Italy, Holland, & Britain: Rural Industry & Imperialism

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sun Oct 29 18:12:13 MST 2000

>The rise of Italian merchants -- especially Venetians -- owed itself
>to skillful appropriation of scientific advances made earlier in the
>Islamic world (which in turn drew upon the Greek/Egyptian knowledge
>passed down from ancient civilizations) and the luxury trade
>(control of which they gradually wrested from the Muslim merchants,
>while working symbiotically with them at the same time), _not_ the
>emergence of capitalist class relations of production.  Hence their
>eventual eclipse by Holland & Britain.
>Nor did the Portuguese monopoly of the tropical African trade & vast
>imperial interests stretching halfway round the globe from Brazil to
>the Moluccas (which they found it very difficult to control: "A
>Portuguese sailor, soldier and official setting out for India had
>rather less than one chance in two of getting there alive" [Fage, p.
>228]) do much in the way of laying the groundwork for subsequent
>economic development (_agricultural improvement_ that allows more
>people to devote themselves to _industrial development_).

Now, to elaborate on the decline of the Italian city-states....

*****   The decline of the traditional centres of the Italian wool
industry starts around 1600 and is indisputable some decades into the
new century.  The Castilian wool industry stagnated from about the
end of the sixteenth century, but there seems to have been no
question of a real depression until the middle of the seventeenth
century.  The Catalan industry seems to have been in difficulties
from about 1620.

Corresponding to this recession in the Mediterranean region, there
was an increase in north-west European production and in the export
of woolen textiles to southern Europe, the Levant and Asia.  The
production of the most important Dutch textile centre, Leiden, was
growing until 1654, the value of annual production rising from 1630
until that date from about 4 million fl. to 9 million fl.  Lying
concealed behind this overall development in Leiden's production,
there is however a qualitative reorganization.  The Netherlands was
concentrating to an increasing extent on the production of more
expensive goods; the production of the cheaper new draperies began to
decline as early as the 1620s.  However, total Dutch textile exports
to the Baltic continued to increase up to the 1640s.

...[As for England, although] the series is not complete..., it
[cloth export] is clearly characterized by stagnation after the peak
year of 1614....But these export figures that show stagnation
comprise cloths alone; they do not include the lighter and cheaper
'new draperies', which were produced and exported in increasing
quantities during the same period and which by 1640 are thought to
have constituted almost as large a percentage of English exports as
the traditional broadcloths.  On the basis of [R. W. K.] Hinton's
survey [in _The Eastland Trade and the Common Weal, Cambridge, 1959]
of all the cloth exported through the Sound, [Ruggiero] Romano
asserts (see Chapter 7, p. 172 below) that the peak period of English
exports, not just of cloth but of woolen textiles as a whole, came in
the second decade of the century.  This may be an overstatement, but
there was certainly a prolonged rise in Dutch textile exports to the
Baltic (which continued up to the 1640s)....[C.] Wilson [in "Cloth
Production and International Competition in the Seventeenth Century,"
_Economic History Review_, 2nd series, XIII, 1960] finds the causes
of the complementary development chiefly in the English
manufacturers' easier access to cheap long-staple wool as well as in
the higher production costs (especially wages) in the Netherlands. In
cheaper goods, the Netherlands were unable to compete with the
English rural industry....

...Two structural alterations in the textile industry appear just as
significant as the demonstrable fluctuations in production: the
conversion of rural industry, and the change-over to the production
of lighter textile materials.  Everywhere, the seventeenth-century
was an important phase in the development of rural industry on a
'putting-out' basis, and it is thus probable that the stagnation or
retrogression of industries in the towns often concealed a
transference of production to the country districts.  But since one
of the chief motives for such a transference was precisely to dodge
the guild regulations and taxation of the towns -- i.e., the
institutions that have provided us with the bulk of quantitative
sources -- we shall scarcely ever with any certainty be able to
determine the extent and chronology of this transference.  Nor can we
determine precisely the other structural change -- the altered taste
with regard to cloth -- but the general tendency is clearly from the
heavier cloth towards the lighter woolen or mixed cloths, worsteds
and silk, and -- in the second half of the century -- the Indian
cotton.   (endnotes omitted, Niels Steensgaard, "The
Seventeenth-Century Crisis," _The General Crisis of the Seventeenth
Century_, 2nd ed., eds., Geoffrey Parker & Lesley M. Smith, NY:
Routledge, 1997, pp. 36-39)   *****

In the above, we can see the linkage among: enclosure (emergence of
capitalist class relations); improvement of agriculture (that allowed
& compelled more people to take up manufacture); rise of rural
industry through the putting-out system (some of the wealth invested
in it no doubt coming from slavery & the slave & other colonial
trades); decline of medieval guilds & corporations; beginning of mass
production of cheaper goods; decline of empires based upon the luxury
trades (Italian city-states, Portugal, & Spain); the rise of the
British empire & industry based upon the use of colonial resources
for industrial production (e.g., Indian cotton)....

*****   Certainly an enormous shift took place in seventeenth-century
Europe within the lines of demarcation.  The whole region of commerce
and industry moved away from the countries round the Mediterranean,
especially Italy and Spain, to the Atlantic coast, to western France,
England and the Low Countries in particular.  At the same time the
balance, assisted partly by the destructive Thirty Years' War,
shifted from south and central Germany to the North Sea ports of
Hamburg and Bremen and from Poland and the Baltic coast to
Scandinavia.  The most spectacular fact in this shift was of course
the complete collapse of Italy as an important industrial and
commercial leading country, and of the Spanish Empire, which had
actually only a century before risen to great prosperity and power.
It is a tragically engrossing tale to tell how the ancient, proud
cities of Genoa and Venice, Leghorn or Pisa fell into decay, while
the whole perished glory of Spain assumed a pathetic glamour when one
saw pot-bellied galleons of the one-time Spanish merchant marine
rotting to pieces in the roads of Cadiz after 1630.   (endnotes
omitted, Ivo Schoffer, "Did Holland's Golden Age Coincide with a
Period of Crisis?" _The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century_,
2nd ed., eds., Geoffrey Parker & Lesley M. Smith, NY: Routledge,
1997, pp. 98-99)   *****


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