American Civilization

September 24, 2008

Equiano, the Black Atlantic, and the Making of the Liberal Subject (part one)

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Olaudah Equiano Lecture for AMS1A


Part ONE:



Black Atlantic

Atlantic World

Oceanic Revolution

Commercial Revolution


Age of Revolution

Mercantile Capitalism





Maritime Culture and the Black Atlantic


“the Oceanic Revolution”: the opening of the Western Hemisphere to exploration and colonization was a world historical event. The central figure of this revolution was the sailor.

Adam Smith: “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” (Wealth of Nations).

Within 25 years of Columbus’s expedition the world had been circumnavigated. (or, perhaps that task was already accomplished by Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch and Ming era Chinese admiral, who is said to have done so between 1421 and 1423, roughly one century before Magellan’s voyage. China undertook long-distance trade to ports as far as East Africa, Southeast Asia, etc until 1433, when government policy changed).

A new sense of space: the ocean no longer an obstacle but a conduit. The oceanic interconnection of continents. The “ocean world”– a world rendered accessible by the ability to travel on open waters. 

Sea power was the instrument by which empires sprang up, grew, and consolidated.  

The shift of sea-going trade from the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean to the Atlantic/Pacific. This was the event that catapulted Europe beyond its Afro-Asian neighbors. 

In 1300 the Islamic and Mongol Empires were larger and wealthier than any political formation in Europe. With the opening of the antipodes, that would change. 

14th century CE: the Empire of Mali is at its height. 

1325 CE: Tenochtitlan has roughly 250,000 inhabitants.  

1300s: caravans crossing the Eurasian landmass spread the Black Death. 60 million Chinese die. Europe loses one-third of its population. This catastrophe was one reason Europeans sought oceanic trade routes. By the 15th century, Europe and China are rebounding.

The decimation of Africans and American indigenes by microbe/sword, and their enslavement, acted as a kind of affirmative action for Europeans. 

European powers were enriched, and consequently grew more potent. (ex. The silver mines of Potosi funded military conquest, capitalized the early stages of industrialization, etc. Between 1500 and 1800 85 % of the world’s silver came from S. America, half of which ended up in China via the route from Acapulco to Manila. This influx of wealth urbanized China and gave Europeans access to sophisticated goods, producing an integrated global economy based on Atlantic/Pacific trade routes. Spain’s successful colonization of the Americas was thus predicated not only on control of the mines of Peru and Mexico, but on the economic expansion of China.)

Those who would contest their claims to the wealth of the Americas (Native Americans) were weakened enormously. 

As the demand for African labor grew, littoral Africa– drawn into a web of political and economic relations that often pitted Africans against one another, its population depleted–  was also rendered vulnerable to European plans for dominance.

Oceanic exploration also had a profound impact on different forms of knowledge. New peoples, unfamiliar cultural formations and ways of organizing society, led to a new typologies of human difference, new methods of categorization, the rise of Race as a term describing not simply national/cultural differences, but variations that were seen to be somatic (in/of the body) and ineradicable. Theories of monogenism/polygenism. In other words, the oceanic revolution resulted in a kind of proto-anthropology.


The Black Atlantic

Black Atlantic refers not to a clearly defined region or specific period, but to a multidimensional and trans-cultural space characterised more by movement and networking than by particular sites. Paul Gilroy sees the Atlantic Ocean as a negative continent that makes it possible to trace lines of social, historical and cultural connection between the Americas, Africa and Western Europe.”

The African Diaspora not only uprooted Africans and hurled them in all directions under conditions of enslavement, but profoundly impacted the character of western modernity itself. The Black Atlantic, as a space of hybridization and creolization, and as a lens through which to view the inceptions of modernity, encourages us acknowledge the fundamentally blurred outlines of identitarian concepts such as race, culture, and nation. 

Modernity itself was built with both free, waged labor and unfree, unwaged labor. This is to say that the moment we live in right now is as much a product of the African diaspora and the Commercial Revolution as any other point since the 18th century. Corporations which used slave labor still exist in the US: Drummond Coal and US Steel (USX). 

The Atlantic World, a product of the Oceanic Revolution, determined by the Commercial Revolution of trans-Atlantic trade, is also the world of the Black Atlantic, a space of cultural encounter and exchange. Looking at the history of the America’s under this rubric broadens our understanding of what would become the United States by inserting it into a larger geographical, political, economic, and cultural system. 

This is a critical gesture: a method of “worlding” the history of the United States, locating its development within a larger, more complex frame of forces and conditions. As such, it is a direct attack on the cliches of American exceptionalism.

Crititcal method #2: The Chronotope

This is how the Soviet literary critic, M.M. Bakhtin, described the chronotope:

“We will give the name chronotope [literally, ‘time space’] to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature….we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor [almost but not entirely]. What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time [time as the fourth dimension of space].

