We have the ability to readily appreciate this transition and its impact on overall economic productivity. We live in a vastly richer world than has ever existed before and every one of us above the bare level of subsistence lives incomparably better than kings, emperors, and the wealthiest elites even just a century ago. But in many ways, medieval life was stolen from people during the fledgling days of Early Modernity, and libertarians—rather than wholesale ignoring or rejecting this legacy—should learn to reconcile with it, that we might avoid similar calamities.
Law, Robin. The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750: The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin Books. 2001.
Anthony Comegna: Along the road from serfdom to corporatism, every section of the planet gradually mingled into a common marketplace. Today we have the ability to readily appreciate this transition and its impact on overall economic productivity. We live in a vastly richer world than has ever existed before, and every one of us above the bare level of subsistence lives better than the wealthiest [00:00:30] elites even just a century ago. But the costs of modernity were many, and they fell disproportionately on the most vulnerable. This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
In England, aristocrats fenced in common lands and used the law to push generations [00:01:00] of so-called strolling poor, or masterless men and women, into the cities to beg or labor for a wage. The old futile order broke its ancient contracts one by one in pursuit of greater individual profits and prospects. The proliferation of private property of course created greater and greater stocks of food, encouraging greater and greater elite investments in overseas exploration, trading, and colonial ventures. [00:01:30] Monarchs continued to grant away bundles of their personal rights in exchange for a cut of the empirical take.
Over the early modern centuries, roughly the 1400s through the late 1700s, monarchs and mercantile corporate capitalists both benefitted from a system of imperial cooperation. The private actors would provide the capital, the labor, and the risk, while the monarchs would lend legitimacy to the projects, military and [00:02:00] naval protection for chartered ventures, and a legal framework designed to protect the interests of the crown’s friends. Over the centuries, sets of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and other imperial conspirators conquered huge portions of the globe in the interests of a new species of public/private partnerships.
Our task here is to step firmly away from a dreamy sense of accomplishment to starkly see and understand the [00:02:30] human costs of corporate activities. The costs of empire in the Americas included the most catastrophic demographic collapse in human history and perhaps humanity’s most tragic story. Few of us are able even to approach an understanding of how dramatic the level of death actually was. Death rates reached 90 to 95% in the epicenter of Spanish contact in the Caribbean and Mexico, declining [00:03:00] slightly the further out from first contact. Native Americans as far away as New England felt the impact of Columbian Disease Exchange, and by the time of Puritan settlement, the native population was a shadow of its earlier self. In Thomas Morton’s The New English Canaan, Morton related a sympathetic portrait of native life and their sufferings.
Speaker 2: “New English Canaan or New Canaan. Containing an Abstract of New England. [00:03:30] By Thomas Morton. Of a great mortality that happened amongst the Natives of New England, near about the time that the English came there to plant. It fortuned some few years before the English came to inhabit at new Plymouth, in New England, that upon some distaste given in the Massachusetts bay by Frenchmen then trading there with the Natives for beaver, they set upon the men at such advantage that they killed many of them, burned the ship, then riding at Anchor by an Island there … distributing [00:04:00] them unto 5 Sachems, which were Lords of the several territories adjoining: they did keep them so long as they lived, only to sport themselves at them, and made these five Frenchmen fetch them wood and water, which is the general work that they require of a servant. One of these five men, out living the rest, had learned so much of their language as to rebuke them for their bloody deed, saying that God would be angry with them for it, and that he would in his displeasure destroy them; but the Savages (it [00:04:30] seems boasting of their strength,) replied and said that they were so many that God could not kill them.
“But contrary wise, in short time after the hand of God fell heavily upon them, with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses; and the living, that were able to shift for themselves, would run away and let them die, and let their Carcasses lie above the ground without burial. For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive to tell what became of [00:05:00] the rest; the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for Crows, Kites and vermin to prey upon. And the bones and skulls upon the several places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into those parts, that, as I traveled in that Forest near the Massachusetts, it seemed to me a new found Golgotha.
