The British Industrial Revolution and Europe. A Culture of Elegance, Growth, Luxury and Exploitation
From the 18th century onward, the British Industrial Revolution facilitated unprecedented technological, economic, scientific and cultural innovations that have been virtually unmatched in any human civilization.
The elegance of innovations such as the spinning jenny and steam engine led to new technological advances that spread throughout Europe and to America. This begs the question: Why exactly does this take place in Britain and not in China?
Analyzing the political, economic, and scientific atmosphere from the year 1500–1700 and the 18th century onward is essential for dissecting the elegance and decadence of British society that was caused by a shift from mercantilism to free market economics.
The ideological approach when analyzing the British Industrial Revolution should be to dissect the positive scientific and intellectual innovations of the West, while simultaneously analyzing how the exploitative colonial world order gave the West economic and scientific hegemony.
In this essay, I would like to analyze the political, economic and cultural atmosphere that facilitated the British Industrial Revolution, along with how specific imperial contributions allowed for this culture of growth to manifest.
Economic historian Joel Mokyr credits European Enlightenment ideas for producing a culture of economic growth that facilitated the British Industrial Revolution, then causing Industrial expansion throughout Europe .
This culture of growth that laid the groundwork for the British Industrial Revolution took place as a result of unrelated political, institutional and cultural innovations that took place from the year 1500 to 1700.
According to Mokyr, technological progress manifested vis-à-vis an intellectual scene that allowed for attitude and aptitude, which served the purpose of identifying problems within a society and providing a useful framework for fixing them. Mokyr postulates that changes in culture, such as the application of reason and useful knowledge, nourished scientific and technological progress.
Mokyr states that one of the main pillars that enabled economic flourishing in Industrial contexts was the role of cultural entrepreneurs like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Bacon’s philosophy reinforced the trend in the West to build bridges between the realm of natural philosophies and that of artisans and farmers.
The bridges built by Bacon enabled technological progress by allowing those who generate propositional knowledge to communicate with those who apply perspective knowledge. In total, Bacon facilitated a wide cultural acceptance of the growth of useful knowledge as a crucial ingredient for economic growth.
Both Bacon and Newton’s impact on the Industrial Revolution came as a result of them changing the fundamental values and beliefs of a select group of elites. Because of Newton, useful knowledge in eighteenth-century Britain became such a luscious prestige that more entrepreneurs and manufacturers came to believe in its ability to help them solve practical problems.
The Industrial Revolution encouraged innovation through competition, scientific inquiry and the decay of old cultural traditions. By contrast, China never sees Industrial flourishing due to a variety of factors.
The political, economic and scientific innovations that swept Britain then Europe in the 19th century allowed for the building of railroads, steamships and factories . By contrast, China’s huge bureaucracy and its desire for stability over innovation diminished its Industrial potential.
Even pre-modern Chinese technology, which was much more advanced than Europe’s, remained grounded on a narrow epistemic base. In Europe, revolutionary ideas and innovations constantly shock up the system, and were embraced, since no European country wanted to be behind on the newest scientific and technological innovations.
The Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain first due to a set of Avant Garde scientific and cultural beliefs that became common culture. The rise of British Puritanism helped nourish a culture of scientific inquiry and secularism.
The Puritans were deeply attracted to experimental philosophy, which they found to be congruent with their own beliefs. The British Industrial Revolution happened precisely because, in the second half of the seventeenth century, scientific writing and research was itself a mode of worship.
Britain’s rapid entry into economic and scientific modernity, can perhaps be attributed to one specific invention: the steam engine. The steam engine is truly the tour de force of the Industrial Revolution.
The steam engines central position connected the era’s technological and economic innovations, like coal, iron and cotton. The birth of steam depended on a new understanding of the nature of air, an empirical understanding of thermodynamics and on a new language of mechanics .
One could dissect the technological changes that take place during the Industrial Revolution into three categories: the substitution of mechanical devices for human skills; inanimate power, like steam taking the power of human and animal strength, and improvements in getting and working with raw materials, especially in Chemical industries .
With the rise of the production unit, both machines and power made possible the concentration of manufacturing. The factory is not one large working unit, but is a system of production that involves an employer that hires laborers and oversees equipment and production, and the worker, who is the cog in the machine.
This economic relationship illustrates the supervision and discipline needed for economic and societal flourishing, while for others, it represents moral decay and the exploitation of the proletariat.
