Transformation and Decline: Modern Societies at Crossroads

In the nineteenth century, several world societies experienced change as a result of territorial expansion, internal weaknesses due to population pressures, domestic turmoil, falling government revenue, and on occasion, outright rebellion. Only one society, the Dominion of Canada, developed into a free society absent turmoil and conflict.

Canada: Canada won its independence from Great Britain without rebellion or internal conflict, even though it was (and is) comprised of two ethnically distinct groups: British Canadians and French Canadians. Ethnic divisions were largely smoothed over by fear of an invasion from the United States, as a number of hawkish American politicians considered Canada a natural part of the United States. The British North America Act of 1867 joined Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the Dominion of Canada. The government of the dominion consisted of a lieutenant governor in each province who represented the British Crown. A federal government was headed by a Governor-General and an elected House of Commons appointed a Senate. The first Canadian Prime Minister, Fred A. McDonald (1815-1891) incorporated all of British North America into the Dominion, including the Northwest Territories (purchased from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869); Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. A transcontinental railroad was constructed in 1885 which facilitated communication throughout the country. Alberta and Saskatchewan joined the Dominion in 1905 and Newfoundland in 1949. Internal conflicts between Canadians of French and British ancestry have not disappeared; and a movement for independence for Quebec, the largest French speaking province continues to grow.

Latin America: Simon Bolivar, who had led the movement for independence in Latin America once commented, "I fear peace more than war." Solidarity had been formed on the basis of a common enemy. Now that the common enemy was defeated, unity fell apart, and Gran Colombia disintegrated into numerous independent states. Creole elites established independent republics with written constitutions for each newly independent state, but the process was difficult. Latin American leaders had little experience in self government as Spanish and Portuguese regimes were much more autocratic than had been British government in North America. The result was a series of swings from one constitutional government to another as leaders worked for political and social stability.

Creole elites dominated government and did not allow mass participation in public affairs. Less than 5 per cent of the male population was active in politics in the nineteenth century. With no other voice, those left out of government often expressed their discontent in rebellion. The situation was exacerbated by differences among the ruling elite who often divided into different camps over religious matters and political ideology. The elite did agree that the land should be used for agriculture and ranching, and thought nothing of pushing aside the indigenous people of the region, which areas were to be dominated by a Euro-American hegemony. Conflict was greatest in Argentina and Chile, where armed forces used modern weapons to conquer indigenous people. Discord within the ruling elite led to the development of caudillos, regional military leaders. Among them was Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled Argentina 1835-1852 with an iron hand and used terror as a government tool.

Mexico experienced a series of governments which ran the gamut from monarchy to republic to caudillo. A Constitution adopted in 1857, after the loss of the Mexican-American War of 1848, set forth La Reforma, which limited the power of military elites and priests and guaranteed universal male suffrage as well as other civil liberties. Church lands were confiscated to be redistributed; however most of the land went to large land owners, not the indigenous people who were intended to benefit from it. The result was a divided country which erupted into the Mexican Revolution (1911-1920.) Leaders of the rebellion included Emiliano Zapata and Francisco (Pancho) Villa. Villa crossed the Rio Grande and attacked U.S. cities in Texas and killed American citizens in retaliation for American support of the Mexican government. President Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to Mexico to capture Villa, but he eluded them. Both men were killed in the course of the revolt, and government forces ultimately prevailed. Latin America remained plagued by civil unrest throughout the nineteenth century. Simon Bolivar once remarked, "Independence is the only blessing we have gained at the expense of all the rest."

