Slavery and Colonialism

In class today we learned about the European colonial expansion which by the 1800’s saw the “Western Powers [Britain, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal] control 35% of the Earth’s surface”(Greig, Hulme, & Turner, 2007).

At the time the indirect and direct rule by the Western powers was justified in various ways including:

  • Searching for precious minerals;
  • The spread of religion/ Modernity;
  • Racism and that ethnicity determined the level of development; and
  • The need for power.

However, this is not the complete picture. One justification that I found interesting as it still applies to many faucets of life, is profits. Colonialism was seen to provide markets for domestic production and provide job opportunities for European workers. The connection of commerce to colonialism and even slavery is not alarming however the way in which the relationship between trade and colonial rule evolved is interesting. In some nations, indirect rule was exercised through a monopoly of an industry. This meant that the European private enterprises only meddled in domestic politics of a nation so far as it affected their trading. One such organisation was the East India Trading Company. It started as a company by acquiring the rights to build ports in the area from the Moghul rulers and trading rights from the British. However, it then slowly began collecting taxes on behalf of the Moghul emperor and the company’s administrative capacity expanded (“The British East India Company — the Company that Owned a Nation (or Two)”, 2016). The company had it’s own army in order to manage it’s ports and territories and once the company was facing troubles it was bailed out by the British government. “The Company was able to benefit, it is then usually argued, because of its military prowess, broadly defined. The Company’s armies had greater firepower, employing more heavy infantry and artillery than its Indian adversaries.” (“Myopia or strategic behaviour? Indian regimes and the East India Company in late eighteenth century India”, 2016). In the same Act of parliament, the first governor general of India was appointed who was a strong proponent of British rule in India. And so began the colonisation of India.

This led me to think of the link between private enterprises and development today. The exploitation of labour is a huge way in which companies around the world are linked with the development (or underdevelopment) of third world countries. The demand for the products at cheap prices fuels the need for outsourcing factories off-shore to South American, Asian and African countries. The workers work on sub-par wages for long hours and in a sense this is the modern day equivalent of slavery. Again, the driving factor is profits.

Labour is not the only exploitation. Over the years there have been allegations and reports released in regards to the unethical sourcing of raw materials by companies such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, Dell (Network, 2016). For instance, tantalum is required by smartphones which is found from the metal coltan (Network, 2016). It’s a very rare metal that is primarily found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (‘DRC’).  However after uproar by Western consumers, most of the aforementioned companies altered their supply chain policies to ensure it was ethically sourcing all metals required for their products. The mining operations were halted as the companies pulled out however this was replaced by warlords fighting for the land that contained the natural resources. Given the lack of Western regulation and oversight, the warlords forced young children to work in the mines and sold the metals on the black market. Again, the profits and demand [influences of the West] in the West fuelled the conflict and ‘slavery’ in the developing countries.

Given the parallels drawn between the drivers of colonialism and slavery, and modern capitalism in the developing world, it goes without saying that there are lessons that can be learnt to ensure we do not tread a path that makes us guilty for our own development.


Greig, A., Hulme, D., & Turner, M. (2007). Challenging global inequality (1st ed., p. 59). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Myopia or strategic behavior? Indian regimes and the East India Company in late eighteenth century India. (2016). Retrieved 12 December 2016, from

Network, C. (2016). Exploitation in the DRC fuels mining trade: Apple, Dell look the other way. Human Rights Now. Retrieved 12 December 2016, from

The British East India Company — the Company that Owned a Nation (or Two). (2016). Retrieved 13 December 2016, from


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