The Russo-Japanese War now gives to all an awareness that even war and peace in Europe – its destiny – isn’t decided between the four walls of the European concert, but outside it, in the gigantic maelstrom of world and colonial politics.
– Rosa Luxemburg

Industrialisation does not get much of a look-in during introductions to International Relations (IR) courses. In fact, outside of International Political Economy, IR seems happier ignoring the nineteenth century. There are, of course, exceptions, of which Mitzen (2013) and Buzan and Lawson (2015) are good examples. In this blog I want to look more closely at one aspect of the way that industrialisation shaped the global order: how its creation of raw material needs fed into imperialism.

What role did imperialism and raw materials play in nineteenth century political economy? Since the mass decolonisation of the 1960s it has been fashionable to say that its role has been limited. This argument has been ably summarised by Foreman-Peck, who criticised the early Marxists on this point: “That this new colonisation was economically necessary for the European capitalism of the time, as Lenin and others maintained, is hard to square with the small volume of trade involved.” (1995, 111) For those IR scholars, like myself, raised on a syllabus that included John A. Hobson’s Imperialism, this all made sense. A major part of Hobson’s argument revolves around the claim, backed up by statistics, that the new colonial territories did little for the metropole by way of investment opportunities and trade when compared to the much larger levels of investment and trade flows between Britain and its main great power rivals of Germany, France and the United States (Hobson 1902). This overlooks two points from Hobson’s argument, however. First, he is specifically speaking about the colonies acquired in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Hobson was happier with the economic use and viability of earlier colonies. Second, the one exception that Hobson singles out is also instructive. He mentions Malaya as the only one of the recent colonies to have any economic viability, and that was not to do with volumes of trade or investment, but rather to its climate that allowed for the establishment of plantations producing the now necessary strategic commodity of rubber. In short, Hobson was not saying that all colonies were economic drains, nor was he judging colonial acquisition by monetary worth alone. Hobson, like his contemporaries, was well aware that the dramatic changes in political economy during the nineteenth century had fundamentally altered the structure of the international system. Key to these changes were certain commodities linked to the processes of industrialisation. The importance of those commodities, especially if their prices were low, does not necessarily show up in trade figures alone.

Corliss Steam EngineBy industrialisation I am referring to what has often been divided into the ‘first’ and ‘second’ industrial revolutions. The first, emerging before the mid-nineteenth century, usually refers to the advent of coal power, of malleable wrought iron smelting, and the development of the steam engine that was adapted for use on the new railways. The widespread growth of the cotton industry is also associated with this time period. The second industrial revolution, covering the late nineteenth century and after, is associated with the rise of steel, the exponential growth of railways, the development of electricity, the proliferation of the electronic telegraph, the revolution in chemical production, and finally the rise of petroleum and the internal combustion engine. Each of these developments brought about different resource needs, but perhaps the biggest of these was coal.

Timothy Mitchell has described our modern industrialised society as a ‘hydrocarbon civilisation’. The first key industrial commodity was coal, a form of easily transportable concentrated energy (Mitchell calls it ‘buried sunshine’) that created a whole new way of living (Mitchell 2009; Mitchell 2011, ch.1). The abundance of cheap coal led to an unprecedented social revolution. Coal made steam power cheap, and changed into coke revolutionised the smelting of iron. Steam-driven iron trains and ships were able to transport coal cheaply and efficiently. Coal’s highly concentrated levels of energy cut society’s reliance on extensive tracts of land for energy production – whether in the form of woodlands or food for labourers and animals – and allowed the concentration of populations in industrial cities far from the sources of the raw materials that their industries used. In the 1801 UK census 20% of the population lived in towns (a high figure for Europe as a whole), by 1851 that figure was 50%, and by 1881 two-thirds of people were urban. Railways and steam-driven shipping delivered the raw materials and food required by these new industrial conurbations, and finally shipped out the finished industrial products of the new industries. For Mitchell the advent of coal as a necessary source of energy, as well as the use of iron railways, fundamentally altered the power relations in society (Mitchell 2011, ch. 1), an issue I will return to below.

