The 19th Century was a century of industrial, economic and political expansion. The western powers, powered by the industrial revolution, founded and expanded vast colonial empires in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. These empires provided rich sources of raw materials to feed the factories of Britain, Europe and North America. At the beginning of the century, those countries were largely agrarian societies with absolutist monarchies. By the end of the 19th Century, those societies were transformed by the industrial revolution and the rise of liberalism and democracy. These countries also culturally dominated the rest of the world.
The century was dominated by the following themes:
- Empire building, characterised by territorial acquisition and colonisation, and the displacement and oppression of indigenous peoples. The phrase ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ was used by British imperialists to describe ascendancy of British power in the 19th Century, which continued through until the mid-20th Century. Britain and France were the leading empire builders at this time, with other European powers establishing or extending their own overseas colonial empires on a much smaller scale. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, overseas colonial territories and trading concessions provided raw materials to support mercantile capitalist economies. By the 19th Century, overseas territories were being ruthlessly exploited to feed the emerging capitalist economies. To ensure such exploitation, imperial armies and navies were established to impose foreign control over colonial territories and to deter aggression by rival imperial powers.
- Industrialisation changed the fundamental dynamics of western society. The former agrarian societies were transformed from predominately rural populations with relatively small urban centres, in which land (the leading class of economic asset) was controlled by a landed elite, and societies were characterised with ‘pyramid’ shaped social structures – i.e. large rural working (peasant) classes, small middle classes (leading artisans, professionals, merchants and officials), and tiny landed and political elites. Industrial societies, on the other hand, were characterised by dramatic shifts in population to burgeoning urban centres, seeking employment following (typically) collapse of rural economies and residential displacement of rural families in favour of factories and pasturage; industrial wealth supplanted agrarian wealth as the leading class of economic asset; and social structures became ‘diamond’ shaped – i.e. upwards social mobility (eventually) of the working poor into an expanding lower middle class, leaving relatively small numbers of people amongst the desperately poor and the stupendously rich. Industrialisation was made possible by scientific and technological advances, which turn could be widely and efficiently distributed by industrial means.
- Nation building, characterised by growth of central government bureaucracy, universal education, and the rise of liberalism and democracy. The explosion of the urban populations and increasing complexities of economic life helped create a demand for a rapidly expanding central government and civil bureaucracy. This new era also shaped a new political consciousness, in which the rights of the individual and the expansion of the political franchise to encompass the entire male population (female emancipation moved much more slowly) caused shifts in political power in concert with the shifts in economic power. Education also emerged as a major force in society, as movements for universal literacy – to counter-act perceived evils associated with the new urban civilisation and to build a new educated, politically conscious and nationalistic citizenry – gained momentum. Prior to the 19th Century, Britain and Europe were characterised by a multitude of languages, dialects and regional language forms. By the end of the century, each country (through universal education systems) promulgated authorised and standardised languages – a phenomenon which contributed to changes in the economic and political spheres, whilst bringing about the marginalisation and the disappearance of many languages, dialects and regional differences in language.
- Militarism also emerged as a major political force, in conjunction with industrialisation and nation building activities. In former centuries, Britain and the various European states maintained relatively small standing armies and navies in comparison to the size of the respective civilian populations. The ‘nation at arms’ ideology of the French Revolution, and the emergence of popular political consciousness during this time, combined to create a new ideology of the citizen as a soldier – and the notion that the relative size of a nation’s army and navy directly reflected its status in international affairs. Following the example of Revolutionary France, many countries adopted systems of mass conscription; military planners toiled to refine mobilisation techniques to ensure that their country could deploy greater numbers of troops at a given geographical location more quickly than that of their neighbours. A two or three year full-time military service commitment, followed by varying periods of reserve service, became an essential masculine right of passage in European countries. Amongst the European powers, Britain was alone in not implementing mass conscription, despite intense domestic political debates about its perceived necessity.
During this century, the following countries were particularly notable:
- Britain emerged as a centralised nation rather than simply a grouping of neighbouring kingdoms and territories under a single monarchy, whilst its victory in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) gave it an international ascendancy as the western world embarked on large-scale territorial acquisitions across the world, and in its establishment as the leading capitalist power.
- France emerged from its defeats to re-establish itself as a capitalist and colonial power. In the political sphere, violent political change enabled France to move from monarchy to radical republicanism (1792), to Continental Empire (1804), to Monarchy (1814), to Continental Empire again (1815), to Monarchy (1815), to Republic (1848), Continental Empire (1852) and finally to Republic again (1870).
- Germany began the century as a mass of small independent and semi-independent kingdoms and principalities. The shifting fortunes of the Napoleonic Wars had reorganised and reorganised these state on successive occasions, eclipsing the former Austrian domination leaving a re-invigorated Kingdom of Prussia as one of the leading German states. By the end of the century, Prussia had united most of the German speaking states into a new ‘2nd Reich’ that aroused fear and suspicion both in France in the west and Russia in the east.
- United States began the century as a fledgling republic following its hard fought independence from Britain. By the end of the century, America had overwhelmed the Native American peoples from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, carving out a large continental nation with Canada in the north and a much reduced Mexico in the south. Its growing economic and political confidence led it into a war with Spain (the Spanish-American War, 1898) which gave it overseas territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The 19th Century was particularly notable for the US Civil War (1861-1865), the completion of east-west railway lines, and the wars with the Native American tribes.
In addition, the nations of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand emerged as new British modelled nations amongst the wide-flung British imperial territories. Each of these nations had begun the 19th Century as struggling colonies whose political self-confidence grew with population growth (from largely British migration), economic development (mining and agriculture) and domination of their indigenous peoples. By the end of the century, formerly disparate groupings of colonies were legislated into nation-hood by Acts of the British Parliament – Canada (1867), Australia (1901), and New Zealand (1907). South Africa, with its white Afrikaner minority became the Union of South Africa in 1910.
End of the Century
The century ended with the world divided by rival imperial powers, each jealously protective of territories and economic interests. Nationalistic and militaristic movements in each country gave impetus to the international alliances that were to bring the world to the brink of World War (1914) – in Europe, France and Russia were united in an alliance against Germany; Germany and Austria-Hungary were united against feared war with Russia; whilst Britain optimistically tried to maintain its distance from European tensions. However, Britain’s participation in the ‘Entente Cordiale’ (the agreement of mutual understanding signed between France and Britain in 1904) and the Anglo-Japanese alliance (1902) underscored Britain’s growing realisation that it could not remain aloof if Europe descended into all-out war.