O’Brien P. (1982) The contribution of intercontinental trade to Europe’s expansion

O’Brien Patrick (1982) “European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery”, The Economic History Review, 35/1, 1-18.

According to development historians of the 1970s (Wallerstein) the causes of the non-western world backwardness after 1800 is to be found in the previous period (1450-1750) which saw the mercantile rise of capitalistic Europe. According to them, peripheries maintained labour control (slavery, serfdom) and were trapped in an unequal exchange with the core. Meanwhile Western Europe could develop a freer and more advanced economy thanks to the plunder of the peripheries (2).
Although he acknowledges the importance of having a global approach of every country’s history, he also dismisses the importance of intercontinental trade for the rise of the West (3).

By the 1790s, 76% of European international trade was confined within Europe, 10 went to North America, 5 to South America and the Caribbean, 5 to Asia and 1 to Africa. By 1830, the non-European regions purchased 14% of Europe’s exports and produced 27% of its exports. By the end pf the 18th century the periphery imported around 20% of Europe’s exports and produced around 25% of its imports. These proportions ought to have been significantly smaller a century or two before. As the real upsurge in the Europeans’ consumption of colonial goods only started around 1650, it is obvious that over the early modern period Europe’s most important trading partner was itself.

Moreover, international trade was not very important at a country’s scale (around 4% of the continent’s GDP). Small maritime countries (Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain) may have had a higher ratio – around 20-25% by the 1750s (4). Nonetheless the impact of intercontinental trade on early modern Europe’s long-term growth cannot be automatically deemed minimal.

Accumulation and investment
Intercontinental trade may have been pivotal in Europe’s growth. In particular, it may have participated to the primary capital accumulation which fuelled Europe’s rise to supremacy after 1750. But its sheer size makes it at best unlikely that it would have had a critical role in the investment pool that financed the Industrial Revolution (I.R.) (5).

Yet the total share of intercontinental trade may have been of little importance. Being at the right place at the right moment may be what made it critical. Is it a chance that the country trading the most with the peripheries – Britain – was also the one that started the I. R. (6)? The benefits from the trade with the periphery may simply have fuelled the British run up before the I.R. But even then it is unlikely that the trade with the peripheries was able to generate much more than 15% of the capital invested during the I.R. (7).

Return rate
Another commonly shared idea amongst development historians is that intercontinental trade was particularly lucrative. Even though the rate of return over some voyages may have been particularly high, it was such a risky business that on the long-term the return rate ought to have been close from 10%. After 1650, the increased imports of tropical products caused their originally high prices to drop (8). Even the horrible slave trade (that precisely allowed the growth of the tropical trade by keeping the prices low) was too limited to be a significant cause of capital accumulation in Europe (9).

Hidden impact
The impact of the trade with the peripheries on specialisation of a skilled minority of the workforce (which would create an increase of productivity) was also limited. Not only quantitatively but also because it did not liberate European labour (tea and tobacco were not substitutes to European produce) and concentrated on consumer good, while the impact would have been more important had it been based on production factors (i.e. materials used to produce other goods) (10).

Trade with the peripheries did have some significant positive impact on the European economy (increased the market for Europe’s manufactured goods, maritime transportation services and financial services). New techniques (Indian cotton processing hardware) and new crops (potatoes, maize) were imported from the peripheries. New jobs were created on the boat or the plants meant to process tropical produce for European consumption (11). By 1841 (decades after the start of the I.R.) about 8% of Britain’s gross national product came from the processing of cotton and other imported tropical stuff, earlier this proportion might have been around 3 or 4% making it a noticeable share of the economy but hardly a critical one.

The import of precious metals from the Americas had an important impact on Europe’s money supply. It helped to fuel the internal expansion of the European market after 1492. It also eased Europe’s trade with Asia (12). But it, at best, doubled Europe’s stock. Moreover the rise of fiat money (i.e. paper notes) may easily have replaced gold and silver in most cases (not mentioning debasement) (13).

The Baltic region is considered by the development historians as a semi-periphery. Unlike the rest of overseas trade, it was centred on strategic commodities (timber, iron). But its most important produce (grain) only covered 1 to 2% of the European consumption. True, this consumption was concentrated on some important point (Lisbon, Amsterdam, Genoa). But these imports price was almost entirely cover by the export of European manufactured goods to the Baltic as well as Europe-produced bullion. Had American bullion not been there, it is likely that Europe would have found something else to exchange for the goods of the Baltic (14).

Last chance
The only argument left for the importance of the American bullion is that it participated to inflation which in turn redistributed wealth from the urban workers to the elite which finally may have helped trigger the investments necessary for the I.R. to take place. But this is a long shot requiring many conditions that are not proven to have been there, and may have been as much a accelerant as an impediment (15). At best the American specie’s role would have been passive and subsidiary.

O’Brien accuses the development historian to blow out of proportion a situation that might be true at a micro level in some port towns such as Cadiz, Nantes or Bristol (16). He also uses a counterfactual argument, saying that if Britain had not been involved in intercontinental trade it would have lost as little as 7% of its investment capacities (17). As Braudel remarked, the European overseas trade was little more than the glittering superstructure of an economy mostly based on local commerce and production (18).

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