The Spanish, Portuguese heritage of Latin America together with its legacy of slavery led to the development of a strictly hierarchical society based on race and color. At the top of society were the creoles, individuals of European Ancestry born in the America. The lower echelons were comprised of indigenous people, freed slaves and their descendants. Between the two were people of mixed ancestry: mestizos, mullatoes and zambos. In the nineteenth century, a number of people of Asian ancestry migrated as indentured servants to Peru, Brazil, and Cuba. They mostly intermarried and assimilated into the working classes already there with little change in the local heritage. In other areas, such as in Trinidad and Tobago, Indian immigrants formed distinctive societies and often spoke their native tongue, prepared foods from their native lands, and often observed inherited cultural and social traditions. Latin American society was heavily male dominated in the nineteenth century. Women could not vote or hold office, and could not work or manage estates without permission from their male guardians.

The Ottoman Empire in Decline: The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith in the late seventeenth century, and then entered a period of permanent decline. Trade passing through the Empire declined as European merchants began to trade directly in India and China. Textiles and other manufactured goods from Europe began to flow into the Empire. This placed pressure on local artisans and craftsmen who often led riots to protest foreign imports. The end result was the Empire was moving towards bankruptcy. The Empire depended heavily on foreign loans and interest payments on the loans consumed over half the empire’s revenues. The Ottoman armies and navy lagged behind European forces, and discipline within the Janissaries fell apart. The latter were frequently involved in palace coups, such that by; the nineteenth century, they were a powerful political force. They neglected their military training and ignored advances in weapons technology. The result was increasing vulnerability to outside forces and a decline in effective central government. Governors of various Ottoman territories formed independent armies of mercenaries and slaves and agreed to support the sultan in Istanbul only in exchange for recognition of their right to collect taxes for themselves. Only nominal payments were sent to the treasury in Istanbul. Ultimately, the Empire suffered serious territorial losses as Russia invaded territories in the Caucasus and Austria laid claim to western territory. Nationalist uprisings in the Balkans, primarily in Greece and Serbia led to the independence of those countries in 1830 and 1867 respectively. Egypt also fell away from the Empire. Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded Egypt in an attempt to attack the British Empire in India; but had suffered a stinging defeat. Napoleon had abandoned his army and slipped back to France, but his invasion provoked turmoil in Egypt. Ultimately, General Muhammad Ali took over and ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He remained nominally subordinate to the Ottoman Sultan but was largely independent. He invaded Syria and Anatolia in would have captured Istanbul; however the British intervened, as they feared that collapse of the Ottoman empire would result in an expansion of Russian influence.

The weakened Empire was also forced to allow European powers to exercise jurisdiction over their own citizens within the Empire according to their own laws, a practice known as capitulation. European businessmen established tax exempt banks and commercial enterprises and instead paid taxes to their home governments. By the early 20th century, expenses were greater than revenues, and the Empire could no longer pay for its own bureaucracy. Morale collapsed and corruption increased. The Empire was soon known throughout the world as the "sick old man of Europe."

A series of reforms were launched to stem the tide of collapse. Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) attempted to remodel the army along European lines; but this threatened the Janissaries, who reacted violently, killed the new troops and locked up the sultan. When his successor tried to revive new forces, the Janissaries killed all male members of the dynasty except one, the new sultan, Mahmud II. When the Janissaries mutinied once more in 1826, Mahmud had them slaughtered by troops loyal to him. He then began reforming Ottoman institutions along western lines. Soldiers wore European style uniforms, and were trained by European drill masters in European weapons and tactics. A secondary education system independent of Muslim mosques was established. He also established European style ministries, constructed new roads, telegraph lines and a postal service. By his death in 1859, the empire was smaller but more powerful and consolidated.

Reform continued during the Tazimat ("reorganization") era, 1939-1976. New codes of law were instituted modeled after the French legal system; and a series of decrees were issued protecting the rights of subjects. Citizens were guaranteed public trials, privacy, and equality before the law, whether Muslim or not. The reforms provoked opposition from religious conservatives who felt the reforms threatened the empire’s Islamic foundation. Other opposition came from a group known as the Young Ottomans who felt reforms had not gone far enough. They wanted individual freedom, political decentralization, and a constitutional government instituted along British lines.

