Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Industrial Revolution of Belgium

John Cockerill
The industrial revolution changed the world. It caused a shift from people relying on farming in the countryside to working in factories in cities. Britain started the revolution with the introduction of new technology and techniques. But in the late 18th century, the revolution reached continental Europe, arriving first to the small country of Belgium.

Belgium, before the industrial revolution, already showed remarkable talent in textile and metallurgy. The region of Flanders became well known for producing textile, specifically, linen. On the other, the region of Wallonia had displayed a well-established skill in the field of metallurgy. In addition, the Belgian also showed great skills as traders, especially when it became a close partner with Britain in trading cotton. With these industries, it became obvious that Belgium back then had a potential to become an industrialized country.

Other reasons for its industrialization came from its geography. Its close proximity to Britain and its strong trading relation with her allowed new technologies to subsequently arrive in Belgium. In addition, Belgium had a large reserve of iron and coal, which were vital resources for industrialization. In addition, its multiple rivers across Belgium served as highways for goods and became a vital part for transportation and distribution. With skills, geographical position, and resources, it became evident that Belgium possessed the pre-requisites to follow the steps of Britain, thus, bringing the industrial revolution to mainland Europe.

The industrial revolution in Belgium began in the 18th century with the arrival of the steam engine. In 1720, the first steam engine, based on the design of British inventor Thomas Newcomen, began to be used in the coal mines of Belgian city of Liege. The engine allowed an increased in the production of coal and led to the increase usage of steam engines. In the following years, the use of steam engine expanded and by 1727, the machine began to use in the mines of Mons and Charleroi. The use of steam engine led to new bounds when it came to coal output of Belgium.

In 1792, France, under the great military general Napoleon, occupied Belgium. Under the French, Belgian economy continued to transform and even became vibrant. The selling and renting of confiscated monastic lands resulted to an increase of wealth for the Belgian nobility and bourgeoisie, which later became used as capital for setting up businesses.
Within the time of French control of Belgium, technologies from industrializing Britain continued to arrive. In 1798, after a daring quest in England, the Ghent tanner Lieven Bauwens succeeded in smuggling out the secret of Britain’s booming textile industry – spinning jennies. Industrial espionage made Bauwen come to England and to see and to take its secret to a highly productive textile industries. He eventually discovered the spinning jennies and decided to smuggle one back to Belgium. Bauwens managed to take a spinning jenny and knocked it down to small parts, which he placed into containers of coffee and sugar and shipped back to Belgium. The British, however, discovered Bauwens’ actions and decided to arrest him. But Bauwens already managed to escape before the British authorities caught him. When he returned to his home city of Ghent, he re-assemble the spinning jenny and began operations. Later on, the use of the jenny began to be widely used in Ghent. Furthermore, Ghent became a successful textile city because it already had a well-established linen industry. With this linen industry it became cheaper and easier to gain raw materials that led to a mass production of linen cloth. The success of Ghent, later on, earned it the title of Manchester of Belgium from the famous Karl Marx.

Besides Ghent, another city began to excel when it came to textile – Verviers. In 1799, William Cockerill installed a spinning jenny in Verviers. Cockerill’s factory later expanded from 1807 to 1808 by building additional five wool-spinning facilities. Sometime later, he also built a factory that produced spinning jennies in the city of Liege. Verviers then followed the example of Ghent.

The Napoleonic War brought Belgium a huge economic benefit. Because of the war, demands for coal, textile, and iron increased. Belgian coal covered around half of France’s annual coal output. In addition, Belgian textiles began to be in high demand in order to make uniforms for the thousands of soldiers in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. With the increase of textile demand, the cities of Verviers and Ghent boomed. Ghent, for example, increased the numbers of workers from just a thousand to about 10,000 by 1810. Iron industry also got a share in the war economy. Many guns of Napoleon’s army came from Belgian irons. In 1814, over 89 blast furnaces existed in Belgium much credited to the high demand iron for making French weapons. By the time the Napoleonic war ended, Belgium stood, in a modern sense, as a newly industrialized country.

After the war, Belgium continued to experience economic development. Belgium became under the control of the Netherlands and its King, William I. King William became an active supporter of domestic industries. He provided incentives in form of loans or even tax support. John, Cockerill, the son of William Cockerill, became blessed by the King’s support. Cockerill family already showed great interest in heavy industries during the early 1810’s. John Cockerill founded a steam engine factory in 1813. Year later, Cockerill entered to another industry that led to a further growth in his family’s line of businesses. After a mission sent in the late 1810’s that aimed to know the status of Britain’s iron industry, Cockerill received support from King William I to copy the large scale British iron furnaces in Belgium. He built an iron smelting plant in Serain, in Wallonia region. In the following decades, Cockerill used his steam engine factory and new iron smelting plant in order to produce ships and later, locomotives.

The iron industry continued to develop. In 1824, Paul Huart Chapel built an iron smelting plant with 8 blast furnaces. His factory used the new puddling process in producing better quality iron. His plant also utilized coke, which make the iron making process more efficient. With the new iron plants, by 1850, Belgium produced around 200,000 tons of iron.

