The Making of a Global World: Till the Nineteenth Century, Concepts

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The Making of a Global World: Till the Nineteenth Century

The internet has connected the world in this millennium. However, have you wondered how life was hundreds of years ago? All through history, people have been interlinked for different reasons. Let us learn about the developments during the pre-modern world and the nineteenth century.

The Pre-Modern World

Before the nineteenth century, travellers, traders, religious torch-bearers, and many other people travelled across countries and continents for knowledge, opportunities, and various other reasons. Let’s look at three things that help us understand the making of a global world in pre-modern times:

  • Silk Route
  • Food Travels
  • Diseases and Trade

Silk Routes

The Making of a Global World - Till the Nineteenth Century

Known to have existed even before the Christian era and survived till almost the fifteenth century, the Silk Routes connected Asia with Europe, Africa, and the rest of the world. Historians have identified several silk routes over land and sea. The name Silk Route comes from the west-bound Chinese silk cargoes along these routes.

These routes were used for trade along with an exchange of art, literature, and philosophies. Many religious preachers also used these routes to spread their beliefs.

Food Travels – Spaghetti and Potato
Food is another way to understand how a global world existed in pre-modern times since traders or travellers introduced a new food to the place they visited. Five centuries ago, Indians were not aware of potatoes, soya, groundnuts, maize, tomatoes, chilies, and sweet potatoes. These foods were introduced to Europe and Asia only after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.

Another example is noodles or spaghetti. Many historians believe that noodles ravelled from China to Europe and became spaghetti. Also, it is believed that Arab traders introduced pasta to Sicily (an island ton in Italy). Maybe the origins of these foods were in India or Japan, a fact that is difficult to determine. However, this points to the fact that there was long-distance cultural contact between people in the pre-modern world.

Diseases and Trade
In the sixteenth century, European traders found a sea route to Asia and an ocean route to the Americas. Peru and Mexico, in South America, were full of mines with precious metals like silver which helped Europe finance its trade with Asia. Many legends got spread about the South American wealth due to the presence of these precious metals. Eventually, the Portuguese and Spaniards colonized the Americas by the mid-sixteenth century.

Interestingly, the Spanish conquerors didn’t use any guns or any conventional military weapon to conquer the South American settlements. They used Biological Warfare! Until the nineteenth century, hunger and poverty were common in Europe. Deadly diseases, like smallpox, were widespread too.

The Americas, on the other hand, had no immunity to these diseases since they had lived in isolation for long while the Spanish were mostly immune. When they would go to conquer a land, they would carry the germs of such diseases on themselves and introduce them to the Americas. The diseases would then spread and claim lives thus paving an easy way for conquest.

Also, China and India were among the world’s richest countries till the mid-eighteenth century. This was primarily due to Asia being the center of trade and commerce. However, China slowly reduced its international contacts and retreated into isolation. Also, the Americas were rising in importance. This led to a shift of trade and Europe became the center of world trade.

The Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, three types of flow existed within international economic exchanges. They were:

  • Trade flow
  • Labour flow
  • Capital flow

Let’s understand the nineteenth-century global world by looking at all these flows simultaneously.

Formation of a World Economy
From the late eighteenth century, Britain experienced a growth in population and subsequent demand for food grains. This led to an increase in prices. Corn Laws were prevalent in Britain which led to a restricted import of corn. Eventually, under pressure from the industrialists and local people, the Corn Laws were abolished.

This led to a cheaper import of food into Britain – much cheaper than the cost of production within the country itself. Hence, vast areas of land were left uncultivated and the locals, who were earlier employed in agriculture, flocked to cities for employment opportunities. Also, a drop in food prices led to an increase in consumption. Industries were growing at a rapid pace in Britain which led to higher income for the locals and higher consumption of food.

Eastern Europe, Russia, America, and Australia cleared their lands to grow food and export it to Britain. However, they also needed to construct railways to link these agricultural lands to the ports. They also needed to construct newer and bigger harbours to ship the new cargoes. Furthermore, people who would cultivate needed homes and settlements. All this required capital and labour.

