The History of Capitalism: A personal view – Part I

Muhammad Nauman Khan’s wide-ranging essay on economic history – Part I.

Prelude to modern capitalism

The cradle of civilisation, at once the foundation of trade, religion and empire, was in the heart of Asia. The Silk Roads were conduit to commerce, wealth, enlightenment and technology during China’s westward expansion under the Han dynasty (206BC – AD220). The Empire that sprang up after Alexander’s sudden death stretched from the Tigris to the Indus for three centuries. Greek language and culture penetrated far into Asia, spread by travellers, merchants and pilgrims. Like Alexander, Rome looked east for imperial expansion and prosperity. The Mongols, whose vast 13th and 14th century empire, extending from the Pacific to the Black Sea and Mediterranean, was not characterised by violence and chaos, but by careful and deliberate investment into major urban centres.  In the centuries to follow, trade was transformed.


In July 1497, four ships prepared to sail from Lisbon to the East with religious fervour. As Vasco da Gama led his men towards the sea, carrying lighted candles to honour the Virgin Mary, a long line of priests and monks trailed behind, chanting the litany, while a vast crowd took up the responses. Vasco Da Gama’s mission, to seek Christian kings in distant India, was a fool’s task; there were, of course, no Christian kings in India.

Vasco da Gama captured a dhow carrying wealthy Calicut merchants and their families. The passengers offered limitless wealth for their freedom. Unmoved, Vasco da Gama destroyed the vessel, sending its cargo and passengers to the seabed. What drove all this was a messianic belief that, under their god-fearing king Manuel, the Portuguese were “the new chosen people, tasked with great work in God’s name.” Vasco da Gama’s methods went beyond mere piracy; this was unrestrained terrorism, according to Peter Frankopan, an Oxford historian, a Byzantine specialist, in his book, A New History of the World.

Christopher Columbus sailed, in 1492, actually trying to find an easy and convenient route to the East, thus he found instead America and, in the process inadvertently inspired a reorientation of the world westward. In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced. The butchery began after the voyage, in 1492, of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and his landing in America. His soldiers tore babies (of the native Indians) from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burst them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off.

To scramble for imperial power there had been violent rise and fall of colonial empires across Africa and Asia in the bloody history of Europe. Britain, Portugal, Italy, France, Belgium and even Germany jostled for their piece of Africa and Asia. The European colonial empires were built on the “white man’s burden to civilise the world.” And that drew inspiration from the Roman Empire’s perception of its civilising mission. But the antipathy between the Europeans and their subjects stemmed largely from the violent nature of the beginning of the imperial adventure.

Britain’s growing trade with India and later wars of conquest and of the creation of a British administration was taking roots in India in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. “The East India Company and its servants saw their conquests in India as commercial acquisitions, the seized treasuries and tax income appeared to them as nothing but gross profits.” Enormous individual fortunes were made through taxation, monopoly and corruption. The spectacular fortune of Clive, made from rags to riches, and Hastings had made a lasting impression in England.

Clive came from minor country gentry in Shropshire. His personal fortune, after 35 years with the East India Company, was estimated to be at over £400,000. His original contract with the company offered him £70 a year.

Mark Sykes the architect of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 who died in 1919 at the age of 39 inherited from an early age his father’s fascination for the Ottoman Empire and travelled extensively through the Middle East. He was “a man possessed with the belief that he could solve the Arab problem”, records his grandson Christopher Simon Sykes in the book The Man Who Created the Middle East: A story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

After the war broke out in 1914 and the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany Mark Sykes argued in favour of wooing the Arabs to undermine Turkish authority. The plan, however, did not prevent him from completely ignoring Arab interests when negotiating the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire with his French counterpart, Francois Georges-Picot. Sykes’s cavalier attitude towards the divisions of spoils eluded his comprehension.

Sykes’s understanding of the “Arab problem” was undermined by significant faults. He was certain that “all communities and creeds have absolute faith in the English.” That seems laughable today. His optimism encouraged a rather naïve attitude towards the region. Quoting the Bible, he confidently asserted that he would “make the desolate valley into a door of hope.” When the fighters poured from Syria into Iraq in August 2014 they proclaimed: “We’ve broken Sykes-Picot.” Such is the legacy of Mark Sykes.

The contemporary use of poison gas and chemical warfare has precedents. The British used chemical weapons in their 1919 intervention in North Russia against Bolsheviks, with great success, according to the British command. As Secretary of Sate at the War Office in 1919, Winston Churchill was enthusiastic about the prospect of “using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes – Kurds and Afghan – and authorized the RAF Middle East command to use chemical weapons ‘against recalcitrant Arabs as [an] experiment,” dismissing objections by the India office as “unreasonable” and deploring the “squeamishness about the use of gas”: “We cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier,” Churchill explained; chemical weapons are merely “the application of western science to modern warfare.”