“In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”

Anthropologist James Clifford, picking up this thread for his own purposes, writes:

“The chronotope is a fictional setting where historically specific relations of power become visible and certain stories can ‘take place’ (the bourgeois salon in nineteenth-century social novels, the merchant ship in Conrad’s tales of adventure and empire).”

To understand these remarks we need to acknowledge that there can be neither space without time nor time without space.

Now push it further: conceive of space not as abstract, as in geometry, nor as dead and endless as in the expanse of the universe. Space, in the sense we will be using that term, is social; it is produced by human activity. The space of the dance floor, for instance, is created by the rhythmic motion of the dancers’ bodies. The road as a space is constructed by the movement of vehicles. 

But we have to tweak Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope just a bit more: the chronotope, for our purposes, will be a space that symbolizes, embodies or stands in for the power relations which define the historical period– that is, the 18th century. 

Paul Gilroy: “I have settled on the image of ships in motion across teh spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol…. The image of the ship– a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion– is especially important…. Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs.”

Sailors and Slaves

(drawn from Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many Headed Hydra)

St. Patrick’s Day uprising planned in a waterfront tavern. Conspirators included Irish, English, HIspanic, African, and native American men and women. predominantly wage laborers (soldiers, sailors, journeymen) and slaves. 

“During their deliberations, David Johnson, a journeyman hatter… swore that ‘he would help to burn the town and kill as many white people as he could.’ John Corry, an Irish dancing-master, promised the same as… did John Hughson” the tavern’s owner “and many others, a large number of African-Americans among them.” The conspirators executed their plan, “burning down Fort George, the Governor’s mansion, and the imperial armory, the symbols of Royal Majesty and civil authority, the havens and instruments of ruling-class power in New York. They did not succeed, as evidenced by the 13 burned at the stake, the 21 hanged, and the 77 transported out of the colony as slaves or servants” (cf the Townsend Act?) “The corpses of two of the hanged dangled in an iron gibbet on the waterfront as a lesson to others. As the bodies decayed in the open air, observers noted a gruesome, yet instructive, transformation. The corpse of an Irishman turned black and his hair curly while the corpse of Caesar, the African, bleached white. It was accounted a ‘wondrous phenomenon’” (225-6).

What does this anecdote signify?

That the details of the history of the “Age of Revolution”, especially in the Atlantic World,  portray a situation that defies easy categorization and the familiar, flat narrative of the years leading up to the American Revolution as a series of misconceived colonial economic policies resisted by tax-loathing merchants. “Here we have ‘white’ Europeans pledging themselves to the destruction of ‘the white people’ of NY, by which they obviously meant the rich people. Here we have… a many-sided rising by a diverse urban proletariat– red, white and black, of many nations, races, ethnicities and degrees of freedom.”

This is the secret history of the period, one characterized by “points of contact, overlap, and cooperation”– a situation in which affinities were not always what might be expected, where people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and languages worked and lived together. The Atlantic World was polyglot, multi-ethnic and working-class. The workers of its economy were longshoremen, sailors, chandlers’ assistants, prostitutes, waitresses, rope-makers, etc.

“sailors and navvies of the mercantile powers… formed the mass of 18th century waged labor” (229).

In other words, the accumulation of capital and the broadening of European empires required an international working-class to ply trade routes and keep them free from interference. 

The seaman was the key figure of the transformation of the Atlantic World. It was on his back, and on the backs of the enslaved, the waged, and indentured, that England’s “commercial revolution” would occur, priming conditions for the Industrial Revolution. Before the industrial looms of the factories were built, drawing in millions and transforming them from peasants to proletarians, the work of waged laborers, slaves, and sailors would initiate capitalist accumulation, centralization, and consolidation. 

Sailors were among the first workers of this new economic order, an order in which labor itself, the ability to perform certain tasks, became a commodity. 

As trade increased, so did the merchant fleet. Because trade and warfare were (and indeed still are) intimately linked, the Royal Navy also expanded. The need for sailors sharpened accordingly, though that demand was not often met because of reluctance on the part of potential seamen. If wages were low, the mortality rate was high: “almost half of those pressed in the 17th and 18th centuries died at sea.” Impressment grew in frequency.

What distinguished the sailor (“tar”) from others? He spoke a unique language, full of technical terms, foreign words, unusual syntax, distinctive pronunciation and curses. He usually wore “wide, baggy britches, cut a few inches above the ankle and often made of a heavy, rough red nap. The breeches were tarred as a protection against the cold, numbing wetness. He frequently wore a checked shirt of blue and white linen, a blue or gray ‘fearnought’ jacket, gray stockings, and a Monmouth cap. Some of his apparel he might well have made for himself, so deft was he with needle and thread after years of mending sails at sea. Always making clever use of common places, the seaman used bits of hardened cheese or ‘ye Joints of ye Back-Bone” of a shark as buttons on a jacket” (Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea).

