Tag Archives: imperialism

Beginning Postcolonialism: John McLeod

Beginning PostcolonialismBeginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.

Postcolonial Basics

I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:

the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)

Without a hyphen?

referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)

Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:

is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)

Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:

…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)

Said, orientalism and literary studies

There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:

explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)

What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:

Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)

This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of  how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:

  1. re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)

  2. examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)

  3. A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)

This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…

I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)

Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:

Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.

McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):

Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)

More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:

‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)

‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’

third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)

Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:

‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)

Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:

  • Orientalism constructs binary oppositions

  • Orientalism is a Western fantasy

  • Orientalism is institutional

  • Orientalism is literary and creative

  • Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating

  • There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism

Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.

But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:

colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)

So of course there is room here to maneuver.

Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)

All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.

I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that.  The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:

Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)

What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing

how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)

Nationalism and nationalist discourses

There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the  discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:

“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)

The there is Balibar writing about the way that

nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)

Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where

nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)

With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:

nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)


I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:

a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)

This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…

So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)

I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…

As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)

Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:

Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)

I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:

involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).

I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.

Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference

I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…

In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)

This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:

The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)

Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:

Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).

This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.

[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]

*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227







Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

For more on race and empire…



Walter Rodney on Europe and Africa

Walter RodneyI like it when classic texts blow you away. Walter Rodney had some of the same impact as Fanon or C.L.R. James, all of them writing from a Afro-Carribean perspective. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1942, Walter Rodney’s parents were part of the People’s Progressive Party, a Marxist and multiracial group… I imagine they were proud of their son. In 1963 he won a scholarship to SOAS, and became part of the group around C.L.R. James (ah, can you imagine how awesome that must have been?). Rodney taught in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then in Jamaica until he was expelled for his politics. He traveled, but moved back to Guyana in 1974 where he worked for the positive transformation of his country, helping to centralise the Working people’s Alliance in the face of intense oppression, beatings, torture and assassinations. On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney’s car exploded, bombed, his voice silenced.

He built connections all over the world, but this book was introduced and edited by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill, and Bill Strickland of the Institute of the Black World based in Atlanta. These connections in struggle inspire… from the Caribbean to the U.S., Africa to Europe. They are not just oppressions — more and more I see that to fully understand the functioning of racism in one place, you must understand the others, go back to the source and the ways that Imperialism has connected them all over time and space. The way it has connected us. Harding, Hill and Strickland write:

Without rehearsing all the old political arguments about coalitions and alliances, neither forgetting the past nor being bound by it, we must find some way to respond to them and to allow them to come in touch with us. This is no passing luxury, in the old “race relations” style. Rather, we now realize that the children of the oppressed and the children of the oppressors are involved in a dialectical relationship that is deeper than most of us choose to recognize, and that there is no fundamental development for one without the other. (xxiii)

This is Rodney’s fundamental insight in this book as well — that Africa and Europe are dialectically related, that the development of one is related directly to the undevelopment of the other, the wealth of one built on the exploitation of the other. What does that mean for the undoing of things? Hopefully we are better than it being just a case of chickens coming home to roost, though he does use that phrase. It would be nice if the poor and the working classes of all countries might benefit from rearrangements.

Here is an exploration of his arguments under the chapter headings.

1: Some Questions on Development

There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities. Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. Above all, capitalism has intensified its own political contradictions in trying to subjugate nations and continents outside of Europe, so that workers and peasants in every part of the globe have become self-conscious and are determined to take their destiny into their own hands. (10)

Understanding underdevelopment:

At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one.

A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. (14)

And why might we mistake underdevelopment based on exploitation to anything else?

Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem either from prejudiced thinking or from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped economy. The true explanation lies in seeking out the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and in recognising that it is a relationship of exploitation. (22)

Always look to the relationships between things. Those relationships between Africa and Europe? Slavery, domination of trade, ownership of the means of production, foreign investment in the form of loans and interest:

The things which bring Africa into the capitalist market system are trade, colonial domination and capitalist investment… African economies are integrated into the very structure of the developed capitalist economies; and they are integrated in a manner that is unfavourable to Africa and ensures that Africa is dependent on the big capitalist countries. Indeed, structural dependence is one of the characteristics of underdevelopment. (25)

‘At the social and cultural level, there are many features which aid in keeping underdeveloped countries integrated into the capitalist system…’ (26) the church, language, music, the political system at first overtly through colonial rule and then through puppet governments

And perhaps the most important point in thinking about ‘underdeveloped’ countries today, across Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean:

Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context…If economic power is centred outside of national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centred outside… (27)

That seems so simple, yet most people working in development now fail to get it.

