Neo Gutenberg - Chapter Eight

Jayraj Salgaokar is the publisher and founder of Kalnirnay, India's largest selling multilingual publication. He has been a Marathi author since he started writing in 1976. He completed his post graduation in Economics from the University of Bombay in 1978. As an eclectic thinker, his interest in writing ranges from biographies, culture, economics, politics, socialand contemporary trends. In his book Neo Gutenberg, he pays tribute to the history of print through a contemporary lens.

12 Nov 2013 | By Jayraj Salgaokar

8 - Rise of Enterprise, Empire and English


8.1 The Industrial Revolution

Marx & Engels                           Adam Smith
Among the most important events in human history, the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain, untethered mankind from dependence on animals, wind and water as energy sources. In doing so, it created an unmatched explosion in wealth and population. Because of its importance, historians have attempted to explain its causes—and have marched out reasons ranging from the Protestant work ethic to the scientific revolution. In The Origins of the Modern World: A Global And Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century, Robert Marks argues that it was instead the scarcity of land, and the proximity and availability of coal in England:

“Population growth and agricultural development put pressure on the land resources of England. Indeed, by 1600, much of southern England had already been deforested, largely to meet the needs of the growing city of London for fuel for heating and cooking. Fortunately for the British, veins of coal were close enough to the surface of the ground and close enough to London to create both a demand for coal and the beginnings of the coal industry. By 1800, Britain was producing ten million tons of coal, or 90% of the world’s output, virtually all destined for the homes and hearths of London. As the surface deposits were depleted, mine shafts were sunk, and the deeper they went in search of coal the more the mines encountered groundwater, seeping into and flooding the mine shafts. Mine operators had a problem, and they began devising ways to get the water out of the mines. (05)
Ultimately, what they found useful was a device that used steam to push a piston. Early versions of this machine, developed first by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and then vastly improved by James Watt in the 1760s, were so inefficient that the cost of fuel would have rendered them useless, except for one thing: at the mine head, coal was in effect free. Between 1712 and 1800, there were 2,500 of the contraptions built, almost all of which were used at coal mines. (02)
Eurocentric explanations of the Industrial Revolution typically invoke the ‘scientific revolution’, the immensely interesting and ultimately very important development beginning in the sixteenth century, whereby some Europeans began to think of nature as a separate entity that could be understood and modeled mathematically. Although it is absolutely true that science has become an integral part of the world, and while it has come to play a leading role, especially from the late 1800s on, in developing new industries, there is little evidence to tie European science to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution or to the technologies that fueled it. (02, 03)
In fact, the principles of technologies used in the Industrial Revolution were well known in China; what explains their development in England and not China, as suggested above, were the particular circumstances that made the fuel for the first, extremely inefficient steam engines effectively free. China did not have that good fortune.” (02)
If the Renaissance changed people’s approach to life, the Industrial Revolution changed the way they had existed since the agrarian times, thereby ushering in the modern age. The modes of mass production and economies of scale brought a paradigm shift in the way a nation and its commerce functioned; it took the ideals of capitalism to unseen heights. (04)The industrialization process increased the production capacity of Europe and the United States.

This era ushered changes in all spheres of European and American life and was influential in putting them ahead of Asian economies like India and China. Like the Reformation period of the Renaissance movement or the French Revolution, everyone from the peasants and noblemen to artisans and merchants were touched by industrialization. It served as a key that unlocked the doors of modern Western society. The Industrial Revolution was also a social revolution. It brought the previously non-existent working and middle class into the fore leading to the arrival of new social relationships. Benjamin Franklin delcared “time is money.” Soon men were no longer treated as men, but as a commodity which could be bought and sold on the open market. This system led to a new form of paid slavery.

