Dark Satanic Mills Human Cost of the Industrial Revolution Essay

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Industrial Revolution

It might be argued that the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe was not a revolution in the traditional sense, insofar as it involved no violence. Anyone making this argument, however, is unaware of the existence of the Luddites. Active in England in the early nineteenth century, at the height of the industrial revolution, Luddites were English textile workers who revolted against their replacement with industrial machinery and responded by destroying that machinery. The British government responded by sending in the army. The labor historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that "the 12,000 troops deployed against the Luddites greatly exceeded in size the army which Wellington took" to defeat Napoleon, which may give some sense of where governmental priorities actually lay.[footnoteRef:0] The real point is that the Industrial Revolution was tremendously disruptive to the lives of ordinary workers and people, and what is remarkable in retrospect is only that there was not indeed more violence -- however a government that sees rebellion among displaced workers as posing a bigger threat than Napoleon Bonaparte, and accordingly sends a larger army to suppress them, might give us some sense of why there was not more violence. Force and organization in the Industrial Revolution were asymmetrically arrayed -- there was never any real or coherent prospect for resistance. It is worth considering, however, the numerous ways in which the Industrial Revolution did disrupt and transform lives throughout Europe in this period. [0: Eric Hobsbawm. "The Machine Breakers." libcom.org. http://libcom.org/history/machine-breakers-eric-hobsbawm]

For a start it is worth noting that the Industrial Revolution was not simply a technological revolution, although the rapid advances in and increased use of technology -- spinning looms, steam engines, cotton gins, locomotives -- are certainly the best known part of the story. But let us consider, for example, the northern English textile industry that led to the Luddite rebellion against the technology itself. It is tempting to imagine that the only human effects that this newly-introduced technology were the skilled workers who were essentially displaced or rendered unemployed by the new textile devices. This would, however, be a fallacy. The increased production of cloth under industrial conditions led, in turn, to an increased demand for raw material -- in other words, there were now such efficient means of producing cloth that it caused the demand for wool to spike. This led to the Highland Clearances in Scotland, in which the aristocratic nominal owners of large swathes of land decided this land would be more profitable if cleared of the human habitation which had been there for centuries, in order to make way for sheep of the cheviot breed. The clearances were done by force, with entire townships burned to the ground, and populations removed at the barrel of a gun and sent to Nova Scotia in Canada (which had been named for precisely this purpose of resettlement.) Donald MacLeod's eyewitness account of Highland Clearances in 1819 indicates just how horrific this activity was, justifying the claims of Scottish nationalists some two centuries later that it practically constituted an official policy of ethnic cleansing:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description -- it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself -- all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition -- whether in or out of the flames -- I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Donald MacLeod, The Stonemason: Donald MacLeod's Chronicle of Scotland's Highland Clearances. Ed. Douglas MacGowan. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001.) p. 18.]

The simple fact is that the Highland Clearances involved no industry of any kind: therefore apologists for the Industrial Revolution might easily overlook them in an account of social changes in the early nineteenth century. But it is easy enough to understand this as a direct result of the same social process that drove the Luddites to destroy the textile-producing machinery. What was at stake in the Scottish Highlands was not industrial goods, but the raw materials required to produce them.

In some sense, Scotland may provide a hint as to another chief effect of the Industrial Revolution -- always uneasily a part of the United Kingdom (as witnessed in the present day, when devolution has resulted in the Scots obtaining their own Parliament), the Industrial Revolution and the Highland Clearances occurred after a period of sustained rebellion by the Scottish against England. So in some sense, we can understand Scotland (and Ireland) as nearby regions that were, for largely economic reasons, colonized by England. This demonstrates the other remarkable result of the Industrial Revolution, which was the scramble for colonial territory overseas on the part of the European powers. For example, in keeping with examples strictly from the British textile industry in the second decade of the nineteenth century, it is worth noting that British textile manufacturing would arrive in India in the eighteen-teens: John Binny would establish the first industrialized textile mill in the Indian city of Madras in 1814, where the cheap cotton cloth known as "madras" fabric would be produced in vast quantities. One reason for this astonishing level of production is that, of course, the native workers in India "found that the working day stretched to 18 hours, there were differences in wages and they had no facilities for food and rest."[footnoteRef:2] But of course the madras fabric was being made from cotton, a raw material that was actually being produced in India. But it was the heavy demand for cotton in Britain's textile industry in this period that led Britain to its heavy support for the system of slavery in the American South: although Britain would abolish slavery domestically, it relied heavily on American cotton in the Industrial Revolution, and indeed Britain's refusal to intervene in the U.S. Civil War had more to do with the demand for raw material on the part of the British textile industry than with a moral stance on slavery. [2: Shalini Umachandran, "Chequered History of a Textile Company." Times of India. March 12, 2010. http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Layout/Includes/TOINEW/ArtWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=TOINEW&BaseHref=TOICH%2F2010%2F03%2F12&ViewMode=HTML&PageLabel=6&EntityId=Ar00601&AppName=1]

The final result, then, of the Industrial Revolution was the invention of a working class, and the inevitable emergence of organized resistance to the vast social changes that were being wrought. This is, of course, already emergent at the time of the Industrial Revolution: it is in 1808, after all, that the famous British poet William Blake would condemn the effects of the textile industry in a poem that remains familiar two hundred years later (where many people will recognize it as having been sung at the funeral of Princess Diana). Blake wrote:

And did those feet in ancient time.

Walk upon England's mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the…[continue]

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