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The road to riches

Teotihuacan, Mexico: once one of
the biggest cities in the world
Programme four


1497 AD - 1851 AD

Programme four concentrates on two significant historic transformations.
  • The "discovery" and subjugation of the "New" World
  • The emergence of a truly modern economy during what is known as the industrial revolution.

    If there is a single theme that unifies the two developments it is consumption. But the conquistadores' greed for bullion was in the end unproductive in contrast to the consumerism that emerged in 18th century Britain. This consumerism is now seen as a key factor in spurring on the industrial revolution.

    Spaniards enslaved the native
    peoples of Mexico and Peru
    Plundering the 'New' World

    In the early 16th century small groups of Spanish conquistadores landed in central and southern America. The Spaniards slaughtered and enslaved the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, first plundering their precious artefacts, and then forcing them to work in gold and silver mines. What force of arms failed to do, disease finished off. Within a century the Aztec population alone had fallen from 10 million to just one million.

    The Spaniards were desperate for bullion, in part because there was a European bullion famine. For years Europeans had sent their silver eastwards to pay for the pepper and other spices they craved. This famine was soon rectified by the Spaniards' plunder. It is estimated that by 1600 7,322 tonnes of silver and 150 tonnes of gold had reached Spain.

    But the bullion did not make Europe rich in the long-run. Although some historians dispute a causal link, the flow of bullion coincided with Europe-wide inflation from 1540 to 1640, after a period of 200 years of stable prices. In the century after 1540, prices rose six-fold, and ordinary people were the poorer. By 1640 wages were worth half what they had been 100 years before.

    Neither did the plunder save the Spanish monarchy from twice going bankrupt: in 1557 and 1627. The Spanish used their fabulous wealth to pay their fleet and armies and for a brief period they ruled the seas. But essentially the wealth they gained was unproductive because it was never invested in the type of economic development that would become self-perpetuating. That kind of wealth was just beginning to develop in England, and its North American colonies.

  • Steam powered spinning
    Key inventions led to a consumer
    boom - or vice versa?
    England takes off
    The term "Industrial Revolution" was first coined by French commentators in the 1820s as they observed economic transformation in England. They noted that it was as overwhelming in its impact as the political revolution in France in 1789.

    The history of the Industrial Revolution that many of us learnt at school can be caricatured thus: a few bright men invented machines for doing things quicker or better, and the economy promptly took off. But there is another view: the British economy was buzzing long before the advent of what are traditionally seen as the key inventions and developments. It was precisely this consumer boom which prompted the main technical innovations.

    "We have to stand our idea of the industrial revolution completely on its head. Market first, smoke-stack industry second" Historian Dr David Starkey.

    The writings of two men in particular illustrate the level of economic activity in Britain in the 50 years before the industrial revolution: Daniel Defoe and Bernard de Mandeville.

    Defoe was born in London in 1660 and by 1683 had become a very successful merchant. By 1692 though he was bankrupt. After paying off his debts he turned to writing. His best-known works are 'Robinson Crusoe' published in 1719 and 'Moll Flanders' published in 1722. He was also a keen observer of the world around him and his travels around the country were recorded in 'A Tour through the whole island of Great Britain', published in 1724.

    Defoe, who recorded the state of trade, commerce and industrial activity, was probably the first economics reporter. His constant theme
    The Fable of the Bees
    Mandeville's book was shocking
    was the scale of industry he encountered - from weaving in Norwich, to iron-work in Eastbourne. At Leeds market he saw 20,000 of cloth traded in little more than an hour. He concluded: "No description of Great Britain can be what we call a finished account as no clothes can be made to fit a growing child."

    Less is known about Bernard de Mandeville who was born in Rotterdam in 1670. He moved to England and near the end of his life he wrote a satirical poem called 'The Fable of the Bees', which argued that vices such as greed and vanity were good for the economy because they created demand.

    "Whilst luxury employed a million poor, odious pride a million more, envy itself and vanity, were ministers of industry." Bernard de Mandeville

    This was an outrageous and shocking idea. De Mandeville was prosecuted, and burnt in effigy. But 40 years later Britain's first modern economist, Adam Smith, argued much the same idea and gave it respectability.

    CLICK HERE for an interview with Historian Dr David Starkey about Bernard de Mandeville and his startling theory.

    Why Britain?

    Historians have long debated the reasons why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Some of the answers include:
  • A thriving agricultural base; agricultural output doubled in England between 1600 and 1800.
  • Free trade: England formed an enormous free trade zone, whereas other areas of Europe put up tolls. After the Act of Union in 1707 trade could take place freely between England and Scotland.
  • Trade with the colonies: especially America, where there was strong demand for English manufactures. In 1701 goods worth 542,000 were shipped to the American colonies.
  • Urbanisation boosting demand: the population of London increased from about 50,000 under Henry VIII, to about 400,000 by the time of the Civil War. Eighteenth century England was the most urbanised country in Europe.

  • Josiah Wedgewood
    Josiah Wedgewood: Industrial
    Josiah Wedgwood: modern marketeer

    No industrialist better illustrates the link between the consumer boom and industrialisation than Josiah Wedgwood. To capitalise on the demand he knew existed, Wedgwood not only improved the technical aspects of pottery, but reorganised the work into production lines, and put a strikingly modern emphasis on marketing.