The revolution also brought in a new stream of intellectuals like Marx and Engels who opposed abrupt capitalism and economist Adam Smith who rationalized it. The only thing the three had in common was that their bodies were all laid to rest in Britain. This wasn’t a mere coincidence; it reflected a shift of intellectual capital from other parts of Europe to Britain. (01)

8.2 Development of Telegraph in the Global Imperial Order

Samuel Morse                    Telegraph
Free thinking empowered Europeans post the Renaissance while technology led to social and economic development during the industrial era. It also gave the British Empire the greatest advantage among other colonial powers to conquer the world. It’s ironical that the same tools and thought processes which empowered Europe were utilised by the very people it helped for the enslavement of Asia and Africa. The British Empire, unlike the Spanish monarchy, was not interested in religious conquest nor was it like the Dutch who preferred to stay aloof from their colonies.

The British were purely focused on trade and administration backed by their technological superiority over their colonies. Their battles and tales of conquest are not the issues of contention in this book; the focus is on exploring their finesse in the utilisation of technology in administration. The telegraph system was one of the technological wonders of the 19th century. The innovative mode of communication emerged from the industrial revolution in Britain. It transformed communication and gave the British technological superiority over most of its competitors.

Inventor William Fothergill Cooke teamed up with scientist Charles Wheatstone and developed the needle telegraph, the first functional electric telecommunication device. On July 25, 1837, the first experimental telegraph line ran between the 2.4 kilometre stretch of London’s Euston Square and Camden Town stations. It was an outstanding success that not only amazed Victorians but displayed obvious advantages for its application (01). However, it was only when American Samuel Morse arrived on the scene and developed this invention that it became the complete answer to long distance communication. A gifted artist, Morse’s priorities changed when he missed his wife’s funeral when a message was delivered late.

This tragic event changed him as a person. He never wanted anyone to experience the pain he had endured; hence he set about working on a modern messaging system. His innovation centered around the idea of sending electric pulses of two fixed lengths - dots and dashes. After initial rejection, he received federal support and on May 24, 1844, Morse uttered the now famous words through his telegraph “What hath God wrought.” A year later, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed to relay telegraphic lines around New York. Despite his role in establishing the telegraph, Morse had to negotiate hard to be recognized as the inventor of the telegraph. (03)
Coming back to geopolitics, one of the strategic aims of the Victorian empire was to cross the Atlantic Ocean with a submarine telegraph line. (03)The project sparked such a lot of interest that a wealthy American, Cyrus Field, personally financed

(The Americas’ first telegram, transmitted via a repeater: “What hath God wrought”, sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844)
the hiring of two warships, (USS Buchanan and HMS Victoria), to lay the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic. Very soon, the President of the United States and England’s Queen Victoria were able to exchange brief words across the ocean thereby setting the stage for a global communication network.(02) Very soon the British government realized the full potential of the technology as a tool for controlling and communicating with its expansive empire. The Empire’s interest in the telegraph was both practical and ideological because of which it invested heavily in developing the communication model. By 1914, 75% of the world’s submarine lines were operated by the British. (02)

They did not wait for other nations to participate in building and developing this infrastructure; they went on with it individually to pursue the vision of seamless communication. Consequently, the British reaped the benefits of their effort. Within hours of the outbreak of the First World War, a German merchant ship was fired on by coastal gunfire in Melbourne as it attempted to leave the port. The German ship was left shell-shocked; the crew was not even aware that a war had broken out! The fact that this incident took place such a long way away from Europe showcased the strength the Empire had acquired with the advent of telegraphy.
The speed and mode of communication had changed little since the Greek empire. Thirty years after the invention of the needle telegraph, the world had been put on a completely different trajectory. Before the advent of this technology, the British relied heavily on local messengers since it took a couple of months for a message to pass from the colonies to London. Simultaneous communication and quick decision making was possible with the telegraph, thus making the Empire an even greater force to be reckoned with. However, their dependence on this channel of communication displayed a veritable weak spot to their opponents.