His face would generally be prematurely wrinkled due to constant exposure. He would probably have tattoos made by “pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment,” either ink or, more likely, gunpowder. The average tar in the mid18th century was 27 years old and had gone to sea in his late teens or early twenties.

“Some were younger sons of yeomen and poor farmers, men who had migrated to the cities in search of work and finally found it on the docks. Some, perhaps, had been dispossessed of land by enclosure. Others had been picked up by press gangs, and once forced to acquire the sills of maritime labor in the Royal Navy, decided to work as merchant seamen. Still others were rural folk who had been drawn to the sea by the lure of high wages during wartime.”

sailors and slaves “were two of the rowdiest” groups in the British colonies. Each group “engineered their own cycles of rebellion during the course of the 18th C” (230).

Sailors were a large part of the militant resistance of the years preceding the Revolution. “They played a major part in a great many of the patriot victories between 1765 and 1776. Seamen led a series of militant riots against impressment between 1741 and 1776, and… their legacy was acknowledged by both Tom Paine… and Tome Jefferson, both of whom listed impressment asa major grievance and spur to colonial liberation.”

Established forms of rebellion on the eve of the Revolution: portside riots, mutiny, piracy, work stoppage, desertion. 

Seamen rioted twice in Boston in 1741 (ex. “300 seamen armed with ‘axes, clubs, and cutlasses’ attacked the commanding officer of the Astrea”) twice in 1745 (on one occasion “two seamen [were] hacked to death by the press gang”). “Seamen also animated crowds that attacked the Royal Navy and its minions in Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, and Jamaica throughout the 1740s.”

1747: Commander of the HMS Lark “commenced a hot press in Boston. A mob, initially consisting of 300 seamen but ballooning to ‘several thousand people’, quickly seized some officers of the Lark as hostages, beat a deputy sheriff and slapped him into the town’s stocks, surrounded and attacked the Provincial Council Chamber, and post squads at the piers to keep naval officers from escaping back to their ship. The mob was led by laborers and seamen, black and white, armed with ‘clubs, swords, and cutlasses’; the ‘lower class’, observed Thomas Hutchinson, ‘were beyond measure enraged’.”

the political background of this uprising was an Act which forbade impressment in the Sugar Islands, a protection that sailors and other laborers demanded for their own, “each  Claiming a Right to the same Indulgence” (Knowles in Linebaugh). Antipathy for impressment “filled the Minds of the Common People… with not only a hatred for the King’s Service but a Spirit of Rebellion”

Here we see direct resistance to unjust authority, a fact not lost on Sam Adams, who “used the Knowles Riot to formulate a new ‘ideology of resistance, in which the natural rights of man were used for the first time to justify mob activity’. Adams saw that thte mob ‘embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged’. But the self-activity of some common tars, ‘zealous abetters of liberty’, came first. Their militant resistance produced a major breatkthrough in libertarian thought that would ultimately lead to revolution.”

The Knowles Riot, “led by ‘armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and others”, was only one moment in a chain of working-class rebellions in seaports from Charleston to New York to Bristol to the West Indies. The claim of “rights”– inchoately articulated– practiced by these workers was eventually worked out– theorized, articulated– as “‘right’ by law”.

1763: “‘Armed bobs of whites and Negroes repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatned their lives and held them hostage for the men they pressed’”.

1765: 500 “‘seamen, boys, and Negroes’ rioted against impressment in Newport,RI.

1767: a mob of armed whites and blacks attacks Capt. Jeremiah Morgan in a press riot in Norfolk, VA.


First Maroon War of Jamaica (1730-1740); slave rebellions in Danish Virgin Islands, Dutch Guyana (1733); slave plots and conspiracies in the Bahamas (1734), Antigua (1735-6), Guadeloupe (1736-8). The Stono Rebellion (1739).

“The movement toward rebellion among African-Americans accelerated after 1765”: “‘black freedom struggles on the even of white independence’ intensified as slaves seized the new opportunities offered by splits between imperial and colonial ruling classes. Running away increased… by the mid 1770s, a rash of slave plots and revolts” increased anxieties. Risings in New Jersey, South Carolina, New York, Boston, Maryland, Virgina, North Carolina.

Many escaped slaves and African freemen sought employment in Northern ports for their relative anonymity and impersonal wages. Work as seamen, laborers. “By the middle of the 18th century, slaves dominated Charleston’s maritime and riverine traffic, in which some 20 percent of the city’s adult male slaves labored.”