So, the nitty gritty of how this development on one side based upon the underdevelopment of the other worked — slavery almost makes it seem too obvious yet it is still so much ignored.

3: Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development — the Pre-Colonial Period & 4: Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment — to 1885

The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa. (75)

To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade. Strictly speaking, the African only became a slave when he reached a society where he worked as a slave. Before that, he was first a free man and then a captive. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to talk about the trade in slaves to refer to the shipment of captives from Africa to various other parts of the world where they were to live and work as the property of Europeans. The title of this section is deliberately chosen to call attention to the fact that the shipments were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else. (95)

The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women (96) … African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss. For instance, when the inhabitants of a given area were reduced below a certain number in an environment where tsetse fly was present, the remaining few had to abandon the area. In effect, enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature — a battle which is at the basis of development. (98)

The changeover to warlike activities and kidnapping must have affected all branches of economic activity, and agriculture in particular (99) … Therefore, there was what can be called ‘technological arrest’ or stagnation, and in some instances actual regression, since people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. … What Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance. (105)

Interesting note about land — and how it was never a commodity.

At no stage in the independent history of these interlacustrine states did land become purely a personal possession, to be monopolised by a given class, as in the classic European feudal model. Scholars frequently demand this feature before they concede that feudalism has arrived; (123)

What contact with Europe really meant for Africa:

It is clearly ridiculous to assert that contacts with Europe built or benefited Africa in the pre-colonial period. Nor does it represent reality to suggest (as President Leopold Senghor once did) that the slave trade swept Africa like a bush fire, leaving nothing standing. The truth is that a developing Africa went into slave trading and European commercial relations as into a gale-force wind, which shipwrecked a few societies, set many others off course, and generally slowed down the rate of advance. (135)

On the connections between capitalism and imperialism

To elucidate the main thesis of this study, it is necessary to follow not only the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa, but also to understand how those two combined in a single system — that of capitalist imperialism. (135)

The growing technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarise wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes.

European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting gain control over raw materials, markets and means of communications. They also fought to be the first to invest in new profitable undertakings related to their line of business — whether it be inside or outside their countries. Indeed, after the scope for expansion became limited inside of their national economies, their main attention was turned to those countries whose economies were less developed and who would therefore offer little or no opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism. That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late 19th century onwards is what we call ‘imperialism’.

Imperialism meant capitalist expansion. It meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment. The centuries of trade with Africa contributed greatly to that state of affairs where European capitalists were faced with the necessity to expand in a big way outside of their national economies. (136)

The development of arms and military technologies that allowed the complete conquest of the continent from the very resources of the continent itself:

Pre-colonial trade in slaves, ivory, gold, etc., was conducted from the coasts of Africa. On the coasts, European ships could dominate the scene, and if necessary forts could be built. Before the 19th century, Europe was incapable of penetrating the African continent, because the balance of force c their disposal was inadequate. But the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. (137)

5: Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe — the Colonial Period

There was a great expatriation of African surplus under colonialism. This was partly through European trading companies, but

Channels for the exploitation of surplus were not exhausted by the trading companies and the industrial concerns. The shipping companies constituted an exploitative channel that cannot be overlooked. The largest shipping companies were those under the flags of the colonising nations, especially the British. The shippers were virtually a law unto themselves, (161)

In the background of the colonial scene hovered the banks, insurance companies, maritime underwriters and other financial houses. One can say ‘in the background’ because the peasant never dealt directly with such institutions, and was generally ignorant of their exploiting functions (162)

The seizure of land also created a labour force — Walter Rodney doesn’t make the connection to its similarities to the pillaging of the commons back in England as explored by Linebaugh and Rediker, but I couldn’t get away from it.

When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive.(165)

And then there was always force.

