Questions that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this, your section,
and be answered by other readers. Please address your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.
Has anyone calculated the extent to which Britain’s former colonies helped make it a ‘developed’ nation? What has been their economic impact over the centuries.
The most famous historian on this subject is Eric Williams, former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. His 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the wealth produced by the plantation system in the Americas was crucial to the industrialization of Great Britain. The profits generated by slave labour in the Caribbean were reinvested in places like Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool, permitting the development of Britain’s first industrial regions. The slave trade also spurred commerce in commodities and boosted such sectors as shipbuilding.
The economic activities carried out in Britain’s New World colonies were undoubtedly extremely exploitative and produced significant profits for investment in other forms of economic activity. But how essential were these funds and colonial trade to the larger process of British economic growth? ‘Not very’ most recent research suggests. Both Marxist and non-Marxist scholars such as Robert Brenner and Patrick O’Brien have shown that the key stimulus to British industrialization was the existence of much closer markets, in Europe and in Britain itself. In the process, of course, the labour of countless Britons was expropriated. It now seems clear that British people need not look very far in seeking explanations of their country’s early development.
The Third World Atlas (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0 335 10259x) offers the following estimates: The profits from British slave ships were $110 million; slave labour $375 million; the opium trade $60 million; and Indian land revenue $150 million. Multiplication by 500 gives a rough conversion to present day values. While clearly impoverishing those who provided this wealth, its exact economic impact on Britain is more complex. The authors note that ‘by boosting the fortunes of rich landowners and merchants [this pillage] may actually have postponed the rise of industrial capitalism’.
Lanzarote, Canary Islands
Colonization is still with us – the only difference is that it is now the slightly more subtle economic control rather than the direct administrative control of the past. The structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the commercial conditions attached to ‘aid’ projects are the modern colonialism – much more invidious than the straightforward plundering of the past and in many ways more threatening to the future of the South and indeed, the whole world.
awaiting your answers
What are the benefits or disadvantages of adding fluoride to tap water?
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
When Germans refer to travelling people they call them ‘Roma’ or ‘Sinti’. ‘Roma’ is clearly related to Rom, but who are the Sinti? My German-English dictionary just says ‘Sinte’, which leaves me none the wiser.
What evidence is there that children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella at an early age
will enjoy lasting immunity? What is the risk of their developing these diseases at a later age,
when they can be more serious?
Mount Charles, Ireland
The February 1995 issue of NI informed us that 1999 will be the International Year of Ageing.
What other themes are planned for 1996, 1997 and 1998?
Pennant Hills, Australia
Are there any cultures in the world where there is never any reason to exchange gifts?
If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities, New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK, or to your local NI office (see inside front cover for addresses).
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS SECTION ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF NI.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995