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The Complex Road to Industrialisation

By Maxine Berg

Europeans who, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first turned to Asia for exotic ornaments soon benefited from a globally organised trade in Asian export ware. The result by the nineteenth century was Europe’s industrialisation and China’s and India’s displacement as the world’s manufacturers. Turning our historical gaze outward from Europe invites more complex accounts of industrialisation than our simpler national narratives have allowed.

More complex accounts are also, however, simplified through comparison and the discovery of common features across European countries, across Asian regions and empires and across Europe and Asia. One of those common features was an Asian export ware sector. This was a Chinese, Indian and wider Asian achievement, but one also stimulated by, intervened in, and redirected by Europe’s merchants and companies. Merchants, East India companies, dealers and manufacturers transformed objects which once entered Europe as oriental luxuries into an Asian export-ware sector of high-quality consumer products. Those products stimulated consumers and changed households and everyday life.

As manufactures those Asian-sourced products demanded complex skills, networks of information, communication arteries and nodes of knowledge, production and distribution. Yet, paradoxically, they stimulated large-scale productivity growth, and ultimately industrialisation not in Asia, but in Europe. Looking across the products and the regions of the world that produced and consumed them allows us to simplify a complex historical narrative, and to analyse an Asian export-ware sector as an industrial system, one that contributed in crucial ways to that later industrial system, European factories, mechanisation and industrial revolutions.

Asia also introduced to Europe lessons of complexity and of simplicity in product design and in the techniques and skills to produce those products. China and India produced fine cottons, silks, porcelain and many other fine manufactured products for world markets from an early period. Skills and designs were honed to captivate the tastes of consumers in Malacca and Isfahan, Istanbul and Cairo, Lisbon and Amsterdam. Manufacturers adapted shapes, patterns, weaves and yarn counts, colours and patterns to meet merchant demands to provide far parts of the world. Long-distance seaborne trade organised by East India Companies by the seventeenth century brought unimaginable volumes of these goods to Europe: 5 million pieces of textiles between 1670 and 1760 and over 70 million pieces of porcelain between 1600 and 1800.

The skills that made these products were complex – the undefinable aspects of tacit knowledge. The products offered a new design complexity: new, even magical,materials such as porcelain, hard, translucent and heat resistant; new colours that did not fade, seemingly endless variety of prints, patterns and weaves. Different production systems in China and India yielded distinctive responses in Europe. China’s export-ware porcelain production centralised in Jingdezhen developed versatile production techniques for wide overseas markets. New kilns, densely packed, firing a range of wares over wide temperature differences, extensive division of labour and assembly-line processes, modular systems and interchangeability filled the tonnage of Europe’s ships and placed the once precious object within the experience of up to thirty per cent of Northern Europe’s population. China’s simplified production systems produced a quality and design complexity, but within limits to meet standardised market demands for expected and similar designs.

There were two responses in Europe. Imitators in Europe learned the porcelain secret, but produced high quality art objects in princely and aristocratic workshops; not for them the tons of export ware. Earthenware producers, first of faience and delft, then most notably of North Staffordshire creamware, learned the lessons of quality, standardisation and reliability from their Chinese competitors. Asian export ware globalised a semi-luxury product; those lessons turned Staffordshire ware into the new global product of the eighteenth century.

Complexity brought to Europe the surprise and delight of Indian cotton textiles. The finest of muslins and the most intricately patterned and painted of fine cotton calicoes offered a complexity of versatile designs to Europe’s newly emerging fashion markets. But this worked to the advantage of Europe and the disadvantage of India. Those textiles were intensively specialised by skills and product, manufactured in the first place for specific groups, courts and individuals. Indian textile production followed what David Washbrook has called an ‘alternative economics’ of artisan expertise focused on highly specialised markets and a division of labour elaborated through the caste system. Minute and complex divisions of labour were developed through subcastes; dynasties of craftspeople produced unique forms of quality. The complexities of these products and their speciality markets led into the rigidities of endlessly proliferating niche markets.

This Indian production system was high on quality at low relative prices, but low on the consistency, predictability and confidence needed for European fashion markets. European merchants tapped into the skills that could produce high quality and endless variety, and Indian artisans rose to these new global opportunities. Europe’s East India Companies directed Indian print designs to meet European tastes. Artisans innovated, and created new designs and fabrics, but in doing so their production systems created more specialisation, more status distinctions and further refinements of skill. Along with this, while there was always a high demand for oriental prints in London, access to those was uncertain, unreliable; retailers fought a constant battle to get the right textiles at the right time. The effect of this global trade was to embed India deeper into specialisation based in skills, and to open her to vulnerabilities. The complexity of these skill specialisations reinforced ‘luxury in a poor country’.

East India Companies brought Indian fabrics into Europe’s markets not as cheap substitutes for linens and silks or even wool, but along with new fashion products in interior decoration and dress: palampores and curtains, banyans and waistcoats, neckcloths and handkerchiefs, head-dresses, pockets and petticoats. In the highly-charged fashion textile markets of eighteenth century Europe and a high-income Atlantic free-trade zone, manufacturers now pursued mechanical inventions and new production systems to deliver a product competitive with Indian imports. The characteristics they sought were not the complexities of refined skills, but variety and novelty that could also be achieved along with rapid turnover, warehouse selling, precision, exactness and order. Europeans looked to an alternative cotton product, one produced by machinery, to produce the varied high quality product mix they sought. As a result, Irish, Scots and even Indian hand-made goods now looked unreliable, even second best.


‘Global historical perspectives provide us with both more complex and simpler accounts of the roots of industrialisation. My work addresses the key connector that transformed the early modern world: the long-distance trade between Asia and Europe in material goods and culture. The twenty-first century has seen a new Asian ascendancy now providing the world with many of its manufactured consumer goods. My work looks back to the first global shift – one from a world provided with fine manufactured goods from Asia to a world of European industrial revolutions.’

Professor Maxine Berg FBA, FRHS, in the Department of History, is Director of the Global History and Culture Centre, and was formerly Director of the Warwick Eighteenth Century Centre. Her research interests focus on global trade and material culture in the early modern world and, with colleagues in the History Department and the wider Faculty of Arts, she has been instrumental in developing a new area of expertise for Warwick in the field of global history.


Professor Maxine Berg FBA, FRHS

Director, Global History & Culture Centre