Though vast amounts of worker exploitation ensue with the rise of industrialization, it is hard to deny the economic benefits of industrialization, which brings about a new culture of economic productivity vis-à-vis the protestant work ethic.
To expand, German sociologist Max Weber’s idea of a protestant work ethic embodies the British and European Industrial ethos. Weber sees Calvinism in seventeenth century England as the most unbearable form of ecclesiastical control of the individual which could possible exist, therefore, he warmly welcomes greater participation of Protestants in the position of ownership and management in modern economic life . Weber welcomes the spirit of the protestant work ethic into Europe’s culture, as it encompasses the epoch of hard work and progress.
It is very problematic to assume Britain’s Industrial magnum opus was tout court constructed apropos a superior scientific and cultural environment only. There must have been economic privileges that Great Britain enjoyed before the Industrial Revolution that catapulted Britain and Europe’s economic chef d’oeuvre.
Through the lens of colonial history, why did the piece de resistance of Industrialization occur in Britain and Europe and not anywhere else? Historian Eric Hobsbawm’s provides us an answer in his book: Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day.
In Hobsbawm’s view, The British Industrial Revolution was preceded by at least two hundred years of fairly continuous economic development that was nourished by a variety of factors, a crucial one being imperialist ideology .
Thus, when the Industrial Revolution finally expanded in Britain, its unique position in the world economy nourished its economic and colonial hegemony, as a result of international transfers of capital and commodities that passed through British institutions.
By keeping underdeveloped nations in hardship, Britain industrialized, exploited colonial world recourses and set the rules of the trade game, therefore ensuring economic dominance.
Britain and Europe where linked to the developing world in a rather colonial fashion. To illustrate this fact, one could look at the numbers of Negro slaves used to serve European economic interests.
In the sixteenth century, fewer than half a million Negroes were transferred from Africa to the America’s, while in the seventeenth century, there was perhaps 1.5 million slaves. These numbers illustrate to us the larger colonial arrangement taking place, and it was primarily Britain and Europe that felt the advantages; therefore, it is hard to ignore the connection between slave labor and the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
Harvard professor Sven Beckert addresses this phenomenon beautifully in his book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, where he paints a vivid picture of cotton manufacturing during the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution, he postulates:
“These self-satisfied cotton manufactures, and merchants had reason to be smug: they stood at the center of a world-spanning empire, the empire of cotton. They ruled over factories, in which tens of thousands of workers operated huge spinning machines and noisy power looms. They acquired cotton from the slave plantations of the Americas and sold the products of their mills to markets in the most distant corners of the world” .
Beckert furthers his rich and nuanced approach by making a fundamental distinction between the Free Market Capitalism that most think began to emerge around the year 1780, and War Capitalism, which begins to emerge throughout the 16th century.
War Capitalism is defined by Beckert as being land and labor intensive, resting on the violent expropriation of land and labor in Africa and the Americas. Historian Eric Williams complements this approach by linking early capitalism in Great Britain directly with the Negro and general colonial trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries .
In regard to the slave trade, it is undeniable that the terms slave trade and free trade are synonymous. Britain financed its Industrial opulence with slave and colonial trade.
Williams wrongfully claims that slavery was not about the inferiority of the negro but was instead practiced for economic gain. Williams negligence when analyzing the racial dimensions of economic slavery is appalling. It is as if he is completely oblivious to the historical influx of racist pseudo-science throughout the western world.
Williams overlooks important racial dimensions regarding slavery and colonialism, as does Mokyr, who rightfully praises the many innovations of the European Enlightenment, while simultaneously ignoring the link between scientific knowledge and racism.
Biological studies in the late 18th century that where conducted by Linnaeus and Buffon, desired to prove the innate superiority of one race other another, by what passed for rational and objective demonstration, seem to be ignored by some scholars who analyze Empire in a glorifying light .
To understand the racial dimensions of exploitative slavery, one must consume the writings of Olaudah Equiano, a writer and abolitionist. In his book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Equiano describes vividly his experiences as a slave to Western economic desires:
“The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days I did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth” .
Equiano was not the only slave with a story like this. Indeed, with the rise of free trade and increasing demands of sugar plantations, the volume of the British slave trade rose enormously, with The Royal Africa company transporting an annual average of 5000 slaves from the year 1680 to 1686.
