1970s >> 1979 >> no-901-september-1979

Discovering capitalism

It would be an exaggeration to say that we owe the Industrial Revolution to the stink of bad offal. Yet the fact is that when Portuguese ships were sent to explore the coast of Africa, it was partly in the hope of discovering an easterly route to the Indies, and so destroy the Muslim monopoly of the spice trade. Spices were essential to the meat-eating classes, in an age of famines and epidemics when refrigerators, deep freezes and canning were unknown.


Henry the Navigator’s crusading zeal to join forces with Prester John coincided with his country’s economic needs. Portugal possessed few resources, and the strength of the Islamic stranglehold on Mediterranean trade, with the high prices extorted for goods passing through Venice or Egypt, was too great. In 1415 Portugal invaded Morocco, an adventure which finally failed, and Henry began to organise those expeditions south which by 1430 brought corn from Madeira and the Azores. By 1443 regular cargoes of African slaves came to Lisbon, enabling sugar plantations to be developed. By the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese had reached India and Brazil, and Columbus had found the Caribbean islands.


Religious and political motives combined with the economic needs of the European mercantile class to override the authority of Ptolemy’s world map. They overcame, too, the contemporary belief that near the Equator the heat would frizzle a man like pork crackling and ships would be stuck fast in hot seas thickened to the consistency of treacle.


Yet these voyages would not have happened if various technical problems had not been solved. By the fourteenth century, the use of the magnetic compass made it possible for ships to travel out of sight of land even in dull weather. Henry’s shipwrights developed caravels, which combined the speed before the wind of Atlantic square-rigged vessels with the manoeuvrability of Mediterranean lateen-rigged craft. His captains joined the ‘log, lead and look-out’ navigating technique of the Atlantic seamen with a Mediterranean skill in using charts and compasses. Navigation was also assisted by the growing use of astronomical instruments like astrolabes, in use in the 1480s and later replaced by quadrants.


As they reached down south of the Equator, Henry’s captains reported that they could no longer see the Pole Star. This caused his ‘think-tank’ to devise a new method of establishing latitude from the sun’s altitude at noon. Astronomy benefit ted from the navigators’ demand for accurate tables. During the seventeenth century, navigation became an art, with quadrants, sextants, telescopes and bulky almanacs, complete with correction tables for the dip of the horizon, refraction, and lunar and solar parallax. The Butterfield quadrant of the seventeenth century was accurate to one-tenth of a degree. Instrument making depended in its turn not just on the needs of astronomers and navigators but on other developments in optics, glassmaking. lense-making and metallurgy.


Another result of the increase in geographical knowledge was the development of map-making. Fifteenth century seamen used charts on which compass-roses and criss-cross rhumb lines indicated bearings. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ortelius, Mercator and other Dutch cartographers developed maps, charts, globes and atlases to an extent never known before. In 1477 the first engraved (printed) maps were being produced — among them the ancient Ptolemy world map of c.150 AD, destined to be outdated within twenty years by the discovery of the sea route to India. By the end of the sixteenth century, Mercator had discovered how to project an accurate picture of the nearly spherical earth onto a two-dimensional map.


There was a striking contrast between the Elizabethan maps of which Raleigh wrote: “The fictions (or let them be called conjectures) painted in Maps doe serve only to mis-lead such discoverers as rashly believe them.” (his expedition produced, ironically, just such a map of the River Orinoco in South America, complete with Amazons, cannibals, men with heads beneath their shoulders, and tigers!), and the view taken in the eighteenth century when Dalrymple declared: “Geography is a science of facts. . .  Surveys and Astronomical Observations only can give Precision.”


The development of printing and engraving techniques enabled the discoveries of the explorers, combined with the observations and theories of sixteenth century astronomers, to be widely disseminated, which revolutionised the intellectual climate. Facts undermined the authority of Herodotus, Aristotle and Ptolemy, and threatened even religion. The world which produced Newton and Halley was a very different one from that which produced Erasmus.


