Commerce, Agriculture, and Slavery: Crash Course European History #8 (1)
Hi I'm John Green and this is Crash Course European History.
So, last time, we were focusing on queens and kings and rivalries.Today we're gonna
take a break from struggles over religion and political disputes that made for so much
violence and look instead at some basics of everyday life--the foods people ate centuries
ago, the kinds of things people bought and sold, and changes in the kinds of lives people
could hope to live.
I know developments in agriculture and commerce may seem like sidelines to the main political
show—I mean, there's a reason it's called Game of Thrones and not like, Game of Slightly
Improved Seed Quality--but I'd argue that history is about how people lived, and what
we might learn from their lives.
And if you think about our lives today, our leaders are important.
Our forms of government are important.
But as Miroslav Volf said, Politics touches everything, but politics isn't everything.
On a day-to-day basis, our lives are also shaped by the kinds of goods and services
available to us, and our professional and personal opportunities.
Whether you go to school, whether you get enough to eat, the kinds of freedom you do
and do not enjoy... those are the big questions we're exploring today.
INTRO The citizens of many European nations today
have long life expectancies, and a top standard of living.
Europe also comprises the largest developed economic market place and a major region of
But in 1500, that was hardly the case.
In the early fourteenth century a major famine erupted, with further famines across the centuries.
We've talked about the Black Death.
Trade was local and regulated by guilds—that is, by organizations of individual artisans
and traders that determined the number and type of goods that could be produced and marketed.
In the late middle ages Europe was a subsistence economy, with little if any agricultural surplus.
If princes could satisfy their appetite for food and drink on a regular and reliable basis,
they were virtually alone in experiencing a consistently happy and full stomach.
In 1500, Europe was not exceptional in life expectancy or in many other measures of well-being.
But in the early modern period, roughly between 1500 and 1750 the situation gradually improved,.
And I know that seems impossible, given all the religious strife, and wars, and massacres
we've discussed in this series so far.
But during this period, population actually rose;
In Britain, for instance, the population almost doubled between 1700 and 1800.
Historians attribute this rise to developments in agriculture, sometimes called an agricultural
revolution that unfolded alongside all that warfare.
And there was also a growth in commerce, often called a commercial revolution, and of course,
the Columbian exchange, which made new nutritious foods--from potatoes to corn--available to
But the agricultural revolution was also driven by innovation that dramatically boosted agricultural
yields in Europe between 1500 and 1800.
Let's go to the Thought Bubble.
For starters, it was discovered that planting certain crops, like turnip and clover, could
replenish soil, which was one example of crop rotation--farmers would plant one crop in
a field one year, and then another the next year, rotating 2 or at times three crops to
add nutrients to the soil. and the great thing about crop rotation is
that it decreased the amount of farmland that needed to remain fallow each year--that is,
Secondly, with the Dutch pioneering some advances, land reclamation occurred across Europe.
This entailed converting marshes and other previously unusable land into farmland.
and Third, common lands were enclosed.
Enclosure occurred when wealthier farmers bought up or simply took common land (land
that had been open to community use).
Private farms were able to innovate faster than communities,
which required consensus in group decision-making.
And fourth, there were new inventions such as the seed drill and a plow that could be
drawn by two instead of six or eight farm animals.
The new plow cut down on expenses and the seed drill made planting more accurate with
less wasted seed.
Both of these new tools, by the way, copied Chinese inventions.
But while enclosure and more mechanized farming practices did mean more overall food, and
therefore more overall wealth, not everyone benefited, because a decrease in common land
meant that fewer people had direct access to land for their own use.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So one example of all these innovations can be seen in the life of [[TV: Elizabeth of
Sutherland]] Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, who inherited some 800,000 acres in Scotland.
Stan, hold on a second.
Is that a trout in her hair?
Is is a feather?
Was there some kind of hair fish trend at the time?
Let's move on from lighthearted hair fish jokes and talk about people being wrested
from their land.So, Elizabeth removed hundreds of tenants from her estate, then created unified
acreage for farming and raising sheep with the help of day laborers.
These landless workers were cheaper, and also unlike the tenant farmers who had lived on
the land previously, day laborers did not have longstanding claims to inhabit and work
the land, called “tenancy.”
The Countess was known for chasing villagers away from their land with her own hands, and
also for innovations that increased productivity even as Sutherland's former tenants became
So more overall food, but on land controlled by fewer people.
So obviously, this Agricultural Revolution entailed massive social dislocation that included
the rise of poverty, migration of disenfranchised farmworkers to cities and also to other continents,
and even as overall agricultural production rose, some among the poor starved.
And this period of European history is still widely debated in part because ideas of private
property and inequality of wealth remain resonant today, but whether this modernization helped
or hurt humanity again depends on your perspective.
To some, it was fatal.
To many, it meant trauma and impoverishment as people were removed from lands their families
had farmed for generations.
But these changes also helped fuel greater overall food production, population growth,
larger cities, and more space for all kinds of specialized labor, from shoemaking to theater.
