The Victorian Age, part two

The Victorian Age was, in some ways, an idyllic time in human history. Science and technology were providing many benefits, including improving nutrition and health. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was finally being preached in all nations. Courtesy and good manners were routine.  Fine arts were available to more people than ever before, from museums and public libraries to pianos in the average home. The average standard of living was improving. Hope was widespread that, in a few more generations, war and poverty and disease would be abolished around the world.

But the Victorian Age had a dark side. Part of that dark side was racism. Many educated Europeans interpreted Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to mean that some humans are fitter than others and should rule over others. Even as slavery was abolished, a new wave of colonialism put much of the world under European control. Otto von Bismarck hosted a meeting in Berlin in which representatives of European nations divided Africa among themselves, leaving independence only to the Kingdom of Ethiopia and to Liberia—a country created by the United States to contain former slaves. India, Indochina, and Indonesia were similarly claimed by European powers, while native governments in Siam and China were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with European interests. Indeed, before Victoria became queen, the British had already fought a war in China to maintain their right to sell opium to Chinese people. (Imagine Mexico fighting and winning a war with the United States to guarantee the right of Mexican citizens to sell illegal drugs in the USA!)

The British spoke of the “white man’s burden” to provide “civilization” to the darker-skinned people of the world. While the British were willing to grant self-government to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (all populated and controlled by people of European ancestry), they delayed indefinitely the same sort of freedom to India and to other colonies in the British Empire. In 1857, the British interpreted a series of local protests in various parts of India as wide-scale rebellion, and the British used military might to increase their control of southern Asia. In the United States, jobs were provided for freed slaves and for immigrants from Asia and Europe, but every new wave of workers was viewed with suspicion and dread. American cities were divided into neighborhoods of various cultures—Irish, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, eastern European, Chinese, black, Jewish—and members of each culture stuck to their own kind.

Industrialization created problems of pollution and of an impoverished working class. In theory, capitalism provided relief by promising that the best workers would receive the highest wages and best working conditions, forcing employers to treat their workers well. Government regulations also helped to prevent abuse in the workplace. Among the most important regulations was recognition of labor unions—groups of workers united to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers. Meanwhile, voting rights were granted to a larger segment of society, giving common workers power to elect government officials who would protect their rights and provide relief to their grievances.

During the Victorian Age, many intellectuals anticipated further changes in society that would eliminate the problems of industrialization. These changes were all called “socialism,” although they were not all the same. Some socialists created small communities where people who worked together also profited together, sharing the benefits of their labor and supporting their neighbors in the community. In some cases, these communities became the property of the business owners, who also ran the company store, the schools, the municipal government, and even the churches. Other socialists envisioned new communities in which families would each have a private apartment for sleeping but would eat together in cafeterias and share public transportation between their dwellings and their workplaces or schools. One group, called the Fabian Society, predicted and encouraged small and gradual changes aimed at a new socialist world. Others, including Karl Marx, predicted and encouraged sudden violent changes in which workers rebelled against business owners and their partners, the government leaders and church workers. The workers would take control of society, have the government run businesses for a while (socialism), and then allow the government to wither and die while people shared the benefits of their work—“from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

Japan began the Victorian Age as a nation closed to the world, carefully limiting the number of people who could enter Japan from other countries or who could leave Japan to visit other countries. This practice ended when an American gunship threatened violence unless Japan would sign a “Treaty of Friendship.” This embarrassment overturned the Japanese government, and the new leaders toured Europe and North America to see what was working in the rest of the world. They brought modern ideas back to Japan—modern schools, modern military training and equipment, modern government with elected officials but also a centralized executive leader, and the best modern economic system (which was capitalism). The government built factories but quickly sold them to Japanese corporations. They improved the status of Japan so quickly that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was able to overcome China and even Russia in military confrontations.

Japan joined the party late, but the nation still benefited from the good things the Victorian Age offered. In the coming century, Japan would also experience some struggles from the dark side of the Victorian Age, a dark side that would first be felt in Europe. J.

