Capitalism and Conquest

Beginnings of Capitalism

Medieval craftsmen 

What began as a new way to organize economic interaction, referred to as capitalism or mercantilism, had a profound impact on the next several centuries.

Having brought impoverishment to the domestic peasantry, especially in England, the land-owners and budding manufacturers were stimulated to promote overseas conquest and colonization.  With their control of the state they could carry on such commercial activities under the guise of legality, international law and the law of states and conquest.

First the Spanish and Portuguese, and then the British, turned towards America, and the British annihilated whole societies in North America, in both cases rearranging the survivors under their control.  The Dutch and French also penetrated North America and the Caribbean with the same motives, goals and results.

The advent of capitalist production brought fundamental changes in the structure of European society, and through colonialism, affected the entire world.  Two new classes appeared wherever capitalism intervened: owners of the means of production, and dispossessed persons who were forced to sell their labor cheaply to those owners.

For the first time in human history, the majority of the people depended for their livelihood on a small minority, a phenomenon which became associated with colonialism worldwide.

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Indians of the Americas, 10

Dangerous Voyages


The legend of sailors beaching their ships on the back of a whale in the mistaken belief that they had found land was a popular one throughout the Middle Ages. 

Highly motivated men dared to undertake dangerous voyages to strange lands, willing to risk their lives on the high seas on perilous journeys, traveling farther than anyone had every ventured before.  A combination of circumstances in fifteenth-century Spain provided the incentives and the context: the violence, poverty, and disease common in the lives of the people; the rise of nationalism out of the hierarchical feudal system with  its acceptance of the domination of one class over another; an impoverished nobility yearning for wealth; a recognition of the importance of material wealth and an awareness that other nations were getting it through commerce; and an insistence on the universality of the Christian culture, with a tradition of waging battles against heretics and a missionary spirit to “save the world.”


New Philosophies

Nature as the Enemy 

Medieval painting of a garden

The attitude toward nature of Europeans was very unusual.

This separation from the natural world, this estrangement from the realm of the wild, I think, exists in no other complex culture on earth.  In its attitude to the wilderness, a heightening of its deep-seated antipathy to nature in general, European culture created a frightening distance between the human and the natural, between the deep silent rhythms  of the body, between the elemental eternal workings of the cosmos and the physical and psychological means of perception, by which we can come to understand it and our place within it.

To have regarded the wild as sacred, as do many other cultures around the world, would have been almost inconceivable in medieval  Europe—and, if conceived, as some of those called witches found out, certainly heretical and punishable by the Inquisition.

Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 78-79


New Philosophies

To the violence and terror of the day, humanism provided answers.   Humanists turned to the classics of antiquity, translating and disseminating ideas from Greek and Latin authors to help upper-class citizens find a sense of direction in their lives.

According to humanist philosophy, man is the crown of God’s creation, constantly seeking dominion over the world, never satisfied as long as there are lands to conquer.  Morality took the form of a secular pragmatism: what’s important is what works in the here and now.

Humanism also fit into the prevailing class system.  Although the term “man” was used to mean “human,” it also had strong connotations of “male human,” especially male human of the upper class, the educated, wealthy, urban man of position.

Along with the glorification of the human went a dismissal and fear of nature.  Fairy tales and poetry portrayed mountains, forests, jungles, and deserts as terrifying, populated with both real and mythical beasts.  Anything wild was feared; man’s duty was to tame the wilderness, to bring nature under his control.  The early explorers shared with their culture a lack of appreciation of the beauties of the lands they were seeing for the first time; the notion that humans might live in harmony with nature was not a familiar one.

The idea of the Wild Man, a terrifying mythical being who lived in the hills and mountains, frightened both children and adults.  In pictures and stories he was portrayed as naked, covered with hair, usually wielding a club, living like a wild beast and ready to do damage to more “civilized” Europeans.  The concept of the Savage Beast later had disastrous consequences for the innocent natives who welcomed Columbus.

Another response to the chaos of the Middle Ages was rationalism, the philosophy that forms the basis for present-day scientific methodology.  Gradually, over many decades, old worldviews were replaced.  Centuries-old beliefs in gods and spirits that inhabited the elements of nature gave way to scientific proof that all combinations of chemical and mechanical properties could be measured and subjected to analysis, prediction, and manipulation.

Scholars could point to new technological advances such as the printing press to bolster their claims for the validity and significance of rationalism.  Printing extended knowledge to a wider audience than ever before.  With the development of movable type in the 1440s and the availability of good, cheap paper, came a well-established printing industry by the 1470s.  In a fifty-year period, from 1454 to 1504, twenty million books were printed in at least forty thousand separate editions.  One of the most successful early books was the log of Columbus’s first voyage, translated into four languages and printed in nineteen editions.

A natural adjunct of humanism and rationalism was materialism, the celebration of objects of the “real” world.  Possession of material wealth became a primary goal of life and began to replace other values long honored because of ethical and religious considerations.  Coveting goods was gradually accepted as tolerable human behavior, not criticized as sinful or immoral, and slowly a new form of economic interaction developed: capitalism.  The church accompanied the shift in attitude.  The Bible enjoins believers to promote the general welfare and common good of God’s “corporate” world.  Those words were simply applied to the new definition of God’s world as the civil society in which individuals resided.

Under capitalism, morality shifted.  The purposes, needs, and limits of human beings no longer had a restraining influence upon industry; rather, the accumulation of money and power became the ultimate end for which human beings worked.