The steampunk subculture is an extremely friendly and open community that eagerly welcomes anyone who shares its fascination with 19th century science fiction and fashion. But while the community embraces modern principles of openness and equality, it can look back on the time period that inspires its aesthetics and study with curiosity the comparatively backward and often unsavory views and practices of the age. This article will look into the 19th century and explore several of these social issues.
Please note that while this piece will discuss the topic of different 19th century cultures, it is not an extensive study of multiculturalism. Anyone interested in multicultural steampunk should take a look at Tor.com’s first ever article on the subject, written by me for Steampunk Month one year ago, as well as my earlier articles on the subject for the Steamfashion community. I also heartily recommend Miss Kagashi’s delightful and informative blog, Multiculturalism for Steampunk.
The Plight of the Working Class
With the Industrial Revolution and the growth of factories came a breakdown of the traditional class system in Europe. In the span of only a couple of decades, machine production made the work of countless specialized artisans obsolete, replacing them with cheaper unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Simultaneously, the gradual mechanization of farm work and the increasing scarcity of land drove many farmers and farm hands into the industrial cities to find work, where they become the unskilled laborers demanded by the factories. Conditions for the working class grew increasingly worse, especially as the professionals of the new middle class broke away from the working class and formed their own self-identified group. With the working class restricted by archaic law codes and tormented with harsh environments and ill treatment, there can be little surprise that resentments grew. It was not without good reason that Marx and Engles predicted revolution in 1848. Indeed, revolution did come, but with varying degrees of success and ultimately for the benefit of the middle class.
But while the working class spent the 19th century toiling in dreadful conditions for inadequate pay, conditions gradually improved. Reformers and unions alike forced society and business to grant concessions. Free public education and the abolition of child labor brought hope for the children of the working class to improve their lot in life and escape the conditions of their parents. Meanwhile, the dedication of the unions paid off in the form of wage increases and a gradually reduced working day. By the end of the century, the working class had gained enough ground and financial stability to become the target of commerce. Perhaps most telling, the first ever amusement parks were developed at places like Blackpool and Coney Island to specifically target a working class that now enjoyed leisure time and relative financial stability.
The situation of women in the 19th century is well known as one of restriction. This century was the heyday of the “separate spheres” ideal, in which a woman’s place was regarded as being in the home. Coupled with the Victorian era’s obsession with self-restraint, purity and morality, this created a world that was extremely stifling to women. Legal rights for women were limited, and political ones were nonexistent. And even though middle class women formed the core of various reform and progressive movements, they were often subordinate to a male-dominated leadership. Where women did not have the “luxury” of domesticity, they often found themselves prey to unscrupulous men who enjoyed better social advantage. This was most infamous in the sexual harassment of working class women by their middle-class managers. One finds comparable incidents of legal and social restriction of women in countless non-Western 19th century cultures as well, making this a worldwide problem.
Fortunately, 19th century women did not take these abuses lying down, nor did they have to fight for their just rights alone. Early feminists like Sarah and Angelina Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and John Stuart Mill called for legal rights and suffrage for women. For some of these 19th century feminists, the issue surpassed women’s rights and became one of universal human rights, linking it to the abolitionist movement. Meanwhile, the rational dress movement called for a reforming of women’s clothing as well, to make it less restrictive, more comfortable and far healthier to wear. After decades of struggle these efforts (commonly known as “First Wave Feminism”) began to come to fruition, culminating in the granting of women’s suffrage in several nations, a significant gain that would continue throughout the 20th century.
The Evil of Slavery
The 19th century both began and ended with the abolition of slavery in the Western world. In 1807, Great Britain outlawed the slave trade and imposed heavy fines on anyone caught engaging in the practice; in 1808 this was followed by the establishment of the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy, a unit tasked specifically with patrolling the African coast in an attempt to force an end to the trade. In 1833, Britain abolished the practice of slavery itself, by which time several other countries had already done so. Yet in spite of these early efforts, slavery did not end in the West until 1888, when it was finally abolished in Brazil. The practice of slavery would continue in other parts of the world until well into the 20th century. Perhaps most infamous of all, slavery remained in practice in the United States until 1865, in spite of the country’s establishment on the grounds of freedom and liberty. Of special note is the nation of Haiti, where in 1804 the slave population declared independence from France and abolished the institution of slavery that had held them in bondage.