Jeffrey J. Crow: black pilots “were a rebellious lot, particularly resistant to white control”

Mob character of protests against the Stamp, Townshend, Quartering, Tea and ‘Intolerable’ Acts. The dangers of popular revolt. Crowds have their own psychology, their own dynamic. Once the mob has been invoked, how will it be dissolved? 

Linebaugh and Rediker argue that “most of these mobs were interracial in character, and… these potent if temporary unions of free waged and unfree unwaged laborers were instrumental in winning many of the victories of the revolutionary movement”

For example: “‘disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors’” riot against the Stamp Act in Charleston, SC. Months later in the same city, slaves assemble crying “Liberty!”, which leads the authorities to post an armed guard for two weeks.

Tarring and feathering, a practice intended to injure and intimidate Imperial officials, was  drawn from maritime customs (EXPAND).

Sailors were present at the King Street Riot (Boston Massacre), the Golden Hill and Nassau Street Riots. Part of the reason for open conflict was the disparity in wages between soldiers and sailors. John Adams called the crowd fired upon by British forces “‘a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack Tarrs’”.

Seamen participated in the Boston Tea Party.

These were individuals who refused to observe the rules of deference proper to their station. Sailors and slaves and servants, energized by and energizing “the Spirit of Rebellion” were what Louis Althusser might have called “bad subjects”– people who failed to behave according to their status, who did not fully believe in the status that had been accorded them. In other words, these saucy boys and malcontents were “uppity”. Such a levelling, radically egalitarian impulse has, over time, been absorbed into and domesticated by US culture, where millionaires who like BBQ and “casual Fridays” are the norm.

A subculture made up of those Adams described above, who often spent their free hours together in taverns and grog shops, at street fairs or dancing cellars, or in locations such as Philadelphia’s Hell Town. Such places were seen by officials as providing “opportunities for the most loose, debased, and abandoned wretches amongst us to cabal and confederate together” a situation that might and in fact did produce “horrid and execrable conspiracy”. Together with the army and the militia, the politicized mob was one of the most significant mass organizations of the revolutionary period. After Cornwallis surrendered, however, the colonial elites who led the revolution were quick to disavow the anarchic energies of apprentices, slaves, and sailors. Sam Adams, for instance, assisted in authoring the Mass. Riot Act of 1786. Even at the moment that working-class dissent was bringing political tensions to a boil, the real face of rebellion was being airbrushed from history: Paul Revere’s celebrated engraving of the Boston Massacre seems to have ignored the presence of Nipmuck-African-American runaway slave Crispus Attucks.


The word slavery comes from ‘Slav’, an inhabitant of eastern Central Europe. Slavs were among millions of Central Europeans sold to destinations in the Byzantine Empire and the so-called Muslim World during the medieval era. According to at least one estimate between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates between the 1500s and the 1800s, though the majority of the enslaved were not used in agricultural production but employed in cities or on ships as sailors. Enslavement for the purposes of agriculture– one of the most brutal forms of forced labor, with the highest mortality rates– was a relatively new invention, one designed specifically for the emerging plantation economy of the Atlantic world.

“Slavery is an economic condition. The classical chattel and today’s neoslavery must be defined in terms of economics. The chattel is property, one man exercising the property rights of his established economic order, the other man as that property. The owner can move that property or hold it in one square yard of the earth’s surface; he can let it breed other slaves, or make it breed other slaves; he can sell it, beat it, work it, maim it, fuck it, kill it. But if he wants to keep it and enjoy all of the benefits that property of this kind can render, he must feed it sometimes, he must clothe it agains the elements, he must provide a modicum of shelter. Chattel slavery is an economic condtion which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination.”

George Jackson to Fay Stender, 4/17/70

A slave is an object, a commodity, a unit of currency. It is the opposite of a human being because it lacks, as Jackson notes, any autonomy.

The word Negro is of Portuguese origin and enters the English language in the mid 16th century (1555), as the African slave system was in its first stages of development. Unlike “Moor” or “African” it effectively deracinates those it purports to describe, reducing individuals with a history and homeland to a color. Over time, slavery became intimately tied to race: in 1500 Africans/those of African descent represented  a minority of the world’s slave population. By 1700 they were a majority.

The impact of the slave system on Africa was disastrous and caused massive changes in social life, weakening institutions such as the family, clan, village, etc. The loss of men led to polygamy, the “offshoring” of production such as weaving de-skilled many over the course of generations (in 1500 Portugal imported West African textiles. By 1600 it exported them to Africa). 

1619: The Dutch ship White Lion arrives in Jamestown with 20 African slaves.

1640s: The Dutch introduce sugar crops to Barbados and the Leeward Islands.

1663: Charles II grants a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England. This corporation will become main conduit for English slave traffic until 1698 when Parliament passes an act allowing “free trade” in slaves. British/French slave trade operates as a monopoly through chartered companies who supply slaves to their own colonies and sell the surplus to the Spanish, who rarely engage directly in the traffic in humans.

