Skip to main content Skip to navigation


‘Europe’s Asian Centuries’ returns to the big questions of economic and cultural transition by addressing the part played by mercantile trade with Asia in the origins of the Industrial Revolution. It asks the question:  Just how did Europe’s pursuit of quality goods turn a pre-modern encounter with precious cargoes into a modern globally-organized trade in Asian export ware? This was a trade to Europe of nearly 5 million pieces of textiles between 1670 and 1760, and over 70 million pieces of porcelain between 1600 and 1800. What did this export-ware sector look like, how did it function and how was it achieved?  Why did Asia’s export ware produce both European industrialization and Chinese and Indian displacement, the new great global divide of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? 

The project will focus on the major manufactured Asian imports, textiles and porcelain, but will also include other manufactures from brass and ironware to paper goods, lacquerware, furnishings and dyes.  It will compare and connect European experiences of these goods, and the Chinese and Indian mercantile centres or ‘factories’ from which their production and distribution was organized. It will connect merchants and traders with manufacturers, designers and producers. The investigators will research how merchants, supercargoes (that is voyage and trading managers), East India companies, dealers and manufacturers transformed objects which once entered Europe only as oriental luxuries into an Asian export-ware sector of high-quality consumer products.   As manufactures, these Asian consumer goods demanded complex skills, networks of information, communication arteries and nodes of knowledge, production and distribution.  There was a large-scale organization of an ‘export ware’ product.

The development of these large-scale export-ware sectors was a Chinese, Indian and wider Asian achievement; it was also stimulated by, intervened in, and redirected by European merchants and companies.  Study of these manufacturing and distribution centres has not, however, been connected to Europe’s own industrial development.  Instead, Europe’s historians when looking outside their own borders for the sources of economic development have focussed on imports of colonial groceries – sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee and chocolate and the plantation and slave economies which grew these.  They have not looked to the interlinking of Asia’s and Europe’s manufacturing economies. 

To understand the division of labour, mechanisation and the rise of the factory system in Europe, we need to understand how manufacturing export ware sectors developed in Asia just before and during this period.  Focused on delivering designs to meet European tastes, delivering high volumes and responding to new fashion, these export ware sectors met demands for quality, reliability, and standards.  They also created a highly-charged competitive atmosphere of trade, product development and invention. We need to recover the Asian origins of the Industrial Revolution.

The project will draw on the secondary sources, the many databases and research expertise on the early Portuguese and Dutch ascendancy in the Asian trade.  But the core of the research will focus on the Asian trade in consumer goods of Britain, France, the Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands and Scandinavia as this developed at parallel points especially from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries.



The mechanical galleon, Augsburg, c. 1585 (c) British Museum.