Globalized Peripheries

Published last summer, Globalized Peripheries appears in our People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History series published in association with the Economic History Society. These volumes are all paperback and ebook originals priced for student readers.

Here the editors give us some fascinating background to the collection.

The protests against racist police violence in the USA have spilled over into many other countries – not only for expressing solidarity with protesters in the US, but also because such violence is occurring in Europe and other parts of the world too. Tearing down monuments of confederate generals in the US and of slave traders in Britain has invigorated existing initiatives in Germany to identify German (or German-born) entrepreneurs who had been involved with the transatlantic slave trade. There were in fact quite a few, among them members of prominent dynasties, such as the Welser (from Augsburg, active in this sector during the 16th century), the Baring (active in London during the 18th century), the Romberg (from Iserlohn, active in Brussels, Bordeaux and Saint-Domingue during the 18th century) or the Schimmelmann (active in Hamburg and Copenhagen during the 18th and early 19th centuries). Nonetheless, even if two or three dozen of such individuals can be identified, their significance in the context of German involvement in the slave trade and in the New World plantation economy is dwarfed by the more indirect interrelations of the early modern German economy with the Atlantic world. These interrelations are far more typical for the structure of German economy – and for that of Central Europe as a whole.

Specific German territories had developed export-oriented trades since the late Middle Ages. Linen was produced all around Lake Constance (including Swiss and Austrian provinces) and in Westphalia, and exported into the Mediterranean and Baltic Worlds. The Rhenish provinces east of Cologne had built a reputation for all sorts of high quality metal ware. Blades, swords and sabres from Solingen found their way to the Iberian Peninsula and Northern Africa. Tuareg caravans and 15th-century Portuguese ships introduced them to sub-Saharan markets. Brassware from Nuremberg went that way via Bruges, with volumes increasing as soon as the Portuguese developed their African slave trade. All along the West African coast, German-made textiles, weapons and brassware became important commodities to be bartered against slaves and merchandise.

Entrepreneurs from these rather rural German regions moved along the lanes of distribution and settled in Genoa, Lisbon and Seville, in order to benefit directly from the profits made in the booming maritime trade. Today, Germans are proud to be “Exportweltmeister” – world champion in industrial exports (even if China now has become a fierce competitor). It is no exaggeration to claim that the transatlantic slave trade and the provision of the New World plantation economy has substantially contributed to this role. Exports from German hinterlands via Hamburg increased significantly from the 1680s to the 1720s, when the number of slaves hauled across the Atlantic doubled – mostly as a consequence of the sugar revolutions on Jamaica and Saint-Domingue. Proto-industrial production of textiles, glass and metal ware in German provinces expanded accordingly.

At the same time, Central European regions became avid consumers of plantation products like sugar, ginger, tobacco, chocolate and later coffee and cotton. The influx of American dyewoods or Senegalese gum arabic stimulated innovations in local textile industries. The rise of Western consumerism was directly related to European expansion and Atlantic trade – not just in England, France or the Netherlands, but in the Holy Roman Empire as well. Many workers in glass or metal ware for Atlantic and local markets fared better in the course of the 18th century, due to increased income. In many regions, textile workers of rural cottage industries too increased their income and developed plebeian patterns of consumption that would earn them disapproving glances of the established elite. These, in turn, tightened sumptuary laws in order to secure that chocolate and sugar or buttons and buckles made of silver remained a privilege of theirs.

Yet, gains were distributed unevenly among the workers, even in one single region. Population growth in German proto-industrial areas was generally above average, undermining agricultural subsistence and making all these workers more dependent on their wages. A Malthusian threat was imminent particularly among the landless wageworkers. Workers in the Western provinces generally received higher wages; the further east they lived, the lower their income was (the Price Revolution being one of the causes for this gradient, which in turn originated in Spanish-American silver mining). This was the main reason for textile entrepreneurs from Germany’s western regions to invest into production in eastern provinces, namely Silesia. The cheapness of their labour made Silesian spinners and weavers such a valuable asset that entrepreneurs acquired large noble estates including entire villages with the peasants living there. These were subject to serfdom, with the labour they owed to the overlord consisting in spinning and weaving. Tied to the land, their only option to improve their situation was additional textile work against pay (which was miserable). The living conditions of Silesian serfs deteriorated considerably during the 18th century, while their number grew, which drove wages even lower.

This perfidious system of exploitation was linked with New World plantation slavery: German linens were in demand both as a barter commodity for buying slaves in West Africa and as work wear on plantations all over the Americas. Cheap linen thus lowered the costs for buying and for maintaining slaves. Production and distribution of such commodities was coordinated by merchants in seemingly landlocked towns like Elberfeld (Rhineland), Hirschberg (Silesia) or Herford (Westphalia), each situated in specific proto-industrial regions. The more successful among them established branches in places like Hamburg, Bremen, London, Lisbon and Cadiz.

These patterns contradict Immanuel Wallerstein’s “Modern World System”, claiming that peripheral regions produced raw materials and staple food for the core, then located in North Western Europe. The core would produce more sophisticated goods and accumulate capital. Some of the findings indicate the contrary: Core regions like Scotland were encouraged to produce counterfeits of German linens which were shipped into the Atlantic world via British ports – but Scottish weavers found it hard to meet both high quality and low price. At the same time did traders from Germany’s linen regions, placed in semi-peripheral regions, rise into the first ranks of merchant bankers in the City of London, e.g. the Barings from Bremen and the Schroders from Quakenbrück (Westphalia).

Wallerstein certainly identified features which were constituent for the economic relations between early modern Central Europe and the Atlantic World, but more recent empirical findings need to be taken into account in order to adjust his model. Globalized Peripheries not only illustrates the benefits of doing this, but also connects the historiography of the early modern Atlantic world to our present – with Central Europe roughly ranging from the northern Adriatic to the Baltic Sea, and from the Rhine to the western provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. On the one hand, we argue that the writing of “history” is a negotiation between the past and the present; on the other, there are some curious parallels between the identified historical processes and the present global economic system: even today, unfree labour is an integral part of the commodity chains feeding Western consumption in the Western World. Cheap production of textiles or extraction of raw materials for the electronic industry is as much a part of this system as the competition many non-European markets face from imported European agricultural products. Again, Central Europe participates in – and profits from – both processes.


JUTTA WIMMLER is a research group leader at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies; KLAUS WEBER holds the chair of European Economic and Social History at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder).

CONTRIBUTORS: Bernhard Struck, Anka Steffen, Jutta Wimmler, Friederike Gehrmann, Torsten dos Santos Arnold, Klemens Kaps, Anne Sophie Overkamp, Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, Josef Köstlbauer, Alexandra Gittermann, David K. Thomson, Göran Rydén.

Globalized Peripheries
Edited by Jutta Wimmler and Klaus Weber
9781783274758, Paperback, £16.25 or $22.72