Dealing With Our Past.
Looking back at history is always a good way to better understand the present, or even shape present behavior. Knowledge about facts that happened years, decades or centuries ago might be so relevant and heavy in significance to condition present perceptions, roles and moral obligations towards some. Let’s hyperbolically think about the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Right after the 6th and 9th of August of that year, when the two bombs were dropped, the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. If we look at this particular event as the tipping point of World War 2 in the Atlantic side, and we think about its devastating consequences on millions of Japanese civilians, we come to ask ourselves “was that the only viable option? Wasn’t there a less brutal way to potentially end the war the Allies could have deployed?”. It is indeed something that happened almost a century ago, by people some of us may even call great great grandparent, however the relevance of such gesture permeates discussions both on the past and on the present.
When you think about European history, as a group of countries, you end up taking each state apart, with its kings (and queens), realms and battles against each other. There is however a common denominator (we could mention others of course) throughout our history, which is the colonial dominions most European states had. Nobody has problems acknowledging this part of history, yet there’s a lot of discussion on whether the 18th-19th century Industrial Revolution Europe experienced was only possible thanks to the American, Indian and African colonial settlements, where the conditions imposed on most local communities were ruthless. If this were the case, our moral obligations towards these ‘colonized’ countries would be endless, making us rethink about the central role Europe covers within the world economy. Ever more global, yet more centralized and highly dependent on few pivotal countries.
To remain not stuck in history and moving forward to nowadays issues. The vaccine race, in terms of jabs allocation, has inevitably led the more industrialized and developed states to lock-in a higher number of doses, leaving other countries far behind. And it is not by mere coincidence that these states are exactly those outside the mainstream economic framework. The states which historically suffered European colonialism. The COVAX initiative partially worked out, but the more developed countries, and Europe within them, were still able to get a time and quantity advantage. This pandemic-related issue could be equally translated to other world issues society is facing at the moment. The climate change crisis for example, with the previously colonized states suffering more greatly than their historical counterparts. Should Europe feel threatened by this historical look at the actual world scenario? A higher burden and consequent responsibility might rise from the historical ‘finding’ that in fact the Industrial Revolution was only possible thanks to the European colonial power?
From late 1400 till the rise of WW1 Europeans dominions were scattered around the whole world, from South America to India, Indonesian Island, Australia and passing through several African states. The mind and body behind this expansion was first located in Portugal and Spain, to then move northern to the Dutch Republic and England. The strategic role played over the centuries by the several dislocated Europeans settlements, even though evolving, had always assumed an extractionary and oppressive character. Towards natural resources, the only interest colonial states had was to increase as much as possible the extraction or production of certain raw materials to be then shipped to European core. Silver, cotton and sugar from South America, tea and silk from Asia. Concerning instead human beings, or human capital as we now like to call them, the attitude was not much different than with the aforementioned materials and the two were actually interconnected. The more extractions and cultivation Europeans demanded for, the more people were required to work in the mines or in the fields. And the only ‘possible’ solution at the time was to import people, from countries in which these were at great disposal and at a low cost, to areas in which arable land was in abundance, the colonies. And the missing link here is that in the colonies, especially in South America, all local communities had been exterminated by war or disease, therefore the only option for Europeans was to turn to Africans and Indians. Consequently, a gigantic slave trade routes began to emerge in the Atlantic and Indian sea.
Asian countries, especially Japan, China and India, through the opposition towards this illicit practice raised by local elites, pushed colonizers to only ‘extract’ slaves from their settlement on the African continent. Here, both practices by locals and frictions among African tribes themselves, led Europeans to only devote their attention to slaves in this area. Thousands of people were taken away from their families and home land, loaded on slave ships and transferred over the Atlantic, like any other commodity. Their harsh journey was nevertheless going to develop even further. The working and living conditions on which these people were enslaved were brutal and the option faced for resisting these impositions was most likely death.
Within the academic literature of economic history there are two major explanations to the great Industrial Revolution of the 18th-19th century only Europe (western in particular) experienced. On the one side, scholars like Patrick O’Brian and Immanuel Wallerstein raised and defend the theory for which Europe, with some areas before others, went through this revolutionary period thanks to processes strictly internal to the Europeans boundaries, oftenly referring to the exceptionality of their institutions. On the other side instead, historians like Kenneth Pomeranz sustain the idea that industrializing was possible thanks to a unique key factor, the colonial empires established overseas. What they were able to extract from the colonies allowed states like Britain and Belgium to overcome physical constraints faced in the homeland. Like timber and arable land shortages, whose constraints were alleviated by the abundance of yet unexploited forests and land in the colonies.
Following the first explanation to the Industrial Revolution we would be downplaying the importance of the opening of the Atlatic trade routes and consequently the establishment of colonial empires. Looking instead at the other explanation, Pomeranz also argues that the pre-industrial conditions enjoyed outside Europe, especially making the case for eastern China, were very similar to those enjoyed by European states. They were actually on the same path of development. And the following process of industrialization, which led this part of the world to diverge from the rest, was related to a large degree to the exploitation of their colonies. And if this last perspective were to be true, what will be the moral obligation imposed on our European shoulders? We are still able today to enjoy better living conditions than other parts of the world, those parts our ancestors colonized and exploited. The correlation here is clear, does it also turn into causation?
It is important to understand the past and learn from its various teachings. Learn that our - Europeans - position is privileged compared to past-colonized countries. Learn that where we are today, in terms of social and economic development, is justified by this grey history of ours, characterized by power, cruelty and exploitation. In this way Europeans, and its magnificent Institutions, will be able to look at the outer world with different eyes, conscious about its past and with a clear vision for its future.