The Dilettante on the History of Slavery and Colonialism in the Modern World

Some musings on slavery and colonialism from The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part II.

In the late 1700’s, the British empire circled the globe. A couple of hold-outs were China; which would trade goods for silver, but never buy anything; and Japan, which after uniting under a single Shogun in 1600, refused all contact with the Western World. Of course, capital being hard to say ‘no’ to, both countries left single ports open to trade.

Although other European countries participated in the slave trade, the British were the most successful. The slave trade was run in a triangle: African slaves were shipped to sugar plantations in the New World, sugar was shipped to New England to be distilled into rum, the rum was then sent back to Africa to trade for more slaves. While that was going on, the British East India Company was busy mismanaging India, and eventually ran the Indian economy into the ground leading to widespread poverty.

There had always been people in Britain that opposed the slave trade, but they were mostly seen as a wacky fringe group. Then, the Zong massacre renewed the anti-slavery activists’ fight, and an anti-slavery MP, William Wilberforce, took up the cause, introducing an anti-slavery bill to Parliament – it was defeated. Every year Wilberforce introduced the bill, and every year it was voted down.

After the British defeated Napoleon, Wilberforce, hit on the idea of outlawing the slave trade on the high seas as an extension of British naval power. By voting to ban the slave trade for all nations, British ships could to stop and board any ship sailing under any nation’s flag. After 20 years, Wilberforce finally got his anti-slavery bill passed. The British didn’t do a lot to stop the slave trade, but over the yeas they managed to free tens of thousands of slaves. The U.S., seeing the reality of the situation, decided to follow the British by voting to ban the slave trade on the open seas in 1808. The American’s did nothing to enforce the ban, however.

After crashing India’s economy, the British hit on the thing that they could sell to China: opium from Indian poppies. This trade was so lucrative that even after the British voted in 1833 to ban slavery throughout the empire, they were able to make up for the loss of revenue with the trade. The opium trade divided China and lead to the Opium Wars which took 60 million lives.

Also at this time, the British were busy competing with the other European countries colonizing Africa. Colonialism was even better than slavery. Instead of the hassle of shipping slaves across the ocean, they could just enslave the people at home. Ten-million Congolese lost their lives in forced labor, harvesting natural rubber for King Leopold of Belgium. Cecil Rhodes (started De Beers and the Rhodes Scholarship) founded Rhodesia, and wanted to see an all British Africa. The European nations had a meeting in Berlin and decided to divide up the entire continent of Africa amongst themselves.

So, as Larry Gonick points out, the start of the century that saw the end of slavery, saw the beginning of colonialism in Africa.

 

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