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November 27, 2004

Looking for Steel...

Lot of hating on Jared Diamond at GNXP lately, but his book Guns, Germs and Steel does put forward an interesting and readable “...history on the continental level” as Steve Sailer says. A more appropriate title might have been “Germs, Seeds and Hooves”, since Mr. Diamond says almost nothing about imperialism or industrialization, other than exploring how diseases moving along the Silk Road meridian became (inadvertently) the weapon with the largest body count once Europeans sailed to the Americas, Australia, and other isolated areas. Although I liked reading what he had explained, it seemed to me that in the book Mr. Diamond goes only halfway toward his stated goal of answering “Yali's Question” which was; why do Europeans have so much “Cargo” (Technological Tools/Goods).

I was not satisfied with leaving the story there, at the continental level, so I went in search of historical/anthropological books that filled the gap Mr. Diamond had left. This posting is a review of The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz. Very briefly, Prof. Pomeranz, writing in a text book style, draws on studies and archives from Europe, China, Japan, and in his opinion incomplete documentation for India, to make a case that up until 1750 there was little divergence between the most developed regions of the Eurasian continent. The book is primarily a refutation of other proposed reasons for the rise of the west. When he does discuss what caused the west to rise, he believes that European style colonies, coal usage and scientific culture were telling factors, along with Chinese monetary policy.

On an “easy to read” scale, “The Great Divergence” (henceforth GD) trails “Guns, Germs and Steel” (henceforth GGS) by a significant margin. It's fit to be a text book and as such is mostly a very dry recitation of items from archival data or other people's research of archival data. Also, the majority of the book (five of the six chapters, or 233 pages) is spent refuting proposed differences between selected areas of Europe, China, and Japan with occasional references to what is presently know about India in the same era. I had no trouble continuing to read it though, since here and there fascinating snippets of economic/technological history would be presented. If you can read the whole of such a book I strongly recommend it to you. If not, but you get your hands on it, reading the introduction, first chapter and sixth chapter will give you a concentrated discussion of what Prof. Pomeranz believes did happen, while only touching apon what he contends did not happen.

Prof. Pomeranz is insistent that the developed regions of Eurasia are not equivalent to their modern nation-state boundaries. The three regions he presents as near equals are Northwestern Europe to include Southern England, the Netherlands, France and some adjacent territories, the Lower Yangzi river region (China), and the Kanto and Kinai region (Japan). Rough equivalence, through 1750, of these regions is demonstrated in Life expectancy and productivity of labor. The Yangzi and Kanto regions had superior population densities to Northwestern Europe, in fact European cities through 1750 were smaller than counterparts worldwide if you also compare the Aztec and Inca cities before European contact. This demonstrates that agriculture outside of Europe had a higher yield per capita making the support of denser urban areas possible. NW Europe in 1750 did lead the world in the quality of the guns their craftsmen made, as well as clocks, waterwheels and other mechanical technologies.

Prof. Pomeranz goes on, discussing at length the similarities in market economies, consumption, investment, and ecological constraints to growth between these three regions and India and Southeast Asia as well. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in these areas to take issue with any of his points. His arguments seem very well made to me, but I'd need to spend months in college libraries to challenge any of them.

More interesting to me is the scenario that Prof. Pomeranz proposes for how Northwestern Europe did indeed pull ahead. The points he makes are scattered throughout the book, although the first and sixth chapters present or summarize most of them. For this review I will present them in a time line. The topics were made known to me by reading GD, although I looked up some dates in other sources:

-- -- --

1125 AD: Until this time, Northern China, around Beijing, had led the world technologically. They had a steel industry with rates of production that would not be equaled in Northwestern Europe until after 1700. They refined coal into coke for greater efficiency. However. in this year the Jurchen tribes attack Northern China and conquer most of it, in retaliation for the Chinese empire not following through with a promise to grant them all the taxes from the Liao territory as tribute. This is the beginning of string of disasters, natural and otherwise in Northern China, culminating in 1214 when Genghis Khan captures Beijing. All these troubles scatter the artisans and craftsmen of the Chinese Steel and Coal industries throughout China as a whole. But the exploitable coal mines are in Northern China, and Chinese coal mines are dry, the greatest danger is from sparks creating fires in the mines, and so it proves expensive to transport the coal any long distance. The century from 1125 through 1214 sees the loss of the first Chinese coal industry.