In the late 19th century, in Africa, the British led the charge.  Cecil Rhodes, perhaps the most famous of all imperialists in Africa, was also the most dominant and greedy. He had made a fortune in the diamond trade and used his wealth to promote imperialism. It seems that Rhodes’s appetites and acquisitiveness were instinctive. A young Edmond Allenby, later a field marshal, shared a tent and blanket with the tycoon – he observed that every morning he would awake feeling icy cold. Rhodes always managed to take almost all part of the blanket for himself.

The French prided themselves on promoting civilisation. In mission civilisatrice, their rule was predicted on an absolute racial hierarchy, with the French on top. Assimilation a stated goal of the ‘civilising mission’ proved elusive. In 1940s Algeria the Arab was a figure of menace and danger in the 900,000-strong community of European colonists.

The French in Algeria were particularly ruthless. In 1851 the town of Laghouat, 300 miles south of Algiers, was punished by a “salutary terror” for supporting an uprising led by a “deranged Muslim holy man”. The town was shelled and stormed by French soldiers, who fought and looted their way through the streets, destroying houses and slaughtering livestock. A quarter of 4,000 inhabitants were massacred. The survivors fled.

Four mosques were demolished, one of which were converted into church. At the first Mass the French cleric told his congregation of soldiers, writes Lawrence James in his book, Empires in the Sun, “In conquering Algeria …. you do the work of God.” The “sword of France was like a cross, that shines throughout this country like a radiant star …. banishing the crescent, the lugubrious night of sleep.” As Lawrence James says, “The ghastly events in Laghouat were repeated many times during the conquest of Algeria.”

The Spanish fought equally aggressive campaigns in Morocco. As late as the 1920s gas was used indiscriminately against recalcitrant Moroccan villagers who continued to resist Spanish rule. The insane absurdities of this form of violent imperialism were summed up by the motto of the Spanish Foreign Legion, a band of mostly Spanish desperadoes: “Viva la muerte!” “Long live death!” These mercenaries once appeared at a ceremonial public parade with Berber heads, ears and arms spiked on their bayonets. It was troops such as these that Franco used to crush the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

It is impossible to say how long these empires would have lasted if the Second World War had not broken out. It is indisputable, however, that the war accelerated the demise of imperialism. Hitler’s overt racism discredited many of the assumptions that supported imperial rule. If it was morally right to oppose Hitler, it was equally justified to dismantle an Empire that was built on the same racist principles as the Nazi Reich. If the Germans are blamed for Hitler, should not the Europeans be blamed for their Empires? The Cold War also had its effect. The US and the Soviet Union were hostile to European colonialism.

The end of empire, when it came was more violent and protracted than people had imagined. The partition of the Indian subcontinent, in the late 1947s, resulted in the death of at least 1 million people and up to 15m more were forced to flee their homes. Thousands of children disappeared and thousands of women were raped. The unseemly haste of the departure plan – brought forward by 10 months – that created hurricane of violence polarised communities on the sub-continent as never before. The pogroms and killing were organised by gangs, vigilantes and militias across northern, western and eastern India. Today the upheaval on both sides of the partition line would be described as ethnic cleansing on a gigantic scale. It left two traumatised, injured nations – suspicious and fearful of one another even to this day – where once there had been one country of loosely interwoven peoples. Thus the result of the Partition was the largest migration of a human population in contemporary history that still carry and pass down a story of unimaginable pain, hate, horror and mistrust has left Kashmir trapped in a nightmare.

The unruly end of British Raj was a shock of epic scale. The accidental viceroy Lord Mountbatten should have been court-martialled when he got back to London, according to the historian Andrew Roberts. Similar point was made, in rather harsh words, in his book, Our Times, by A N Wilson in his allegation that “by gross mismanagement in India he [Earl Mountbatten] was in effect, if not by intention, a mass murderer.” Nonetheless, a canny negotiator, Lord Mountbatten bluffed his way through the biggest retreat in history and got away with Britain’s “majesty undiminished”. But as fate would have it, Lord Mountbatten, in 1979, went tuna fishing in a wooden boat in the Republic of Ireland and a radio-controlled bomb programmed by the IRA blew off the boat with its occupants.

The French fought an increasingly bloody, desperate campaign to keep Algeria. Between 1954 and 1962, 1.7 million French soldiers served in a struggle that left 25,000 of them dead, the Arab toll was much heavier – between 700,000 and a million died.

Click here the-history-of-capitalism_part_i for  the first part of Nauman Khan’s essay which elaborate on the themes above, providing insights on a vast panorama, including the Chinese empire, the rise of the European powers as trading nations, the Industrial Revolution and the British entry into India, and concluding, ‘the Nineteenth-century belonged to Europe. When was declared in 1914, it was the end of an era … the European century was over’.