With the rise of iron and textile industries, new financial institutions appeared to support the growth. In 1822, the Societe General de Pays-Bas por favoriser l’industries national provided loans and capital for those who wanted to establish their own business. The Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij provided the financial support for exported.

In the 1820’s, industries grew further with improvement in infrastructure. Canals began to connect cities to seas and rivers to rivers, making water a highway for goods across Belgium and neighboring countries. Ghent became connected to the Dutch city of Terneuzen and gave it access to the sea, further fueling the growth of its fledgling textile industry. Coal from Mons and Charleroi began to be exported to Northern France thanks to canals. And the Belgian capital of Brussels got its coal supply through canals. Canals, allowed Belgium to conduct trade easier with its neighbors, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. By the end of 1830, Belgium had over a thousand mile of canals.

The industrial revolution in Belgium, however, faced a temporary setback in the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1830, Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands. A decade later, the effects of the cessation with Netherlands, led to an economic slump. Belgium cut off itself from access to the Dutch market, not to mention, export to its colonies. Access to ports became restricted by the Dutch. In addition, its linen industry faced huge competition from British cotton textile that valued lower than Belgian linen. Belgium suffered more when in 1840’s potato harvest failed throughout Europe, and the country suffered the so-called Hungry Forties. Through the next the decade, Belgium reported around 15,000 deaths because of starvation. With the economic slump, poverty rose and many farmer flock to cities for a living. The sudden rise in population resulted into problems in housing and in the rise of slumps. These slumps had poor sanitation and caused numerous deaths because of diseases. From 1846 to 1848, 11,900 died due to typhus; and, from 1848 to 1849, 22,441 dead due to cholera.

In the financial sector, panic began. People began to convert their banknotes into coins and caused inflation. The government acted quickly by founding a National Bank aimed in controlling the amount of banknotes circulating and regulate the banks of Belgium.

But the Belgian economy began to recover in the 1850’s. The rise in demands of machinery and railroad caused the revival of the Belgian economy. Industrial revolution spread to other parts of Europe, hence, resulting for higher demand for machinery. Railroads also began to expand in Europe and Belgium became a leading expert on that field.

Railroad, in particular, arrived in Belgium during the 1830’s. With the Dutch blocking many of canals to the sea, Belgium began to shift from canals to railroads. In 1835, the first railroad line in Belgium, as well, as Europe opened between the city of Brussels and Mechelen or Malines. Afterwards, railroads expanded throughout Belgium from the 1840’s to the 1880’s and began to rival Britain’s when it came to mileage and quality.

With the rise of railroads, companies like that of Cockerill capitalized in the expansion and began to produced railroad tracks as well as locomotives. Eventually, they began to export it to neighboring countries who wanted their own railroad system. Both Germany and France demanded railroads and ordered it from Belgium. This helped the recovery of the Belgian economy.

Following the recovery during the 1850’s, the Belgium experienced another chapter of industrial revolution. From textile and iron, it developed a capacity to produce steel and to enter in the field of chemical industry. In 1865, steel began to be produce in the industrial center of Liege. The Bessemer process allowed the mass production of steel. However, the Bessemer process only allowed the production of steel from iron ore without phosphorus, much that Belgium lack. But in the 1890’s, the process developed by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, which allowed the use of iron ore containing phosphorus, arrived in Belgium and resulted to a soaring rate of production of steel in the country.

Other than steel, the second phase of industrial revolution saw development in the field of chemical industry. Ernest Solvay became one of the forefronts of Belgium’s chemical industry. Solvay discovered how to produce soda ash with chemicals. Soda ash played important roles in the production of glass, soap, and paper. Solvay used his discovery and founded a plant in Charleroi. As a result of his discovery, the Belgian glass, soap, and paper industries grew.

The industrial revolution in Belgium, however, had a price. Labor condition in Belgium equaled the horrific conditions of those in Britain – low pay, long working hours, terrible working conditions. In Belgium, workers worked for more than 13 hours a day with degrading and unsafe conditions. Labor union did not exist ever since 1791 because of Le Chapelier Law that prohibited trade guilds – a predecessor of unions. But in the late 19th century, labor union began to gain strength and began to voice for better conditions.

The industrial revolution in Belgium became a significant event in world history. The Belgian industrial revolution marked a change Europe just like the other revolution happening as it begins – the French Revolution. Belgium became a gateway for the industrial revolution to flow into Europe and change the image of world economy forever. From this tiny country in Europe sparked worldwide economic revolution that led to the creation of the modern world.

See also:

Bibliography:
Bernard Cook. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 2005.

Erik Buyst. "Belgium" on The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History v. I. Joel Mokyr (ed.). New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

George Clark et. al. The New Cambridge Modern History: War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval v. IX. New York: New York: Cambridge of University Pressm 1995.

Ivan Berend. An Economic History of Nineteenth-Century Europe: Diversity and Industrialization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

"Industrial History: Belgium". European Route of Industrial Heritage. Accessed March 8, 2015. http://www.erih.net/industrial-history/belgium.html

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