Finally, when all else failed, colonial powers resorted widely to the physical coercion of labour – backed up of course by legal sanctions, since anything which the colonial government chose to do was ‘legal’. The laws and by-laws which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash-crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state, although they are not normally considered under the heading of ‘forced labour’.

The simplest form of forced labour was that which colonial governments exacted to carry out ‘public works’. Labour for a given number of days per year had to be given free for these ‘public works’ – building castles for governors, prisons for Africans, barracks for troops, and bungalows for colonial officials. A great deal of this forced labour went into the construction of roads, railways and ports to provide the infrastructure for private capitalist investment and to facilitate the export of cash-crops. Taking only one example from the British colony of Sierra Leone, one finds that the railway which started at the end of the 19th century required forced labour from thousands of peasants driven from the villages. (166)

Fucking hell you say.

I bet it was hell.

It wasn’t just about money though, it was about technology and innovation. Seems like academics are still ‘discovering’ this, yet here’s Rodney laying it all out there decades ago.

But, Africa’s contribution to European capitalism was far greater than mere monetary returns. The colonial system permitted the rapid development of technology and skills within the metropolitan sectors of imperialism. It also allowed for the elaboration of the modern organisational techniques of the capitalist firm and of imperialism as a whole. Indeed, colonialism gave capitalism an added lease of life and prolonged its existence in Western Europe, which had been the cradle of capitalism. (173)

Then, of course, the US began expanding its influence, particularly after WWII while Europe lay in ruins. Another key point of Rodney’s is that imperialism does not require the same relationship as colonialism:

Colonialism was based on alien political rule and was restricted to some parts of the world. Imperialism, however, underlay all colonies, extended all over the world (except where replaced by Socialist revolutions), and it allowed the participation of all capitalist nations. Therefore, lack of colonies on the part of any capitalist nation was not a barrier to enjoying the fruits of exploiting the colonial and semi-colonial world, which was the backyard of metropolitan capitalism. (189)

More ways that colonialism was vital to the survival of capitalism, and more of what the colonial relationship actually stripped from Africa to give to Europe:

Over the last few decades of colonialism, colonial possessions served capitalism as a safety-valve in time of crisis. The first major occasion when this was displayed was during the great economic depression of 1929-34. During that period, forced labour was increased in Africa and the prices paid to Africans for their crops were reduced. Workers were paid less and imported goods cost a great deal more. That was a time when workers in the metropolitan countries also suffered terribly; but the colonialists did the best they could to transfer the burdens of the depression away from Europe and on to the colonies. (195)

The second major occasion on which the colonies had to bail out the metropoles was during the last World War. As noted earlier, the African people were required to make huge sacrifices and to supply vital raw materials at little cost to the metropoles. (195-196)

6: Colonialism as a System for Underdeveloping Africa

I love how he devastates that whole ‘pro and con’ argument over colonialism that I have heard so many damn times…and I am still meeting people who think there are more pros:

However, they would then urge that another issue to be resolved is how much Europeans did for Africans, and that it is necessary to draw up a ‘balance sheet of colonialism’. On that balance sheet, they place both the ‘credits’ and the ‘debits’, and quite often conclude that the good outweighed the bad…It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand — it was a one-armed bandit. (205)

I have only copied the arguments here, not the many proofs offered by Rodney in the text. I’ll just give one as illustration, as if a long hard look at Africa over the past 60 years weren’t enough:

At the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilising ‘African natives’, the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in Eastern Angola was less than 30 years. (206)

There is so much more here on slavery, direct exploitation and forced labour, killing, rape, poverty, malnutrition, limited education through church (and mostly for manual labour), trains that led from industrial and natural resources to ports and nowhere else, shanty towns, absence of hospitals, the stripping of natural resources and the witholding of technology and expertise…

Part 2 will look more at the arguments around all of this and the development of racism, its connections to fascism and how both articulate with capitalism.