1749: From an anonymous pamphlet published in London:

“The most approved Judges of the Commercial Interests of these Kingdoms have ever been of the opinion that our West-India and African Trades are the most nationally beneficial of any we carry on. It is also allowed on all Hands, that the trade to AFrica is the Branch which renders our American Colonies and Plantations so advantageous to Great Britain: that Traffic only affording our Planters a constant supply of Negro Servants for the Culture of their Lands in the Produce of Sugars, Tobacco, Rice, Rum, Cotton, Fustick, Pimento, and all other our Plantation Produce: so that the extensive Employment of our Shipping in, to, and from America, the great Brood of Seamen consequent thereupon, and the daily Bread of the most considerable Part of our British Manufactures, are owing primarily to the Labour of Negroes; who, as they were the first happy instruments of our raising our Plantations: so their Labour only can support and preserve them, and render them still more and more profitable to their Mother-Kingdom. The Negroe-Trade therefore, and the natural consequences resulting from it, may be justly esteemed an inexhaustible Fund of Wealth and Naval Power to this Nation.”

Between 1791 and 1801 the British Caribbean imported 1,401,000 slaves, twice as many as New Spain. Jamaica took 662,000 betweeb 1701 and 1810; the Leewards 301, 900; Barbados 252,000. Between 1518 and 1870 probably 10 to 15 million Africans were taken to the Americas. Of that number perhaps one million died before they even left shore.

The Caribbean had the highest morality rates: in Barbados between 1712 and 1768 200,000 slaves were imported but the population increased by only 26,000.

The Middle Passage refers to the second stage of the triangular trade route from Europe to Africa to America to Europe.  The triangular cruise usually lasted 12 months. “A ship would sail from its home port in England (Gravesend, Bristol, Liverpool) with a cargo of trade goods– woollen or cotton cloth in bright colours, firearms and other weapons, tools, pots and pans, and trinkets. The run down to the Coast might take two, three, even four months. Arrived off the Coast, negotiations began, usually through resident middlemen, most of whom were Portuguese, for slaving the ship. Slaves might  be picked up in small lots here and there; or more commonly assembled in hulks, or in barracoons ashore. All this trading might take months.  Meanwhile, trade goods were landed in payment, water barricoes filled ashore, and temporary decks constructed by the ship’s carpenters. On these extra decks the slaves were to travel, lying prone all night and most of the day, for there was no room to stand upright, except during periods of exercise on deck.” After the voyage, the ships would often discharge their human cargo to be “refreshed” with food and fresh air in order to be more attractive at market. 

Cruises of the African coast were deeply unpopular with sailors. The possibility of death from disease was high. Ships were often anchored offshore for months at a time until they filled their holds. One reason this process took so long was because slavers always desired a human cargo that spoke many different languages, which would make slave mutinies more difficult. (ex. the Eagle Galley, 1704; the Henry, 1721; the Elizabeth, 1721; the Ferrar Galley, in which 300 slaves rose up and killed the captain, were subdued, but mutinied twice more before arriving in Jamaica. There are 155 documented slave mutinies in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, though it is likely that as many as two or three times as many mutinies occurred).

“Beware and take care

Of the Bight of Benin;

For one that comes out,

There are forty go in.”







Second part of Equiano lecture

Hernan Cortes: “We Spanish suffer from a sickness of the heart for which gold is the only cure.”

Equiano and the rise of the liberal subject (bourgeoisie)


The massive influx of wealth from the Americas during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries created the economic conditions for the rise of a class of people who were neither aristocracy nor peasant. There had, of course, been merchants, craftsmen and traders for some time in Europe, but their numbers and influence were minor compared with the years following the opening of the western hemisphere to colonization. The rise of this class was above all dependent upon the surplus created by unpaid, unfree labor. 


A global slave trade accumulated vast amounts of capital that sluiced into the cities of Europe, filtering into industry and personal wealth, building monuments, museums, and universities. Technological innovations and a rising system of mills and factories radically reconfigured the lives of the mass of people. Dispossesed agricultural workers sought refuge in manufacturing centers, where– policed by the government and exploited by the owners– they began to coalesce into a class.


The formation of the working classes occurred not only against powerful state control but with the rise of national bourgeoisies and their colonial counterparts, who were bound ideologically and economically to Europe.


According to Michel Beaud’s A History of Capitalism, the consolidation of the middle-classes depended on “bonds of marriage and kinship, of common education… and of converging interests”. The bourgeoisie cohered as a class “by the adoption of a relatively uniform conception of life and society, by their attitude at the time of great social conflicts, and by their impact on the various aspects of national life.” Belief in the “general will” of the people instead of direct democracy, in private property as the source of individual rights, in society’s self-sustaining equilibrium: these were the foundational ideologies of “the triumphant bourgeoisie”


“Capitalism is above all a complex social logic able to transform the world around it at the same time as it is able to transform itself.” Yet it is also “the system which obliges the rich to make the poor continually work longer and harder.”

— Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism


Dec. 2006:

World Institute for Development Economics completes its study on global economic disparities and states in its press release that  “the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth…. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.”

Capitalism: Most broadly, the investment of money to make money. When production is financed in this way then we have capitalism proper. Wage labor is crucial to capitalism, and the source of surplus value in a capitalist system lies with the exploitation of “free labor”. The private ownership of capital in the hands of a class– the class of capitalists to the exclusion of the mass of the population– is the central feature of capitalism as a mode of production (way of organizing economic life, epoch). Capitalism is an historical term as well, one that can with some measure of accuracy be applied to the 15th century onwards. Other characteristics: production for sale, a market for labor power, the use of money, control of production by capitalists or their agents (as opposed to the “putting-out” system or coops), financial arrangements such as incurring debt (decisions workers are excluded from), competition between capitals.


The best short account of capitalism remains Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto.


16th and 17th centuries:

The flow of silver and gold from the Americas. 

Forced labor in the Americas.

Production of sugar, tobacco, etc.

Subsequent inflation in Europe and thus lowering of real wages.

Enclosure acts in England. Lupton (1622): “enclosures make the herds fat and poor people thin.”

Uprooted peasantry.

Urbanization of Europe.

Rise of merchant and banking classes.

Move into Mercantilism or Merchant Capitalism, which lasts until the end of the 18th century, when the doctrine of Free Trade is espoused and implemented. 

From Daniel Gaido, The Formative Period of American Capitalism, A Materialist Interpretation

“American capitalism had its origins in settler colonialism– the extermination or enslavement of the native population of the colonies– and white sumpremacy– the colonialist version of modern racism” (3).

Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Those empires that ran exploitation colonies rather than work colonies did not produce a solid basis for the development of capitalism. 

The new world as a kind of empty theater for the capitalist experiment. The colonies are more productive than the metropoles because of the absence of ground rent, taxes, compulsory military service, etc. 

“The peculiarities of European settler colonialism in North America were determined by the precocity of the capitlaist development of the metropolis, by the agrarian character of English capitalism, by the early outbreak of the English bourgeois-democratic revolution, and last but not least, by the previous experience of colonialism in Ireland” (7).

The English had a revolution in the 17th century, as compared with other powers such as the French, who revolted against absolutist monarchy in the very late 18th century. This relatively early political development, in addition to the character of those who immigrated to the N. American colonies, produced a political situation in which “colonial legislatures retained control of the public fiances and thanks to it were able to enjoy a large measure of self-government.”

The vestiges of feudalism were in an advanced state of decay in England by the 1600s. A much more highly developed bourgeoisie. It was tenant farmers, not landed serfs, who worked the fields, and when the Enclosure acts were passed, an entire segment of the population was thrust toward the cities or immigration.

The use of total war in Ireland– burning crops, destroying villages, targeting non-combatants– was introduced to the colonies in the fight against indigenes.

Mercantilism. The Age of Merchant Capital, ca. 16th-18th centuries. Basic features: the state uses “its power to implant and develop nascent capitalist trade and industry through the strict regulation of all aspects of economic life, the forced importation of precious metals to speed up the transition from natural to commodity-money economy, and the use of protectionist measures to defend the local bourgeoisie from foreign competition” (8).

In other words, mercantile economies such as England in the 17th century were rigidly protectionist. 

Adam Smith: Four reasons for the rapid economic/demographic growth of the N.American colonies. 1) the form of land-tenure practiced, which encouraged individual land holders 2) low levels of taxation b/c a lack of state bureaucracy and militarism, a state church which takes tithes 3) early advent of a money economy due to relatively liberal English commercial policies (multiple ports, absence of true chartered monopolies) 4) absence of a colonial aristocracy/ greater degree of local autonomy led to a form of parliamentarianism. 

In spite of this progressive situation, the colonies, in general, served primarily to enrigh the metropolitan (London) upper classes. Imperial influence on colonial economy in terms of shipping, manufactures, etc. which attempted to stop the colonies from developing an export industry (shipbuilding excluded). The presence of  mutual enemies prior to the 7 years war, however, ensured that these conflicts did not come to a boil.

Francis Jennings, The Creation of America:

“War against Indians made possible the seizure of lands that was the colonists’ reason for being in America. Virginians had conquered the Powhatans; South Carolinians wiped out the Yamasees; Marylanders joined Virginians to attack Susquehannocks; New Englanders massacred Pequots and Narragansetts; New Yorkers negotiated with Iroquois to war against New France. Only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania renounced war against INdians, in Rhode Island’s case partly from prudence; in Pennsylvania’s from principle”

American colonists revolted against Imperial rule, in part, because they wanted to dispossess indigenes and take their land, a project England was rather more circumspect about.