In 1876, Abd al-Hamid II seized power and ruled as sultan until 1909. He initially accepted a constitution, but later suspended it and dissolved parliament, after which he ruled as an autocrat for thirty years. His rule generated opposition from a number of liberal groups. Ottoman bureaucrats and army officers were educated European style in modern science and technology, but also in European political, social and cultural traditions. Many spent years in exile when they fell out of favor where they experienced European society firsthand. They soon came to believe that the Empire was in need of a written constitution. The most active of these was the so-called "Ottoman Society for Union and Progress, commonly known as the Young Turk Party. (Ironically, many of its members were neither young nor Turkish.) The group, founded in Paris in 1889, by subjects outside the empire, called for universal suffrage, equality before the law, freedom of religion, free public education, the emancipation of women and the secularization of the state. They led an army coup that deposed Abd al-Hamid in 1909 and established Mehmed V Rashid as a puppet sultan. For the remainder of the Young Turk era (1908-1918)’ sultans reigned but did not rule. The Young Turks attempted to make Turkish the official language of the empire, which led to opposition from subject peoples in the Empire. They were unable to stop the tide of decline, and by the early twentieth century, the Empire survived only because European powers could not decide how to dispose of it without upsetting the balance of power.

The Russian Empire in Decline: Russia in the nineteenth century was a multiethnic, multicultural, polyglot empire reaching from the Pacific Ocean to Poland. Only half its people spoke Russian or were Russian Orthodox Christians. Romanov czars ruled with the support of the church and the boyars who owned most of the land, but paid no taxes and did not serve in the military. The vast majority of the population were peasants, many of them serfs bound to the land. In an effort to expand the Empire, Russia soon invaded the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and attempted to establish a protectorate over it. This arrangement would upset the European balance of power, and led to war between Russia and Britain, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia. This was the Crimean War. The war was a devastating loss, and revealed the weakness of an economy based on agriculture. An extensive restructuring was in order. Restructuring began with emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Czar Alexander II who, fearing an insurrection, told the nobility, "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below. Although they were now freed, peasants had few political rights and had to pay a redemption tax for any land they received. Many felt the land they were forced to pay for was theirs by right. Most remained in debt for the rest of their lives.

The government also instituted local elected assemblies, known as zemstvos; although it was largely dominated by the nobility. The judicial system was reformed in 1864 with independent judges, trial by jury for criminal offenses, and a system of appellate courts. This led to the emergence of a class of attorneys and legal experts who helped reform the corrupt legal system.

Part of the reform involved Industrialization; however rather than the result of capital investment, industrialization in Russia was motivated by government policy in an attempt to increase political and military power. Prime mover of Russian industrialization was Count Sergei Witte, minister of finance, 1892-1903. He was responsible for construction of the trans-Siberian railway and the establishment of savings banks. Industry was protected by high tariffs while he obtained foreign loans to support industry. A business class soon developed which profited handsomely from industrialization.

Industrialization soon led to problems for the working poor. Recently freed serfs did not adjust well to the monotonous routine of factory work, and conditions for the newly created working class were as miserable as in Europe. Workers were overworked and poorly paid, and living conditions in St. Petersburg and Moscow were miserable. The government limited the work day to 11.5 hours in 1897, but this was little help. Trade unions and strikes were prohibited, but still occurred. Workers became increasingly receptive to political propaganda and underground movements.

Revolutionary fever grew and increasingly radical groups appeared as peasants became more and more discontent. The center of opposition were university students and a group of intellectuals known as the intelligentsia. Most despised the materialism of capitalism and supported a socialist system which was more in keeping with traditional Russian custom. Many were anarchists who refused to work for any formal government, but rather attempted to destroy existing government institutions. Between 1873 and 1876, activists attempted to arouse the peasantry with impassioned speeches but many were arrested. Fearing revolt, the czarist government censored publications and sent secret police to infiltrate and break up rebellious groups. This only encouraged the radical revolutionaries even more and led them to conspiratorial activities. In areas outside of Russia, such as the Ukraine, Poland and Georgia, opposition had taken the form of separatist movements based on their own language. Czarist authorities responded with a campaign of Russification, requiring that all use only the Russian language in schools and business. Jews were frequent targets of repression, primarily through pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) which led many to migrate to Western Europe and the United States.