“But otherwise, it is the custom of those Indian people to bury their dead ceremoniously and carefully, and then to abandon that [00:05:30] place, because they have no desire the place should put them in mind mortality: and this mortality was not ended when the Brownists of new Plymouth were settled in Patuxet in New England: and by all likelihood the sickness that these Indians died of was the Plague, as by conference with them since my arrival and habitation in those parts, I have learned. And by these means there is yet but a small number of Savages in New England, to that which hath been in former time, and the place is made so much [00:06:00] the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and to erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”
Anthony Comegna: Europeans, quite certain of their own righteousness, took the Indians’ mass death as evidence of their sinfulness, backwardness, and the inevitability of Christian triumph over Satanic forces. The end result was a colonial culture of apartheid, in which Europeans [00:06:30] of every class steadily enclosed Indians on reservations and restricted their ability to compete alongside whites in the global market. Whites stereotyped the Indians as either gentle or barbarous savages whose depressing history was recognized only when it supported colonial interests.
The costs of modernity in Africa included massive depopulation, the disruption of preexisting developments, political [00:07:00] centralization, and monopolization. Radical black historian Walter Rodney famously argued that European imperialism forcibly underdeveloped Africa by exporting millions of people at the peak of their productivity and encouraging what’s call the gun-slave cycle. Europeans looking for slaves usually had to deal with the local monarch. Because kings generally acquired slaves through warfare and traded them for European firearms, the more slaves one could capture, [00:07:30] the more guns one could get. The more guns one had, the more powerful the slave raiders. The more slaves captured at war, the more guns from Europeans, and on and on for decades.
The early 18th century empire of Dahomey in West Africa serves as a vivid example of the human costs borne by Africans even before being transported across the oceans. William Snelgrave was a contemporary slave trader and one of the first Western [00:08:00] Africanists. His personal accounts of human trafficking in Africa serve to inform audiences that slavery was really the Africans’ own fault and the systems’ cruelty was actually improved by European imposition into the process. By turning men captured in war and sentenced to death into commodities, the Europeans were saving lives. Of course, while he is careful to detail African violence, he sees only benevolence in his [00:08:30] own position in the process of state formation.
Speaker 3: “A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade (1734). By William Snelgrave. Containing an Account of the Destruction of the Kingdom of Whidaw. In the chief Town of Sabee, the king allowed the Europeans convenient Houses for their Factories: and by him we were protected in our Persons and Goods, and, when our Business was finish’d, [00:09:00] were permitted to go away in Safety. The Road where Ships anchored, was a free Port for all European Nations trading to those Part for Negroes. And this Trade was so very considerable, that it is computed, while it was in a flourishing State, there were above twenty thousand Negroes yearly exported from thence, and the neighboring Places, by the English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese. As this was the principal Part of all the Guinea Coast for the Slave Trade, the [00:09:30] frequent Intercourse that Nation had for many Years carried on with the white People had rendered them so civilized that it was a pleasure to deal with them …
“The Custom of the Country allows Polygamy to an excessive degree … whereby the Land was become so stock’d with People, that the whole Country appeared full of Towns and Villages: And being a very rich Soil, and well cultivated by the Inhabitants, it looked like an entire Garden. Trade having likewise flourished for a long time, had greatly enriched [00:10:00] the People; which, with the Fertility of their Country, had unhappily made them so proud, effeminate, and luxurious that tho’ they could have brought at least one hundred thousand Men into the Field, yet so great were their Fears, that they were driven out of their principal City, by two hundred of their Enemies; and at last lost their whole Country, to a Nation they formerly had contemned. And tho’ this may appear to the Reader very incredible, yet it will sufficiently be illustrated by the following account [00:10:30] …