George Washington’s name among the Iroquois was Ha-no-da-ga-ne-ars, meaning “destroyer of towns”. 

Pressed to pay debts incurred by the Seven Years’ War, the British government imposed higher taxes and tightened mercantile restrictions on the colonies, increased enforcement of smuggling. 

“The Revolution resulted in the establishment of what historians now term a Herrenvolk (ruling people or race) democracy, in which immigrants from Europe were turned into “whites” and granted political rights while Indians and slaves were excluded from the category of citizens” (11).

Relative to European revolutions, the urban plebian class did not have a disproportionate influence on events. Due to the colonies’ position in a global division of labor, their cities were relatively underdeveloped and on the eve of the Revolution only 5 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Boston, NY, Philadelphia the three largest urban centers. The most numerous wage-laboring segment was composed of merchant seamen. According to Gaido, this dearth of urban workers doomed the Revolution to stall out in its “first moderate stage” (12). “The leadership of the movement remained firmly in the hands of a united front of Northern merchants and Southern slaveowners. The political form of the entente between these two potentially antagonistic dominant classes was the federalist character of the Union, which secured the slaveowners’ property rights in the Southern states.” Most of the fighters came from a rural petty bourgeoisie– free holders (Jefferson’s yeomanry).

General Remarks:

Capitalism does not need democracy. Economic liberalism does not presuppose political freedom. For example, China or Chile under Pinochet. 

Yet economic liberalism (free trade) and the demand for democratic forms of government (always excluding the enslaved, non-”whites”, women, etc.) arose at the same time. The coincidence of their advent should not be taken as a logical, interdependent relationship. 

The philosophical justification for the latter (political freedom) emanate from the work of– among others– John Locke, who argued that when a government or sovereign infringes on property rights he may be resisted and even overthrown. 


From Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism, 1500-2000:

In the 18th century an intensification of “pillage and exploitation of the colonies” (45) which led to 

an increase in precious metals extracted– “from 1720-1780 gold production in New Spain averages 20 tons” per annum vs. 10 in the 17th century

higher sugar production– a very important source of wealth, particularly for the English

more slaves shipped from West Africa to the colonies– 55,000 per year for the century as compared with 2,000 per year for the 1500s, sometimes reaching as high as 100,000 per year.

The rise of the bourgeoisie, the ascendant ruling class that would largely displace the aristocracy and gain political power, was founded on unpaid labor.

A massive surplus value was released by slavery, one that was “appropriated in monetory form mainly by the traders, manufacturers, bankers, and financiers of England”

Forced labor led to private enrichment and “an increase in purchasing power in the rest of the world, especially in Asia.”

After the Seven Years’ War England became a truly dominant world power. Its enlarged territory meant a larger market, an increase in accumulation.

“Sovereignty of the people, the general will, freedom: the great themes of bourgeois revolution were in place. Sovereignty of the people, direct democracy, freedom: the great themes of the popular movements were there too” (57).

Rousseau (from his article in the Encyclopedia titled “Political Economy”):
“You need me, for I am rich and you are poor; let us then make an agreement between ourselves; I will grant you the honor of serving me, on the condition that you give me the little you have left for the trouble I will take to order you about.”

“The rich man ‘does not find it strange that profit is in inverse relation to work and that an idler, hard and voluptuous, gets fat from the sweat of a million wretches, exhausted from fatigue and need.’”

Voltaire’s definition of capitalism: the system which obliges the rich to make the poor continually work harder and longer. 

The emergence of a system of Mills. Still pre-industrial, though that is changing.

In England, Enclosure Acts continue unabated. Those forced off the land or stifled by large landowners became the labor pool for mines and manufacturing.  

The production of coal grows rapidly: from 2.5 to 5 million tons at the beginning of the 18th century to 10 million tons in 1800, 2/3 of Europe’s total.

Technological innovations in spinning and weaving, new sources of energy: hydropower, eventually steam power. Iron production processes refined: rails in 1776, first bridge in 1779, first iron boat in 1789.

The mill was a new form of production. No longer limited to individual families, small shops. Centralized in large brick buildings. New workers, most of whom were children, had to be disciplined into adapting to the new rhythms of labor. New laws to protect the rise of the mills: it was a capital offense to destroy machinery or buildings. Troop sent to break up riots and uprisings. Illegal to form associations seeking better pay or improvements in working conditions.