The advent of coal and wrought iron put a premium on the control and trade of coal and Middleton_Colliery_1814iron ore. Access to both of these became necessary to sustain an industrial economy. In Britain cotton was also an early industry reliant on the import of raw materials (in this case raw cotton), and the system of guaranteeing supplies through political control, plantation economies, and free trade provided the template for the acquisition of other raw materials later in the nineteenth century. With the advent of the electric telegraph in the early nineteenth century – and the building of the submarine cables that turned the telegraph into a single global system of cheap mass communication – copper became a vital commodity. This role for copper was only increased by the growth of electricity later in the century, and even today it remains a vital material. During much of the nineteenth century the centre for copper wire production was Birmingham in the UK, but copper ores had to be imported. While the United States remained a major producer, the top sources in the British Empire were Canada, Australia and Northern Rhodesia. The southern region of the Belgian Congo also became a major producer of copper ores in the nineteenth century, while Peru and Chile continued to produce copper for export. With innovations in chemical and metallurgical process a growing list of raw materials, some rare and not available through European or North American sources, became necessary to the industrial economies of the great powers. These included nitrates for fertilizers (and explosives), antimony, tin, zinc, and chromium for alloy production, and increasingly petroleum as first shipping and then land and air transportation started using it as an alternative to coal.

Yet, it was not just minerals that became vital resources. Increasingly industrial societies became dependent on the trade in foodstuffs and resources grown for export such as wool, cotton and rubber. The opening up of the North American prairies for wheat production and export provided a cheap source of a common staple. Canning and refrigeration introduced Europeans to cheap South American meat, as well as New Zealand and Argentinian dairy products.  By the late nineteenth century Britain was particularly dependent on imported food to feed its population (Parson 1999, 11), and by 1914 imports accounted for 60% of calories consumed in Britain (Dewey 2003, 271). Large parts of the Empire in different regions of the world became dependent on supplying foodstuffs to the UK market. All of this added up to a global dependence by industrial great powers on the international economy for the supply of basic and necessary raw materials.

The dependence of industrial societies on certain resources does not necessarily turn those societies into imperialists. If a commodity can be acquired cheaply via trade then the need to acquire it by force and direct control is costly and unnecessary. This point was certainly appreciated by many early international experts, and indeed Isaiah Bowman’s advocacy of free trade was premised on the notion that, to an industrial economy, the only alternative to a global free market, where all raw materials could be purchased, was imperial competition where states strove to guarantee their stocks of resources by imperialism and conquest (Bowman 1942). Indeed, the prevalence of a British sterling-dominated system of trade (and, from the 1880s, an international gold standard) in the late nineteenth century did in fact facilitate such trade. Thus, Europe became reliant on cheap American and Canadian grain that could be bought without resort to conquest. Similarly, the United States remained a major source of copper, while Sweden provided iron ore. Some nominally independent countries also supplied vital resources without becoming colonial territories, although the presence of capital and companies from the great powers did lead to a semi-colonial status. This, for example, happened to that other great source of copper, Chile. H. N. Brailsford would later refer to such societies as the equivalent of ‘human cattle farms’: nominally independent, but actually economically controlled (Brailsford 1914, 72).


Yet, in these cases the societies were already fully linked up with the global political economy. What of other societies with ‘necessary’ resources in which the nature of their economy, or the unwillingness of their governments, made them poor trading partners? Foreman-Peck sums this problem up in chillingly bloodless fashion: “European trade with many tropical areas created a variety of problems, which from the viewpoint of the European powers could often best or most simply be dealt with by the extension of formal political control.’ (1995, 118) Thus taking over a region and altering its economic structure so that it provided large quantities of a resource for the growing global economy became a common occurrence (Cameron & Neal 2003, 195). This system had already been pioneered with cotton, where the development of plantations in India (which violently turned India into a raw cotton exporter, instead of a textile exporter), and then in the Caribbean and the American south created a system of raw material trade that fed the major industrial cotton centres such as Lancashire. As with cotton, this could take one of two forms. A territory could be forced to export resources it already had, or only produced for local consumption, such as happened in the colonisation of Burma (Webster 2000). It could also involve the taking over of a territory that had the right climate and soil for the production in plantations of a vital resource. Thus, Malaya provided ideal conditions for the production of rubber from a tree species originally native to Brazil.

