Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part one–the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Slavery has existed in the world since the earliest historical records were written. Some slaves were prisoners of war; others became slaves as punishments for crime or as a result of debts they could not repay. In most ancient civilizations, slaves had rights that were protected by law. Some slaves did agricultural work or household chores, but others held highly respectable positions—private tutors for children of the rich, managers of property, and financial advisors. Joseph, son of Jacob, was a slave in Egypt who managed his master’s property. The Roman philosopher Epictetus was also a slave.

Even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, Africans were bought by Muslim traders and were sold in Arabia, India, and China. Even today descendants of African slaves live in China. But the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was caused by sugar addiction. Crusaders first encountered cane sugar in western Asia. (Sugar cane is native to the Indonesian islands, but it had been sold and consumed in India, Persia, and Arabia for centuries.) Europeans had some natural sweeteners—honey and fruits—but the pure sweetness of cane sugar captivated European tastes. More than cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, the spice called “sugar” was in great demand as Europeans sought Asian spices from the silk roads. Italian investors tried to cultivate sugar cane on Mediterranean islands, but the climate was wrong and the crops failed.

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers and traders began to look for short cuts in the silk roads, ways to obtain valued items such as gold and spices while bypassing some of the middle steps. (Taxes from governments and profits from merchants heighted the costs of Asian goods in Europe, so naturally western Europeans wanted to create and pursue any shortcuts they could find.) Traveling down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese found African civilizations eager to trade, and among the commodities offered by these Africans were slaves—prisoners captured from nearby tribes during disputes over land and wealth. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered islands off the coast of Africa that were uninhabited and were ideal for cultivating sugar cane. The Portuguese traded for African slaves and used them to grow and harvest sugar cane. When other explorers happened upon the Caribbean islands, they again found land ideal for sugar cane, and slaves purchased in Africa were transported across the ocean to labor in fields from Spanish Florida south to Portuguese Brazil. Slaves were soon introduced into British colonies north of Florida as well.

The plantations and haciendas established by Spain and Portugal in the New World were not capitalist ventures. They belonged to an economic philosophy now called mercantilism. In mercantilism, thinkers assume that the wealth in the world is limited and stagnant—one individual or nation can become richer only as another becomes poorer. Wealth from the New World—precious metals, crops (including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, and tobacco), animal furs, and fish—was transported to the Old World to enrich governments in Europe. Capitalists from Great Britain and the Netherlands did engage in the slave trade. Their ships traveled in a triangle: they traded with the Africans, selling European commodities and buying slaves; they sold slaves in the western hemisphere and bought New World wealth; they sold materials from the New World in European ports and gained European commodities. With each sale, they made a profit, much of which was distributed among investors.

But emerging capitalism in Great Britain and the Netherlands was accompanied by an abolition movement, an insistence that all people—even Africans and native Americans—possess human rights and should not be treated as property. The Industrial Revolution, created and funded by capitalism, replaced human labor with machinery, reducing the need to enslave human workers. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, followed by the United States the next year. All slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Compromises in the American government allowed slavery to persist in some states until the Civil War. Worldwide, slavery was not declared illegal in all countries until the 1960s.

Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans were introduced into the western hemisphere than Europeans. Sixteen million Africans (most of them sold by other Africans) were purchased in Africa and put in ships to be taken to the western hemisphere. Twelve million survived the trip and were sold as slaves. The death of four million Africans on those trading ships is one of the shameful facts about the slave trade—human beings were treated as an expendable commodity like any other crop. Treatment of slaves in the New World was a mixed package: some were treated with kindness and respect, but many were abused, tortured, and worked to death. Twenty-first century historians and moralists find it easy to condemn slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with the aftermath of those three hundred years is a different kettle of fish. J.

Stepping back to see the big picture (socialism, continued)

The idea of socialism arose as a response to the Industrial Revolution and to some of the problems within that Revolution. In turn, the Industrial Revolution was a consequence of several large historical movements that came together in a particular time and place to shape human history.

When historians seek to understand and explain an event or a movement, they must take a step back and look at the broader picture. Often this requires further steps back, sometimes to view the entire panorama of history. Analyzing the causes of the Industrial Revolution includes such steps and such a view.

