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.


More Chris Hadfield

One of his most famous accomplishments was recording a music video on the ISS: a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity (I guess it would have qualified on its own for “Nerd Song of the Week”):

The Canadian Space Agency has all his videos from Expedition 34/35, which he commanded:

He’s all over social media and the web (has a Twitter feed, etc.), so check him out.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
by Col. Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything

Chris Hadfield is a man of many talents and accomplishments, and now besides husband, father, test pilot, astronaut and guitar player (an incomplete list at best), he can now add writer. He presents his many life lessons (from “sweating the small stuff” to “aiming to be a zero”) in a sincere and humble style. So humble, in fact, that it was a relief of sorts when I got to the section where he defends his assignment as commander of Expedition 35 to the ISS after some emergency surgery made NASA question his fitness to fly. He is never angry or bitter, but he does show his frustration with bureaucracy.

His life lessons are well told and integrated with descriptions of the nuts and bolts of being an astronaut in the space program. You find out about things like what flight rules are and how they can keep you alive, and what a family escort does. Especially enjoyable is the detailed description of his five month mission to the ISS from pre-flight to re-entry to the extended physical recovery required after an extended stay in zero gravity.

The Cartoon History Series
by Larry Gonick


These books with many others had (for various circumstances) been in boxes for years, and they were the first I decided to re-read when I pulled them out. They are a wonderful romp through history – scholarly research presented with great style and humor.

Gonick’s humor is sometimes irreverent and snarky, though not in an overtly mean way, and sometimes just silly, like a couple of his pop music jokes:

In CHU III, in his history of Pippin the Short (Charlemagne’s father), you see two almost dead soldiers laying on the ground, one says, “‘Greatest king of the Dark Ages’ Woo-woo!” and the other replies, “Isn’t that like ‘Disco’s greatest hits?'”

In CHU II, in the history of ancient Rome he writes, “In 453 the Vandals sacked Rome committing more acts of the kind now known as vandalism.” and there’s a drawing of a person standing by a broken pump saying, “The pump don’t work.” (Bob Dylan reference, kiddies).

Printed in large size paperbacks, The Cartoon History series is a great argument against the “death of paper books“. Brilliantly illustrated maps like the “Cro-Magnon Conquest of the World”, events like the desolation of Athens after the Persians burnt it down, or fighting in World War I are depicted in spreads that can’t easily be shown on a small screen. If you enjoy comic strips, then these will be right up your alley.

As far as the history itself, Gonick does a great job integrating the people, events and ideas that shaped history, digging in to the origins of ideas such as democracy and capitalism, as well as the lives of philosophers, rulers, scientists, and generals. His approach is pleasantly non dogmatic, this isn’t ‘The Great Men of the Western World’; Asia, Africa, and South America all get their due. He shows how small places, like Potosí in Bolivia (where the Spanish mined silver) and Haiti (which figures prominently in the history of France and their involvement in the Americas) can loom large.