“There is a constant Tradition amongst them, that whenever any Calamity threatens their Country, by imploring the Snake’s Assistance, they are always delivered from it. However this fell out formerly, it now stood them in no stead; neither were the Snakes themselves spared after the Conquest. For the being in great numbers, and a kind of domestick Animals, the Conquerors found many of them in the Houses, which they treated in this manner: They held them up by the middle, [00:11:00] and spoke to them in this manner: If you are Gods, speak and save your selves: Which the poor Snakes not being able to do, the Dahomes cut their Heads off, ripped them open, broiled them on the Coals, and eat them. It is very strange, the Conquerors should so far contemn the Gods of this Country, since they are so barbarous and savage themselves, as to offer human Sacrifices whenever they gain a Victory over their Enemies; and Eye-Witness to which I was, as hereafter [00:11:30] shall be related …
“The Country, as we traveled along, appeared beautiful and pleasant, and the Roads good; but desolated by the War, for we saw the remains of abundance of Towns and Villages, with a great quantity of the late Inhabitants bones strewn about the Fields …
“We were plagued with Vermin that greatly annoyed us; and that was such an infinite number of Flies, that tho’ we had several Servants with Flappers, to keep them off our Vittles, [00:12:00] yet it was hardly possible to put a bit of Meat into our Mouths, without some of those Vermin with it. These Flies, it seems, were bred by a great number of dead Mens Heads, which were piled on Stages, not far from our Tent, tho’ we did not know so much at that time.
“After we had dined, a Messenger came to us, about three o’clock in the afternoon, from the Great captain, desiring us to go to the King’s Gate; accordingly we went, and in our way saw two large Stages, [00:12:30] on which were heaped a great number of dead Men’s Heads, that afforded no pleasing sight or smell. Our Interpreter told us, they were the Heads of four thousand of the Whidaws, who had been sacrificed by the Dahomes to their God, about three weeks before, as an Acknowledgement of the great Conquest they had obtain’d …
“His Majesty was in a large Court palisaded round, fitting (contrary to the Custom of the Country) on a fine gilt Chair, which he had taken form the King of Whidaw [00:13:00] …
“The King had a Gown on, flowered with Gold, which reached as low as his Ancles; an European embroidered Hat on his Head; with Sandals on his Feet …
“Soon, a principal Man of the Court came and stood by us, and bid the Interpreter ask us, ‘How we liked the Sight?’ to which we replied, ‘Not at all: For our God had expressly forbid us using Mankind in so cruel a manner: That our Curiosity had drawn us to come and see it; which if we had [00:13:30] not done, we could never have believed it … I observed to him, that the grand Law both of Whites and Blacks, with all their Fellow Creatures was: To do to others no otherwise, than as they desired to be done unto: And that our God had enjoined this to us on pain of very severe Punishments.’ To which he answered, This was the Custom of his Country; and so he left us …
“He answered, ‘It was best to put [the old men] to death; for being frown wise [00:14:00] by their Age and a long Experience, if they were preserved, they would be ever plotting against their Masters, and to disturb the Country; for they never would be easy under Slavery, having been the chief Men in their own Land. Moreover, if they should be spared, no European would buy them, on account of their Age …’
“It seems the King of Dahome is grown exceedingly cruel towards his People, being always suspicious, that Plots and Conspiracies are carrying on against him: So that he frequently cuts [00:14:30] off some of his great Men on bare Surmises. This … has so soured his Temper, that he is likewise greatly altered towards the Europeans …
“Now all the Countries near the Sea side, which the King of Dahome could possibly get at, are not only conquered, but also turned into Desolation, with the Inland Parts, in so terrible a manner, that there is no Prospect of Trade’s reviving there again for many Years, or at least so long as the Conqueror lives. What little there is, is [00:15:00] carried on chiefly at Appah, a place secured from him by a Morass and a River.”