I had some critique, and it is less of Rodney and more of Marxist theory at the time he was writing —  particularly Marxist arguments on the evolution of societies, and the trajectory through feudalism to capitalism and on to socialism. Walter Rodney’s work is much more nuanced on this than many, because he is fucking smart and it is starting where people are, respecting their differences. I read it now in view of climate change and in face of a reality that our ‘advanced’ civilization is actually on the brink of destroying itself, and see there is quite a lot in here about the wealth of knowledge in African cultures about other ways of life that he notes, but still places broadly within this ‘improving’ trajectory. Just one example:

There was no single dam or aqueduct comparable to those in Asia or ancient Rome, but countless small streams were diverted and made to flow around hills, in a manner that indicated an awareness of the scientific principles governing the motion of water. In effect, the people of Zimbabwe had produced ‘hidrologists’, through their understanding of the material environment. (66)

These are things we should be learning from. But of course, for Rodney I think, damns and factories and mining and its technologies were still marks of progress. Left unexamined by him (but noted) is the terrible environmental costs of European extractions. Their cost born by the poorest people in the poorest countries, the wealth in exporting metals and precious stones as well as all the technology and development they enabled going to Europeans:

The mining that went on in Africa left holes in the ground, and the pattern of agricultural production left African soils impoverished; but, in Europe, agricultural and mineral imports built a massive industrial complex.(180)

Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.


A License to Trade (and thus conquer the world)

I am going to try to evoke the excitement and fascination of the rise of chartered companies. Awesome you say. But really, this is how England became an Empire.

I am slogging through it. Writing because that helps me understand.

To do it, I am going to depart slightly in interpretation from the dull and very partisan book I am basing all of this on and quoting from, A License to Trade: The History of English Chartered Companies by Sir Percival Griffiths (1974, London: Ernest Benn Ltd).

These companies were experiments beginning mostly in the 16th century but stretching back long before. They were slightly revolutionary, emerging in a time when the crown had enormous power and its subjects had none. Griffiths writes of the reasons that this form of organisation was necessary:

A charter was necessary in the first place because associations of individuals had no inherent right of meeting or electing officers or framing regulations. Without royal sanction the members of such an association would have been at continual risk of being punished as an unlawful assembly [I see why it was included in the U.S. Constitution]. Even the administration of oaths, or the export of goods, or the departure of an individual from England might require royal permission… (x)

So they had to invent something that would allow the pooling of resources necessary to carry out trading expeditions and explorations and that could meet regularly as a group with the crown’s permission, that gave them jurisdiction over their employees while they were abroad (again, normally a right belonging entirely to the crown), and at the same time had proof that the crown was backing them up. With force.

That’s exciting.

The charter was the outward sign to the foreign government that the company operated under the aegis of the English Crown and that injuries to its members would be resent by the Crown and might provoke retaliation (xi).

And finally, the wet dream of all capitalists everywhere, monopoly.

No body of individuals would have been prepared to accept all the risks then attendant on opening up overseas ventures without some assurance that others would not enjoy the fruits of its labours and all the early charters, therefore, conferred exclusive trading rights against all other Englishmen (xi).

I spy a hint of the classical economist’s assumption of freeloading here, which I hate, and that stupid idea that people are only motivated by profit, but I will let it slide. Particularly as on this occasion, most of these men were in fact motivated solely by profit, and did not let a single moral qualm stand in their way. It’s like free-market economics were invented entirely to describe them.

But what I find most interesting is that from their earliest beginnings, these chartered companies that sent out trading, exploratory and colonising expeditions around the world, were a strange mix of public and private, an uneasy combination of   individual and collective and national interests, and a part of the crucible that created the very ideas of free trade and rights that are so familiar today. Though they were all decrepit and bailed out in the end, or just used as the vehicle for crown rule.


In thinking about that crucible, we must remember that while determining their rights and ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ they were also extorting vast wealth and embarking on policies of conquest, slavery and genocide. This book doesn’t get into any of that however. At least, not where it can avoid it.

It mostly started with the merchant adventurers — who I shall hate forever for stealing the joy of the word adventure. There are mentions of merchant groups back in the 1200s, but in 1485 the English cloth merchants petitioned the crown as ‘Merchant Adventurers, Citizens of the City of London, into the parts of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders’.

It’s not surprising, but interesting that they style themselves ‘Citizens of the City of London’, and set up branches in other cities. Citizens of London, not England.