Financial centers, like London, provided the capital while people from Europe and other countries moved to countries like the Americas and Australia where the demand for labour was high, in search of a better future. Hence, by the end of the nineteenth century, a global agricultural economy had developed. This was accompanied by complex labour patterns, capital flows, ecologies, and technologies.

Apart from food grains, the production of other products like cotton, rubber, etc. also flourished due to demands in the British market.

Significance of Technology
Shipment of edible and perishable products from one country to another requires fast transportation. It also needs technological advancement for the delivery of fresh products. Technology ensured that the trains were faster, wagons were lighter and ships were larger to accommodate the increasing demands.

Further, meat was an expensive luxury in Britain since live animals were shipped from America and Australia to Europe and then slaughtered on arrival. However, live animals took up a lot of space and many fell ill during the journey rendering their meat inedible. This invariably led to an increase in meat prices in Britain.

Eventually, technology stepped in which led to the invention of refrigerated ships. Now, transport of perishable food products was possible without worries. Animals were now slaughtered at the source and their meat was transported to Europe. This reduced shipping costs and a subsequent drop in meat prices in Britain.

Colonialism in the Late Nineteenth Century
Late nineteenth-century also saw large-scale colonization by the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and other European powers. These countries were colonizing most regions in Asia and Africa as a part of the expansion of trade and relations. One belief they held was that their way of living life and their society was far more civilized and that all must follow in their footsteps.

Cattle Plague or Rinderpest
During the late nineteenth century, many Europeans came to Africa to establish plantations and mines. However, there were very few Africans willing to work for a wage. They were happy rearing cattle and farming for their own food.

In the late 1880s, Rinderpest – a devastating cattle plague hit Africa. It spread all across the continent within five years and killed around 90% of the cattle. Infected cattle imported from British Asia to feed the Italian soldiers invading Eritrea in East Africa carried the infection. This plague destroyed the livelihood of most Africans. Plantation/Mine owners and Colonial governments controlled whatever little was left of the natural resources and forced Africans into the labour market.

Indentured Labor Migration from India
Also in the nineteenth century, thousands of Indian labourers went to work in plantations, mines, and other construction projects around the world. This was because cottage industries had declined and land rents had risen. People in the rural areas were finding it difficult to manage their expenses. All these labourers needed to sign contracts. According to these contracts, only when they completed five years of service could they travel to India.

On reaching there, the living conditions were not as promised; on the contrary, they were very harsh with little/ no legal rights. While some of them escaped into the jungles, a few stayed back and adapted to the new culture leading to a fusion of cultures.

Indian Entrepreneurs
During this period small peasants needed capital to grow food for the global world. This is where the Indian entrepreneurs and bankers like the Shikaripuri Shroffs and Nattukottai Chettiars stepped in. They financed export agriculture in Central and Southeast Asia by using their own funds or using funds borrowed from European banks.

Indian Trade
Britain was going through an Industrial Revolution and while they were importing cotton from India, the local cotton manufacturing in Britain also started growing. Eventually, they started exporting cotton and the Indian exports declined from 30% in around the 1800s to 3% in the 1870s. India then started exporting raw materials to make up for the decreased exports.

Over the years, Britain started exporting certain products to India and importing some other products. However, the value of British exports to India was much higher than the value of British imports from India. Thus Britain had a ‘trade surplus with India. Britain used this surplus to balance its trade deficits with other countries – that is, with countries from which Britain was importing more than it was selling. This system is the ‘Multilateral Settlement System’.


Question 1.
Which three things help us understand the making of a global world?
The Silk routes, travel of food across countries and continents, and diseases and trade help us understand the making of a global world.

Question 2.
What was Rinderpest?
Rinderpest was a cattle plague that hit Africa in the late 1880s. It killed over 90% of the cattle within five years.