The rebels in the colonies soon understood that disturbing the telegraph lines was equivalent to raiding an arms depot in terms of the damage it caused; hence the Empire constantly faced both human and natural threats to the lines it laid across. All these factors made the telegraph an expensive proposition; the cost of sending messages was 4 shillings per word to India, and 7 shillings per word to Australia. However, the British were convinced that the system was invaluable. Hence, Englishmen were employed all over the world for laying down cables or maintaining them. The cable manager often became a key member of the society he was located in. Today we might take instantaneous communication for granted. However, creating this enormous network ranks as one of the most important achievements of the British Empire.

8.3 Supersession of the Empire over other Imperialists

(Propaganda poster from the British Empire)
When it comes to the might of the British Empire, an intriguing question arises: how exactly did the Empire manage to grow so large and sustain itself despite the formidable colonist neighbours it faced? Looking at two other formidable conquering empires namely the Greeks and the Romans might provide a clue. The power of commerce and administration played a major role in the establishment of power.

The British had no monopoly on technological innovation, gunpowder, the printing press, navigational equipment or banks, all of which were available in better form in mainland Europe. However, Britain had greatly benefited from the European Renaissance and was later able to develop technological improvements. It became the first nation to harness the power of steam for utilitarian purposes. This unleashed an Industrial Revolution and made mass-produced goods available that were transported across shores.

This Industrial Revolution created a technological gap that non-European nations have not been able to traverse till date. Precise, portable rifles, machine guns, trains and steam ships presented the relatively small and overextended British armed forces with great advantages. (01) This enabled them to take on enemies that were larger and more accustomed to the terrain they were battling in and yet emerge victorious. British weaponry was very effective but it wasn’t just the arsenal that worked in the Empire’s favour; its communication systems allowed it to shepherd its meager resources to devastating effect. After it took over a nation, it started the process of colonising it.

To establish its command, Britain deployed administrators and law makers to the colonies and trained locals to manage Britain’s rule. To promote London-based financial, insurance and mercantile interests, the Empire also formulated economic policies to fuel its Imperial policies. These pursuits led to the evolution of accounting standards, codes and financial laws that are in use till date. Britain was not the only nation to enjoy a technological edge over non-European nations. But its combination of industrial might and maritime power gave it an advantage over other imperialists.

8.4 Imperialism fuelled by Industrialism
At the time, every state wanted to become a kingdom and every kingdom wanted to become an empire. The industrial era made countries and economies more efficient as well as more dependent on natural resources. This made it necessary to extend the nation states since most European industrialized nations were starved of resources. Thus they further expanded their imperialistic pursuits by crossing seas and colonising Asia and Africa. While this led to the rapid rise of the west, it had a profoundly negative effect on the civilization of the east. European countries looked for new worlds in search of metals, slaves and spices thereby stimulating local industry and fostering a new economy. This expansion of trade and capital led to the development of new financial and credit based institutions. With the establishment of the Bank of England, the might of the Dutch was challenged and subsequently broken. It quickly became evident that to process the new resources into finished products, existing tools would not suffice.
Soon capitalism soared above other economic practices of the age. Society comprised more of commercial entrepreneurs and less of the merchant adventurers of a bygone era. This led to the formation of a company with a formalized structure instead of a group of individuals on the high seas. Organizations like the British East India, French East India and Dutch East India are examples of these companies. Mining and textile processing were the cornerstone industries of this age.

The use of steam for power, and the contribution of James Watt through engine development, and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom facilitated a tremendous increase in output. With the application of coke in iron production, the need for coal mines to fulfill production needs increased; industrial towns, canals, reservoirs and roads were set up for this purpose. The expansion did not just occur offshore. Within imperialist nations, cities expanded, towns got connected and a demographic shift was noticed. The rise of super cities like London, Paris and New York was a byproduct of this age. The advent of railroads, ships, automobiles and other instruments widened the market and reach of manufactured goods. The expansion following the industrial era continued till the late 1800s.

