18th Century Colonialism and its Links to Modern-Day Capitalism

Colonialism is arguably the largest forerunner in establishing capitalism. Not only there are multiple aspects of colonialism that are apparent in capitalism, but much of the remnants of colonialism are still prevailing in society. The privatization of property, classism and joint-stock companies are all features of colonialism that are still used in capitalism today. These concepts were and continue to be used in a way to oppress, discriminate, and exploit targeted minority groups.

Modern-day capitalism has its roots in the colonial act of the privatization of property.  During the 16th century in England, the commons where peasants were able to gain their resources of milk, water, and wood, had been taken over and the peasants were evicted from their lands. The land was then used for the grazing of sheep because wool was an important commodity. The peasants, which were high in numbers, became impoverished while only a handful of people were able to gain profit. The peasants then believe there are better opportunities by migrating to America, and they do so by becoming indentured servants in hopes of gaining their own land. However, when the peasants become settlers in the Americas, the land that they settled on was initially inhabited by indigenous people, but it was deemed necessary for them to overtake it because the “English were inhabiting land controlled by the devil.”  Today, we can see the privatization of property in modern-day capitalism. Currently, the land that we live on today in the San Francisco East Bay were the lands of the Ohlone. In addition to the settlement of the Europeans, missions were created in order to convert the indigenous people, and the names of the missions were based on the saints that they praised i.e., San Jose, San Francisco.  With the Europeans moving to Ohlone land, they established other sites, such as their businesses and homes, which then later evolved into the surrounding cities that we live in today. This could not have been done without the purchasing and ownership of native lands by the Europeans. Gentrification, which is defined as an urban area turning into a more middle-class area because more wealthy people are moving there, displaces people living in the urban areas. The land is cheap because it is in a “poorer” area, therefore wealthier people can purchase land, then establish businesses and residential areas that appeal to “wealthier” people. Again, like in settler colonialism, we can see a small group of people gaining most of the wealth. Gentrification is extremely apparent throughout the Bay Area because many technological, medicinal, and financial companies are being established, thus bringing an influx of people moving to the Bay Area to work at those companies, which further displaces people, especially of the Brown and Black communities, who could face eviction and debt because of the rising prices of housing and other necessities.

The joint-stock company is also a connection to modern-day capitalism by being the basis of the modern corporation. The Virginia Stock Company of London was one of the first joint-stock companies ever established and it was created in order to construct a colony in Virginia. Other joint-stock companies followed after the Virginia Company failed. Many companies were created in hopes that they would be able to receive a certain amount of profit from the colonies. Other companies were used as a way to unite large empires and have multiple shareholders in a company. With multiple shareholders, they are able to create their own laws and regulations for their companies. Joint-stock companies also can lead to the creation of a monopoly where the companies have the freedom to merge with others. It also connects to the privatization of property, in which the Virginia Company wanted to expand its territory over the Chesapeake Bay, while the tribe of the Tsenacomoco had lived on it priorly. The Virginia Company made efforts to exploit the Tsenacomoco’s resources and did so with Europeans facing the consequences of the spread of disease, hunger, and retaliation of the indigenous people. We can see the influence of joint-stock companies in modern-day capitalism with the establishment of a multitude of international corporations. To further connect corporations with the privatization of property, the location of the corporation is also bought in areas that native people have been living in for a long amount of years. A fairly recent incident that occurred in 2017 that applies to this is Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook and a multi-billionaire, who made attempts to buy land on Hawaiian land in Kauai by suing the landowners in order to expand his estate. Zuckerberg is regarded as a “neo-colonialist” because of his actions of separating the native Hawaiians from their land. Another popular corporation is Amazon, where it was able to establish many warehouses throughout numerous locations in other countries. Amazon currently has a market capitalization of $250 billion, however, there have been many complaints towards the company because of how poorly the workers are treated.  Without the exploitation of land by the joint-stock companies or the maltreatment of workers in large corporations like Amazon, they would not have succeeded in gaining and maintaining their high profits. 

Another connection between colonialism and modern-day capitalism is classism. Classism is a concept that has been used long before colonialism was established; the term was coined during the 17th century in medieval Europe when feudalism was created. It is defined as a way that people from different social standings are discriminated against or prejudiced. Classism can also be connected to white supremacy, and even the caste system, where those who are European were in a higher class than those who were not European. During the Spanish Inquisition, people who were European had “clean blood” and to determine whether or not someone had clean blood was based on what religion they followed: if they were Jewish or Muslim they were unclean. Those who were “unclean” then had the position in the lower classes, where they had fewer opportunities and faced terrible discrimination. Even within the lower class, there were more divisions with the men, women, and children. In most societies, boys who were under twelve years old received more opportunities than women who were old enough to have children. Furthermore, this proves the intersection between one’s economic status, race, or gender provides a basis for one’s position in society. In modern-day capitalism, the discrimination of an individual based on their economic status, race, or gender is still apparent. A recent incident is when a Black couple, Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate Austin, were selling their house and it was priced at $989,000. Then, when their white friend met with another appraiser, it was said the house was actually worth $1.4 million. This shows the discrimination of Black and Brown people in the housing market, but they face discrimination in other areas as well, whether it be politically, judicially, economically, or educationally in our current society. 

Modern-day capitalism has its roots in colonialism through the privatization of property, classism, and joint-stock companies. They all have evolved as society has evolved and kept the same name, but joint-stock companies became more widely known as corporations. There are efforts that need to be made in order to protect people from experiencing the same injustices that they faced when these concepts were established. People are still getting evicted from their homes or lands, continue to be discriminated against because of their social class, and are facing maltreatment under large corporations. 

Works Cited:

  1.  Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, 2015. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
  2.  “Tribal History.” Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. http://www.muwekma.org/tribalhistory/missionslandrancheria.html.
  3.  Crowe, N. J., PhD. (2020). Virginia Company. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
  4.  Salmon, John. (2021) “Tsenacomoco (Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom)” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities.
  5.  Statt, Nick. “Mark Zuckerberg Is Suing Hawaiian Land Owners to Secure His 700-Acre Island Getaway.” The Verge, January 19, 2017.
  6. Freeman, M., Pearson, R., & Taylor, J. (2013). Law, politics and the governance of English and Scottish joint-stock companies, 1600–1850. Business History, 55(4), 633–652. https://doi-org.chabotcollege.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/00076791.2012.741971
  7.  Gerstein, Julie. “A Black Couple’s Home Value Skyrocketed after a White Woman Pretended to Be the Homeowner during an Appraisal.” Insider, February 17, 2021. https://www.insider.com/black-couple-lowballed-on-home-price-because-of-race-2021-2.

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