The importation of slaves to Jamaica from 1700 and 1786 was at 610,000, and in total, from the year 1680 to 1786, around two million were imported to all the British colonies . These numbers illustrate the direct link between slave labor and Britain’s Industrial momentum, before and during the Industrial revolution.
Despite these numbers, some academics claim that sugar cultivation and the slave trade were not particularly large, nor did they have growth inducing ties with the rest of the British economy, therefore, the role of slave labor in supporting the British economy at the time before and during the Industrial Revolution is over exaggerated.
Academics David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman fundamentally claim that though the West Indian sugar economy may have been large, it was no larger than many industries in Britain’s domestic economy .
In their view, the seventeenth and eighteenth century represents Britain constructing an identity based on free labor and individualism, without paying attention to the slave labor based on race in the Caribbean and America’s, so as ideas evolved, the Modern West realized that it could no longer live with this cognitive dissonance, therefore, the empire transitioned into an ideologically free labor and individualistic Industrial power.
In total, Eltis and Engerman claim that yes, the slave trade had an impact on the rise of the Industrial Revolution, but so did industries such as iron and coal. In their final analysis, it is truly hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened without slave labor.
No matter what role slave labor played in igniting the Industrial Revolution, there is no doubt that it was an institution that oppressed Africans and is perhaps the biggest moral stain of the Western world. Indeed, the words free trade, slave trade and industrialization are synonyms.
By the seventeenth century, the new cultural and economic network of the slave plantation system and New World silver had ushered in the era of early capitalist globalization in part of the Atlantic region .
Now that we have discussed the role of slave labor in contributing to Britain’s economic flourishing, now we must examine specific imperial contributions that financed Britain’s culture of political, economic and scientific prestige.
Britain’s colonial adventures, such as in India, provided the funds and raw materials for Britain’s new industries. Notably, during the Maratha Wars of 1817, the Indian commercial class, collaborated with the British to ensure her imperial dominance . The year 1757 shows us precisely how colonial exploitation financed Industrial innovations.
A century ago, Historian William Digby, noted the close correlation between dates such as the Battle of Plassey, which was the British East India’s decisive victory over the Nawab of Bengal, and the emergence of contemporary innovations in Britain.
Digby notes the following: “The connection between the beginning of the drain of Indian wealth to England and the swift uprising of British industries was not casual: it was casual. Notably, almost half of the financial sums available to Britain for making domestic and foreign investments came from the colonies”.
Dadabhai Naoroji addresses the drainage of India perfectly in his book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, where he attributes the economic drainage by the British to the following two-fold process:
“This drain consists of two elements — first, that arising from the remittances by European officials of their savings, and for their expenditure in England for their various wants both there and in India; from pensions and salaries paid in England; and from Government expenditure in India .
And the second, that arising from similar remittances by non-official Europeans. As the drain prevents India from making any capital, the British by bringing back the capital which they have drained from India itself, secure almost a monopoly of all trade and import subsidies, and thereby further exploit and drain India, the source of evil being the official drain” .
According to Naoroji, an annual economic drain amounting to £30,000,000 takes place per year by the British in India. Thus, with this drainage, destruction and impoverishment manifest in British India, while many Brits back home enjoy Industrial excellence and military hegemony.
This is the fundamental dilemma of global capitalism. It advantages the colonial exploiters instead of those in poverty. In Naoroji’s view, the Great British Empire is an empire of banditry, it is one that gradually increases the drainage and exploitation of India’s land and recourses. Naoroji specifically states: “It is so much additional capital drawn away, whether India will or no, from the industry of India to the benefit of English industry”.
Lord Cornwallis, a prominent war general in the Revolutionary war, and a reformer of the British East India company, complements Naoroji’s approach by exquisitely addressing the drainage of India. Lord Cornwallis’ minute on land settlements, dated 10th February 1790, states:
The consequence of the heavy drain of wealth from the above causes (viz., large annual, investment to Europe, assistance to the treasury of Calcutta, and to supply wants of other presidencies) with the addition of that which has been occasioned by the remittances of private fortunes, have been for many years past, and are now, severely felt, by the great diminution of the current specie, and by the languor which has thereby been thrown upon the cultivation and the general commerce of the country” .