The Persian Empire, Mauryan Empire, Han Empire, and Roman Empire each constructed roads to facilitate government communication across their stretches of land and to accommodate the travel of armies. As a result of those roads (and associated waterways), merchants and merchandise began to flow through and beyond these empires. Imperial governments favored the exchange of merchandise, since it could be taxed every time it changed hands. Two thousand years ago, Italian glass could be bought in China, and Chinese silk could be bought in Italy. Anything that could be moved, bought, and sold traveled along these roads and waterways: fabrics, spices, precious metals and gems, artwork, food, livestock, and slaves. Over the centuries, travel and trade ebbed and flowed because of other political and economic conditions. Along the same routes traveled ideas—religious ideas, political and economic ideas, and technology—and disease also spread from culture to culture along the same roads.

Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire sparked additional travel and trade along these routes. Asian produce and technology traveled into Europe. Bubonic plague (the Black Death) began somewhere in inland China but spread to the cities of China and to Mediterranean cities, and from there to all the populated areas of Europe. This disease had a devastating consequence upon commerce and economic activity, both because of the high death rate of the disease and because of the fear of disease that spread throughout the population.

Disruption of trade, caused by disease and by political developments in the eastern Mediterranean, caused western European governments to seek a shortcut to African and Asian goods, eliminating some of the middlemen. Using Asian technology, including the Chinese compass and the Arabian astrolabe, Portuguese mariners set sail down the coast of Africa and into the western ocean. Spain, England, and the Netherlands eventually followed. Early results of the Portuguese expeditions included expansion of the sugar industry and development of the African slave trade. But Columbus’ abortive attempts to cross the ocean between Spain and east Asia revealed an expanse of islands and continents in the western hemisphere. Soon commerce between the Old World and the New World brought new foods to Europe; those new foods helped to support a growing population, recovering from the plague.

As the population grew, though, landowners found that they could enclose their land for more specific use, such as the grazing of sheep to produce wool. This removed peasants from the land and from their agricultural activities, sending them into the towns and cities. The growing urban population disrupted the guilds and other work that the tradespeople had developed over centuries. More new technology met this change in population dispersion to ignite the Industrial Revolution in England.

A Chinese inventor had learned how to harness the power of a flowing river with a wheel, channeling that energy to other uses. Europeans improved the water wheel by installing it vertically instead of horizontally, effectively letting the power of gravity increase the power generated by the moving water of the river. Later, the same idea was converted to generation of power from steam, which no longer needed the immediate presence of a river.

Around the same time, a Chinese chemist found a new recipe for steel. Iron technology had begun in Anatolia (the location of modern Turkey) about three thousand years ago. Pure iron is a powder, but iron combined with carbon makes cast iron, which produced tools stronger and more durable than the stone and bronze tools used previously. (Ironworking was discovered independently in central Africa around the same time.) About a thousand years ago, a new recipe for iron and carbon produced steel, a great improvement over cast iron. The new recipe used coal instead of burnt wood as a carbon source. Coal and iron deposits both exist in China, but not near each other. In England, iron and coal and running water are found in close proximity. Deforestation of England also provided greater interest in coal, both as fuel and as an ingredient for making steel. The Industrial Revolution was ready to emerge.

As the urban population grew, new businesses began to exploit the work force to get around the guild economy of Europe. Shepherds and shearers would sell the raw wool from their sheep to moneyed peasants. These peasants would then hire some families to card the wool in their homes. The carded wool was then returned to the business owners, who hired other people to spin the wool into thread. The spinners returned the thread, which the business owners then sent to weavers, who used looms to change the thread into cloth. The cloth was chemically treated by fullers, and the improved cloth was sent to tailors, who cut the cloth into pieces and sewed it into garments. Shepherds, Shearers, Carders, Spinners, Weavers, Fullers, and Tailors were each paid for their labor, and afterward they all bought clothing from the businesses that had paid them for their work. Today many family names reflect the role of their ancestors in this industry.

Steel tools and steam power made factories possible. No longer did the work have to be sent into homes and brought back to the businesses: the businesses could own the buildings and machines where the work was done. These machines could produce far more clothing from far fewer laborers. The Industrial Revolution began in England, spread into other European countries and then to North America, and eventually filled the world. The impact of this revolution changed the lives of many people, from wealthy business owners to impoverished workers. J.