There are few light notes in this tome, I admit. But here is one. These merchant adventurers had apprentices who misbehaved as apprentices will do, ‘liable to fines for immorality or drunkeness, or for playing cards for excessive stakes…”knocking and ringing at men’s doors, beating at windows and consuming the master’s goods”‘ (11).

Another ‘fun’ fact: members often traded individually but divided up the total trade. The portion belonging to each was known as his stint.

I won’t go too much into each of the companies, but I hadn’t realised quite how many there were, quite how early they were, nor how different they were. It’s interesting to see them all together and realise the scale of this early stage of building the Empire. Also interesting is that before the beginning of accounting (or perhaps in spite of it), it is hard to gauge actual profits and losses. The wealth of England shows that there were profits, company members seemed to continuously pay themselves large dividends completely unrelated to actual profits and losses, but they all in the end seemed to have received subsidies from the crown (though that went both ways) and most were eventually fully taken over by the crown. As we know. That Empire over which the sun never set.

I’ve pulled out exciting quotes — there were a few. Honest. Well, enraging really. But there’s some good gossip about Ivan the Terrible and a visionary named Wakefield.

Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.
Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.

The Russia Company:

Beyond theories of the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and daring ‘…it is clear that the driving force behind the pioneers of the Russia venture was the need to find markets for the newly created surplus production of England’ (19). So early, it seems too early, does it not?

Circumstances were thus propitious when, in 1553, two hundred and forty ‘grave Citizens of London and men of great wisedome, and carefull for the good of their Countrey’ banded themselves together under the governorship of Sebastian Cabot to promote a voyage for the discovery of a North East passage to Cathay and for the establishment of trade wherever possible (20)

I love this description of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, pioneer of multiple costume changes, from pilot Richard Chancellor:

Before dinner hee changed his crowne, and in dinner time two crowns; so that I saw three severall crownes upon his head in one day (21).

In return for their trading rights to Russia, the crown extorted from the company a few things. Not that they pay a portion of their earnings to the crown’s overseas creditors (as many other companies were required to do), but instead that they provide all of the wax required by the Royal Household and all the cordage required by the navy. They could not sell either of these two commodities until the crown and the navy had had enough.

A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company's arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687
A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company’s arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687

The Levant Company:

Ah, Turkey and Venice…and the companies formed to ‘wrest from the Venetians the existing trade between England and the Levant’ (42).

In 1581, Elizabeth I granted ‘letters patent’ to the Turkey company that ‘authorized them to make laws and ordinances for the government of the Company, and prohibited English subjects from even visiting Turkey without permission of the Company’ (46) and renewable after 7 years.

The Levant Company received its letters patent in 1592, and was entitled to also appoint an Ambassador to Turkey to represent both crown and company.  After some prosperity it received a few infusions of cash from the crown, and failed.

God, this is a little boring. Except you wake up and realise the company was appointing ambassadors to represent England abroad, and you’re like what? There was a bit of struggle over this, but still…

The African Companies:

Of the great charter companies established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the African companies alone can be regarded as, on the whole, unsuccessful. From 1588 to 1672 a succession of companies chartered to trade to the Guinea Coast went out of business, and even the Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 to exploit what was thought to be the very lucrative slave trade, enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity and eventually found itself unable to compete with private traders.

This is real banality of evil stuff, in presentation, not in subject.  He discusses lightly the three phases: trade by private individuals with or without permission, trade by the companies focused mainly on gold, and from 1660 (what ho restoration and the joys it brought the rest of the world), companies were chartered mainly for the slave trade.

A quote from J.A. WIlliamson that gives the lie to all of the later quotes about civilization and for people’s own good and etc:

The Guinea traffic of this period is one of the fundamental transactions of British expansion…it produced an oceanic war with Portugal…and it occassioned the formulation of a British doctrine which was never afterwards abandoned, the doctrine that prescriptive rights to colonial territory are of no avail unless backed by effective occupation.

The first English slave raid on the Guinea Coast? John Hawkins, 1562.

eastindiaThe East India Company:

Chartered in 1600. I am reading tons about them (see another post here), so I am going to be brief here.

Young men went to India in the eighteenth century to make a fortune and since they were grossly underpaid they relied for this purpose on private trade–a practice at times allowed and at other times connived at by the Directors (97).