This passage illustrates the viscous tactics that the so called “Great British Empire” use to exploit the periphery. The Suez Canal crisis of October 1956 illustrates a similar scenario.
The economic policies of the British Empire exploit the periphery through investments and the control of trade rules and routes. Cornwallis critique of British imperialism as well as his elimination of nepotism and corruption in the East India company, make him one of empire’s more useful figures.
The industrial change that took place in Great Britain from the year 1750 to 1850 is a complex phenomenon, and when analyzing it, one should consider the arrival of machine-made cotton cloth in large quantities into the Asian market . Key colonial acquisitions nourished Britain’s Industrial knowledge, apropos oriental traditions that helped nourish sectors such as silk, lead, tin and so on.
The role of tea in funding the British empire’s Industrial and imperial adventures is undeniable. Tea sponsored British Imperialism by increasing China’s capacities to import Indian goods, thus stimulating trade, and making available an indirect means of remitting private fortunes from India to Europe. From the 1780s, the tea trade yielded most of the profits distributed to shareholders. By the 1820s, 7% of the British government’s revenues came from import duties on tea.
It is of vital importance to note the specific process in which the British Empire depleted India’s economic potential. The first stage of this colonial relationship was mercantile development, which took place from 1757–1813, and is characterized by The East India Company using political power to monopolize trade in India, therefore, they are dictating terms of trade with the merchants of Bengal .
The next stage of British economic penetration of the innocent Indian nation was the Industrial phase (1813–1858), and this was a period where India was exploited by its colonial masters as a market for British goods, especially in 1813, where only one-way trade was allowed by the British, as a result of which, the Indian markets was flooded with cheap, machine made imports from newly industrialized Britain.
Indians were forced to export their raw materials to Britain and import the finished goods, simultaneously, heavy import duties on Indian products made it strenuous to make profit in the British market.
In the financial phase (1860 onwards), the British consolidated their position in India, they converted India into a market for British manufacturers while still being a supplier of foodstuffs and raw materials.
Coincidently, it turns out that Britain was exploiting the economic recourses of its colonies at the same time as Britain’s Industrial piece de resistance.
The pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution, was directly linked to the British empire’s exploitative colonial adventures abroad. It looks like the enlightenment ideas of growth, science, secularism and progress did not apply to Britain’s colonial subjects.
It may even be the case that the term “free market”, which was coined by Scottish economist Adam Smith, was a mere illusion created by the colonial world order. Perhaps the political, economic and scientific superiority of Europe only manifested due to exploitative work relationships and Western Colonization.
Karl Marx and Fredrick Engles have a timely ideological critique of British economic colonialism in India. Marx and Engles note several structural features that start a process of de-industrialization in India. Heinous colonial methods are applied by the core powers, thus, peripheral nations are exploited.
For instance, a specific method used by the British that ruined the Indian economy forever was the forceful transformation of India’s Asiatic economic model into an appendage economic system that fits a metropolitan society’s disposition .
This approach of diminishing cultural economic traditions in favor of the free market has been a symptom of global capitalism and is a byproduct of the colonial world order, but to be fair, the free market can be used to abolish slavery and the caste system.
In Marx’s Misery of Philosophy, he discusses India as a society where village-based production coexists, therefore, Marx strongly condemns the drainage of India’s wealth to Britain. Marx eloquently addresses this phenomenon of British economic rape of India in his letter to Danilso, in which he states the following:
“What the English take from them (the Indians) annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus, pensions for military and civil serviceman, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc.
What they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India — speaking only of value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually sent over to England — it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the 60 millions of agricultural and industrial laborers of India” !
Marxist philosophers tend to describe the penetration of India’s economic riches by the British as complex process that unfolded in the following order:
“The first steps of this destruction were carried out by (a) the East India Company’s colossal direct plunder, (b) by the British neglect of irrigation and public works, (c) by the wrecking of the Indian land system and its replacement by a system of landlordism and individual land holding, (d) by the direct prohibition and heavy duties on the export of Indian manufactures to Europe, and to England”.
There seems to be a variety of distinct variables Marx takes into account when he describes the colonial penetration of India by the British Empire, and according to Sociologist G. R. Madan,they go as follows:
‘1. India’s woes more under British rule than in the past, 2. Principles of laissez faire and neglect of irrigation, 3. No responsible authority to look after people’s welfare, 4. Undue burden of Indian princes, 5. Destruction of hand industries, 6. Village communities and their role in historic development, 7. Property rights in arable land, 8. Indian land tenure, 9 Indian revenue and taxation, 10. Dual role of England — destructive and regenerative, 11. Indian social structure and human progress .
