The Dutch Republic and Britain: The Making of a European World Economy


How did a region of northwestern Europe around the North Sea acquire the characteristics during the early modern period that historians have labeled modern? How did the economy of the Dutch Republic rise to dominance in the new European world-economy of the seventeenth century? Did the Dutch Republic have the first modern economy? How did Britain acquire this supremacy in the eighteenth century and how did it become the first industrial nation? What light can the study of the societies, trade, and the empire building of the Dutch Republic and Britain circa 1600-1850 shed on the origin and nature of our contemporary views about globalization? What can Humanists learn from the economic history of this crucial period in European and world history?

The creation of European market and industrial societies and a European led world-economy are among the central experiences of history. While Asia, and especially China, developed large scale industry a half millennium before the West, and a widespread Asian trade system operated in Asian waters, it was the Europeans who first knit the Asian, African, European and New World economies into an integrated world-economy and created the world's first market and industrial societies. The Portuguese and the Spanish were the pioneers in this endeavor, but it was the Dutch and the British who reaped its greatest profit. Whether one interprets northwestern Europe's leadership as a tribute to the genius of free human beings, or as the enslavement of the human spirit by Western materialism and imperialism, or as something in between, it remains one of the crucial contributions of the West to the world's historical development. Further, the commerce and industry that propelled European goods and guns around the globe also brought in its wake the values of a 'bourgeois' civilization, such as constitutional government, religious toleration, and economic and social individualism that challenged cultural, social and political values around the world. Finally, although current state curriculum guidelines commonly feature the building of a British empire and Britain's industrial revolution as an important subject to be studied in the schools, they pay little attention to the regional context that was essential to Britain's world-wide success, or to the earlier primacy of the Dutch Republic.

The role of northwestern Europeans in the building of a world-economy and industrial society is not only intrinsically interesting but also of considerable contemporary relevance to arguments about globalization. Debates about the role of the state in the economy and the benefits to be derived, and the costs to be borne, by different groups, regions and nations from economic growth are often rooted in cultural values and economic arguments that can be directly traced to those first voiced during the world's first industrial revolution. Economic ideas and theories first articulated in northwestern Europe in the mercantilist and early industrial period continue to be used in contemporary debates and form the classical core of modern orthodox economics. Historical interpretations of Britain's experience of industrialization, in particular, have long been used to define what it means to be a 'modern' society and continue to be used in contemporary debates about the social and economic value of the welfare state or a robust individualism. Contemporary discussions about gender roles often cite historical examples drawn from 'traditional' European society to support 'traditional' gender roles. All these debates can benefit from more knowledge about the history of these societies cited as examples in modern discussions. Unfortunately, the increasing specialization of much of modern historical writing, and especially of modern economic history and historical demography, has managed to obscure broad historical issues with a host of very narrow, technical and theoretical topics which discourage the non specialist. Added to this may be reluctance among many humanists to study economic issues. By contrast, those interested in economics see it as an increasingly scientific and mathematical study and tend to neglect historical and humanistic approaches. The systematic study of some of the most influential modern interpretations of the creation of a European world-economy by the Dutch Republic and Britain offers an excellent opportunity for humanists to deal with some of the central concerns of economic historians.

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