Millennium | 19. The 1800s - Europe’s century - Palden Jenkins

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Millennium | 19. The 1800s - Europe’s century

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For many desert and forest people worldwide, this century passed like any other. However, some were being visited by mysterious white, hairy, funny-smelling people with coolies, bibles, guns and only one god. When Livingstone and Stanley met at Ujiji, Africa, in 1871 (to them, in the middle of nowhere) they were like ETs on a strange planet. This was driven by a fascination in exploration, in reorganising a whole planet. The separate realities of the masters and the victims of his process clashed bizarrely.

The first twenty years of the 1800s were dramatic. Napoleon conquered much of Europe, reforming and rationalising as he went, creating ‘revolution from above’. But for the intransigence of Britain and the vastness of Russia, Napoleon might have changed European and world history fundamentally - though he did indeed change it more than most world leaders. However, he overextended his efforts, lost his magic touch and fell by 1815, exiled to a far-off island.

Napoleon’s isolation of Britain caused a terrible economic crisis for the British. So they invested in overseas empire-building, seizing colonies controlled by Napoleonic countries and taking control of the seas. Sore over the loss of its American thirteen colonies, British imperialists expanded in Africa and Asia, seeking resources and markets. Its mills clanked busily and its finance houses burst with funds transferred from continental aristocrats and from the profits generated from colonial trading. UK was staking its bets. So one consequence of Napoleon's attempt to build a united Europe was British supremacy for the next hundred years.

When the Napoleonic wars ended, old regimes were restored and Europe divided itself into a conservative East (Austria, Prussia, Russia) and a liberal West (Britain, Holland, France). Changes over the coming decades were intense, with revolutions in 1830 and 1848, economic booms and crashes and a frenzy of building, innovation and increasingly sophisticated industrial production.

Railway tracks were laid and steamboats launched. Distances shrank and transport capacities rose. By mid-century, the Great Exhibition in London elegantly boasted a genuinely new world of achievement. Victorian bigwigs felt they were now truly civilised, proudly taking on the task of civilising the ‘backward’ world they were subjugating. Vast tracts in faraway places were staked out, turned into producer and client states, wracked with intense westernisation.

The subjects of the new empires - British, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese - didn't have much say in the matter. Many died, many incorporated gradually into the colonial system and started moving to new cities, tribal structures and homelands disintegrated, disease was common and the landscape was increasingly transformed as plantations, mines and railways were set up.

Napoleon had sold land west of the Mississippi to the new USA, to earn a few bucks and stop the British getting it. This doubled USA’s lands. Westward expansion followed. Native Americans were pushed before the settlers along the Trail of Tears, to oblivion, death or small reservations. Then, by the 1860s, a clash of principles arose between the new white Americans: nominally fought over slavery, the American civil war was fought over contrasting lifestyles and beliefs.

Europe’s liberal/conservative divide was West-East, USA’s North-South. Urban liberalism against squirarchic conservatism, new against old order. The future won, but at a cost. Black Americans were freed from slavery, though free black people even today still sit at the bottom of the American (and world) pile.

Back in Europe, the new working classes bore the brunt of 19th Century changes, ran the machines and served in the bourgeois houses. There was progression for some, oppression for others – capitalism was uncaring and grim for most. Social and workers’ movements grew, achieving serious political clout by late century, though amongst them a schism appeared between reformers and revolutionaries.

This new political force was in the next century to fly red flags over Russia and China and to institute the social welfare states of Europe. USA was to carry raw capitalism further. European states, rejecting unification under Napoleon, were to fight each other so much in the 20th Century that they lost their world-dominating position.

The whole world was drawn in to this ‘progress’ process. The natural evolution of every country was flooded in a tsunami of modernisation. 1800 and 1900 were centuries apart, culturally. Great world cities appeared – Shanghai, New York, Singapore, Bombay, Rio, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg – and Europe’s metropoli sported a strange mix of dramatic, grandiose Victorian architecture and acres of slums. Between the haves and have-nots arose a middle class of officers and managers, selected from those who showed promise, had the right connections and played the game.

Life became distinctly secular. A new religion had surfaced, called science. Like all faiths, it brought many new truths and some serious errors. New ideas became new realities within a few decades. Darwinism, reductionism, psychology, novels, socialism and exotic ideas imported from the colonies put Christianity on the defensive in Europe. And quietly, in the boardrooms, new magnates and corporations grew ever more powerful.

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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
This material may be downloaded, printed out in single copies for personal use
and quoted in parts with proper attribution and a link to this site.
All other uses require permission of the author, Palden Jenkins.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.

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