This is not to say that all colonies were taken over for purely economic reasons. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century colonial acquisition also became an end in itself as a means of gaining prestige for a great power – specifically, to ensure its status as a world power, rather than just a regional one. Thus Germany’s growing hunger for places in the German East Africasun, spurred on by the agitation of the Kolonialverein, was as much about German honour as economic exploitation. That said, though, the very fact that colonies were seen as vital had its roots in their frequent importance as sources of resources, as well as markets and investment or settlement opportunities (see Olusoga & Erichsen, 2010). Importantly though, as writers in international affairs often knew already, the benefit of a colony was not solely for the colonising power, but (in a free trade sterling-based global order) to the benefit of all industrial societies. Germans could get access to Malayan rubber, Chilean copper, or Newfoundland wood-pulp via trade. The important issue was that this was a system divided into two spheres. Wealthy industrialised societies obtained cheap resources via global trade, while poorer colonial and semi-colonial societies provided these resources either freely, but with very little say in the trade (as was the case with Chilean copper), or through colonial control of their economy in exploitative systems. What was being created was a hierarchical system of societies, underpinned by gender stereotypes (Camiscioli 2013) and racist ideas of civilisation.

Indian women in South Africa

Looking back from 1926 to the highpoint of colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century, Parker Moon summarised these forced that had encouraged the building of the large colonial and semi-colonial empires. ‘Europe’, he argued ‘was converted to imperialism… by a combination of argument and interest, arising from an almost revolutionary alteration of economic political conditions.’ The old mid-Victorian order had now given way to ‘a new earth’ envisioned ‘by the keen eye of business and politics’ (Moon 1926, 25). Moon singled out four drives that led to the new imperialism: the search for markets, the needs of the new communication technologies, the demand for tropical and sub-tropical products by industrial nations, and the demands of surplus capital (1926, 25-31).

This development of a two-tier economically interdependent world dominated by western or westernised industrial societies was also exacerbated by spinoffs from the processes of industrialisation. Developments in communications technologies – especially steamships, railways, the electronic telegraph, and the internal combustion engine – enabled states to increase their control within their territories, while also making their own projection of power over the globe easier. The vast territories of the Guam coaling stationcolonial empires were both conquered and controlled by a network of coaling stations, shipping lanes and submarine telegraph cables. Similarly, land transportation and conquest, which had been only as fast as a soldier could walk or a messenger could ride in the Napoleonic wars, were now facilitated by networks of railways, telegraph lines, and (eventually in the early twentieth century) automobiles and aeroplanes. John Mearsheimer has made much of the ‘stopping power of water’, and the comparative ease of land conquest (2014). While that may have been true of the twentieth century, the reverse was true in the eighteenth, where naval technologies allowed for easier sea transportation. Indeed, it was the initial ease of sea transportation that had made the colonial empires possible in the first place. The ‘stopping power of land’, in the absence of rail and telegraph was a very real problem for armies before then. It was the sharp reversal between the speeds of sea and land power that had led Mackinder to argue for the end the ‘Columbian Age’ of sea-based exploration and empire (1904, 421-437).