I mean, it's no coincidence that Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing as English agricultural
production started to increase.
Another ingredient in the rising population and overall output of food was the inflow
of novel plants from the Americas and other parts of the world.
Potatoes and maize, for example, were grown on the marginal land that was previously seen
as unfit for agriculture.
Farmers started experimenting with all the new crops, but especially with maize and potatoes
that could produce super-abundant...did the world just open?
Is there a potato in the center?
There's a lot of candidates for most important plant of the last 500 years, but I'm gonna
say it's the potato.
They contain lots of carbohydrates, and whatever micronutrients are.
You can turn them into both French fries and tater tots, the world's two most important
But most importantly, you don't need great soil to have great potatoes.
Just ask Idaho!
[[TV: Rice]] In addition to the transfer of crops, knowledge about agriculture was transferred
from Africa and the Americas to Europe.
Women in both the Americas and Africa had made their regions food-rich, as European
traders and invaders testified, and their knowledge of crops and irrigation techniques
allowed, for instance, rice to be grown in much larger quantities in European colonies.
[[TV: Slave Trade]] Much of what Europeans learned about agriculture from Africans came
from enslaved women agriculturalists.
Slavery has existed for millennia, but slaves have experienced very different lives depending
on culture, and religion, and occupation, and gender.
[[TV: Slaves at Work]] Before 1650, the Atlantic slave ships took an annual total of 7,500
Africans to the Western Hemisphere—and that number was comparable to other slave routes,
such as the one in South Asia or the Ottoman Empire.
The vast majority went to Mexico and South America.
European ships transported other slaves from the Indian Ocean across the Pacific, many
of them to Mexico.
But, beginning in the late seventeenth century, there was a massive upsurge in African slavery
that sought to replace the labor of the native American populations that had been utterly
devastated by disease and warfare.
In particular, slave labor was used to fill the world's increasing demand for commodities
and consumer goods.
Europeans came to depend on sugar, and tobacco, and coffee, and tea--all of which was produced
primarily via forced labor.
[[TV: Mansa Musa]] And racism developed alongside the growth of the African slave trade.
At first, Europeans were in awe of African wealth in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
as it motivated their first contacts.
They craved African gold and found African men and women stately--“intelligent and
rich,” as one Portuguese trader wrote.
However, greed for profit took over and as the indigenous Amerindian population declined,
the desire for slaves grew, and to justify slavery, European descriptions of Africans
became contemptuous and dehumanizing.
[[TV: Slave Ship]] As dehumanization progressed, Europeans treated Africans as morally and
intellectually inferior, and used those incorrect constructions to justify their horrendous
treatment of Africans, packing them into slave ships and subjecting them to the lethal middle
passage across the Atlantic.
African kings and independent African traders fed the rising demand for slaves.
In those days of state consolidation African rulers sought funds for weaponry, which Europeans
provided in exchange for slaves.
More advanced weaponry then allowed leaders to capture additional people to sell to European
slavers for yet more weapons.
European slavers mostly operated along the West African coast, while Arabs took slaves
from East Africa to sell to India or into the Middle Eastern markets.
The Saharan slave trade went northward, transporting many women slaves to serve as domestics and
as sex workers.
But the European slave was by far the largest, and the dehumanizing racism that has endured
to this day.
[[TV: Slaves at Work]] In the eighteenth century, one million slaves worked in the sugar industry
and diamond and gold mines of Brazil.
These industries were tremendously lucrative, and in that sense, slavery both produced and
was a product of growing European wealth.
The conditions of slavery were truly dire: Torture, beatings, overwork, and malnutrition
And because the system itself did not treat them as humans, enslaved people had very little
recourse, and there was always the knowledge that you could be separated from your children,
from your family, at any time, because you were treated legally and practically as property.
The slave trade itself was part of a web of interactions that is still being understood.
Historians used to talk of the triangle trade: shippers took small iron goods from Britain
to Africa, trading them for slaves; and then shippers dropped off the slaves who survived
the passage in Brazil or the Caribbean, and then filled their holds with local sugar or
molasses to take back to England.
But while there was a triangle, there were also many other shapes.
West African rulers and consumers wanted cowrie shells and Indian textiles as payment for
These products took a much more circuitous route than a simple triangle.
Cowrie shells, for example, were picked up from merchants along the Pacific Ocean or
South Asian coasts, then “cured” and processed in Sri Lanka, then shipped again.
With slaves coming to the New World across the Pacific and commodities to pay for them
flowing in multiple directions, the slave trade into the Americas was part of a global,
not just triangular, market.
In fact, multidirectional trade in many goods increased in diversity and quantity.
In the seventeenth century literally millions of pieces of porcelain went in Portuguese
ships to Dutch and other European ports.
And to get funds to buy that porcelain, European shippers did a lot of local coastline shipping,
stopping at ports around the Indian Ocean or at Chinese depots in the Philippines.