In 1881, an anarchist group calling itself the Land and Freedom Party began assassinating government officials to pressure the government for reform. In 1881, they assassinated Czar Alexander II with a bomb. He was ultimately succeeded in 1894 by Nicholas II (r. 1894 – 1917), who was well intentioned, but not bright. He began a series of expansionist moves toward the east to deflect attention from domestic issues and hopefully neutralize the revolutionaries. The end result was the Russo-Japanese War which ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth and saw the destruction of the Russian navy and the loss of Russian prestige. The loss triggered further domestic disturbances. In January, 19056, a group of workers marched to the czar’s winter palace in St. Petersburg to petition Nicholas for reforms. Government troops fired on the petitioners, killing 130. This "Bloody Sunday" massacre enflamed peasants and urban workers. New councils known as Soviets (labor unions) were formed to organize strikes and negotiate with employers and government officials. Amid widespread protest, Nicholas agreed to the establishment of the first Russian Parliament, the Duma. Even so, unrest continued. The days of czarist Russia were numbered.

Problems within the Chinese Empire: The Chinese Empire and Qing dynasty experienced even more difficulties than the Ottoman and Russian Empires. The Emperor had restricted European commercial presence in China in 1759, and allowed foreign merchants to only deal with specially licensed Chinese firms known as cohongs, which operated under government supervision. There was little demand for European goods in China, and European merchants were forced to pay for Chinese porcelain and tea with silver bullion. Agents of the British East India Tea Company, attempted to find an alternative to silver bullion, began trading Opium from India in China where they exchanged it for silver coin. The silver was then used to buy Chinese products. Opium trade was illegal in China, but the government made no attempt to restrain it. In 1839. The government began a campaign to stop the trade after it realized that it was losing large quantities of silver bullion as well as facing a drug problem. The government charged an official, Lin Zexu, with destroying the opium trade. Lin refused to compromise, and destroyed thousands of chests of opium. The end result was the Opium War (1838-1842). The British military was far superior to the Chinese and they were soon defeated. The Chinese suffered similar defeats in wars with Britain and France (1856-1858); France (1884-1885) and Japan (1894-1895.) The result of these conflicts were a series of treaties which the Chinese considered unequal. The Treaty of Nanking, 1842 ended the Opium War ceded Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity, opened five Chinese ports to trade and compelled the government to extend most favored trading status to Britain. It also excluded British subjects from Chinese laws. Other nations, including the United States, soon extracted other unequal treaties from China. The treaties broadened foreign influence, legalized the opium trade, opened additional ports for trade, and allowed Christian missionaries to operate in China. By 1900, ninety Chinese ports were under the control of foreign powers. Korea, Vietnam and Burma were released from Chinese authority. The Chinese system of tributary states had been dismantled.

The collapse of the Chinese Empire was as much due to internal problems as to external pressures. Land was concentrated in the wealthy, and as the population grew, peasant discontent also grew. A series of rebellions resulted, the most serious of which was the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864.) Taiping means "Great Peace." The revolt was led by a school teacher, Hong Ziuquan, who called for the destruction of the Qing dynasty. The dynasty had ruled China since 1644 and its members had adopted Chinese ways, but many native Chinese despised them as foreigners, as they were Manchu. Rebellious forces called for the abolition of private property, creation of communal wealth to be distributed according to need and prohibition of footbinding and concubinage. It also called for free public education and establishment of democratic political institutions. The equality of men and women was also decreed. The rebellious peasants called themselves the Society of God Worshipers. The rebellion was overcome only with the assistance of European advisors and weapons. Hong Ziuquan committed suicide in 1864, and Nanjing, which the rebels had captured, soon fell. Over 100,000 peasants were slaughtered. Over twenty million people had been killed in the rebellion and agricultural production had declined so severely that peasants resorted to eating grass, leather, and even human flesh.