“Thus began in England the capitalist transformation of production, one aspect of which will later be stressed under the name of the industrial revolution: colonial domination, worldwide trade, and merchant capitalism, with the development of exchange, an increasing supply of primary products (tea, sugar, cotton) and an increase in  market outlets (textiles, manufactured products); enclosures and the first modernization of agriculture supplied an uprooted and available proletariat; the scientific spirit and techniques applied to production led to a series of inventtions which grew one upon the other; available capital, especially from commerce and agriculture, allowed for the construction of mills. Production increased tremendously, the system of wage payments for workers was extended, and workers’ struggles multiplied and became organized”(73).

At this moment in the development of Merchant Capitalism, the bourgeoisie grows by a process of fusion: the aristocracy enages in commerce, owns farms, operates mines. Merchants and financiers purchase vast estates. Merchants become manufacturers, mill owners, they open banks. At this time 450,000 men had the right to vote in England. The laws that were passed during the period (enclosure acts, poor laws, anti-labor laws, etc.) reflected their class interests. The role of the bourgeoisie became so influential that William Pitt, the prime minister would say, “British policy is British trade.”

What we have in this period then is the intersection of new economic realities and liberal (free trade) ideas. Self interest will become the gyroscope of society.

David Hume: “Their greed must be made insatiable, their ambition beyond measure, and all their vices profitable for the public good.” Egoism and self-interest will produce social harmony. 

Adam Smith: “An invisible hand… make[s] the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy their share of all that it produces.”

The welfare of humanity is then a matter of providence– from the Latin pro-video, looking forward. Somehow, the intersection of self interest in the domain of the market will ensure that all are provided for. 

According to Smith:

“the sovereign has only three duties to attend to”:

defend from foreign agression

establish a system of justice which protects subjects from one another

certain public works

Smith directly contradicts the tenets of mercantilism with this formulation. Merchant capitalism meant the Sovereign’s absolute involvement in trade as an arm of the State.

The logic of this form of economy would move beyond mere commercial exchange to a system that took money, converted it to capital in the form of means of production and labor power which then produced commodities that upon sale produced a larger sum of money than was originally invested. Where would this surplus come from? Labor, in the form of longer working hours and higher intensity for the same pay. That increase in wealth would soon take the form of still more mills, machines, raw materials, and other forms of productive capital. 

The byword of the ascendant ruling class was freedom, and by freedom was meant “above all economic freedom: freedom of trade and production, as well as freedom to pay for labor power at the lowest possible price, and so to defend itself against workers’ alliances and revolts” (80).

Still, for those living through this transition the change was not at all apparent. They had no idea that they were at a crucial turning point in human history.


Notes on Ross J. Pudaloff, “No Change Without Purchase: Olaudah Equiano and the Economies of Self and Market”

The rise of industrial capitalism entailed a certain degree of commodification for wage laborers. It was their ability to labor that mattered most to employers, and in this regard they shared something with those enslaved for agricultural production, who were seen by slave-masters first and foremost as units of production. 

Slavery then will become a powerful metaphor with which to describe the plight of others hungering for freedom: the women’s movement will liken the condition of women under patriarchy as a form of slavery. Wage labor will be deemed “white slavery” and “wage slavery.” White slavery will return to the foreground of political discourse at the turn into the 20th century as we have seen, though it will be almost entirely shorn of its class content. 


The self, the individual subject, becomes a commodity.

Against this 19th century sense of alienation we can posit the status of the chattel slave, whose status has been likened to one who is socially dead. The slave has no status. She is instead property.

“Praise for commerce and manufacturing emanating from many eighteenth-century radicals… drew upon a logic that exchange and commodification could produce a subject where none had heretofore existed, indeed where there had been no place for that subject to stand or be” (500).

Connection between radical politics and commercialization. Voluntary association. A new space for the formation and assertion of identity: the market, in the act of trade.

Exchange as a means of entering the public realm: women in Indian captivity narratives…

Equiano as an object of commercial exchange. Prizing the moral faculty of “sensibility”.

He gains his freedom by purchasing himself. This financial transaction produces him as a “free” subject.

His narrative ends with a call for an increase in commerce between Africa and England:

“in proportion to the civilization, so will be the consumption of British manufactures.”

Brought into the web of commercial exchange, Africans will develop into new subjects. That new subjectivity could be a protection against slavery and colonialism (though it is notable that a Christian identity did not do so).

Equiano’s belief that slavery and free trade are antithetical.

In improving himself– by acquiring literacy and an education– Equiano seems to embody Locke’s notion of property as that which is accumulated by mixing one’s labor with natural resources.

Entering into relations of exchange further distinguish Equano from his commodity status as a slave. Property neither owns property nor traffics in it. 

His appeal to the “natural rights of equality and independency” mark him as a Liberal.

His description of Africa might be taken as an ideal republican society. Simplicity of dress, modesty, civic sensibilities, etc.


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