1415: the Grand Canal is re-opened in China. It is the most visible line in a very well developed cargo transport system, linking the Lower Yangzi region to Northern China. With this canal system in place, the Chinese move rice and other cargo very cheaply. Northern Europe would not match this transport capacity until the first railroads are put into service in the 1840s.

~1450: Severe inflation undermines the value of Ming paper money (as little as one percent of it's face value). The solution eventually reached, a property tax in silver. This continued through the fall of the Ming and into the Manchu dynasty, so that the effect was that China had made a monetarized silver the foundation of it's economy.

1492: Columbus first voyage.

1500: In China, building a ship with more than two masts is a capital offense. Between 1403 and 1440 Chinese ships had sailed extensively in the Indian Ocean, but the above mentioned inflation along with the general dissolution of the Ming dynasty brought any further ocean going activity to a halt. If it had been otherwise, China might have challenged the Portuguese and Spanish in the early days of the European Age of Exploration. As it actually was, China ceded control of the oceans to other powers.

1521: Cortes assumes control of (formerly Aztec) Mexico

1532: Pizarro conquers (formerly Inca) Peru.

1540 – 1640: During this period, one unit of gold was worth six units of silver in China. During the same period in India one unit of gold was worth eight units of silver and in Europe the same unit of gold was worth twelve units of silver. Most of the silver came from mines in Japan and the Cerro Rico mountain in Peru, which overlooks the town of Potosi. Vast amounts of silver were unearthed from this mountain. It is not an exaduration to say that China, with it's monetary policy, financed the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Willing to trade it's silks and other products for the silver, China provided huge profits to any trader willing to pay in silver while producing a boom in proto-industries on the Yangzi river. As the single largest provider of silver in the world, Spanish Peru produced immense profits to the Spanish crown and nobility.
A short paper with more details is here

~1550: In southern England, coal becomes cheaper than wood for home heating, leading to increased mining. As they become familiar with it, the English find ways to use coal in other pursuits, such as glass-making, smelting of non-ferrous metals, etc.
Coal in England link

1655: The British take Jamaica. Desperate to find their own treasures in the Americas, the British and French had rushed to colonize and exploit whatever was left, but found nothing to compare with the precious metals flowing from Spanish possessions. What they eventually did was hit apon “drug-food” crops: Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee and Chocolate. These (except Tobacco) could not be cultivated in Europe and thus had to be grown in the Americas and imported. Demand proved resilient, making the growers and the English (and French?) government (which applied tarrifs to the imports) rich. The boom in demand for these foodstuffs throughout Europe built up a self-expanding cycle, plantation owners would purchase land, cane fragments and slaves, sell a crop, and make enough profit to expand, buying more land, slaves to work it, etc. The colonies in North America grew up at first by selling basic supplies to the Caribbean plantations, allowing even more Caribbean land to be dedicated to tropical cash crops. The whole cycle is something a bit more complex than a triangle, since the primary exchange goods on the coast of Africa are cotton and other textiles from India. The English earn the most profit from these expanding markets, selling much of their imports to other nations of Europe.

1698: Tomas Savery's Steam Pump first used to pump water out of English coal mines. English mines tend to flood, so some system to pump them dry was necessary for increased production. Steam Engines were an excellent fit for English mines, since small bits of coal, unsaleable on the market could be disposed of by burning them in the engine. This way the mine owners essentially fueled their pumps for free. From this point on there will be a various improvements and changes until 1775 when James Watt increases the then current efficiency four fold. Till then the Steam Engine will fill only this niche, as a glorified mine water pump. It strikes me as more of a punctuated evolution than a history of invention.

1700 – 1750: A second period of silver arbitration occurs, although this time the differential is one gold to ten silver in China vs. one gold to fifteen silver in Europe. Also during this period the population of Han Chinese doubles, fed by increasing yields due to American origin crops (sweet potatoes, peanuts, and maize) in Chinese fields.

1757: Clive conquers Bengal for the British East India Company. (Prof. Pomeranz doesn't mention this, I threw it in to cap the timeline)

-- -- --

So after about 1750, the British had an expanding overseas empire, and growing coal technology. After 1800 trains and steamboats went into commercial service, and then you need another, more detailed timeline to keep up with the innovations and changes.

Prof. Pomeranz mentions that Europe had scientific societies, and credits them with helping spread both the knowledge and the attitude for innovation. He is not willing to say that Europe had a monopoly on this type of activity, but he does grant them an advantage. He points to letters passed widely among Chinese scholars as a parallel if less efficient way to spread scientific inquiry.

Posted by jnutley at 06:46 PM