    Wedgwood cannily renamed his Cream Ware collection Queen's Ware after Queen Charlotte bought some, realising that where Royalty went, the aristocracy would follow, hotly pursued by the emerging middle classes.

    CLICK HERE to watch Gaye Blake Roberts, Curator of the Wedgwood Museum, explain the historical significance of Josiah Wedgwood.

    The water frame led to factory
    The inventions

    Other early developments in industrial technology were concentrated in the cloth industry - encouraged by booming demand. In the past weaving had been a cottage industry, with weavers making woollen cloth by hand, from thread spun by their wives and daughters.

    To speed up weaving, John Kay invented the flying shuttle. This was so much more efficient that spinners could not keep up with demand. As a result Richard Arkwright invented a water powered spinning machine - which put many wives and daughters out of work. The water frame was so heavy and expensive that it led to the emergence of factory rather than home-based production.

    Descendants of slaves reflect on
    the past
    Cotton, slavery, and trade with America

    The invention of the Whitney cotton "gin" (short for engine) for removing seeds from harvested cotton, at the end of the 18th century, helped make cotton practical and highly profitable. Production boomed: in 1792 the US exported 140,000lbs of cotton, but by 1800 this had risen to about 17m lbs. By the 1850s, American cotton exports to Britain alone reached 700m lbs. To meet soaring demand from both England and America, cotton farmers needed more slaves.

    Africans were first sold into slavery by the Portuguese in 1444. They first arrived in the US in 1619 in Virginia, though the very first were indentured servants. By 1750 slavery was legal in all the colonies and became a lucrative business. The Dutch, English and French all had ships working the slave trade. It is estimated that 10 million Africans were enslaved between 1661 and 1808.

    The fate of slaves and slavery was inversely related to the health of the cotton trade. While political attitudes from time to time became more liberal on the issue of slavery, some upturn in the cotton market usually put paid to any moves in the direction of abolition. English cotton mills led to an ever increasing demand for cotton, and therefore slave labour, until the Civil War finally led to abolition.

    Stephenson's Rocket
    Stephenson's Rocket pulled
    the first rail passengers
    Steam Power

    The defining technological advance of the industrial revolution was steam power. It allowed factories to congregate in cities like Manchester, away from running water, the previous source of power. Former industrial areas like Cheesden Valley in Lancashire became deserted. Steam provided previously unimaginable quantities of power, and was applied to manufacturing and transport.

    CLICK HERE for The Deserted Valley, a short film about Cheesden by local historian Terry Ashworth.

    Industrialisation changed society too. An agrarian population turned slowly into an urban population. This shift was accompanied by social unrest and disturbance, much of it directed against the machines which put traditional workers out of jobs, or the new factory owners who were responsible for the conditions in which the workforce worked. The Factory Acts of 1802, 1819 and 1831 began to alleviate the problems of poor working conditions.

    Coal and steam revolutionised transport, with the advent of rail. The first railway was built in 1825 to transport coal from Darlington to Stockton. In 1829 at the Rainhill Trials, Stephenson's Rocket won a competition to transport passengers on the world's first passenger rail line, between Liverpool and Manchester which it did in 1830.

    "The motion was quite gentle and easy until the engines acquired their full speed, which was at the rate of one mile in two and a half minutes, or 24 miles per hour" Report of the Liverpool-Manchester opening day from the Manchester Guardian, September 1830.

    Railway investment manias followed during 1835-7 and 1844-7, although they - unlike the canals a century earlier - were not particularly profitable for investors.

    To celebrate Britain's prowess in engineering and manufacturing the Great Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851. Other industrialising countries were invited to exhibit. The result was not so much a reaffirmation of Britain's leading position, but a growing realisation that Britain was beginning to be eclipsed.

    Wedgewood images courtesy of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd

    Additional reading:

    The Making of New World Slavery, Robin Blackburn, Verso Books 1997

    Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace, Asa Briggs, Book Club Associates 1979

    The Industrial Revolution, Pat Hudson, Edward Arnold 1998

    Popular Disturbances, John Stevenson, Longman 1992

    The first industrial Revolutions, Peter Mathias & John Davis, 1995 Blackwell

    Josiah Wedgwood, A Biography by Anthony Burton, Andre Deutsch 1976

    Spain and its world 1500-1700, J H Elliott Yale University Press 1989

    The Lever of Riches - Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, Joel Mokyr Oxford University Press 1990

    Many of the most important machines of the industrial revolution can be seen at the Museum of the Lancashire Textile Industry. The museum features the only complete surviving Arkwright Water Frame in the world. Contact: Helmshore Textile Museums, Holcombe Road, Helmshore, Rossendale, BB4 4NP telephone: 01706 226 459 and The Queen Street Mill, at Harle Syke, Burnley Contact: 01706 226 459

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    Behind the scenes

    BBC Two:
    20.00 hrs 6 August 2000


    National Railway Museum
    Wedgewood Museum
    US Library of Congress: The Atlantic Slave Trade
    Life of the Industrial Worker in the 19th Century

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