Pluto Unbound: Economic Liberalization and the Creation of a Global Mining Industry in the 19th Century

Mineral extraction played a crucial part in the globalization drive following the Second Industrial Revolution (c. 1850). From 1850 to 1913, total world extraction of non-ferrous metals increased from 270 000 tons to 3 000 000 tons. By 1913, minerals constituted 14% of the total value of world exports. This rapid expansion was facilitated by technological advances, improved infrastructure and rising demand for minerals, but also depended on the policies and of mineral rich countries. While much research has been conducted on the company side of this development, our knowledge of the government side – that is mining regulation and policy – of this period is surprisingly sparse and fragmented. This paper sets out to give a better picture of the chronology, variety and depth of liberalization in the 19th century. Based on a comprehensive database of mining regulations covering most independent states and major colonies, the paper is particularly concerned with examining and comparing three factors of 19th century economic liberalization, namely: 1. Regulation on foreign ownership. 2. Reduction of export tariffs and restrictions for minerals. 3. Reform of mining laws giving secure property rights to private investors. At the outset of the 19th century, three very different models for mineral ownership dominated the western world – landownership, government concession and “right of discovery”. The paper shows how the British Empire, despite being both an instigator and proponent of the virtues of free trade in the 19th century as well as a hub for multinational mining companies, was itself not a model for reform in the 1st and 3rd factor mentioned above. Instead, different western legal regimes for minerals converged over the century towards a practice favoring a “right of discovery” model which gave considerable rights to prospectors and mine owners.