Africa, Capitalism & the balance sheet

Africa is centrally located at many of the world maps. But Africa has always been regarded as isolated and backward. It seems to be the cut off from Eurasia and the rest of the world, and unable to benefit from the outside civilization, exchange and competition. African has always been seen as a borrower of technology and agriculture from Eurasia, which is proved not true by modern archeology. Actually, indigenous people have created important culture and civilization. However, historic changes happened when European came with guns and slavery.

Slavery has been practiced in Africa throughout the entire history. For centuries, the most valuable African resource for Europeans is the slave, which can be obtained at coastal port, no need to go into the continent. Then in 16th century, Europeans started unprecedented large scale of slave trade because market for slaves was almost limitless. The motivation was purely economic, and the method was extremely brutal, creating one of the biggest miseries in human history. Slave trade continued for over four centuries and was a huge demographic disaster, worsening the under-population of Africa. West Africa traded with the Atlantic world for more than 300 year but without any significant economic development. Many political systems exist at the same time, parasitizing on the flow of slaves over Atlantic Ocean. Europeans can easily carry out slave trade because they use Africans against Africans. Europeans asserted that Africans often sold one another for “mere baubles or the weapons of war”.

The profit for the Europeans and people from the new world was so great that any control or abolition is opposed and impossible. William Wilberforce said: “Interest can draw a film over the eyes so thick that blindness itself could do no more.” And slavery is a deliberately chosen blindness on human conscience.

It is again the interests changed people view and government’s policy. After the industrialization, the West needs no more human labor. They need market and raw materials. The abolitionist in England argued that slave trade is not efficient and profitable in comparison to a legitimate trade in Africa because advanced technology called for oversee market other than cheap supply of human power. In 1788, the African Association was found, followed by tides of systematic exploration and colonialism of Africa.

Most Africa wants to preserve as much independence and power as possible. Against the colonial invasion, some were forced to fight; some thought that there is no use to fight. Some people fight on the side of colonizer because colonizer looked like potential protector. At early stage, two obstacle confined European power to African coastline: disease and absence of military superiority. But later with new medicine and advanced machinery, Europe carved up Africa easily, partly because they can, again, use Africans against Africans. African polities are much divided, thus gave the colonizers the opportunity to take advantage of this divergence of interest. The fact that all Africans are black sometimes prevent people from seeing huge different between Africans. Actually, their cultures and interests are as different as those between the French and the English. The difference stopped Africans from organizing effective revolts. It became even harder after the establishment of colony because rebellion against a colonial government has to be underground thus smaller in scale.

Railway and motor transport vitalized the colonial economy and primarily benefited big European firms. They also enabled further colonization of land for cash crops in response to the high international prices and demand. Education contributed greatly to social change, giving the Africans access to the greater world. The spread of knowledge prepared people for further revolution and independence. Newspapers played a big role. Christianity improved the literacy and won over young people. The wave of western civilization and education transform the politics of Africa, gave rise the nationalism. At the same time, population grew rapidly. All factors worked together and fermented, which lead to the ultimate independence.

This series of stories gave me a better image of the development of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth. Cargos after cargoes of human are taken away from their family and sold into unknown land. Slaves are treated as assets or animals. Behind all these unimaginable crimes, it is only the drive of money and profit. Sometimes I find it really hard to understand this motivation. How ruthless, cunning and hypocritical! And these are no reason that these qualities will change. They will turn in another form, usually more polite and civilized form. The current financial crisis is offering us the best example. Those banker and fund managers are not “deserving.” Their financial derivatives create no value for society and benefit only themselves by getting other people into the trap or lending as much money as possible. It has been the same greed that is driving people, encouraging and rewarding their craziness.

I am criticizing these behaviors because I am not one of them and I don’t benefit from any of their deeds. But sometimes I also wonder what I will do when I am in their system and enjoying the benefit of exploitation? How far will my conscience go?

History is spiraling and going forward. It always repeats itself because the human nature never changes. The struggle between the dark and bright side of us never ends, a mixture of greed, fear, and hope.

If we look at a particular time in the history, it will seem so unimaginable and unequal. But from a broader perspective, the world always balances itself. All debts will be paid. At 16th century, Africa is indeed uncivilized and backward. Just like Chairman Mao pointed out at the beginning of Chinese revolution, that “lag behind and you will definitely get beaten up.” Europeans have beaten Africa up, but at the same time brought modernity. The justification like “White Man’s Burden” is somehow true. Westerners use their superiority to extract value, labor and resources from their colonies, but at the same time, the backward people begin to civilize themselves, unconsciously at first. Together with the economic growth and educational progress, Africans self-awareness was evoked. They redefined themselves and regained confidence of their power, culture and history, using the western ways.

Africa has gone through too much misery and war. God, whichever god it is, will not be so unfair to this piece of land. There must be a bright future lies ahead of Africa. At the same time, the west has stayed at the peak of world power for too long and has created too much pain for the rest of the world. Future generations will repay the debts as the history once again reach a new balance. I believe in this because of the history of China.

Civilizations are turning in a circle. Chinese has developed high level of culinary skills long before the Europeans get command of fire. Ancient record tells us that hundreds of year ago, Chinese describe the foreigners as “monstrous, hairy and smelly." Chinese emperor called the foreigners "barbarian" and disregard their culture, refuse to pay attention or learn from them. Hundreds of years later, the "barbarian" came back. They came back with perfume, guns filled with black powder and ships equipped with newest compass. (China invented the black powder and compass, but uses the black powder only for fireworks in New Year.) Then it was China’s turn to play the role of "barbarians" and less civilized people. China has paid for her arrogance and blindness.

The same thing which stopped China is happening in the West: laziness and complacency and the arrogance coming naturally with the power. Some of these dangers are not yet so obvious. This shift is good because it creates more room for the new comers.

On the other hand, I really don’t wish to see this cycle goes on, but people are too full of themselves and refuse to think about the unpleasant. I wish that when China comes back to where she should be, she won’t make the same mistakes or hurt the rest of the world. This will make the balance sheet of history much easier to carry on.

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