In May 1857 a mutiny began among native soldiers in the army of the British East India Company. The rebels captured large parts of the northern plains of the subcontinent, including the province of Oudh and the city of Delhi, where they installed the Mughal king as their ruler. The war was characterized by great cruelty on both sides. In June 1857, the rebels laid a siege on the British settlement at Kanpur — “Cawnpore,” to the British — but after three weeks, with very little food left, the settlers accepted an offer of a safe passage. As they made ready to depart, however, the men were all butchered, and while women and children first were spared, they were later hacked to death and their bodies thrown into a well – the notorious “well of Cawnpore” — which, the story goes, “filled up to within 6 feet of the top.”

The acts of retribution meted out by the British army were every bit as savage as the acts committed by the rebels. On the suspicion of harboring pro-rebel sympathies, the British commanders ordered entire villages to be burned and the villagers to be killed. A favorite method of execution was to tie the rebels before the mouths of cannons and to blow them to pieces. As Charles Dickens’ weekly, Household Words, assured its readers in a graphic account of this practice, this way of punishing mutineers “is one of the institutions of Hindustan.” While it may seem barbarian to us, it is in fact “one of the easiest methods of passing into eternity.”

As for the British public it was largely supportive of such cruelties. Many felt betrayed by the mutineers who, an important strand of opinion argued, always had been benevolently treated by the East India Company. In general – and as newspaper proprietors soon discovered – the British public loved reading about atrocities committed against their countrymen. The gorier the details, the more titillating; and a particular favorite were accounts of fair English maidens being raped by low-browed, brown, men. Given these heinous crimes, the justice of the British cause was never in doubt.

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In Our Time, “The Indian Mutiny”

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The Germans came late to the scramble for Africa, but

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After 1871, European imperialism in Africa entered a new phase. Until this time only small groups of investors, explorers and missionaries had taken an interest in this part of the world. With the exception of the Dutch settlement in South Africa and the French in Algeria, their presence had been restricted to a few trading ports along the coast. The rest of Africa was too remote, too malaria-ridden and simply not a profitable proposition. After 1871, however, Europeans suddenly went on to explore and colonize the interior too. Before long the whole continent, with the exception of Ethiopia, was divided between them. [Read more:Countries that never were colonized“]

The reason for this burst of colonial ambition had little to do with Africa and everything to do with Europe itself. France turned to Africa as a way to compensate for the loss in the war against Germany in 1871. It was a way to prove to themselves that they still were a world power. Britain became interested mainly since they sought to check French ambitions. Germany which was united only in 1871, sought to catch up with the other Europeans powers. This was true of Italy too, united only in 1861. Meanwhile the Ottoman empire, which up to this point had ruled much of North Africa, was too weak to defend its former possessions. Technological advances assisted the Europeans. Steamships took them up Africa’s rivers, quinine helped them fight malaria and far more lethal weapons helped them fight the natives.

In order to find an orderly way to resolve these conflicts, fourteen European countries gathered for a conference in Berlin in November, 1884. On the wall of the conference hall was a large map of Africa on which the Europeans staked out their claims. Only two of the delegates had themselves set foot in Africa and no Africans were present. The great winner was King Leopold II of Belgium who managed to acquire all of Congo as his personal possession. He presented himself to the world community as a great humanist and friend of the African people. In the subsequent conquest of the country millions of Africans died.

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15 Minute History, “The scramble for Africa”

In Our Time, “The Berlin Conference”

Librivox: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Chinoiserie and the craze for all things Chinese.

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Trading with Asia was a lucrative business but also a very risky one. It was a long journey to India and back and any number of things could happen on the way. In order to pool the risks, merchants would at first only invest in a portion of a ship. Their portions came to be known as “shares.” Later they invested not in individual ships but rather in the businesses which organized the shipping. This is how the first “joint stock companies” came to be established.

Another way to deal with risk was to ask for a monopoly on the trade with a particular part of the world. European rulers were happy to sell these monopolies as a way to raise revenue. This is how “East India companies” came to be established in one country after another — of which the English East India Company, 1600, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagni, VOC, 1602, were the most famous. The rulers were also quick to borrow money from the companies once they had made their profits. This is the origin of the Bank of England, 1694, which was a private company, not a public institution, until 1946.

Yet it was more than anything the VOC that ruled the waves. They were buying tea and porcelain in China, established trading ports all over Asia and a full-fledged colony in today’s Indonesia. At the Beurs, the stock exchange, in Amsterdam not only VOC shares could be bought but all kinds of other shares too. In fact the Beurs was a veritable one-stop-shop for financial services. You could buy maritime insurance, organize bank transfers, cash checks and trade currencies. “Dutch finance” is the origin of today’s financial service industry.

Dutch traders are also the ones who came up with many of the place names we today find on a world map. Zeeland is a Dutch province and that is why two islands west of Australia came to be known as “New Zealand.” Australia itself was for a long time known as “New Holland” and New York known as “New Amsterdam.” In fact, Harlem is a Dutch city — although the Dutch called it “Haarlem” — not only a part of Manhattan. In the nineteenth-century Chinese laborers came to work in “the Dutch West Indies” and that is why there to this day are people here who speak both Chinese and Dutch.

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In Our Time, “The East India Company”

History of the World in 100 Objects: “The Mechanical Galleon”

“The Columbian exchange” is the name given to the transfer of plants, animals, peoples and microbes which took place between the Americas and the rest of the world after the year 1492. The Columbian exchange had a profound impact on nutrition, population growth, food culture and the prevalence of diseases.

Species that did not exist outside of the Americas before 1492 include: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, cassava, sweet potatoes, turkey, peanut, manioc, chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, avocado, cashew, squash, rubber and strawberry. Species that did not exist in the Americas include: coffee, wheat and barley, sugarcane, banana, rice, horse, donkey, mule, pig, cow, sheep, goat, chicken, large dogs, cat and honey bees.

Diseases were also exchanged, and with devastating effect. Some 80 percent of the native population of the Americas died as a result of measle and smallpox epidemics. In some places, like the island of Hispaniola where Columbus first landed, all of the natives died. In return the Europeans got syphilis. The first known case in Europe dates from 1493 and the first great outbreak occurred in Italy the following year.

Today chilies are essential to much of the food of India and Southeast Asia, and it is difficult to imagine that they were unknown prior to 1492. Yet before Columbus, Indian curries where made with black pepper, not chilies. [Read more:Chocolate and chilies“] It is equally difficult to imagine that Italian food was made without tomatoes, that there was no coffee in Brazil, no bananas in Central America and no sugarcane in Cuba. It was only in the course of the eighteenth-century that horses began to be used by the native peoples of North America. It was only now that they could begin to hunt bison.

The potato had a crucial impact on the level of nutrition in Europe, yet it was slow to be adopted and often had to be officially promoted by European governments. In Sweden, the potato only caught on once it was discovered that it could be used in the production of vodka. In 1748, the person responsible for the discovery, Eva de la Gardie, became the first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Soon, however, the potato was a staple diet around Europe, contributing to perhaps 25 percent of the population growth between the years 1700 and 1900. Without Columbus there would have been no “potato famine” in Ireland in the 1840s and 50s.

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