to use the input from colonies and to give output to colonies.

As far as I know, there are no speeches nor ideologies, at the time of the First Industrial Revolution, that asked governments to gather colonies in order to develop industry. Other ways were used to develop industry:

  • Basement of Industrial Revolution was vapour-powered engine, and thus coal: industrialized countries had that on their soil
  • Some countries were industrialized without colonies (Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Russia)

So the question is, my apologize, not: "How did the Industrial Revolution use the colonies". It is :

  • Did Industrial Revolution economic systems rely on colonies?

This could be either a country colony, or a colony reached through trade: for example, did Prussia interacted with India through Britain?

For the three periods mentionned:

  • Enlightnement movement: Colonies did not exist yet, neither industry. Spanish occupation of America and harbour trade were in place. Issues to consider: Did it ask for colonies as a way to develop (whatever the details)?
  • First Industrial Revolution: Colonies did not exist yet, industry is starting. Does the industrial development ask for colonies as a way to sustain?
  • Second Industrial Revolution: Colonies and industry established. Interact as the example of Indian cotton above. No issues to consider in the scope of this question.
  • 4
    Can you explain why what turns up when searching for "Industrial revolution colonies" doesn't answer your question? Jan 25, 2020 at 19:50
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because essay prompts do not meet the format of HSE: they ask about general topics where any answer is valid to demonstrate and assess scholastic achievement; they do not produce historiographically valid questions or answers. Jan 26, 2020 at 2:51

1 Answer 1


Robert B. Marks in his The Origins of the Modern World: a Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century

He describes how England started to import cotton cloth (callicoe) from India in the second half of 17 century until they by 1700 was dependent on them. 130 years later India (due to the navigation laws) imported cheap cloth from England and exported cotton. This because british cotton cloth was cheaper than locally spun and woven. Year 1700 a Indian cotton picker or weaver had a great advantage compared with anyone else: far lower living costs. This because foodstuffs was far cheaper because at average indian agriculture was twice as effective as european.

Multiple things happened:

  • Whitney's gin which meant that cheaply produced North-American cotton became usable
  • steam powered spinning mills (and weaveries)
  • a newly created world market for cotton cloth
  • which was captured by the British industry

Marks also argues that the colonies (North America, Australia and India) was necessary as sources of raw materials and foodstuffs to England. This allowed England to become independent of its own agriculture, convert England's agriculture into more profitable areas there a far smaller work force was needed. This workforce were by the new poor laws of the early 19th century (after 1815) forced to leave their old villages and neighborhood for the industrialising cities.

One of the reasons for the rush to Africa from 1870 was competition. Before this time England was the dominant industrialized country, and they were able to compete both in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Marks mention that in 1870 Great Britain had a share of 33 percent of world output. Some numbers which is available concerns export which for the US due to the speed by it's internal market grew is less definitive than it seems to be.

The industrialization in America and Europe meant that the competition in Europe and elsewhere between producers became more intensive.

Nationalism could be funneled into making your population accept the necessary outlays to acquire and improve colonies in Africa under the pretext what it would be profitable to acquire and bound colonies to the homeland. The colonies would become customers which couldn't argue about prices on import and export.

  • 2
    I don't think it's true that " England was basically the only industrialized country" prior to the 1870s, though it may well have been the most industrialized. In Europe, France & (the states that would become) Germany were industrialized, as were many other countries. The US was as well, and it didn't have colonies in the European sense - that is, while it had the West, it made little if any use of the native populations.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 26, 2020 at 2:05
  • @Stefan Skoglund Do you have specific links or more information about this part: "because at average indian agriculture was twice as effective as european.": I am interested in. Thanks in advance! Jan 26, 2020 at 11:44

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