Bert hamminga Economics, Philosophy And The Social
Morality Of Colonialism
version date 990923
Lecture orig. for the Philosophy Centre Jinja, Uganda
Friday, November 21, 1997
By Bert hamminga
The European people sailing, from the early 14th Century to the lands to be colonized were marked by an extreme desire for material prosperity. They decided to probe the unknown and to risk their lives, not for their family, not for their tribe, or country, but in order to obtain valuable objects and exchange these valuable objects for more valuable objects. More was considered to be better, better was considered to be more. Though through all the European Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period there was a vast christian literature warning for the evil of greed, traders, sailors and captains alike tended to codify their life of material acquisition in terms of the will of God. It should be clear that they were primitive savages, and were considered as such, for instance in a 16th Century Chinese Chronicle reading "The people form Holland are also called red haired barbarians. ....they have eyes lying deep in their skull and long noses. ...Their behaviour is wild. They are greedy and shrewd, have expertise in many types of valuable commodities and expedient in making profit. For profit they sacrifice even their life and no place is too far away for them. ...These people have big ships stuffed with clever inventions and they make sails like webs that can catch the wind from any direction. If you meet them at sea you will certainly get robbed". (Blonk, A. and Romein, J., 19606, Leerboek der algemene en vaderlandse geschiedenis, Groningen: Wolters, p.172)
Japanese picture of Dutch. The red hair and
dress of the barbarians,
but above all eyes, chairs and table were causing astonishment
They are displayed eating the head of a cow with knives and forks
Watch the glasses next to the chairs (for spitting)
Reading the diary of the Dutch 17th Century East India captain Willem IJsbrandtsz Bontekoe van Hoorn, it becomes perfectly clear that when your ship meets a bigger one along some coast, you try, with Gods help, to sail away immediately before it robs you. If you meet a smaller ship, you sail to it and you try, with Gods help, to rob it. If in some bay, you meet a ship that is equally large, then you anchor at a respectable distance. You lower your top mast flag a little, to bow, as it were for the other ship, and then lift it again to the top. If the other ship does the same, then the captain and the ships trader go in their small boat and they are rowed to the other ship. There they meet, talk and decide about exchanging goods for those bought and robbed by the other ship. You continue your journey after, with Gods help, having increased the value of your load by exchange. In his diary Willem, a strongly believing christian, describes quite openly how his ship anchors in the mouth of a Chinese river in order to catch every small Chinese trade ship coming out. For him, it seems like catching fish, with Gods help you catch a lot, if you have bad luck, you might be waiting for weeks. He really sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Quite contrarily he firmly and sincerely believes he is serving God in such actions.
This teaches us that trades origin is a balance of power. If there is no balance of power and the ships have unequal size, there will be no trade but robbery. This principle holds as well when this kind of people meet on the land. With Gods help, as they put it, they will act exactly the same.
In the 18th Century the idea started to spread in Europe that this behaviour is not really leading to what is the general wish: being as rich as possible. The reason is this: if all common people know they will regularly be robbed from what they painfully produce, they will not produce more than they strictly need and can successfully hide. And richness comes from people producing more, producing a surplus. You can try to force the people to produce, for instance by making them slaves, but then you need supervisors and even then, slaves have no reason to do anything but what is strictly required from them. The idea emerging was that people produce most effectively if they are free and feel sure that at least most of the produce will be theirs, to use or sell. If people work for themselves, they work most efficiently. This was the thought. Robbery does not lead to wealth, because it demotivates the regularly robbed to produce. Protection from robbery leads to wealth because it motivates the producers.
So, there are two circles. The upward circle goes like this
safety > production increase > surplus > saving > more protection needs > more protection > more safety.
The downward circle goes:
insufficient safety > production decrease > poverty > more people steal and rob > less safety > more poverty > less resources for protection.
Example: if I have an ox and life is safe, I let it work on the land and produce lots of food to eat and to sell. If I sell well, I have money to buy a second ox. I may end up with a thousand oxen and feed the whole country. If I have an ox and life is unsafe, I will eat it before somebody will be able to take it from me. Nobody can buy the wheat I would have produced if life would have been safe. Everybody, the robbed and the robber, is worse of.
