Ten things the North has always craved for from the South
The industrialized world has for centuries depended on exploiting the countries in the global south. The list of products from the south which have enriched the first world is long. A short history of colonial greed.
The 18th century industrial revolution and European imperialism were two interdependent processes. Europe was finally in possession of the technology which guaranteed it power over its colonies. And it is precisely from there that the necessary raw materials and labour force came from, which kept the industrialization mechanisms going.
Colonialism not only extended international trade relations but also completely changed the southern part of our planet. Asia, Africa and America were substantially reinvented by European greed. Europe, ravaged by wars and epidemics, swooped into the “new worlds” which it subjugated for decades, bumped on to tasty food supplies, which apparently would never be used up. This dependence justified – and to date continues to justify– the ecological and human exploitation of extensive areas in the global south. A few of those things which originate from the south and which the north was always craving for are presented below.
Painting: Opium addicts in the Chinese Empire, NN, PD
Opium: In the 19th century China supplied the United Kingdom with silk, porcelain and tea. The British in turn exported opium from India to China. In the middle of the 19th Century, the consumption of opium as medicine and as a hallucinogen increased, leading to widespread health problems. The Chinese emperor prohibited its consumption and the British lost one of their most lucrative businesses. This gave rise to two wars, which cost China millions of lives and the loss of Hong Kong and brought about the complete downfall of the Chinese Empire in 1911.
Painting: Vincent van Gogh: The potato eater”, 1885, Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam.
Potatoes: The potato is one of Europe’s staple foods. The South America tuber, which came to Europe in the 16th century, is tied up to a difficult historical moment in the old world: The “great famine” in Ireland (1845-1849), triggered amongst other things by a disease which attacked the potato fields, caused millions of deaths as well as the migration of millions of Irishmen particularly to the USA.
Painting: Philippe S. DuFour, “Treatise on coffee, tea and chocolate”, 1685.
Chocolate: When this ceremonial Aztec drink, whose name means “bitter water” in the indigenous Nahuatl language, came to Europe on the conqueror’s ships, it fascinated both kings and ladies-in-waiting. For the Catholic Church on the other hand it was a cause for distress: they could not agree whether the drink could possibly be sinful. The difficult cocoa production which demanded hard manual labour was favourable to the slave trade in order to maintain the European seeds in America.
Painting/Photo: Sam Fentress, 2005 – CC BY-SA 2.0.
Maize: In Latin America, there are as many words for maize as there are recipes, in which it is used. In addition, the countries in the global north have found new ways of using this plant. Today maize is used to produce plastic, biomass fuel and artificial sweeteners. As a staple food in the pre-Columbian cultures maize is today one of the most frequently produced and most lucrative products in the “first world”. The US with a production of 350 million tons per year is the leading maize producer.
Photo: Drug Enforcement Agency USA – PD.
Cocaine: The fight against the trade in the alkaloid extraction from the cocoa plant has led to decades of mafia wars in countries such as Columbia and Mexico; it has influenced the agenda of international politics and fuelled the “fight against drugs” one of the most expensive and most futile conflicts for the northern half of the globe. For the producing countries in Latin America cocaine was a guarantee for death. Its legalization, for many the only solution, is a contentious topic today.
Photo: unpolished diamond, South Africa. Photo: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0.
Diamonds: Diamonds have inspired spectacular robberies and charming films. But the hardest material ever to come out of nature was also the economic motor for constant wars in African countries such as Angola, Congo and Ivory Coast. Ever since the 2006 film in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly played the main roles, the concept of “blood diamonds” is on every one’s lips. But despite the human and political costs the legal and illegal trade continues to grow worldwide.
Painting: Child slave in Zanzibar, Africa- Maritime Museum, London.
Human Beings: The trade with human beings has existed since the beginning of time, it fuelled revolutions and wars in all corners of the world: from ancient Egypt and the slave ships of the Spanish conquistadors to the eunuchs from the Middle East, dwarfs and people with deformities, which were delivered as eccentric gifts to Kings in Europe to the sale of women as sex workers. There has not been a “product” in history that has been more exploited than the human being.
Picture: Caricature against Belgian rubber-colonialism in Congo, Punch magazine 1906
Rubber: When the Scotsman John Dunlop reinvented the production of rubber in 1887, rubber which was produced from the milky juice of the South and Central American tree became a coveted raw material. Its boundless exploitation on American soil brought about one of the most violent industries for both men and nature. The Columbian novel “La Vorágine” (1924) by J.E. Rivera portrays the impacts of the “rubber fever”, it tells about the colonists, inhuman working conditions and the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest
Picture: Culture dish with an E-Coli bacteria culture – PD.
Agar: This gel-like substance, which originates from algae, is a revolutionary product in micro-biology. It was discovered in the 15th century after a Japanese man found that his algae soup from the previous day had changed into gel. Agar has since been used as a culinary ingredient and for producing plasticine. Its most important use is however in the production of culture dishes used to cultivate bacteria.
Picture: Uranium dice, part of the production of the first atomic bomb 1942, US Energy Ministry – PD
Uranium: This radioactive metal, which is used in the military industry and as an energy source is abundantly available in Africa. Niger has one of the largest deposits of this metal – and is at the same time one of the poorest countries in the world. Many European nations, which offer assistance to countries like Niger, do so for a high price. For permission to extract uranium they rob these countries of one of the products which would bring about a decisive turnabout in their destiny.