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The State of British Commerce

Karl Marx

London, June 8, 1858

The trade and navigation tables just published by the British Board of Trade[a] comprise an account of the declared value of the exports of the United Kingdom in the three months ending 31st March, 1858, compared with the corresponding period .of the year 1857; an account of the number and tunnage of vessels entered inward and cleared outward, with cargoes, in the four months ending 30th April, 1858, compared with the corresponding period of the years 1856 and 1857; and, lastly, an account of the principal exports and imports for the four months ending 30th April, 1858. The amount of the exports for the month of April, 1858, is £9,451,000, against £9,965,000 in 1857, and £9,424,000 in 1856[b], while for the four months there is a reduction of nearly £6,000,000 in the year 1858. Accordingly the British exports of the month of April, 1858, would appear riot only to have risen above the level of 1856, but closely to approach that reached in 1857, some months prior to the commercial explosion in the United States. Hence it might be inferred that the last traces of the crisis are rapidly disappearing, and that British commerce, at least, is again entering a new epoch of expansion. Such a conclusion, however, would be altogether erroneous. In the first place, it must be considered that the official statistics, as far as they relate to declared value, do not show the actual returns, but the returns as anticipated by the exporters. Moreover, a closer examination of the tables of exports proves that the apparent recovery of British commerce is mainly due to an over-importation of East India, which must lead to a violent contraction of that market. Already we read in the last commercial circular of Messrs. George Frazer & Company:

"The later advises from the East show symptoms of reaction from the extraordinary high range of prices which have been current in Bombay and in Calcutta during the period when supplies there were so short. A riot inconsiderable decline has already been submitted to upon the arrival out of cargoes which were shipped not later than December. The supplies since then have been to both markets most liberal, if not excessive; and it seems very probable, therefore, that for some time to come we must look for less support to prices from the great activity of the Eastern demand than has been so far experienced since the beginning of January."

Beside India, those European and other countries which till now had not been reached by the effects of the commercial crisis, have been blocked up by British merchandise, not in consequence of increased demand, but by way of experiment. The countries thus blessed were Belgium, Spain and its dependencies, some Italian States—principally the Two Sicilies—Egypt, Mexico, Central America, Peru, China, and some minor markets. At the very time when the most disastrous news was arriving from Brazil and put a check upon the aggregate export to that country, some branches of British industry, compelled to find an outlet for their exuberant produce, did not only not curtail, but actually augment their shipments for that market. Thus, during the month of April, linens, earthenware and porcelain, destined for Brazil, were increasing in quantity as well as declared value. Nobody can consider this bona fide exports. The same remark holds true with respect to Australia, which had acted as so elastic a center of absorption during the first months of the crisis. Australia was then and is still overstocked; a sudden reaction took place; the aggregate exports thither were diminished, but again some branches of British industry, instead of contracting, have actually expanded—speculatively, of course—their supplies in spite of the warnings of all the Australian local papers. The export tables of the month of April, therefore, must be considered not as the bona fide standard of the recovery of British industry, but as mere feelers thrown out in order to ascertain what pressure the markets of the world are again able to bear. The following table contains an account of the declared value of the British and Irish exports in the three months ending 31st of March, 1858, compared with the corresponding period of the year 1857:

Foreign Countries to which Exported.[c]
Russia, Northern Ports£3,015£8,853
Russia, Southern Ports72,77742,493
Hanse Towns2,318,2601,645,419
Portugal proper380,160356,178
Canary Islands18,8178,475
Papal States69,953123,059
Two Sicilies284,045375,177
Austrian Territories253,042323,086
Wallachia and Moldavia111,05298,135
Syria and Palestine199,07081,874
Egypt (ports on the Mediterranean)449,497483,516
Western Coast of Africa (foreign)235,527196,484
Eastern Coast of Africa3011,927
African Ports on the Red Sea1,130567
Cape Verde Islands2,4193,965
Philippine Islands144,992212,942
China (exclusive of Hong Kong)290,441389,647
South Sea Islands...585
Foreign West Indies620,022521,435
United States (Ports on the Atlantic)6,231,5012,565,566
Central America22,45346,201
New Granada88,502117,411
Buenos Ayres285,187279,913
Total to foreign countries£20,636,473£14,940,756

British Possessions.
Channel Islands£136,071£120,431
Ionian Islands66,14852,849
West Coast of Africa (British)135,45262,343
Cape of Good Hope442,796403,579
St. Helena3,8378,416
British Territories in the East Indies
(exclusive of Singapore and Ceylon)
Hong Kong133,743242,757
West Australia15,51513,813
South Australia180,123249,162
New South Wales706,337682,265
New Zealand96,89393,768
British North American Colonies818,560439,433
British West India Islands334,024426,421
British Guiana122,24995,385
Honduras (British Settlements)28,36331,869
Total to British Possessions£8.191,020£8,569,534
Total to Foreign Countries and British Possesions    28,827,49323,510,290

The Economist thinks that, from an accurate analysis of these figures,

"the curious fact is disclosed that the entire decrease has taken place in the British trade to foreign countries as contrasted with the colonial possessions."[d]

In fact, the above tables may be condensed as follows:

Exports for three months.
To foreign countries£20,636,473£14,940,756

Yet the conclusion arrived at by The Economist seems a fallacy. According to the condensed statement there would appear to have taken place a reduction in the trade to foreign countries to the amount of £5,695,717, simultaneously with an increase of £378,514 in the colonial trade. However, if we deduct the increase in the trade of British smuggling places such as Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong, and of mere depots for foreign countries, such as Singapore, a decrease in the aggregate colonial trade becomes evident; and if we deduct India, the decrease appears very considerable. Of the decrease in the trade to foreign countries, the main percentage falls upon the following countries:

United States£6,231,501£2,565,566
Hanse Towns2,318,2601,645,410

The accounts relating to navigation show a slight increase in the number as well as tunnage of the British vessels entered inward, but a decrease in the number and tunnage of the vessels cleared outward. Of foreign countries, the navigation of the United States continues to maintain the first rank. The following figures show the movement of their vessels to and from the British ports:

Entered Inward.
United States...382383,255367366,407366366,650
Cleared Outward.
United States...414395,102440427,221343321,015

According to the same accounts, Norway, Denmark and Russia seem the countries upon whose navigation the commercial crisis told with the most disastrous effect.

Written on June 8, 1858
First published unsigned iii the New -York Daily Tribune, No. 5356, Jun 21, 1858


[a] "Accounts Relating to Trade and Navigation for the Four Months ended April 30", The Economist, No. 770, May 29, 1858, supplement.—Ed.

[b] "The Board of Trade Tables", The Economist, No. 770, May 29, 1858, p. 592.—Ed.

[c] Here and below "An Account of the Declared Value of British and Irish Produce and Manufactures...," The Economist, No. 770, May 29, 1858.—Ed.

[d] Here and below "The Board of Trade Tables", The Economist, No. 770, May 29, 1858 (italics by Marx).—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.560-565), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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