Proposal preview

British Imperialism and Globalization, 1650-1960

The defining characteristics of the current global economy are integration and hierarchy. The economies of our modern world have become tightly interconnected. Drastic reductions in the cost of transportation and transmission of information have allowed the world market to determine prices and the location of production sites for a host of goods and services. But the integrated world economies have not been equal. Inequality among national economies, regional economies within nations, and among ethnic nationalities and among individuals within nations are also critical defining elements of the integrated global economy. For economic historians, globalization as a historical process requires focusing research on the long-run historical processes (and the major factors in the processes) that have given rise to these defining characteristics, together with the repercussions (good and bad).

This panel focuses on British imperialism, 1650-1960, as a major factor in the long-run historical processes leading to the constitution of the modern global economy, with its defining characteristics. The panelists examine the contribution of imperialism to the development of English transoceanic trade and the commercialization of the English economy, 1660-1700 (William J. Ashworth) and the military successes of England over its European rivals, 1651-1815, which established England’s imperial and commercial hegemony and the Industrial Revolution that followed (Patrick O’Brien). These two contributions provide the foundation for demonstrating the critical role of the English economy, with its new technologies (in manufacturing and transportation) and financial dominance that supported British imperial policy of free trade, in the constitution of the global economy from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The operation of these self-confident imperial policies of free trade is elaborated in British West Africa, where British colonial administrations facilitated the development of commodity production for the global market, but allowed all nations the freedom to trade these commodities and generally low duties on imports from all nations, without discrimination (Joseph E. Inikori, “British Colonial Rule and Globalization: British West Africa, 1821-1900”). The establishment of commercially successful settler economies in British Africa is shown as an important imperial mechanism for integrating the economies involved into the global economy through market demand in Europe (Erik Green). Addressing the issue of hierarchy reopens the debate on whether British colonial rule advanced or impeded development in the colonies. Gareth Austin reviews the literature on the debate as it relates to British colonial rule in West Africa (“ ‘More and More One Cog in the World Economic Machine’: Globalization, Development, and African Agency in British West Africa”). Ralph Austen identifies two periods in British colonial policy in Africa (French colonial policy also), 1890s to 1930s and the decades preceding decolonization. The policies produced no real development in both periods, although Africans in the colonies got some welfare benefits in the second. Morten Jerven examines the recent literature, based on estimates of fiscal capacity, GDP growth, real wages and anthropometric measures, which shows growth and improvements in human development during the colonial period, but questions whether the new literature can overturn the dominant interpretations of the colonial impact in British colonial Africa, given its potential biases from the use of colonial records. Tirthankar Roy examines the construction of the British Indian state, employing the tools economic historians consider fundamental to the construction of modern states, centralization of finances and securitization of public debt. Both elements advanced more in British India relative to Mughal India, yet economic growth in British India remained limited. The paper focuses on explaining why.


First Half

William J. Ashworth (University of Liverpool, UK), “The Impact of Imperialism and Transoceanic Trade on the Commercialization of England, 1660-1700.”

Patrick K. O’Brien (London School of Economics, UK), “The Consolidation of British Industrialization, Global Hegemony, and Imperial Supremacy in the Wars Against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.”

Joseph E. Inikori (University of Rochester, USA), “British Colonial Rule and Globalization: British West Africa, 1821-1900.”

Gareth Austin (Cambridge University, UK), “More and More One Cog in the World Economic Machine: Globalization, Development, and African Agency in British West Africa.”

Mariusz Lukasiewicz (University of Leipzig, Germany), “Financial Globalization, Imperialism and the South African War: A View from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, 1895-1902.”

Second Half

Ralph A. Austen (University of Chicago, USA), “The British Colonial Project in Africa: Globalization Versus Fordism.”

Erik Green (Lund University, Sweden), “The Establishment of Profitable Settler Economies in British Africa: A Demand Driven Story?”

Morten Jerven (University of Edinburgh, UK), “Economic Growth and Living Standards in British Colonial Africa.”

Prasannan Parthasarathi (Boston College, USA), “British Rule, the Global Economy, and Environmental Change in South India.”

Tirthankar Roy (London School of Economics, UK), “The Construction of the British Indian State.”


  • Joseph E. Inikori, University of Rochester,, USA

Session members

  • William J. Ashworth, University of Liverpool,
  • Patrick K. O'Brien, London School fo Economics,
  • Gareth Austin, Cambridge University,
  • Mariusz Lukasiewicz, University of Leipzig,
  • Ralph A. Austen, University of Chicago,
  • Erik Green, Lund University,
  • Morten Jerven, University of Edinburgh,
  • Prasannan Parthasarathi, Boston College,
  • Tirthankar Roy, London School of Economics,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Patricia Hudson, Cardiff University,


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