These Marxist prospects confirms the role of British imperialism as the epoch of exploitative global capitalism. Britain’s failure to facilitate healthy industrialization in India contributes to the chronic decay and stagnation of India’s agricultural and economic life.
Britain’s imperial presence and manipulation in India and Africa represents imperial ideology at its purest. Indeed, British imperialism uses weapons of repressive military, bureaucratic and colonial apparatus, therefore, truly undermining economic flourishing in poor nations.
Britain’s colonial episode in Bengal seems to have directly ingested many of India’s economic luxuries. Bengal, one of the richest provinces in India, was a golden opportunity for British imperialists to penetrate India’s economic growth.
Professor Indrajit Ray analyzes the connection between Bengal industries and the rise of the British Industrial Revolution from the year (1757–1857), and comes up with the proper findings and approach:
“We have verified two competing explanations for deindustrialization, namely, (a) the mainstream hypothesis of market failure; and (b) the Neo-Marxist hypothesis of imperialist state intervention.
On the strength of evidence in this study we conclude that both these forces were partly responsible for the industrial downfall of Bengal during the first half of the nineteenth century. State discrimination led to the demise of salt manufacturing and shipbuilding while market forces downsized cotton and silk textiles” .
This passage symbolizes the importance of analyzing imperial economics from differing perspectives. Indeed, no economic equations are black and white, but the literature presented shows us that there is in fact a direct correlation between the drainage of Bengal’s economic wealth and the rise of the British Industrial Revolution.
It was the Industrial Revolution that enabled England to supplant the Bengal cotton manufactures not only outside, but inside the country itself, therefore, improvements and innovations of machinery made it possible by the British industry to produce muslin and calicoes in imitation of the Bengal at such lower prices so that it surpassed the Bengal cotton producers both in terms of price and quality . This sort of outsourcing and appropriation by the British is one of the main reasons Bengal deindustrialized.
In this essay, we have discussed the elegance and decadence of Britain’s Industrial tour de force. When analyzing how British Industrial excellence came into fruition, we have discussed differing perspectives from Bacon too Newton to Weber and finally too Marx. The results to this complex question vary.
Western political, economic, scientific and cultural innovations helped Britain then Europe become the Industrial powerhouse over China and the Ottoman empire, but this phenomenon begs the question: What role does Empire play in facilitating this Industrial piece de resistance?
As the theories and literature mentioned above mention, slave labor and various techniques of colonial exploitation helped fund the British Industrial Revolution.
The imperial ruins and colonial economic divisions of the time periods discussed above still have real world consequences today. The world has been divided in a neocolonialist fashion, and this comes into fruition apropos periphery and core countries, and this division came as a byproduct of the imperialist polices mentioned above.
Unfortunately, this paper did not draw parallels between the subjugation and exploitation of many British proletarian subjects and colonial subjects. It also did not mention the pivotal role of women in the Industrial Revolution and their objectification.
In this paper, we have attempted to deconstruct different approaches when analyzing specific phenomenology in history. The approaches mentioned here all have truth’s even though they differ fundamentally.
Weber’s characterization of the protestant work ethic’s role in creating a productive society is true, while Mokyr’s emphasis on the role of enlightenment ideas in facilitating a healthy economic and cultural life is equally true.
Beckett rightfully connects slave labor with British Industrialization while Eltis and Engerman dispute slave labors importance in causing Industrialization. Lastly, Naoroji and Marx rightfully claim that Britain has drained India’s economic recourses and riches for its personal gain, and the numbers for this are mentioned above.
As we approach the 4th Industrial Revolution, in which the proletariat will be replaced by machines, we must avoid a scenario like the Leeds workers petition, which was a petition that criticized the increasing role of technology in the workplace as ruining pay for workers.
Britain and the West must address its previous colonial wounds and begin to challenge global institutions such as the IMF that sometimes promotes a Eurocentric economic model that has led many 3rd world countries in to hardships throughout the years (India and Egypt).
As crazy as it may sound, maybe a Marxist perspective can help us address current issues such as the rise of automation and biogenetics and the decay of ecological systems.
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