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British Commerce

Karl Marx

The Board of Trade Returns[a] for the five months ending May 31, 1860, which have just been issued at London, show but a trifling change in the movement of British exports, if compared with the exports during the first five months of 1859.

From £52,337,268, to which they had amounted in 1859, they rose to £52,783,535 in 1860[b]—this small surplus being altogether due to an increase in the month of May last.

The first feature that strikes us on comparing the respective exports during the first five months of 1860 and 1859, is a considerable decline in the British export trade to the British East Indies, as will be seen from the following statement:

Beer and ale, barrels168,355166,461£507,308£491,609
Cottons, yards396,022,733311,163,7654,884,9823,977,289
Cotton yarn, lbs17,411,54215,044,8121,002,439903,516
Iron (bar, bolt, rod), tuns16,85112,194127,67890,954
Iron (cast), tuns12,1384,108132,94642,912
Iron (wrought), tuns11,82310,554188,126195,659
Sheets and rails[c]31,58279,117169,072437,170
Earthen ware and porcelain........£34,530£24,039
Haberdashery and millinery........83,83242,126
Leather—saddlery and harness........16,78015,600
Machinery—steam engines........73,087100,846
Other kinds........165,899196,928
Tin plates........19,1276,441

From the above table it appears that the aggregate decrease in the main exports to the East Indies amounts to about one million sterling; that it is heaviest in the leading articles (cotton and cotton yarns); and that the only exception consists of commodities immediately connected with railway building. It ought, moreover, to be kept in view that the commercial news received by the last Overland Mail is highly unfavorable, and points to an overcharged market; so that, consequently, the value of the exports as declared in England, and as estimated on a range of prices far beyond the average, will by no means be realized in India. Now, there can be no doubt that the Indian trade has been overdone. The artificial demand raised by the Government during the Indian rebellion[311]; the stimulus given to commercial activity by the subsiding of the revolutionary disturbances, and the contraction of most of the other markets of the world, consequent upon the general crisis of 1857-58—all these circumstances concurred to swell the bulk of the Indian trade beyond its natural capacities. Still, according to all past experience, the newfangled prosperity market might have borne the bombardment by cotton goods for some years longer, but for the sage interference of the British Government. Mr. Wilson, it seems, was expressly dispatched to Calcutta for the purpose of convulsing the Anglo-Indian trade, by the joint operation of clumsy fiscal measures in the interior, and of burdensome customs duties levied on imports from abroad. Has ever, in the whole history of commerce, such a spectacle been witnessed as that of the United Kingdom allowing its most important colonial market to be crippled by the spontaneous acts of its own Government, at the very same time that it cringes before the French Emperor[d], and bears with his political encroachments, on the pretext of a factitious alleviation in the French customs duties?

The exports to the Australian market, although they show some decline in cottons, exhibit, on the whole, an increase both in quantity and value. However, to arrive at a just appreciation of the present state of the markets in the Australian Colonies, we ought to turn from the Board-of-Trade returns to the last commercial intelligence received. Advices from Adelaide to the 26th of April complain of a continuance of excessive shipments from England, and a general prevalence of speculation, swindling and overtrading. An extensive weeding out, it was said, of insolvent firms had become necessary. In Sydney, New South Wales, several failures had already taken place, including nine houses with an aggregate of liabilities of £400,000, of which amount three-fourths was expected to be ultimately deficient, the loss falling on the banks and English creditors. From a list just received of Australian insolvencies during the last 17 years, it appears that the number in 1858 was three times as great as in 1857, and in 1859 there was a further increase of 50 per cent; and this year, up to the middle of April, the rate had experienced a fresh advance of about 7 per cent. The total liabilities of failed firms from 1822 to 1859 were £5,981,026; and the assets, stated in schedules, amounted to £3,735,613; but of the latter amount, not 50 per cent was ever realized.

The considerable decline that has taken place in the value, and in most cases, also, in the quantity of the British goods exported to the United States, will be illustrated by the following extract:

Coals, tuns68,020106,925£67,785£66,196
Cotton, yards88,441,11284,208,5981,562,9181,491,721
Linens, yards25,476,44420,974,699776,780643,676
Pig Iron, tuns37,51021,497106,47662,919
Bar, bolt, rod, tuns48,06337,824394,426293,294
Wrought, tuns16,02416,488£200,576[f] £189,854
Sheets and rails, tuns12,1074,62261,72124,559
Seed Oil, gals795,808511,60295,15457,230
Silk manufacture, lb119,71958,836128,,13368,866
Woolens, mix. stff., yds        22,697,61918,250,639892,026733,000
Earthenw'e & porcel'n........234,492281,532
Haberdash'y & milli'y........719,754637,035
Tin plates........524,615464,630

France was, of course, the country to make up for the contraction of the markets of the East Indies, the Australian Colonies, and the United States. However, on a closer examination the English export trade to France will be found to have lost nothing of its traditionally diminutive dimensions. As to cottons and twist, Mr. Milner Gibson, the President of the Board of Trade, seems to have been ashamed of the sorry figure he cut, and, consequently, thought fit to altogether expunge them from the returns. Ditto with linens and linen yarns, and silk manufactures. The value of the exports during the respective epochs of 1859 and 1860 shows a falling off for the current year in thrown silk from £130,260 to £88,441[g] in silk twist and yarn from £50,520 to £29,643, in machinery from £98,551 to £64,107, and in coals from £253,008 to £206,317, while some increase has taken place in the export of iron, copper, wool, woolens, and worsted yarns.

The import of French wine has increased, but in no greater proportion than that of all other descriptions of wine. In conclusion, we may remark that the symptoms of contraction in the principal markets, if taken together with the very distressing harvest prospects, the heavy calls upon the money market by the English and other Governments, and the unsettled political state of Europe, seem to forebode anything but a prosperous season- for the Autumn of 1860.

Written in late June and early July 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5998, July 16, 1860 as a leading article


[a] For the analysis of the British commerce Marx makes use of the table "Exports of the Principal and other Articles of British and Irish Produce and Manufactures in the Five Months ended 31st May, 1860, compared with the corresponding Months of the Year 1859", The Economist, No. 879, June 30, 1860, pp. 36-38.—Ed.

[b] ibid., p. 38.—Ed.

[c] The Economist has "nails" here and in the table on p. 409.—Ed.

[d] Napoleon III .—Ed.

[e] The New-York Daily Tribune has a misprint here, "May 1" instead of "May 31".—Ed.

[f] The figure in the New-York Daily Tribune is 199,859, which is a misprint.—Ed.

[g] The Economist, No. 879, June 30, 1860, pp. 37, 38, 36.—Ed.

[311] In 1857-59 India was the scene of a big popular uprising against the British. It flared up in the spring of 1857 among the Sepoy units of the Bengal army and spread to large areas in Northern and Central India. Its main strength was in the peasants and the poor urban artisans. Directed by local feudal lords it was put down owing to the country's disunity, religious and caste differences and also because of the military and technical superiority of the British.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.406-409), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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