Yet the old ideas stubbornly held their ground. Ptolemy’s map showed the Indian Ocean as landlocked, a notion which lasted until the end of the fifteenth century. He also suggested that there was a vast southern continent: this Terra Australis Incognita was duly drawn on everyone’s map of the world. Mercator believed (1569) in “a continent so great that, with the southern parts of Asia and the new India or America, it should be a weight equal to the other lands” and Herodotus’ theory of symmetry persisted into the mid-eighteenth century, when Dalrymple wrote that a southern continent was “wanting on the South of the Equator to counterpoize the land on the North and to maintain the equilibrium of the earth’s motion”.


Columbus, overestimating the width of Asia and therefore underestimating the westward distance from Spain to Asia’s east coast, believed he could quickly reach Asia by sailing west. This mistake was as fruitful as was Dalrymple’s argument in promoting Cook’s new discoveries. In both cases, the new discoveries were not at all those expected.


It has been said that ’great men are beginners’. The ships’ captains who sailed to Africa’s Gold Coast in the fifteenth century began the slave trade. Sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations developed in the New World. On Barbados the first settlers were dispossessed by subtle and greedy planters in the seventeenth century. Monoculture took over in Europe’s colonies: sugar and tobacco in the Caribbean, rubber in the Congo, coffee in Brazil, opium, jute and tea in India. The oceans of the world teemed with capitalist shipping: slavers from Bristol and Liverpool (they could be smelt a mile off), sugar, cotton, tobacco, tin, gold, silver, rubber, guano, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, jute and copra — these are only some of the goods brought to swell Europe’s capital. The labour employed on plantations was not usually free labour. Cotton and sugar cane plantations were mainly slave-based, though some convicted or indentured labour was also employed. ‘Blackbirding’ raids on Pacific islands like the New Hebrides to provide ‘contract labour’ for Queensland sugar plantations went on right through the Victorian era.


The effect of capitalism on relatively backward peoples was to destroy their cultures (Benin in West Africa sunk into a Dark Age of catastrophic wars and human sacrifices), to decimate or annihilate their populations by disease, forced labour and often by deliberate genocide and to reduce agricultural villages or tribal communities into debt-ridden peons, share-croppers and indentured labourers on massive plantations.


Even in the twentieth century, indentured or contract labour, hardly distinguishable from slavery, was producing cocoa on San Thome; the ‘labourers’ were still being shipped from Angola in the fifties (John Gunther. Inside Africa, 1955). In the Belgian Congo, “the monstrous assembly line which spewed out the rubber was very simply worked. The only machinery required was a supply of guns, knives and whips. Labour presented no problem.” (Rene MacColl, Roger Casement). Torture, mutilation, murder and terror were as common on the Putumayo in Brazil as in the Congo. The same can be said of eighteenth century Jamaica, which Dr. Johnson described as “a place of great wealth, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves”.


These are only some of the horrors produced by the capitalist system. The early discoverers bartered and plundered. The Merchant Venturers used profits from early ventures to accumulate greater capital. Expanding colonial trade helped develop Europe’s big ports, shipping and industry. The growth of the cotton plantations assisted the development of the factory system. The world market in commodities expanded at an increasing rate from the sixteenth century onwards.


The discoveries also led to a development of scientific techniques and instruments. By the eighteenth century naturalists travelled with Cook on his expeditions, Linnaeus was able to classify many botanical species, and in the nineteenth century a sea-going naturalist, Charles Darwin, developed the theory of evolution. A hundred years ago, the Challenger, on a three-year voyage, took five hundred deep bearings with a hemp line several miles long; each sounding took a day. In 1926-7 a German research ship took 67,000 soundings while under way at twenty-minute intervals. Now Glomar Challenger and Explorer can drill deep into the earth’s crust at the bottom of the oceans – a measure of the tremendous growth of human knowledge and technology under capitalism.


The history of exploration and discovery provides numerous illustrations of the extent to which many interrelated factors – ideas, outstanding individuals, technology, economic needs — contribute to developing our knowledge and how we use nature. Knowledge is a social product; not abstract pure science but something sought and accumulated in a given social, political and economic context, only to be obtained in certain historical circumstances. “Men make their own history”, wrote Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).


Charmian Skelton