Socio-Economic Changes in the Atlantic World from 1492-1750
The Atlantic, what had previously been a predominately dormant ocean, erupted with a flurry of activity during the latter portion of the 15th century C.E. with the first voyages of Christopher Columbus. With these came an onslaught of intercontinental trade, beginning, obviously, with the Columbian exchange in the early 1500’s C.E. The expanse of time between 1492-1750 C.E. brought to all Atlantic shores, what is debatably the greatest transformation ever undergone by these constituencies. In addition to the original bout of explosive growth felt by Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas, the socio-economic ramifications of such were soon mutually experienced on all sides, if not in different ways. As the practice of cash-cropping on a large scale took root, the need for slave labor increased significantly all around the board, this seamlessly segueing into a mix of cultures, never before seen in the Americas. With this particular period of time, the enumerable cultures of the African, European, and American peoples desperately clung to their own cultural ideals and practices, even in the instance of African enslavement. This, to me, brings up one of the most interesting ways in which multiple social continuities have transpired throughout a period of history, while all the while being morphed and shaped by the customs of the society into which they went forth (or were brought into by force, presumably as the case would have been for coerced laborers from Africa after being shipped to the Americas to work as slaves).
Without the Columbian Exchange, it is very doubtful that much change at all would have occurred in the regions bordering the Atlantic during this time period, given that it allowed for, and was originally, the sole source of transoceanic collateral dispersal. This economized redistribution of goods and wealth throughout the West gave rise to copious alterations throughout Europe, Africa, and the budding Americas. Many of these changes (especially those pertaining to the financial modifications that took place on both sides of the Atlantic) are made quite evident by their superficiality. For example, the Americas were involuntarily ushered into the tradeoff between staggering population losses and equally exponential gains in new crops, commodities, etc. After the initial biological shock of European conquest, the Native American peoples watched as the dust settled over a very different economic landscape than the one they had previously navigated as an entirely self-sufficient tribal nations. The relatively rapid influx of new goods, crops, and animals to the Americas caused the two continents to explode economically. Equitably, the large number of American goods flowing back into Europe (and eventually western Africa) caused a major shift in the European mindset as well as an even larger bulge than was already present in the pocketbooks of numerous European royals. With the effects of silver bullion mining in Spain spidering outward through Europe, Africa, and soon, across the Atlantic to the Americas somewhat, the West received yet another hit of economic amphetamines in its veins. The monetary channels that had previously been restricted by a shortage of resources, lack of new and/or mysterious (foreign) products, and the ever present greed of autocrats, were enormously dilated by new contacts and trades amongst Europe, the Americas, and Africa. However, as always, somebody generally ends up with the butt end of the deal. In this particular case, this “somebody” was the impoverished African masses. In an effort to preserve/expand the economies of their constituencies, many African rulers evilly took advantage of the rapidly growing new demand for slave laborers in the New World. The previously discussed J-curve of transcontinental/oceanic financial influx generated a “need” for coerced, inexpensive labor not only in the Americas, but in Europe as well, where the introduction of new cash crops like corn were being produced on a massive scale. This increased demand for blatantly immoral slave labor in conjunction with the sickening willingness of many African leaders to literally sell out their people for personal gain, to me was one of the major contributors to the overall European attitude of apathy towards the sickening atrocities occurring within the slave trade not only within the triangular trade itself, but additionally in the sugar plantations in the West Indies and other areas where African slaves were being violently mistreated. On top of the transoceanic economic/agricultural boom and the subsequent rise in the volume of human cargo in triangular trade, other changes were occurring during this time due to the reasons discussed in the thesis. Due to the steady flow of newfound luxuries to Europe, many Europeans found themselves “addicted” to these newfangled “vessels of hedonism”, thus sculpting an entirely new European mindset in respect to the natural moral desert of luxury items by non-royalty. Across the Atlantic in the Americas, the large-scale introduction of slave labor began to seed a melting pot (albeit not anything close to our modern, feel-good, definition of such) of cultures, races, languages, and more.
While the changes that occurred in the expanse of time between the latter portion of the 15th century C.E. and the mid 18th century C.E. were great in quantity, it is important to realize that even throughout these hemispherical shifts, some specific elements of the Atlantic culture(s), social structure(s), and economy(ies) remained unaltered. The cultural and ethnic mixing referenced at the end of the previous paragraph brings up the interesting way in which certain parts of each Atlantic culture managed to remain preserved. Renowned evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins refers to these as “memes”. Dawkins theorizes that memes (defined by Dawkins as: “any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator.”) present themselves at one point of time in history and, if accepted widely enough, press on through a process of natural selection by society. It is these cultural memes that I believe constitute the backbone of the continuities of this time period in the Atlantic. The mix of cultures caused by the Columbian Exchange as well as slavery in the Americas (and, yes, Europe also) is just that – a mix. Even though so many changes couldn’t help but transpire due to the reasons above listed, the memes of each distinct social group shone through, persevering through hardship and crossing, quite literally, the stormy seas of economic shift. It is these memes that ever-so-subtly made their presence known (and continue to do so to this day) in the meshed peoples of the Americas, Africa, and western Europe.
In summary, the Atlantic played host to enormous change during the latter half of the 1st millennia C.E., while also (quite involuntarily, and most likely, unknowingly) providing an ideal environment for the memes of multiple societies and cultures to mesh beautifully.