Like a swarm of jackals really…I’m mixing my metaphor there, but I like it. Griffiths skips lightly over this, as he does the horror-filled famine in Bengal in 1769 onwards, though he has to note Pitt’s Act of 1784 which arose to control the company’s abuses that gave rise to it.

It is only in thinking of profits that this makes any sense:

The China trade presented the brightest aspect of the Company’s affairs in the late eighteenth century. It consisted of the export of opium from India to China and the export from China of tea, silk and spices (104).

No mention of Opium Wars of course.

Heraldic achievement of Hudson's Bay Company
Heraldic achievement of Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company:

The 1670 charter granted it:

The sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly caled Hudson’s Straits, together with all the land and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid, that are not actually already possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State (112).

Thus they bring god into it robbery and theft. Their first sales in London were by

‘inch of candle’ at Garroway’s Coffee House on 24 January 1672. It was not a financial success–of between 2,700 and 3,000 lb of beaver put up for sale, only 789 lb. were sold, realizing £282 4s 0d.

Breaks my heart that does.

There’s more, like this:

Wedderburn had also shown much interest in land settlement as a means of providing for the Company’s retired servants and their half-breed offspring, and also of making servants and labourers available for the Company’s needs (126).

I almost ripped that page out of the book, but I didn’t.

It was unthinkable that the great prairies, large areas of which were believed to be fertile, should remain almost uninhabited. The only question was as to who should colonize them (131).

The Virginia Company:

They settled Virginia, most of them died, blah blah blah.

The Plymouth Company:

We’ve heard lots about them before.

The Massachusetts Bay Company:

This differed from the rest in that the government of the company was not required to remain in England. Good for founding theocratic states.

The Newfoundland and Guiana Companies:

The Darien Company:

A Scottish chartered company, but it didn’t quite get off the ground.

By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these companies were still being formed, but intellectual fashion had ‘swung strongly against monopolies’, so they didn’t have that going for them. The reason I am reading this book at all was the little I have found out about the

g161Sierra Leone Company:

When Griffiths writes this it is without sarcasm, but not when I copy it:

Even before the news of this disaster had reached London, it had become apparent to Sharp that philanthropic motives were not always by themselves sufficient for the maintenance of a colony and that commercial interests must be attracted to it (219).

The Governor was fortunate in the choice of his two Councillors — Zachary Macaulay, a leading member of the Clapham Sect, and William Dawes, a former marine officer at Botany Bay (221)

An evangelical abolitionist and the warden of a prison colony. Jesus.

I don’t even know where this comes from:

Like most visionaries, Wakefield was unbalanced and in his early days found himself in trouble with the law as a result of abducting an heiress (226).

Niger_Coast_Scott_44The Royal Niger Company:

Prepare yourself for some truly righteous anger…

The determination of the British Government to suppress the slave trade led, in 1851, to friction with Kosoko, the King of Lagos. When he attacked the British settlement at Badagri, he was driven out and his successor, Akitoya, entered into a treaty for the abolition of the slave trade. He was succeeded by Docemo, who genuinely sought to observe the treaty, but opposition from his subjects was too strong and it became clear that nothing except direct British control would achieve the desired result. In August 1861, Docemo was therefore pursuaded to cede his kingdom to the Britain and was given a very adequate pension (238).

The pension is a nice touch.

…in the Delta, where many of the tribes keenly resented the presence of the Company. Its activities not only undermined their position as middlemen but also threatened their way of life, since the Company was determined to put an end to slavery and to suppress the barbarous customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice…bit by bit, either by peaceful treaty or force, the Company established its ascendency and within a few years the Delta was fully under its control (241).

In the words of a writer in 1898, unconsciously giving a better angle on what it really was all about:

The West Coast of Africa at the present day resembles a huge estate that has been split up into building lots, with desirable frontages on to the Atlantic, and boundary fences running back on either side of each lot, but in many cases having no fence at the end of the back garden… (A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, London: 1898. p 411)

The British North Borneo Company:

Never concerned with trade, this company just governed Borneo. You know.