8.5 The Eastern Renaissance

In the 18th century, Bengal housed Calcutta, the capital of India. The events in the state were monumental in shaping the destiny of the country. The British based themselves in the port city of Calcutta. This gave them and other Europeans their first formal tryst with the cultural depth of Indian civilization. The Bengali people quickly learned English and the ways of the colonists thus leading to the emergence of “Bhadralok”, a gentleman culture which emphasized a well-read and respectably behaved persona. The same people later took the lead in implementing modern, rational values over the dominant superstitions and stagnant beliefs of sati (widow burning), casteism, priesthoodship and landownership that plagued the society. The Bengal Renaissance, as it is termed, was a period of awakening in undivided Bengal which enlightened the fields of literature, science, politics and philosophy.(03)

Though the awakening began amongst the upper strata of the educated Bengali society, it later spread to all socio-cultural sections. The emergence of societies and organizations and, similar to Europe, the arrival of numerous newspapers and magazines were two prominent features of this era. (02)

Like other Indian states, Bengal had reached a period of social stagnation due to the long rule of a fragmented Islamic empire which pushed local culture into the abyss. This led to social evils like casteism of the worst form, segregation of old and young widows from mainstream society and unfair landownership. Hence, the Bengal Renaissance movement was the culmination of reform movements in both religious and social spheres. It was directly inspired by the western ideals of independent governance and nationalism. (01)

Leaders like Raja Rammohan Roy were the pioneers of Bengal’s Renaissance. The movement was also assisted by other reform organisations like the Brahmo Samaj which, like Protestantism, was a new reformed religious branch of the prevalent system of beliefs. They vehemently preached against the caste and dowry systems and spoke in favour of the emancipation of women. The positive convergence of new Western ideals with Indian reformists was wonderfully unique in the world’s colonial history.

In 1829, Raja Ram Mohan Roy took the help of British Governor-General William Bentinck and put an end to sati. The first six decades of the 19th century saw an upheaval in Bengal’s social and cultural fabric while the next four decades witnessed the formation of political societies which ultimately led to the Indian freedom struggle. However, this movement cannot be compared to the European Renaissance unless it boasted of scientific advancements of an equal scale.

The Bengal Renaissance wasn’t just limited to politics but gradually moved towards science and culture. Eminent intellectuals like physicist JC Bose, mathematician SN Bose (who collaborated with Einstein and of Higgs Boson fame) and astrophysicist Meghnad Saha (who was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times for his research work) became the Galileo, Copernicus and Newton of their era. Rabindranath Tagore was the tallest figure in the field of culture. He was granted knighthood by the British crown but renounced it to protest violent British policies. He became the finest product of the Renaissance. He was the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Gitanjali. (02)

The Bengal Renaissance had a profound effect on the Indian independence movement. A large number of freedom fighters and free thinkers later emerged from the state of Bengal. The might of Bengal became so pervasively threatening to the British that they divided the state into West Bengal and East Bengal; the latter became the present day nation of Bangladesh. Many African and Asian colonies later took cue from the Indian independence movement and pressed for their own liberation. There were other intellectual uprisings in other parts of India as well, but none as collective as in Bengal.

However, the contribution of Jyotiba Phule (west India province) who was influenced by Thomas Paine books Rights of Man (1791), developed a keen sense of social justice and fought against prevalent caste system which had millions under a pseudo-slavery arrangement. Years later inspired by both Phule and Paine the doyen of Indian constitution Dr. Ambedkar University of Columbia Doctorate) would launch an assault on caste system and start the process of de enslavement of millions in the Indian subcontinent. Hence, the social, political and cultural awakening in this East Indian state had a tremendous impact in both the intellectual and physical independence of individuals and nation states alike. (02)
Thus with the help of industrialism, technology, financial and civil administration system the Empire controlled a quarter of Earth landmass, one fifth population and with its influence in America and India along with its own strength; made English the most favored language prevalent today.