The reasons for the abolition of slavery were numerous and complex, including both economic and moral considerations. In an expanding industrial economy, the institution of slavery (especially in its Western manifestation), focused too heavily on agrarian concerns. Free workers were unlikely to tolerate the environment of massive cash crop plantations, but on a smaller scale there was increasingly little reason to own a private household slave in place of a free servant. The advantages of free labor over slavery became most apparent over the course of the antebellum period in the United States, as the industry and economy of the largely free North expanded in leaps and bounds beyond the agrarian and slaveholding South. Nevertheless, where slavery existed it was of great private benefit to those who could afford it, as plantation cash crops demonstrated, making plantation owners rich at the cost of both human degradation and the stagnation of local economies. Indeed, the wealth and influence wielded by slave-owning elites was so extensive (and their paranoid defense of the institution so overwhelming) that people in free states began to speak of a Southern conspiracy to undermine American liberty and free labor. And while this conspiracy theory was outlandish, the manner in which slaveholders were able to force increasingly restrictive pro-slavery legislation through the government did give ample reason for free laborers to be suspicious of slave-holding intentions. Indeed, the South’s justification for succession on the grounds of states’ rights seems almost absurd given how blatantly the various fugitive slave laws defied the rights of northern states to make their own decisions on the issue of abolition.
But at the same time, one cannot dismiss the very strong moral component of the various anti-slavery movements. Abolitionists argued vehemently against the evils of slavery and its degradation of fellow human beings. Slogans like “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” focused on a distinctly moral argument: that Africans were as much people as Europeans, and that they ought to be treated as such. With groundwork laid in late 18th century Britain by abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and James Ramsay, the 19th century saw its own reformers take up the banner of freedom and campaign for abolition on moral grounds. This movement was especially potent in the United States, one of the bastions of slavery in the Western world, and figures like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison worked tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to destroy slavery not for the sake of American industry or the preservation of white liberties, but because it was an immoral institution unworthy of a modern enlightened society.
The Lure of Empire
Although imperialism has existed since the dawn of civilization, the 19th century is well known for its period of empires. With groundwork laid by the Spanish and Portuguese, Europe re-emerged upon the world stage as a dominant military and economic force in the Early Modern Period. By the 18th century, Britain, France, and Russia had emerged as dominant empires, and each eagerly expanded across the world, snatching colonies where they could be found. By the mid-19th century, Britain had gained control of India; France had gained Algeria and was extending into Southeast Asia; and Russia had obtained the entirety of North Asia and was eagerly moving southward. The 1880s saw the “Scramble for Africa,” and by the onset of the First World War most of the world was either part of an empire or under the dubious “protection” of one. In addition to the major European ones, other 19th century empires could be found across the world. The aging Ottoman Empire carried on as best it could throughout this period, even as it slowly collapsed or lost territory to outside forces. Even in its twilight, it oversaw a multi-national population including Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis, all of whom were subjugated to the will of the Turkic majority. China struggled in its attempts to retain its status as the great power of East Asia, but by the end of the century it was eclipsed by an energetic and modernized Japan that had rediscovered the world and wanted its own piece of it. After defeating China and Russia in two wars, Japan would go on to annex Korea and start on a path toward the building of an Asian empire finally realized decades later in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Meanwhile, the United States spent the entirety of the 19th century expanding its territory into lands already belonging to countless other cultures, although the Native Americans were not even given the courtesy of being regarded as “colonized.” And finally, back in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire avoided the diversion of worldwide empire building, but it retained a diverse multi-national population that was kept subordinated to the dominant German (Austrian) and Hungarian populations.
It goes without saying that these empires did not enjoy the love of the people they conquered. Especially given that concepts of racial superiority often influenced imperial policy, many colonized populations were hostile (although the specific reactions of subject populations could vary considerably depending on their viewpoint and treatment). These hostilities could boil over into wars of liberation, as in the case of India’s Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 or the 1862 Dungan Revolt by Central Asian Muslims in eastern China. In other cases the reaction was peaceful but political, like the Indian National Congress and its agitation in favor of Indian independence. In general, the empires failed to adapt to the changing world or the rejection of their subject peoples, which ultimately culminated in the breakdown of empires in the mid-20th century. But where speculation is allowed to run free, as in steampunk fiction, one wonders how the world might look if empires had evolved into multi-national unions, like the modern Commonwealth of Nations or the United States of Greater Austria, a plan to reshape Austro-Hungary favored by the soon to be assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
To conclude, steampunk provides the ultimate freedom of imagination and historical exploration, and in this spirit it allows for the darker side of the 19th century to be examined, interacted with and potentially countered and improved. The progress made during the 19th century made the social advances of the 20th century possible, and the steampunk genre allows for fans and authors alike to either wrestle with this history and ultimately accept it, or to rewrite it as it could have (and probably should have) been.
G. D. Falksen is an author and historian who has spent years discussing the complexities of the 19th century world and its relationship to the steampunk genre. More information can be found on his Twitter and Facebook.