A brief history of impoverishment


President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, a critic of Western influence over his country, meets with US President John F Kennedy. There may have been smiles all around but Nkrumah’s cards were marked. PHOTO/Abbie Rowe/Wikimedia Commons

Poverty between – and within – nations doesn’t just exist. It is created and needs constant maintenance. Warning: extremely violent content.

1 Conquest and plunder

The roots of our current vastly unequal world can be traced back to the late Middle Ages when European lust for gold and silver drove plunderers to far-flung lands. Led by Christopher Columbus, the Spanish invasion of the Caribbean led to warfare, slave trafficking and the forced mining of gold in horrific conditions. According to a contemporary account, it led to the deaths of over three million people between 1494 and 1508 alone. The invaders spread south, where the same story repeated – Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia suffered the most.

By the mid-1600s, much of Latin America’s population had been wiped out through a combination of massacres, forced labour, deprived livelihoods and imported disease (which was often spread knowingly, an early instance of bioterrorism). The African slave trade also got going in the 1500s and would persist over the next 350 years, draining trillions of dollars in stolen labour and killing and uprooting millions.

2 Enclosure

Even as such vast wealth was being looted abroad – in order to build up military might at home and provide a handy pot for overseas trade – the domestic picture was less than rosy. In Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the long drawn-out dispossession of the peasantry by wealthy interests that had started in the 15th century was also finally reaching its conclusion. This process – known as ‘enclosure’ – was marked by denying peasants their rights to access common land to earn their livelihood.

Slowly and with brute force, it turned a large portion of the country’s population out of their homes and off their land, making them rootless wage earners and refugees. These people had no assets apart from their labour and became easy prey to those who had profited from capturing common lands through enclosure. This was the army of workers needed for capitalism to thrive.

As the gears of industry began to turn and fortunes outstripping those of royalty were made by this new, small class of capitalists, this ragged army – which included small children – were exploited through dangerous, arduous, unceasing, ill-paid work. Previously predominantly self-sufficient, these former peasants were a captive market – they now had to purchase the basic goods needed to hold a life together.

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