Capitalist contradictions were most evident in the 18th century, when the wealth of the merchant-capitalist class of Britain’s port-cities was contrasted with the untold human misery of the slaves, ramping up the historical significance of racist ideology.
The bourgeois revolutions in Holland and Britain unleashed tremendous socio-economic power.
The medieval economy had been in harness to political authority. Traditional feudalism – like that of Western Europe at the time of the Crusades – had siphoned surplus into waste expenditure on knights, castles, and lordly display. State feudalism – Philip II’s Spain or Louis XIV’s France – wasted it on royal arms, frontier fortifications, and court pageantry.
The Dutch victory over Spain in 1566-1609 and Parliament’s victory over the King in 1640-1660 made a new world possible – one dominated by the market, the profit motive, and a class of gentry and merchants eager to accumulate capital through productive investment.
The second half of the 17th century was the ‘Golden Age’ of the Dutch. Land was reclaimed and new farming methods introduced. The Zaanstreek zone north of Amsterdam boasted 128 industrial windmills. A series of Dutch trading stations linked South Africa, India, and the Far East.
Such was the pace of development that commercial rivalry led to three naval wars between the Dutch and the English between 1652 and 1674 – before a common interest in resisting Louis XIV’s France brought the two bourgeois states into alliance.
Had the Anglo-Dutch conflict continued, Holland would have lost. The home base was too small to sustain a long-term challenge to Britain.
British history is shaped by the fact that it is a large island, rich in resources, on the edge of a dynamic continent. The seas around Britain are both a defensive moat and a commercial highway.
The 17th century revolution unlocked the economic potential inherent in British geography. It made possible a development of maritime trade, naval power, and overseas empire sufficient to turn Britain into a global superpower.
Coal production grew from 500,000 tons in 1650 to 15 million in 1800. The rate of industrial growth increased from 0.7 percent a year in 1710-1760 to 2 percent a year in 1780-1800. The proportion of the population living in towns went from 9 percent in 1650 to 20 percent in 1800.
Only towards the end of this period did an industrial ‘take-off’ occur. During the late 17th and throughout the 18th century, virtually all industrial production took the form of craftwork by artisans in small workshops. Mechanisation and factory-production were still embryonic as late as 1800.
Capital accumulation was achieved through the control of distribution and exchange rather than of production. 18th century capitalism was merchant capitalism, not yet industrial capitalism. The supreme expression of this was the so-called ‘triangular trade’.
In the 16th century, the precious metals of the Aztecs and Incas had been the richest of imperial prizes. In the 18th century, it was the sugar plantations of the West Indies. In both cases, there was a problem: a shortage of labour.
The native population of the Americas had been virtually exterminated by the guns and germs of the first European settlers. But the settlers themselves – including ‘indentured servants’ imported in their thousands as labourers – were decimated by tropical diseases.
What was needed was a new labour-force resistant to malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical plagues. The solution was to import West African slaves.
To supply the coffee-houses of London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow with sugar – and to make the men who supplied them very rich – millions of Africans were to be enslaved, transported, and worked to death.
Around 12 million Africans made the Atlantic passage between the late 17th and the early 19th century. Of these, around 1.5 million died en route. It was found more profitable to pack them in and accept these losses than to accommodate them in conditions that enabled more to survive.
Conditions were no better in the West Indies. Underfed, overworked, and disciplined by the lash, the death-rate on the plantations was astronomical.
Compared with 12 million African migrants, only around 2 million Europeans migrated to the New World in this period. Yet the white population was roughly twice that of the black in 1820. The Europeans had survived and reproduced. The Africans had simply died.
The annihilation of the native peoples of the New World was one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history. The slave trade was another. Both of these crimes were compounded by the racism deployed to justify them.
Racism of one sort or another exists in all class societies. There are three reasons for this.
First, ruling classes compete for control over surplus, and they need to mobilise ordinary people in pursuit of these struggles. During the Crusades, for example, Muslims were demonised as ‘infidels’ to justify wars of genocide, plunder, and conquest in the Middle East.
Second, class society pits ordinary people against each other in a struggle to survive. The ruling class exploits this to foster divisions which make it less likely people will unite against their exploiters. The Roman aristocracy, for instance, allowed certain privileges to the citizen poor and enrolled them in networks of patronage; they were at the same time encouraged to look down upon foreigners and slaves as ‘barbarians’.
Third, imperialism – the use of military force to seize the territory, resources, and manpower of other people – is easier to justify if the victims can be portrayed as culturally or racially ‘inferior’. Imperialism can even be justified as a ‘civilising’ mission.
Rapid European colonial expansion and equally rapid growth in the slave trade during the 18th century combined to reconfigure racist ideology and ramp up its historical significance.
The new racism was developed in the context of the triangular trade. Ships carried trade goods to West Africa and were exchanged for black slaves. Local chiefs waged wars of enslavement to supply the market and gain access to imported prestige goods.
The slaves were transported across the Atlantic and sold to plantation-owners at regular slave-markets. The ships returned to Europe with cargoes of sugar, tobacco, and later cotton.
Racism justified colonies and slavery on the basis that the native people were inferior. At worst, they were sub-humans fit only for heavy labour. At best, they were benighted and backward and in need of outside help to become civilised and Christian.
Capitalism has always been highly contradictory. On the one hand, its economic dynamism has transformed the capacity of human beings to provide the goods and services they need. On the other, control of the world’s wealth by a minority has condemned the mass of humanity to continuing exploitation and oppression.
This contradiction achieved its highest expression in the 18th century in the contrast between the wealth of the merchant-capitalist class of Britain’s port-cities and the untold human misery of the Atlantic passage and the West Indian plantations.
Nor was this the only human cost of the bourgeoisie’s rise to global dominance. Britain’s rulers were ruthless in their pursuit of the dazzlingly rich prizes on offer in the colonies. And other rulers, sensing the balance of power tipping against them, felt compelled to contest control of the world.
Europe exploded repeatedly into war, and, increasingly, Europe’s wars went global.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
More articles from this author
- The agony of Gaza
- Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence
- WWI: Imperial carve up, industrialised killing the truth about Gove's 'Great War'
- The Great Flood
- Jeremy Paxman's BBC history of the First World War is shallow, banal, and cliché-ridden
- Final Solutions: Human nature, Capitalism, and Genocide
- World War One and the rehabilitation of slaughter