The rebellion convinced Qing rulers that reform was necessary, and they attempted to adopt a Confucian government system to solve problems. Among their reforms was the Self Strengthening Movement (1860-1895) which was based on the motto, "Chinese learning at the base, Western learning for use." Leaders of the movement attempted to blend Chinese cultural traditions with European industrial technology. It laid the foundation for industrialization in China, but otherwise brought only superficial change to China. Insufficient industry was introduced to bring real military or economic strength to China, and the empress dowager Cixi diverted funds for the navy to build a marble boat to grace a lake on the imperial gardens. The movement itself was based on a contradiction, as introduction of European curricula would undermine the commitment to Confucian values.

Foreign intervention continued. France absorbed Vietnam into its Empire and Britain took Burma. Japan forced China to accept the independence of Korea and cede Taiwan and a portion of Manchuria to it. China itself was carved into spheres of influence by foreign powers by 1898. The Qing government was powerless to resist, and would have been totally dismembered were it not for distrust among the competing foreign powers.

IN 1898, two Chinese scholars, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, published a series of treatises which reinterpreted Confucian thought in a way that justified radical changes in the imperial system. The result was the Hundred Days Reform movement. The two scholars hoped to transform China from an agrarian to an industrial society. The new young emperor, Gunagxu, bought into the program and began a move towards a constitutional monarchy with civil liberties and a modern military force. He also planned to stimulate economic development. His plans brought a violent reaction from members of the imperial household and their allies. The Empress Dowager, Cixi nullified the reform decrees, imprisoned the emperor in the Forbidden City and executed the leading reformers. Kang and Kiang escaped to Japan. Cixi then supported an anti-foreign movement by the "Fists of Righteous Harmony," known as the Boxer Rebellion. The rebellion launched in 1899, planned to rid China of "foreign devils" and their influence. They went on a rampage, killing foreigners and Chinese Christians and also Chinese with ties to foreigners. They believed that foreign weapons would not harm them, and attacked foreign embassies in Beijing in the summer of 1900. Heavily armed troops from Britain, France, Russia, the U.S., Germany and Japan crushed the movement in a bloody assault. China was forced to pay a heavy indemnity and allow foreign powers to station troops in Beijing at their embassies and along the routes to the sea. The failure of the rebellion led many Chinese to believe that the Qing dynasty was bankrupt. Revolutionary uprisings broke out and became increasingly popular. Cixi died in November 1908, mysteriously one day after the death of the emperor himself. Her last act of state was to appoint a two year old boy, Puyi, to the throne. He never ruled, however, as a rebellion broke out in autumn of 1911 and he was forced to abdicate in early 1912. He was the last Qing emperor.

The Transformation of Japan: Japan was in turmoil in the early nineteenth century. Crop failures, declining agricultural productivity and harsh taxation created hardship and at times starvation. Many cultivators had to sell their land and become tenant farmers. In cities, the price of rice and commodities rose and the poor went hungry. The Samurai and daimyo fell into debt to the merchant class and suffered also. Rebellion soon was the order of the day. As a result, the Tokugawa government, the bakufu, cancelled samurai and daimyo debt to merchants, abolished several merchant guilds, and compelled peasants in the cities to return to the land and cultivate rice. It was too little too late, however, and prolonged opposition drove the shogun from office.

