Over many decades, the dominant media have been spreading legends about how western countries’ prosperity is a consequence of Africa’s colonisation and subsequent resources pillage. While this sounds like a very convenient story for a great number of politicians with dubious agendas, facts tend to disprove this flawed vision of our History. To understand to what extenct our past has been tampered with, we have to dive deep into Europe’s mining and Industrial Revolution’s history.
The Industrial Revolution relied almost exclusively on european’s mineral resources found in ancient as well as new deposits. Their exploitation was permitted by an intense mechanization effort and breakthroughs in chemistry and metallurgy. In the dawning days of this revolutionary period, Australia and the United States will take the lead in mineral extraction, while Africa’s production will remain marginal.
Europe, a rich continent whose mines were worked since Ancient Times
Many have been led to believe that Europe was a continent with very scarce mineral resources. It is a popular misconception, as Europe’s resources were more than sufficient for the Industrial Revolution to flourish. The key resources of industrialisation came from the coal, copper and iron mines of Europe’s own territory. This is hardly surprising, as it is an ancient continent with a very rich geological past.
These resources were already exploited during the Ancient Times. The mines of Cornwall and Devon, in the south of England, were already being worked as early as the Bronze Age (that is to say, 3000 years BC). The largest gold mine in the Roman Empire could be found in Spain. The Romans also extracted many of their resources from mines located in the east of France, in the region of the Pyrénées, as well as in the area around Montpellier. All this happened thousands of years before any kind of colonization would happen. Mines worked in France and England during the Industrial Revolution were, for the most part, ancient deposits that were already mined thousands of years ago.
The explotation of mines in Europe would gradually expand over the Middle Ages. New deposits would be discovered in the East and North of Europe, from Sweden to Hungary, and mined over the course of the Middle Ages.
An industrial revolution based on the exploitation of new as well as ancient mines worked at unmatched depths, thanks to mechanization efforts and new mineral purification processes.
The industrial revolution opened a new era for mining operations in Europe. Colossal investments in steam-powered machines were made. Those machines were deployed all over England, in the Alsace-Lorraine basin, near Lyon in France, and in the Ruhr valley of modern Germany. It was in these areas that tin, copper, silver, coal and iron were massively extracted until the end of the 19th century.
Thanks to steam engines, the exploitation of deposits that had been already mined for 3000 years intensified to levels never attained before, allowing the miners to reach new depths where the heat was unbearable.
In 1810, 150 steam-powered machines are deployed in Cornwall, England, to dramatically increase the extraction of copper. These machines would allow more than 9000 english workers to dig 400 meters below ground. Cornwall’s tin production sites would be equipped with 600 steam engines able to dig below sea-level. Sweden would dominate the world’s copper production by exploitating the Great Copper Mountain of Falun. Moreover, records exist regarding the extraction of minerals in France in the 19th century. It is thus possible to ascertain the proportions of Algeria in France’s overall mining output for the year 1838. It is, as one would expect, neglectable.
// add gallery
Numerous mineral deposits in France were located in the Alsace-Lorraine Basin as well as in the north of the country. The exploitation of these deposits has been extensively documented as tedious and difficult, and the exhausting working conditions were related in Emile Zola’s book Germinal, written in 1885. In 1913, in Lorraine alone, the extraction of iron represents 20% of the world’s total iron production. The region had, at the time, one of the largest iron deposits on Earth, estimated at several billion tons of mineral. That made Lorraine the second largest iron producer of the world.
Those vital deposits were among the reasons behind many wars, particularly between France and Germany. Those mineral deposits were one of the reasons behind 19th and 20th centuries european wars whose main objective was annexion of the Alsace-Lorraine and Ruhr regions.
Spectacular progress in chemistry was another reason for the boom in iron production. It is not very well known, but it is actually exceedingly rare to find ore in their native state, that is to say a state that is pure enough to be used for any kind of application. With metals, high quality equals greater possibilites. Constructions, machinery, railways, boats, towers, bridges, any ambition in the realisation of these projects relies on the quality of the metals that will be used. However, without any tratment by smelting or refining, the ore will produce metals and alloys of mediocre quality.
Consequently, the breakthroughs in chemistry and metallurgy allowed the exploitation of many more deposits that were previously considered unviable, due to inferior quality ores. One of the best examples of what can be accomplished with scientific progress is the construction of the Eiffel Tower, which started in 1887.
From the european mines to the american, canadian and australian ones.
As we just illustrated, the history of the Industrial revolution was essentially european. But this was about to change. Starting in 1875, the United States, Canada and Australia began taking the lead in the world production of minerals, using similar processes to achieve similar results. The production in Africa remained anecdotal, Portugal organising most of it. Africa would never see the steam engines that permitted the European extraction boom.
European mines would stop being worked only at the end of the 20th century, in the late 90’s. Those mines had been exploited for 4000 years.
Africa, a continent whose mineral abundance are less than advertised, and whose political instability makes exploiting resources a complicated endeavour.
Nowadays, roughly 50% of Africas GDP is made up of its resources exports. The other 50% of the GDP is government spending. Thus, african countries are the only country in the world that enjoys the incomes from something that we, europeans, have supposedly been stealing from them. That income is the only foundation their economy is based on. As the rest of the world, we purchase those resources at prices fixed by the golbal market. That is to say : we buy their resources at the same price as any other country, business or company.
Africa’s importance on the global resources market is wildly exaggerated compared to reality. The continent’s production is actually much lower on many types of resources. For instance, only 2% of rare-earth elements available on Earth can be found in Africa. On the other hand, China’s soil contains 47% of REE, while Russia detains 17%. As for uranium, the soils of Africa contain 15% of the world’s reserves, whereas 31% of Earth’s uranium is found in Australia alone.
The real problem that plagues Africa is not resources looting. It lies in the absence of security and stability of the deposits. Massive, long-term investments are required for any kind of safe, effective and durable exploitation of resources on the continent to take place.
The consensus around the Industrial Revolution is that it starts around 1760 and it was mostly achieved between 1820 and 1840. The french colonisation of Algeria, for example, only started in 1820. The first mining industry in Algeria will only begin during the 1840 decade and will never be significant.
France was never built on the looting of african’s resources, even though many actors of the political checkboard continue to claim the opposite. They simply wish to flatter the vengeful claims of the african immigrant population, as well as to fuel the french’s repentance over colonization. But these claims are simply wrong. Colonization of North Africa started in 1830, and at that time, the first Industrial Revolution was already well underway and Europe had already transformed into a modern industrial powerhouse, unrivaled and unchallenged. In 1830, James Watt’s steam engine had existed for more than 60 years.
Europe’s metallurgical and industrial power is based, essentially, on its superior mining capabilities born from the genius of Europe’s own people. Steam engines, modern chemistry and metallurgy, a white, local workforce that endured extremely harss working conditions (child labour was common, workers lived their whole lives in poverty, and gas blasts led to a high mortality for miners) as well as a wide availability of minerals in its own soil : those are the true factors that led to Europe’s development.
As for the second part of the Industrial Revolution, which took place in the later half of the 19th century, it was in no way fueled by the use of African resources. While the mineral resources of Europe continued to be mined, the exploitation of North American’s resources dramatically increased.