Early Globalization: Exploring British Imports 1856-1906

By Jim Clifford

[The visualizations in this post do not render very well on a small screen.]

The British were at the centre of the globalizing economy in the second half of the nineteenth century. British cities and their industrial economies were growing fast and the country increasingly relied on trade to supply food and raw materials.

During the past few years I have worked with a group of students to develop a database that includes all of Britain’s imports. The main goal of the database is to allow me to write journal articles and a book on the links between industrialization in Greater London and global commodities, but I thought interactive visualizations of the data created using Tableau might be interesting for ActiveHistory.ca readers. The full database is also available for download.

Visualizations for this project help us understand this early period of globalization during decades of intensifying imperialism and a rush to bring much of the world’s arable land into cultivation and other natural resources into the global market place. A London family in the 1890s might have started their day by washing with soap produced with Egyptian cottonseeds and Australian tallow, dressing in wool and cotton clothing sourced from Australia, India, South Africa and the United States, drinking sweet tea from Ceylon and Jamaica, and eating marmalade toast made with wheat from the United States and oranges from Spain. Their home would have been built with local bricks and timber from Quebec, Norway, Sweden or Russia. Most of these global connections, aside perhaps from tea marketed by its place of origin, would have been hidden by the process of commodification and the industrial transformation of the global raw materials into British consumer goods.

The visualization above starts by showing the top commodities by value of Britain’s imports for the years 1856, 1861, 1866, 1871, 1876, 1881, 1886, 1891, 1896, 1901 and 1906 from the whole world. There are two drop down menus to explore the imports from the individual locations for individual years. The locations change over between 1865 and 1901 as European imperialism subjugates new territories and the British government reorganizes their empire. The trades tables are also slow to respond to Canadian confederation and continue to use British North America to capture Canada plus Newfoundland through to the 1890s. Try exploring some of the large and small locations that supplied Britain with a growing diversity of raw materials.

The map below focuses on all of the different kinds of fats used for industrial purposes like soap and candle making and for edible oils. It starts in 1856 and gives you the option to click forward in time to see the expanding global supply for these crucial raw materials. It is important to note that British soap and candle makers could not have relied on domestic fat sources during these decades. These industries grew quickly and they needed overseas commodities or they would have hit the limits of the British agricultural sector and a scarcity in fats would have stopped further expansion.

Britain was largely deforested by the mid-nineteenth century and even with the large scale substitution of coal for firewood by this point in time, they still relied on British North America and the Baltic region to supply 80-90 percent of their timber for construction, mining, railway ties, furniture making and shipbuilding by the end of the nineteenth century. The map below records the significant growth in the Baltic timber supply during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Again, without these imports, the British economy would have struggled and the housing boom in the later nineteenth century would have required the substitution of more expensive materials like iron and steel.

Fibers for the textile industry accounted for the most valuable imports during the second half of the nineteenth century. The next two maps show the global sources of wool and cotton. In both cases there were dominant regions that supplied the majority of the fibers and many more locations contributing smaller quantities. The cotton map shows the efforts made to diversify the supply during and after the American Civil War with Egypt and India emerging as important cotton exporters.

The British public had also acquired a taste for stimulants and foods which could not be grown in their climate. By the mid-nineteenth century tea, coffee and sugar were imported and consumed in large quantities. The map records the introduction of tea from China first to Bengal and later to Ceylon and the collapse of coffee exports from India and Ceylon after coffee rust devastated production in these locations.

The sources for these visualizations are a series of documents in the nineteenth century and twentieth century House of Commons Sessional Papers, with titles that begin with ‘Annual Statement of the Trade and Navigation of the United Kingdom’ until 1870 and the ‘Annual Statement of Trade of United Kingdom’ through to the twentieth century. They were all accessed through the ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers. The database infrastructure was developed by Dr. Jon Bath and the data entry was completed by a number of undergraduate students working in the HGIS Lab at the University of Saskatchewan. Kevin Winterhalt took a leadership role over more than two years, completing the error check for the database and working on maintaining consistent commodity names. Danika Bonham, Steven Langlois and Elise Lehmann contributed to the data entry. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council provided the funding to pay this team. The “London’s Ghost Acres British Imports 1856-1906 Database” is made available under the Open Data Commons Attribution License: https://opendatacommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/ 


Further Readings:

Barbier, Edward B. Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History.  Vintage, 2015.
Beinart, William, and Lotte Hughes. Environment and Empire. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
McCook, Stuart. “Global Rust Belt: Hemileia Vastatrix and the Ecological Integration of World Coffee Production Since 1850.” Journal of Global History 1, no. 02 (2006): 177–95.
Sharma, Jayeeta. Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011.

Webb, James L. A. Tropical Pioneers: Human Agency and Ecological Change in the Highlands of Sri Lanka, 1800-1900. Ohio University Press, 2002.

Woods, Rebecca J. H. The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800–1900. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

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