The Age of Exploration, part one

Between 1405 and 1433, seven naval expeditions left China to explore the world. These fleets, authorized and funded by the Ming government of China, consisted of sixty to two hundred fifty large ships, ranging from 200 feet to 450 feet long. (By comparison, the Santa Maria—Columbus’ largest ship—was about seventy feet long.) The ships carried Chinese treasures to show to the world, as well as armed warriors and sailors; they brought back government officials from several nations to pay their respects to China’s emperor. These fleets visited southeast Asia, India, and Arabia, and some of them also explored the eastern coast of Africa. After 1433, the government of China decided that the rest of the world had nothing of interest for China. Exploration was suspended. Had the voyages continued, Chinese explorers would have entered the Atlantic Ocean before European exploration of that ocean and its surrounding lands was underway. From that point to the present, world history would be entirely different.

Travel is consistent throughout human history. “America” was first discovered by Asians who crossed from Siberia to Alaska. Over many generations, their descendants populated every ecological niche of the western hemisphere. Bantu people first lived north of the equator but south of the Sahara Desert. Over many generations, they explored and populated the rest of central and southern Africa, becoming the predominant culture of the continent. Indo-Europeans began on the grassy plains were Europe and Asia meet, but they traveled south to India and west to Europe. Xiongnu (also called Huns) began in central Asia but traveled to India and to Europe. Magyars and Turks and Mongols also came out of central Asia into Europe and western Asia. European tribes including Goths and Vandals came from the north into the Roman Empire. One thousand years ago, Vikings crossed the north Atlantic, settling in Iceland and Greenland and the Canadian island of Newfoundland. They may have traveled as far south as New England, since they reported seeing grapevines. Vikings also visited (and sometimes colonized) the coastal regions of France and the British Isles. They entered the Mediterranean Sea, and they traveled up the Dneiper River to found the city of Kiev, the first capitol of Russia.

Around the peak of the Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the leaders of Portugal resolved to attempt new means of travel. Situated at the far western end of the Silk Roads, the found foreign merchandise to be expensive, having passed through the hands of many merchants and having been taxed by many governments. Even gold from central Africa was inflated by too many stops in the middle of its journey. The government of Portugal therefore recruited, trained, and equipped sailors to help circumvent some of those middle profiteers in the interest of saving money.

The technology that enabled this Portuguese adventure came from Asia. The compass, which reliably points north and south, was invented in China. The astrolabe, which offers even more information about one’s location on the earth, was an Arab invention. Arab and Indian merchants had been traveling by water between Africa and southern Asia for some time, using these inventions to follow the monsoon trade winds and currents. Now Portuguese ships set out to conquer the western ocean, the Atlantic. They made their first stops along the African coast, where their journeys opened new opportunities for trade and commerce.

Not only did the Portuguese encounter more affordable gold and ivory; they also found African slaves for sale. When African tribes fought one another in battle, the losers were enslaved by the winners. Victorious African tribes were eager to sell their prisoners to merchants who would take them out of the area, reducing the chance of an uprising that would overturn the victory. At the same time the Portuguese found the African slave markets, they also discovered unpopulated islands off the coast of Africa. These islands were perfect for raising the most popular foreign spice of the European markets. That spice was not pepper or cinnamon or cloves; it was sugar.

Cane sugar is native to the Indonesian islands. Its use spread to India and Arabia. European Crusaders learned of sugar when they established kingdoms in west Asia. Italian investors tried to grow sugarcane on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was unsuitable. Now the little nation of Portugal found the perfect land for growing sugar as well as a source of workers for that land. Later generations of Europeans would expand sugar production and the importation of African slaves into the western hemisphere. Eventually, those slaves would also be tending and harvesting cotton, tobacco, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, as well as sugar.

Meanwhile, Portuguese expeditions traveled further south along the coast of Asia. They learned to sail into the Atlantic Ocean, then use the prevailing winds to return further east and south. Eventually, they found their way around the southern tip of Africa, opening the way to trade with east Africa, Arabia, India, and points further east.

While these historic journeys were being made, an explorer from Genoa, a city in Italy, came to Portugal with the suggestion that he could lead them across the ocean to reach China and India from a different direction. The leaders of Portugal were not interested in his ideas, but the leaders of Spain thought they might be willing to take a chance…. J.

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.