The Imperial British East Africa Company:

As a Chartered Company, however, they were considered to have responsibilities almost as agents for Her Majesty’s Government and so had to undertake an unprofitable advance into territories from which that Government wished to exclude the Germans. As a result, the shareholder received no dividends and lost much of their capital (263).

The British South Africa Company:

Ah, South Africa, a monument to the benefits of Empire.

There were a host more of smaller, less important, more prone to failure companies. In spicing this post up with pictures I found stamps and coins…which demands a whole other post really. Of course they had stamps and coins, but I still ask myself, did they really have stamps and coins? Seriously?

I mock these things, but I know this is a history of conquest and slavery and a destruction of lives and cultures and languages and traditions and knowledges. Unimaginable horror. Driven by greed. Hidden behind discussions of chartered companies and their legalistic language and reasonings.

Which is why I am learning more.


Confessions of an English Opium Eater

I was disappointed I confess, though I don’t know why I had high expectations given I have always found people on drugs profoundly boring—although they seem to find themselves extremely interesting. De Quincy writes ‘I have, for the general benefit of the world, inoculated myself as it were, with the poison of 8000 drops of laudanum per day (just for the same reason as a French surgeon inoculated himself lately with cancer…)’. Right.

An opium eater is not the most interesting person in the world.

What struck me most was privilege, even in his poverty after running away as a teenager. After all, he heads to Eton, where he will always be at home, to get Lord so-and-so to co-sign a loan against his expected fortune from the Jews. I was sad but not surprised to find such a stereotypical view of jews as existing simply to lend money to wealthy but under-age men. A window of empathy into the lives of the poor and oppressed emerged, but he only opened the curtain a little, hardly even looked properly through it. There is disappointingly little here about London and walking its streets, which is what I expected to find given all I had read mentioning this book. He describes some of Soho, an empty house he lives in for a while, how he finds friendship with a young prostitute whom he believes saves his life then loses her…I was a bit at a loss to understand how this always occurs in psychogeographic lists of London literature.

Deborah Epstein Nord made me rethink this a little, writing that while the first part of the Confessions and London itself seems peripheral to the main obsessions:

‘It seems to me…that the London episode is crucial to the meaning of the Confessions and, more important, that it enacts in a hallucinatory way the essential nature of the London experience I have been describing [as theater]. The Confessions also articulate the centrality of female sexuality to the evocation of the city’s meaning and the construction of bohemian identity…The dreams or images of the London experience were to act as a thread connecting his early with his later days… (41)

I thought this observation interesting too:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

But this reflects my own critique of the book, and the ‘mysteries’ of London, to me, do not seem so mysterious.

What I hadn’t expected to find was a crazy reflection of imperial angst and racism. He’s in the remote mountains in a cottage when a ‘Malay’ comes to the door and doesn’t speak English. He contrasts ‘the beautiful English face of the girl and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude … with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay…his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations’. They can’t communicate, but apparently all the man wants is somewhere to rest before he goes on his way. As a parting gift, de Quincey offers him a chunk of opium, which the man proceeds to eat entire–‘the quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done?’ Nothing apparently, he sends him out in the night, and is anxious for his life the next few nights but upon hearing no reports of the dead body turning up, his mind is relieved.

Except it’s not. After the years of happily enjoying his regular opium habit, it eventually spirals down into pain and terrible dreams/hallucinations. These are regularly frequented by what he calls ‘Oriental’ dreams (part of the reiterative process of being influenced by, and contributing to, Orientalism). He writes ‘The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes…The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations.’ Holy crap I thought, the inscrutable asian ‘other’ that he might well have murdered comes back to his dreams, takes him to the very places his opium comes from — though that isn’t thought through or even mentioned. I suppose this is before the Opium wars and Britain’s great Opium-dealing adventure overseas, it prefigures it in a way. And unlike the Heart of Darkness fear of ‘primitive’ man (though he brings up that up as well in relation to ‘barbarous’ Africa), it is instead fear and trembling before an older greater culture–‘the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate religions…The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual’.

There is so much to think about there, I hope to come back to it at some point, though surely this must have been written about. The only other interesting thing, funny really, was the statement on political economists of the day: ‘I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head…might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus-heads to powder with a lady’s fan’. Which I love, though I am not sure exactly how that insult works…