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Don’t forget your history nor your destiny.

– Bob Marley


The industrial revolution on the European continent began in Belgium. Before that, the country had traditionally enjoyed a vibrant trading tradition for many years. Textile production flourished in Flanders, iron processing in Walloon and there were large coal reserves in the south and east of the country. These key branches proved ideal pre-requisites for industrialisation. Belgians also maintained intensive contacts with Great Britain and in 1720, the first steam engine on the continent went into action near Liège.

In 1792 the country was conquered by Napoleon. His occupation had a positive effect on the economy: he abolished the old guilds and introduced freedom of trade. At the same time a large new market was opening up in France, not least for coal.

After the foundation of the Belgian state in 1830 successful investments in British technology began once more. Belgium was also a pioneer in the building of the railways. Between 1840 and 1880 the rail network expanded tenfold – even more than in Great Britain. Thanks to its highly developed transport communications the country profited from trade with less-developed neighbours, not the least with Germany where there was a high demand for Belgian goods.

Towards the end of the 19th century the industrial areas in Belgium were the breeding grounds of the European working class movement. On more than one occasion bad working conditions in the collieries around Mons and Charleroi resulted in major strikes. In the textile town of Ghent workers organised themselves into self-help cooperatives with their own suppliers, including bakeries, a newspaper and their own bank.


Belgians came to America in greatest numbers during the nineteenth century. They came for reasons no different than many other Western Europeans—financial opportunity and a better life for their families.

From 1820 to 1910, immigration is listed at 104,000. During this time, most of those coming to the United States were small landowners (farmers), agricultural laborers, and miners; crafts people such as carpenters, masons and cabinetmakers; and other skilled tradespeople, such as glass blowers and lace makers.

Altogether, it is estimated that from 1820 to 1970, approximately 200,000 Belgian immigrants settled in the United States


A recent survey asked “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?”. In Sweden 10% thought things are getting better, in the US they were only 6%, and in Germany only 4%. Very few people think that the world is getting better.

What is the evidence that we need to consider when answering this question? The question is about how the world has changed and so we must take a historical perspective. And the question is about the world as a whole and the answer must therefore consider everybody. The answer must consider the history of global living conditions – a history of everyone.

A history of global living conditions in 5 charts


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