Moreover, in a safe society people dare to specialise and trust they will be able to sell their special product for the other things they need but do not produce themselves. If people specialise, they become better craftsmen and they will produce more. Everybody will profit.
As soon as the powerful understand this, they stop robbing and start to stimulate and protect private property and trade, as opposed to war and robbery.
In Europe the value of property protection has always been known. But at first it was applied only to ones own family and close relatives. When, in the Middle Ages, transport and trade gradually started to cover larger areas, strong families ("nobility") started to make agreements to respect each others property according to the balance of power between these families. If the balance changed, war would start again. When the cities started to host rich trade and banking families, these families gained protection in exchange for money financing the soldiers and armament of princes, kings and popes. At the dawn of the awareness, end of 18th Century, of the general value of property protection for the wealth of nations, small businessmen too started to be protected and liberated from the obligations to conform strict business rules imposed by the town trade organisations ("guilds"). More and more it was discovered that it is economically profitable and thus a common interest to fight the evils of theft and robbery and give freedom to as many people as possible to produce what they want, to posses what they want, and to sell what they want. The value of property protection was always there, but its range of application extended to more and more classes in the society. But it was not yet considered by Europeans to range over Africa ..
It is helpful to analyse the religious codification of these values and its development in the history we deal with here. Of course, the christian values are very clear in rejecting robbery. But there are several ways to legitimise robbery from another human being. First, the Middle Age noble elite took the produce of its own farmers because they considered themselves to be destined to "rule and protect". After the start of Islam and after the Reformation, a new legitimisation could be used: Islamites, Protestants and Catholics considered each other to be heretics, and this was generally considered to allow for robbery, war and conquest. Finally there was the racial legitimisation: Indians and Africans, for instance, were not really considered to be human, or at least sufficiently less human to be treated as unequals, hence, it was thought quite natural to Europeans to rob such peoples.
A slave is treated as between a man and a horse. Can you steal from a horse? No, if a true christian needs to go somewhere, he takes a horse, he feeds it, may be he treats it well, may be he beats it, but he is not going to pay the horse for its services. The primitive thoughts of the Europeans about other races came very close to that, in that period. So Indians and Africans could, in this primitive view, be slaves, but Africans were considered to be better "quality" slaves than Indians because Africans work harder, are better resisting diseases and die less quickly. Alongside with the broadening of the range of people whos property was henceforth going to be protected, the christian religion greeted more and more people as belonging to those for whom God created the world, but the inhabitants of colonised areas were not on top of that list. They were greeted as equal human beings at a very late stage indeed.
The changes of colonialism into imperialism must be understood from the historical changes in the colonisers home countries in Europe. Capitalism in Europe started as a system of fairly local markets where craftsmen sold their produce, often to specialised traders who were themselves not craftsmen. The traders sold again to consumers. What was still lacking were industries, that is large factories where lots of people work in an organised way to produce something for a wage. Craftsmen operated in a small scale, often in their own house, usually with nothing but a few apprentices. They made cloth, candles, furniture, steel products like knives and ploughs, etc. Sea trade was practised along the near coasts, Dutch, for instance brought herring to Scandinavia to exchange for wood to build ships and houses. Sailing down to Africa was done first by the Portuguese, who were closest, then Spaniards, Dutch and English. The aim was to get things that could be sold to home consumers: spices, tea, coffee, sugar. Well known was the triangle "trade (partly robbery): first to Africa to buy or catch slaves (depending upon what was the least costly way), then to bring them to the Americas to sell them to the cotton planters, then coming back with cotton to Europe. But also ready made cloth was brought to Europe from India. This robbery/trade was most cheaply and thus most profitably practised by leaving the foreign countries as they were, and just building coastal fortifications to collect the valuables to be shipped.
The industrial revolution increased enormously the amount of goods needed for production (as opposed to consumer goods obtained from abroad thus far) in the new factories in Europe. These industry inputs rose in significance as a part of trade from the colonies: cotton, wool, oils, jute and dyestuff are important examples. Moreover, since factories can produce vast amounts of goods, any good that could be produced at home, such as textiles, ceased to be imported from colonies. In the textile case, for instance India was quickly deprived of its textile exports to Europe. Moreover, in their "natural state" the colonies did not produce enough of the industry inputs needed in Europe. European settlers went, and organised the increase of production of cotton etc. as well as the increase of the production of food for the increasing number of those who were put to work on the cotton fields. Here, they ran into problems: the habits of the colonised people now had to be changed, the home economy needed more supply of the industry inputs produced in the colony. European capitalists felt the flow of goods from the colony was no longer a luxury, an additional source of profit, but that they became basically dependent on a growing mass of such imports, because these imports were no longer chiefly luxury consumer goods, but basic inputs for the industry.
