On 6 May, Charles III was crowned King of the United Kingdom after the sun decisively set over the British Empire. The ceremony reminded us again of the connection of the British Crown with colonial loot and the slave trade, the foundations of the British Empire. The British royalty was not just the titular head of the Empire: the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly of supplying slaves to the Americas, was the direct property of the British Crown and was run by the Duke of York, the King’s brother. The royal monopoly ended when British proponents of “free trade”, London, Manchester and other city merchants, wanted their share of this lucrative trade.
Why am I writing about England’s role in the slave trade three hundred years back in a science and development column today? The answer is we have been taught a different history of the world than what has actually happened. Let us read the mythology of the West that passes as history. First is the Age of Discovery. It was followed by the Age of Enlightenment or Reason; and then the scientific and technological revolution that led to the modern world. There is no mention of genocide, modern slavery and the loot of the colonies in this story of discovery, enlightenment, and industrialisation.
According to Western historians, unfortunate events accompanied the rise of the West, but these are not the main story, which is about the rise of reason and science, monopolies of the Western mind!
Why does the West call the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama to the Americas and India “discoveries”? After all, the continent of the Americas was quite well-populated by the time Columbus reached the island of Haiti, named San Domingo by him. Asian trade with Europe stretches back to Roman times, so why are these explorers supposedly “discovering” these places?
The reason for calling it discovery and not exploration lies in the claim that all heathen lands “discovered” by the explorers could be seized in the name of the Church and the King. This followed the Treaty of Cordesillas in 1494, in which the entire non-European (non-Christian) world was divided between Spain and Portugal. The flags the “explorers” carried were of their monarchs and the Church. The “heathen” inhabitants of these lands were given the right to convert to Christianity, a right read out to them in a language they did not understand. If they did not agree to convert with their positive assent, presumably in Spanish or Portuguese, they lost the right to their lands, liberty and life. Non-Christians were held to have no soul and did not have any rights! Genocide of non-believers was not a crime in the eyes of god, according to the Church then.
Lest we believe this was a historical aberration, in 1823—more than 300 years later—the Supreme Court of the United States endorsed the same Doctrine of Discovery. It stated that “discovery” followed by “possession”—read dispossession of indigenous peoples—gave the European powers legitimate title to these lands!
If you read the economic history of the world from the ideologues of the West, the slave trade from Africa, genocide in the Americas, and the loot that accompanied the Age of Discovery are not the reason for the rise of the West. It apparently comes from the industrial revolution, whose roots are in the Age of Reason, which gave rise to modern science and the steam engine. It is the industrial revolution—the textile mills powered by the steam engine—that truly demarcates the West from the Rest of Us. The West here is the homogenised entity of all the colonial powers of Europe, joined with the settler colonial state of the United States.
The quest then becomes why the Industrial Revolution takes place in Great Britain and the great divergence of the West from the Rest of the world after that.
This periodisation creates two neat divisions of colonial history. The first is termed the “mercantile” phase of modern capital leading to the economic integration of the world. Calling it mercantile helps gentrify it from the stench of genocide in the Americas, the slave trade from Africa and the modern slavery of sugar and cotton plantations. The second is the industrial phase. Due to the scientific and technological revolution, the West rapidly outstrips older economies such as China and India, destroying their economic power.
While the plantation economy in the Caribbean and the Americas was not confined to sugar, it was undoubtedly their major commodity and by far the largest commodity for worldwide trade. The major capital investments of the sugar plantations were not land, plant and machinery but the monetary value of the slaves. Plantation owners carefully tallied their number, age and sex and, therefore, their productive capacity and “running” costs, very much how a factory owner takes stock of his capital equipment. Slaves were also pledged to the banks for loans, similar to today’s factory owners pledging capital goods. Bank loans pledging slaves as collateral provided a significant part of the working capital of plantation owners.
While the slaves in the plantations were counted as equivalent to machinery, enslaved people themselves were seen as commodities. The brutality of the slave trade and the inhuman conditions under which they were kept and transported before being disembarked and sold is another story. What the economic historians “forget” when talking of this mercantile period is that shipping, banking and insurance in the slave trade produced a huge expansion of financial capital. It is this capital that powers the industrial revolution.
This expansion of financial capital was greatly helped by the compensation paid to the slave owners when Britain abolished slavery. The British government raised £20 million through bonds to compensate slave owners, which was 40% of the British government’s annual income. Interestingly, while slavery was abolished in Britain as an inhuman system, it was the slave owners who were compensated and not the slaves. The slaves instead had to serve an additional six years as “apprentices” before they could be freed to help the slave owner make the transition to wage labour and not slave labour for his plantations. In British colonies, it was “indentured” labour from India, on terms that would be described as slavery today, that replaced slave labour in the British colonies of the Caribbean.
The story of the steam engine being the product of science and technology is another myth. I have written about James Watt’s steam engine earlier in the context of patents and how Watt’s patent held back further developments of the steam engine. What concerns us here is that, far from being the product of the science of thermodynamics as is argued, it emerged from the need of coal miners of Cornwall and had very little to do with understanding the science of heat. Neither did it lead to the expansion of the textile mills and become the locomotor of the industrial revolution. The textile mills used water power well after the period—1750 to 1800—we characterise as the industrial revolution. The spinning jenny, the water frame, and other advances all precede the use of steam power in textiles. The major advances in textile manufacturing in England took place powered by water. It was only in the 1825-1835 period that the steam engine replacedthe water wheel as the source of power in the textile mills.
The destruction of the Indian textile industry was at the hands of the British, who ruled India also under a Royal Charter. Yes, the East India Company’s charter for the monopoly of Indian trade was also from the British Crown, similar to the Royal African Company’s charter for the monopoly over the slave trade in the Atlantic. Both were backed by the armed might of the British Crown, the same one that King Charles III wore at his coronation in a ceremony which is 700 years old. A dynasty or two might have changed or been renamed in between; the institution remains the same.
It was British imperial power that destroyed India’s textile industry, converting it into an importer of finished goods and an exporter of raw cotton. This is what converts India from a major producer of goods for its internal and external markets into an impoverished nation exporting food and minerals to the United Kingdom. Even worse, India also became a forced grower and supplier of opium, the only goods that the United Kingdom could supply to China. This is the genesis of the opium wars and the conversion of China into a neocolony. It is the colonial drain from India, the opium trade with China, and the loot of other colonies that led to the development of the United Kingdom and other colonial powers. Not their quest for discovery and thirst for knowledge.
The difference between the West and the Rest is not because of the spirit of discovery and its discovery of reason and, therefore, science. Instead, it is the story of loot, slavery and genocide. The British Crown is a reminder of its continuity, just like its 700 years-old coronation ceremony.