IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > A. Global and Comparative Dimensions > 2. Transformations of Major World Societies, 1500–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
2. Transformations of Major World Societies, 1500–1800
The major world societies experienced significant social transformations in the early modern era. The most comprehensive changes took place in the West, where the city-centered but agricultural societies typical of premodern civilizations were transformed by 1800 into early industrial societies. Important changes also altered the nature of other major world societies in this era. Two important lines of internal change involved (1) the commercialization of societies and (2) reorientations of worldviews in what frequently took the form of religious reformations.  1
a. Commercialization
Commercialization involved changing structures of regional and national economies as well as the growing globalization of commercial networks and their increasing domination by western European organizations and states. The growth of global trade in the 16th century was part of a transformation involving increasing importance of markets and specialized production of agricultural and manufactured goods. This commercialization of economic life had significant effects on all of society.  2
EUROPEAN TRANSFORMATION. Western Europe experienced a Commercial Revolution that had a major impact during the 16th century. Growing global contacts increased demand for a variety of goods in Europe. The development of new overseas colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries provided both new products and new markets. The influx of gold and silver from the Spanish possessions in the Western Hemisphere increased the monetarization of European national economies and provided the basis for growing demand and price inflation. The development of more effective methods of managing trade and investment heightened the impact and extent of commercialization. Emerging institutions like national banks and chartered companies provided the means for expanding commercial activities. What was in effect an AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION took place by the 17th and 18th centuries. New products like potatoes and maize from the Western Hemisphere and new farming techniques and technologies transformed old peasant agriculture, providing more food for expanding cities and growing numbers of workers who were peasants displaced by new farming methods. Processed products like refined sugar and manufactured textiles became important for the general population. Agricultural developments in this way further strengthened the commercialization of societies. The INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, especially in Great Britain and France, transformed the means, methods, and concepts of production and gave immense economic power to those societies that industrialized in this early modern era. By 1800 much of western Europe no longer comprised basically agricultural societies with growing commercialization. Instead, the profound transformation to industrial societies had begun.  3
WESTERN HEMISPHERE. European colonies in the Western Hemisphere effectively eliminated the independent indigenous societies. Local populations decreased disastrously during the 16th century, and European immigrants and African slaves became important elements in the emerging societies. In the north, French and British settlement colonies were integrated into the larger commercial networks through trade in furs, forest products, naval stores, and similar goods. In the Spanish Caribbean and South American colonies and in Portuguese Brazil, highly commercialized plantation economies producing sugar and other popular export products made these regions an important market for African slaves and a significant element in the emerging global trade networks. The Americas provided vital raw materials but the terms of trade were established by European commercial companies, which dominated shipping and provided manufactured and luxury goods. By the 18th century, many of these colonies were nearing the ability to assert independence from the imperial center. The first to succeed were 13 of the British North American colonies in the American Revolution (1776–83). In 1794, Haiti gained its independence, and most of the rest of Central and South America followed in a series of revolutions in the early 19th century. These revolutions did not, however, represent the emergence of industrial societies, except in the new United States to a degree. Instead, both colonies and independent states in the Western Hemisphere (including the U.S. South) remained commercialized agricultural societies tied to the European economies.  4
ISLAMIC SOCIETIES experienced significant changes that also represented the increasing commercialization of economic life. In the Ottoman Empire, a growing monetarization of the economy occurred contemporaneously with a significant movement of peoples from rural to urban areas. Development of urban manufacturing and the increased production of cash crops like cotton changed urban and rural social institutions. During the same period, the diversion of Asian trade away from Muslim intermediaries, first as Portuguese and then as Dutch and British commercial activities expanded in the Indian Ocean, proved deleterious to Ottoman merchants, as did the price inflation resulting from the influx of American silver. The Ottoman government and ruling elite tended not to be directly involved in commercial and manufacturing activities, and these areas gradually came under the control of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects and European commercial interests. Special exemptions, or capitulations, for European merchants from Ottoman law began to be granted with an agreement with France in 1536; these extraterritorial rights meant that outsiders gained increasing control of Ottoman commercial life by the end of the 18th century. In the Safavid Empire, the changes were similar but less significant. The Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629), encouraged the manufacture of luxury textiles, and Safavid shahs worked first with Portuguese and Dutch and later with British commercial interests to integrate Iran into the broader patterns of world trade. However, the Iranian economy was less commercialized, and after the fall of the Safavids in the early 18th century, instability and wars led to economic disorganization and increasing control of large-scale economic activity by Europeans. The military power of the Mughal Empire did not deter the expansion of Portuguese and then French and British commercial interests. The great East India Companies gradually took increasing control of Indian economic life. This process involved a significant commercialization of the society, as new agricultural products were developed for world markets and a broad, controlled internal market economy emerged. All of these changes took place in the context of the military and political developments that led to British domination of India by the end of the 18th century.  5
CHINA experienced significant changes but was the most successfully conservative of the major urban-agrarian societies. The establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644 provided a strong central power that could afford to pay relatively little attention to developments elsewhere. Yet the stability of the early Qing period opened the way for expanded production of important export products like tea, silk, and porcelain. China also benefited from the influx of American silver into the world markets. In addition to the commercial growth and prosperity of the merchant classes, there was a significant growth in population and in large cities as new agricultural products increased food supplies. However, this prosperity tended to occur outside the areas of state control, and by the end of the 18th century the cultural conservativism of the Qing period had laid the foundation for the loss of control of both politics and the economy to European powers.  6
AFRICAN SOCIETIES also experienced significant transformations in the early modern era. Until the age of European expansion beginning in the 15th century, the primary interaction of African societies with other parts of the world had been with the Islamic world, along a frontier across the continent that, by the 15th century, extended from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans just south of the Sahara and along the east African coast. East Africa, in the longer span of world history, had also participated in the broad cultural and economic exchanges of the Indian Ocean basin. European expansion changed the orientation of movement of peoples and goods from the old north-south axis to movement toward the coastal regions. This had already been an important direction of movement in east Africa under the influence of Muslim merchants, but it represented a dramatic transformation for much of the rest of Africa.  7
The most important dimension of the commercialization of African economies was the development of the large-scale SLAVE TRADE, especially in the Atlantic region. The growth of the colonial plantation economies created a vast market that was filled by slaves from Africa. In the process African societies, especially along the Atlantic coasts, were transformed by political reorganization and depopulation. The importation of firearms gave impetus to the establishment of more centralized west African states, like the kingdoms of Ashante and Dahomey (See c. 1575) (See c. 1630–70). Commercialization of societies had profound effects in different African regions by changing the nature of political systems and the orientation of trade.  8
COMPARISONS. In the early modern era, many societies experienced important economic transformations. In western European societies these changes led to increased strength and expansion. In other parts of the world, the results were very different. Local economies in the Western Hemisphere were destroyed by European expansion, and the new commercialized colonial economies retained a dependence on Europe despite the achievement of political independence. In the major urban societies of the Eastern Hemisphere, local economies experienced a significant reorientation by the end of the 18th century, also coming under the European influence. By 1800 the leading world economies, earlier a network of interacting but autonomous urban-centered, agrarian economies, had become a vast global network of commercialized societies dominated by the economic power of western European societies. In this transformation, western Europe had emerged as an assembly of independent industrial societies while the rest of the world entered the era of industrial society in a dependent condition.  9
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.