Foreign influences were also a problem for the Tokugawa bakufu. French, British and American ships frequently asked to establish relations, but the bakufu refused. Only a few Dutch merchants were allowed in controlled areas. In the late 1840’s, the bakufu prepared for potential attacks. However, in 1853, an American fleet commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived and trained his guns on Edo (Tokyo.) He demanded that Japan be opened to diplomatic and commercial relations and sign a treaty of friendship. The shogun had no choice but to acquiesce. Britain, the Netherlands and Russia soon won trading rights also. The treaties, as were the Chinese treaties, unequal: they deprived the government of tariffs and granted foreigners extraterritorial rights. The humiliating terms imposed on the bakufu drew opposition from conservative daimyo and the Emperor who questioned the shogun’s right to rule as the "subduer of barbarians." The rallying cry soon became "preserve the Emperor, expel the barbarians." The Tokugawa did not go quietly, and civil war broke out briefly, but their cause was doomed. In 1868, the shogun resigned an on January 3, the boy emperor Mutsuhito, known by his reign name of Meiji ("Enlightened Rule") took over.

The Meiji restoration returned authority to the Japanese emperor and ended military rule of Japan which had existed since 1185. The new government, comprised of conservative daimyo, princes, court nobles and samurai planned a new government based on prosperity and strength. The motto was "rich country, strong army." The government sent students and officials abroad to study everything from technology to constitutions and hired foreign experts to work on economic development. Among them: Fukuzawa Yukichi studied English and became part of the first Japanese mission to the U.S. He also toured Europe, and on his return argued strongly for equality before the law. He was particularly impressed with the German constitution (Germany was recently united) and used it as a basis for the Japanese constitution.

The Meiji first established a strong centralized government. The daimyo were convinced to give up their lands to the throne in exchange for patents of nobility. Old domains were replaced with prefectures and metropolitan districts controlled by the central government. The Samurai class was abolished along with their stipends. They were no longer allowed to wear swords or distinctive hair topknots. The samurai felt betrayed, as they were deprived of military influence, and the government tried to mollify them by awarding them government bonds; however the bonds fell in value because of inflation and some samurai rebelled. Their revolt was crushed by the new national army and in 1878, the new national government was in firm control.

The Meiji government converted the tax system from a grain tax to fixed money which provided predicable revenues. Peasants had previously paid taxes in rice; but the price of rice tended to fluctuate. Now, the peasants had to deal with price changes. Taxes were also assessed on the potential productivity of arable land no matter how much was actually produced.

In 1889, the emperor promulgated the Meiji constitution as a "voluntary gift" to the people of Japan. It established a constitutional monarchy with a legislature known as the Diet which had a house of nobles and an elected lower house. The "sacred and inviolable" emperor commanded the armed forces, named the prime minister and appointed the cabinet. The Emperor could dissolve the Diet and issue ordinances when it was not in session. Power thus belonged to the emperor; the diet could advise but not control. Individual rights were recognized, but were limited in the interests of the state, if need be. The franchise was limited so that only the most prosperous social classes could vote. Less than five percent voted in the 1890 election. Still, the constitution provided greater opportunity for popular participation in government and dissent than ever before.

The Meiji also implemented telegraph, railroad and steamship lines which tied markets into a national network. Universal primary and secondary education was also introduced; and universities offered advanced degrees in scientific and industrial fields. The government controlled military industries. Later, the government sold its interest in many enterprises to private individuals, resulting in enormous economic power in the hands of a few wealthy people, known as the zaibatsu or "financial cliques. By the early twentieth century, Japan had joined the world’s major industrial powers.

Economic development was not cheap. The peasants supplied most of the capital for modernization through tax rates as high as 50 per cent. Foreign exchange for industrial equipment came from textiles produced in an industry staffed by poor workers. A series of revolts erupted in 1883 and 1884 aimed at money lenders and government offices with records of loans. The government used the military to put down the revolt, and many rebels were imprisoned or executed. The government thereafter did nothing to improve the lot of the rural populace. Many families lived on the brink of starvation, and often resorted to infanticide. Those who left to work in industry learned that labor organization would not be tolerated. Unions were treated as criminal organizations.