Anthony Comegna: The primary costs of corporate imperialism to Europeans came in the form of indentured servitude, essentially impressment into New World prison labor regimes, “proletarianization” in European cities, or in bearing the financial burden of hostile market forces so aristocrats and their corporate creations [00:15:30] might profit. While earlier colonial powers relied mainly on enslaved or semi-enslaved indigenous and African laborers, the English efforts toward empire began with very different models than their Iberian rivals. Using the brutal conquests and expropriation of Ireland as their model, the English West Country men staged a propaganda and lobbying campaign to replicate the process in the Americas. The colonial promoters included Sirs [00:16:00] Francis Drake, Richard Grenville, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, and the brothers Richard Hakluyt, one a lawyer, the other a clergyman.
The West Country men combined Protestant zeal with fresh experience in ruthlessly crushing foreign populations. Scenes from the English conquest in Ireland mirror Snelgrave’s account of the Dahomean Empire a century later under the influence of the slave trade. Historian Alan Taylor writes, [00:16:30] “Treating the Irish as treacherous beasts, the English waged a war of terror and intimidation, executing prisoners by the hundred, including women and children. The English commander Sir Humphrey Gilbert decorated the path leading to his tent with human heads.” Taylor quotes Gilbert’s personal publicist, who claimed, “The scenes delivered great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends [00:17:00] lie on the ground before their faces as they came to speak with the colonel.” The promoters planned to gather investment capital, a monopolistic charter, and a bevy of indentured servants to work the colony. To get the capital, they would sell shares in a joint stock company of adventurers and capitalists. To secure the charter of their rights and privileges, they promised the queen a portion of their revenues and their fealty.
Labor though, that was the [00:17:30] tricky part, and it remained so for the first half century of English settlement in the Americas. Very few of England’s sturdy beggars volunteered to strike it rich in a new and wondrous land. Rather, the vast majority of the early colonists came through a combination of force and fraud. As part of their bargain with the crown, promoters secured legal changes penalizing previously minor offenses like vagrancy with the perp’s choice, [00:18:00] death or indentured servitude in Virginia. Some even more unscrupulous figures kidnapped children or drugged and sold masterless men and women to their new rulers across the ocean.
The first attempt at English settlement in Roanoke was more of a conquering army than a colonizing venture. The 1585 colony dissolved within a year, and the subsequent colony vanished while the Armada Crisis prevented the arrival of fresh supplies. [00:18:30] Settlers probably adapted themselves to life with friendly Indian tribes, but according to at least one native, the Algonquin paramount chief Powhatan killed any surviving Roanoke refugees as retribution for their despicable, hostile behavior. As we will see, the lives and prospects of indentured servants and early colonists of all sorts did not fare much better for several generations.
But the costs of empire were not merely seen in violence on the [00:19:00] geographic fringe. The masterless men and women fortunate enough to stay in London suffered untold horrors of their own. England’s new proletarians included easily othered, marginalized people who were nonetheless instrumental in generating the modern economy in modern culture. As Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh write in The Many-Headed Hydra, the proletarians created by enclosure worked as skilled navigators and sailors on early Transatlantic [00:19:30] ships, as slaves on American plantations, and as entertainers, sex workers, and servants in London. Forced to participate in the new corporate capitalist economy, they found their way from enclosed common fields to whatever economic niche was available to them. Many did not remember the days before enclosure in utopian fashion. To them, it was a recent memory and a real way of life torn from them by the combined [00:20:00] forces of wealth and power. In many ways, medieval life was stolen from people during the fledgling days of early modernity, and libertarians rather than wholesale ignoring or rejecting this legacy should learn to reconcile with it, that we might avoid similar calamities during transformational periods within our own time.
In 1607, the class of colonial promoters secured [00:20:30] a charter for the colony called Virginia. Possessed of a host of monopoly powers and privileges, and almost absolute authority over the territory, including the right to institute martial law, the proprietors secured nine ships for the first settlement. Eight of them made it. The Sea Venture ran afoul of a hurricane and wrecked off the Bermuda shoals. Though they expected to find an isle of devils, the 150 shipwrecked [00:21:00] colonists found paradise and plenty. While Virginians starved to death, their reinforcements on Bermuda decided they preferred paradise over hell.
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