In Europe internally, capitalists had become used to such dependency problems arising. At home, they became more and more dependent on wage labour workers for their factories: they had been transforming their home society by producing crop and cattle with less and less labour and forcing superfluous people to the cities where they could and forcibly were made to learn the completely new life and morals of a factory worker. A true culture change.
Just like capitalists had thus successfully changed the habits of the poor in Europe to make them work in factories, is was believed that life in the colonies could be transformed so as to conform the needs of increased production. So, the European model started to be applied: private land property was introduced, local rulers were trained and encouraged to adopt European administration techniques, money was introduced, the production of finished products was discouraged because it was believed it was more profitable to have people produce industry inputs and buy Europe-produced finished goods with their money, or, if they were slaves, with the money their master obtained from selling industry inputs to Europe.
Some hold that European capitalists also thought they would get increasingly dependent on the colonies for their sales: home markets were starting to become "saturated". This could have been another reason to "reorganise" the colonised societies to make them fit in the European style of economic life: the "wild" should become profitable paying consumers.
During the build-up of the empires it was widely believed
that in the end, the European elite would succeed to transform the colonised
cultures as before they had succeeded to transform the European culture in the
early industrial revolution. This was first thought to be realisable by
treating the people of these countries as economic resources, slaves, and
counting upon the rise of a society ran by European slave-master colonisers.
Later, after discovering that these "near-human" resources might be to human to
allow for optimal control through slavery, they were greeted as part of mankind
for whom God created the world, and attempts were made to meet European
economic objectives by treating them as part of a human society to be
transformed to European standards. As far as religion was concerned, for
instance, from then the African would not anymore be supposed to work as a slave
by order of a master, but to have a (or be able to acquire) a christian
"conscience", that should be kept "clean" by maintaining proper behaviour,
especially in wage labour service to European firms, with the help of
missionaries and priests. The European expectation was that such an arrangement
would be cheaper, as similar rearrangements in Europe had proven to be.
christian conscience and fear of God in a wage-labour situation was hoped to be
a cheaper way to "run" the African than slavery and master-fear. A big problem
encountered was the discovered lack of "consumer" needs, resulting in low labour
supply. That also came to be treated as a quasi-moral religious issue: Cambridge
professor G.J. Brown, The African Labourer, Oxford University Press" took
the position that "the largest part of the population of the world has to work
hard for its existence and there is no reason why the generosity of an abundant
nature should be an excuse for the African to shirk from that, working is
beneficial for everyone and if the black man wishes to elevate himself above his
present level he should be encouraged, with light pressure if necessary, to
exert himself somewhat and reach a higher level of existence." [this is not a
quote, though it comes very close to it, it will be replaced by the exact quote
in a next version of this page ##]. One of the policies adopted was, for
instance, a "hut-tax", to be paid with money. Money was no part of African
community life so it had to be acquired by paid labour.
So, where European capitalists at home could profit from hungry people applying for jobs because this was their only option to survive, in Africa, they suffered severe competition in providing means of survival by a "generous nature". And the European entrepreneurs turned out to largely lose that competition.
Finally, in the first half of the 20th Century, the belief that the European model could be implemented in a not too far future was given up, and the European investment in social transformation of the colonies got to be set against the very cheap alternative option: independence. The "independence" alternative became more and more attractive economically: many industry inputs imported from colonies became less and less vital for Europe because modern technology provided home produced alternatives for cotton, dyestuff, even the taste produced by tropical spices could now, if profitable, be produced by chemical industries in Europe. Under independence, the critical European interest would be to secure remaining vital supplies from Africa, mainly the basic minerals (oil, copper, bauxite, gold, etc.). There were then thought to be cheaper ways to secure this interest than controlling African societies as a whole by means of administrative power. Independence was "given" to the colonies.
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