I have already discussed how coal was crucial to the development of the modern industrialised economy. In fact, its importance as the primary (and crucial) source of industrialised energy remained unchallenged until the development of another hydrocarbon: oil. Coal played little direct role in the imperial conquests of the major world powers because they already had access to large reserves (although this was not true for later arrivals like Italy and Japan). Coal, though, did play a vital role in the development of the western societies that relied on it, as Timothy Mitchell has argued. Basically, coal fostered mass democracy. The digging, transportation, and distribution of great ‘quantities of energy’ ‘along very narrow channels’ gave coal miners, iron workers and railwaymen the power to threaten elites through trade union agitation and strikes. It is not for nothing that the so-called ‘triple alliance’ of British industrial trades unions,May Day who effectively used their new-found power to wrest concessions from both employers and governments, were the mining, railway and steel unions. According to Mitchell, the modern mass democracy that emerged from the late nineteenth century was a creation of the power that these unions had over the fragile energy flows of the new industrial economy (2009, 403-6; 2011, ch. 1). Coal-induced mass democracy both helped establish a new modern state based upon the sovereignty of the whole people, and also produced a challenge to this new emerging state in the form of an international socialist and trades union movement. Without the effects of this mass populist politics the ideas of national interest and of total war, so central to the relations of states in the twentieth century, would have been of a very different order.

At the same time as coal was changing the political complexion of industrial societies, the new communications technologies were revolutionising information flows. The telegraph flattened out market prices, creating the world’s first global market, while at the same time allowing for heightened levels of state centralisation and control (see Standage, 1998). Radio, the successor to the telegraph, would also offer a vital tool in the manufacturing of political support in the decades following the end of the First World War. The era of mass communication brought the far corners of the world closer, but also helped divide people through centralised state broadcasters. Communications could be used as much to create identities as to break them down. ‘No system in world history’, write Buzan and Lawson, ‘so united the planet, while simultaneously pulling it apart.’ (2013, 626).

On top of this, it was not just industrialisation per se that created a puzzle for late nineteenth century scholars, but also how it played out in creating world powers. By the 1870s Britain’s global hegemony had given way to a new concert dominated by the new ‘world powers’. At one level this was a return to the old pre-industrial idea of the balance of power, and indeed reliance on a balance between these world powers carried with it many of the hallmarks of an earlier agrarian world a century before. Eighteenth century concerns with balancing alliances and the threat of growing powers remained, but their ecology had changed. It now involved 1. a global hierarchical political economy in which revisionist powers were also seeking greater control over the colonial and semi-colonial world; 2. nationally mobilised states armed with modern militaries capable of unleashing system-destabilising wars as a matter of course; and 3. changes to what Buzan and Lawson call ‘the mode of power’ (2015, 307) – that is the social sources of power – that made the substance of the balance of power from the late nineteenth century so fundamentally different from that of the eighteenth century. Brailsford had already explored this in 1914, where he argued that the old agrarian balance of power based on the control of land had now given way to a balance of power based on the needs of finance and industry (Brailsford, 1914).

In all, what emerges from the developments of the political economy of the nineteenth century is a sharp break with the agrarian past. Key here is the role of a growing number of resources necessary for industrial processes, as well as an increasingly global trade in food to feed industrial urban centres. Behind all this is the development of a hydrocarbon civilisation, in which societies become dependent first on coal and then on oil for the energy required to run their economies. Later this dependence expands to raw materials often found outside the territories of the great powers. These developments create a two-tier fully global political economy, but they also help centralise the state, usher in populist politics in both its socialist and nationalist forms, and create military structures and technologies that overcome the problem of ‘the stopping power of land’. These developments lead to a world dominated by two opposing forces: growing interdependence, on the one hand, and state formation and centralisation, on the other. Thus, the legacy of industrialisation is an equivocal one, producing forces that are in permanent tension with each other. In order to understand these processes, though, students of global order need to take the role of raw materials seriously.

Cargoes of empire


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Brailsford, H. N. 1917 The War of Steel and Gold. A Study of the Armed Peace  9th edition London: Bell.

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Dewey, Peter 2003 ‘Agriculture, Agrarian Society and the Countryside’ in Chris Wrigley (ed.) A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain Oxford: Blackwell.

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