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Why England and not China and India? Water systems and the history of the Industrial Revolution*

  • Terje Tvedt (a1)

Global history has centred for a long time on the comparative economic successes and failures of different parts of the world, most often European versus Asian regions. There is general agreement that the balance changed definitively in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when in continental Europe and England a transformation began that revolutionized the power relations of the world and brought an end to the dominance of agrarian civilization. However, there is still widespread debate over why Europe and England industrialized first, rather than Asia. This article will propose an explanation that will shed new light on Europe’s and England’s triumph, by showing that the ‘water system’ factor is a crucial piece missing in existing historical accounts of the Industrial Revolution. It is argued that this great transformation was not only about modernizing elites, investment capital, technological innovation, and unequal trade relations, but that a balanced, inclusive explanation also needs to consider similarities and differences in how countries and regions related to their particular water systems, and in how they could exploit them for transport and the production of power for machines.

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1 For this expression, see Kenneth Pomeranz, The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

2 For a theoretical discussion of the “water system” perspective, see Terje Tvedt, “Water systems”, environmental history and the deconstruction of nature, Environment and History 2010 (forthcoming).

3 For a general overview, see Terje Tvedt et al., eds, A history of water, 4 vols to date, London: I. B. Tauris, 2006–. For China, see Ch’ao-Ting Chi, Key economic areas in Chinese history, New York: Paragon Books, 1963; Mark Elvin, The retreat of the elephants: an environmental history of China, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 115–65.

4 G.W. Skinner, ed., The city in late imperial China, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977.

5 J. Phillips, A general history of inland navigation, foreign and domestic: containing a complete account of the canals already executed in England with consideration of those projects, 4th edition, London: J. Taylor, 1803. See also Derek H. Aldcroft and Michael J. Freeman, Transport in the Industrial Revolution, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983; Rick Szostak, The role of transportation in the Industrial Revolution, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991; Gerard Turnbull, ‘Canals, coal and regional growth during the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Review, 40, 4, 1987, pp. 537–60.

6 Phyllis Deane, The first industrial revolution, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 76.

7 Fernand Braudel, The identity of France, volume two: people and production, trans. Siân Reynolds, London: Fontana Press, 1990.

8 Pomeranz, The great divergence, p. 35.

9 Ibid., p. 34, quoting Adam Smith, The wealth of nations, New York: Modern Library, 1937, pp. 637–8.

10 Pomeranz, The great divergence, p. 185.

11 Fernand Braudel, Civilization & capitalism 15th–18th century, vol. 1: the structures of everyday life, trans. Siân Reynolds, New York: Harper Row, 1979, p. 421.

12 Evan T. Jones, ‘River navigation in medieval England’, Journal of Historical Geography, 26, 1, 2000, pp. 60–82.

13 C. W. Crawley, War and peace in an age of upheaval, 1793–1830, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 38.

14 R. A. Bryer, ‘Marx and accounting’, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 10, 5, 1999, p. 687; idem, ‘The history of accounting and the transition to capitalism in England. Part 1: theory’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 25, 2, 2000, p. 158. See also Jonathan Barron Baskin and Paul J. Miranti, A history of corporate finance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 127; Philip S. Bagwell and Peter Lyth, Transport in Britain, 1750–2000: from canal lock to gridlock, London: Hambledon, 2002, p. 12.

15 Thomas Stuart Willan, River navigation in England, 1600–1750, London: F. Cass, 1964, p. 13.

16 Shephard Bancroft Clough and C. W. Cole, Economic history of Europe, Boston, MA: Heath & Co, 1946, p. 446.

17 See, for example, W. T. Jackman, The development of modern transportation in England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916; Willan River navigation; Philip S. Bagwell, The transport revolution from 1770, London: Batsford, 1974.

18 See for example L. S. Yu, ‘The Huang He river: a review of its development, characteristics, and future management issues’, Continental Shelf Research, 22, 2002, pp. 389–403.

19 Mark Elvin, ‘Market towns and waterways: the county of Shang-hai from 1480 to 1910’, in Skinner, The city, pp. 441–75.

20 Herold J. Wiens, ‘Riverine and coastal junks in China’s commerce’, Economic Geography, 31, 3, 1955, p. 248.

21 Mark Elvin, The pattern of the Chinese past, London: Eyre Methuen, 1973, p. 304.

22 Qiang Zhang, Chong-Yu Xu, Tao Yang, and Zhen-Chun Hao, ‘The historical developments and anthropogenic influences of the Yellow River up to the nineteenth century’, in Terje Tvedt and Richard Coopey, eds., Rivers and societies: from the birth of agriculture to modern times, vol. 5 of A history of water, series editor Terje Tvedt, London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming 2010.

23 Randall A. Dodgen, Controlling the dragon: Confucian engineers and the Yellow River in late imperial China Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

24 Jane Kate Leonard, Controlling from afar: The Daoguang emperor’s management of the Grand Canal crisis, 1824–1826 Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1996.

25 Mark Elvin, personal communication.

26 The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the publication of many books on water control. See, for example, Fu Zehong, Xing Shui Jin Jian (Golden mirror of the flowing waters) (1725); Kang Jitian, He Qu Ji Wen (Notes on rivers and canals) (1804); and Jin Fu, Zhi He Fang Lue (Methods of river control) (1689, but not published until 1767). All of these are mentioned in Colin A. Ronan, The shorter science and civilisation in China, vol. 5, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 230.

27 For an overview, see Sharad K. Jain, Pushpendra K. Agarwal, and Vijay P. Singh, Hydrology and water resources of India, Dordrecht: Springer, 2007.

