Trade & travel project

Exploration made a powerful impact on the Enlightenment mind, stimulating anthropological relativism, leading to new environmental ideas within the sciences of geology and geophysics, and opening up dreams of progress built upon the exploitation of natural resources and the colonization of new continents.

— John W. Yolton, et al.
The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, pp. 160–161).

The 16th and 17th centuries saw great, heroic voyages of discovery — voyages into the unknown, voyages potentially into the abyss. With each landfall grateful Europeans planted flags to mark their “discovery” and thereby take possession of whatever their marginal first position should extend to. Since these were “discoveries”, each landfall meant these men (for they were inevitably male) stepped out onto something unknown, lost, discarded or unwanted. The land and its indigenous peoples could be treated as something truly other, something without significance until given one by their “discoverers”.

The 18th century saw a slow transformation in travel — if for no other reason than the incremental improvement and progress in the methods of travel. The world was gradually encompassed into the realm of the known, or at least of the knowable. No longer were vast spaces of the earth truly terra incognita. They might as yet be unexplored, harbouring surprises of their own, but these places and their peoples became part of current time and space, of everyday existence and experience. This encompassed globe was now open for business, and through the 18th century, we see the establishment of a truly global economy and the concomitant shrinking of the globe. Exploitation and imperialism expanded a pace, but globalization could not help but combine with Enlightenment ideals and begin, however slowly, a process still working today towards a more rational, humane world grounded in law.

The “savage” now had the potential at least to be considered “noble”. Relations between the governed and the governors were never entirely equitable — often, too often, they were horrific. Here the letters which form the “West Indies” collection this first tranche of the “Trade and travel project”, remind us of the terrible, beast-of-burden status of the sugar plantation slaves in the West Indies (see the correspondence of Simon Taylor, 1740–1813, Jamaican estate manager, merchant, plantation owner, attorney, lawyer and politician).

But there were at the same time increasing numbers of more balanced relationships developing, as one finds in parts of India, for example, where the East India Company incorporated Indians into civic administration, and subcontracted Parsi from the Mumbai area, both as master ship-builders of superior teak ships, and as trading partners for their existing commercial operations with China and the Far East.

Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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