28 Ibid.

29 See, for example, Charles Rasmus Forrest, A picturesque tour along the Ganges and Jumma in India consisting of twenty-four highly finished and coloured views, a map and vignettes from original drawings made on the spot, London: R. Ackermann, 1824.

30 Radhakant Bharati, Rivers of India, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2004, x. See also Henry C. Hart, New India’s rivers, Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1956.

31 B. G. Verghese, Waters of hope: integrated water resource development and regional cooperation within the Himalayan–Ganga–Brahmaputra–Barak Basin, Dhaka: Academic Publishers, 1990, pp. 8–9.

32 Jain et al., Hydrology, pp. 870–913.

33 M. Abbas Khan, Encyclopedia of Indian geography, New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 2005, vol. 2.

34 W. A. Wood, ‘Rivers and man in the Indus–Ganges alluvial plain’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 40, 1924, p. 3.

35 Arthur Michel, The Indus river: a study of the effects of partition, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967, p. 48. See also Henry T. Bernstein, Steamboats on the Ganges: an exploration in the history of India’s modernization through science and technology, Calcutta: Orient Longman, 1960, pp. 14–16.

36 Bernstein, Steamboats.

37 Martin Watts, Water and wind power, Aylesbury: Shire Publications, 2005, p. 53.

38 G. N. Von Tunzelmann, Steam power and British industrialization to 1860, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978; N. J. G. Pounds, An historical geography of Europe 450 B.C.–A.D. 1330, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 38; and John William Kanefsky, ‘The diffusion of power technology in British industry, 1760–1870’, PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 1979.

39 Edward Baines, The history of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain, London: Fisher, Fisher & Jackson, 1835, pp. 55–83; Robert Robson, The cotton industry in Britain, London: Macmillan, 1957, p. 1.

40 Thomas Ellison, The cotton trade of Great Britain, New York: A. M. Kelley, 1968, pp. 57–70; Robson, Cotton industry, pp. 1–3.

41 Arthur Redford, The economic history of England, 1760–1860, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1960, pp. 19, 27.

42 Chris Aspin, The water-spinners: a new look at the cotton trade, Helmshore, Lancs.: Helmshore Local History Society, 2003. See also Baines, Cotton manufacture; Witt Bowden, Industrial society in England towards the end of the eighteenth century, New York: Macmillan, 1925; William Daniell and Richard Ayton, A voyage round Great Britain, London: Longman, 1814; and R. L. Hills, Power in the Industrial Revolution, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970.

43 George Unwin, Arthur Hulme, and George Taylor, Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights: the Industrial Revolution at Stockport and Marple, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1924, p. 27.

44 Terry S. Reynolds, Stronger than a hundred men: a history of the vertical water wheel, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

45 Samuel Lewis, A topographical dictionary of England, 7th edition, London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848, vol. 1, p. 95.

46 Elvin, Pattern, pp. 307–8. See also Donald B. Wagner, ‘Some traditional Chinese iron production techniques practiced in the 20th century’, Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, 18, 2, 1984, pp. 95–104.

47 Lloyd E. Eastman, Family, fields, and ancestors: constancy and change in China’s social and economic history, 1550–1849, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 137–47.

48 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 4, 404, 394, 405.

49 Elvin, Pattern, p. 286. Elvin also notes examples in Guangdong, Jiangxi, and Fujian during Qing times of making incense and paper, and husking rice.

50 Mark Elvin, ‘Unseen lives: the emotions of everyday existence mirrored in Chinese popular poetry of the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century’, in Roger T. Ames, Thomas P. Kasulis, and Wimal Dissanayake, eds., Self as image in Asian theory and practice, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998, pp. 113–200, 136–7.

51 Mark Elvin, ‘The high-level equilibrium trap: the causes of the decline of invention in the traditional Chinese textile industries’, in W. E. Willmott, ed., Economic organization in Chinese society, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972, pp. 137–72.

52 Sadao Nishijima, ‘The formation of the early Chinese cotton industry’, in Linda Grove and Christian Daniels, eds., State and society in China: Japanese perspectives on Ming-Qing social and economic history, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1984, pp. 17–79.

53 Hugh Hamilton Lindsay and Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff, Report of proceedings on a voyage to the northern ports of China, in the ship Lord Amherst: extracted from papers, printed by order of the House of Commons, relating to the trade with China, 2nd edition, London: B. Fellows, 1833, p. 188.

54 Eastman, Family, pp. 146–7.

55 Kang Chao, The development of cotton textile production in China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

56 Prasannan Parthasarathi, The transition to a colonial economy: weavers, merchants and kings in south India, 1720–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

57 Paul Bairoch, ‘International industrialization levels from 1750 to 1980’, Journal of European Economic History, 11, 1982, p. 296.

58 Parthasarathi, The transition, pp. 12, 19.

59 For a description of technology in the iron industry in the eighteenth century, see Dharampal, Indian science and technology in the eighteenth century, Goa: Other India Press, 1971.

60 Tapan Raychaudhuri, ‘Non-agricultural production: Mughal India’, in Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of India, volume 1: c.1200–c.1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 292–3.

61 Frans Bartmanns, Apah, the sacred waters: an analysis of a primordial symbol in Hindu myths, Dehli: B.R. Publishing, 1990.

62 These issues will be addressed in my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Why China and India failed and Europe succeeded: a new interpretation of the Industrial Revolution.

* Scholars contributing to this research project are too numerous to be individually mentioned, but special thanks are due to my colleagues at the Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Oslo, and to Kenneth Pomeranz and Mark Elvin for their useful and constructive comments.

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