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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Plunder of the Earth--Conclusion.
(S726, Chapter 21: 1898)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Chapter 21 of the book The Wonderful Century, published in 1898. Original pagination from the New York edition (Dodd, Mead and Co.) indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S726CH21.htm

[[p. 369]] CHAPTER XXI.


              Commerce has set the mark of selfishness,
              The signet of its all-enslaving power,
              Upon a shining ore, and called it Gold;
              Before whose image bow the vulgar great,
              The vainly rich, the miserable proud,
              The mob of peasants, nobles, priests, and kings,
              And with blind feelings reverence the power
              That grinds them to the dust of misery.

    The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results, as sketched in the preceding chapter, have been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth's surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history.

    In our own country, the value of the coal exported to foreign countries has increased from about three to more than sixteen millions sterling per annum, the quantity being now about thirty millions of tons; and this continuous exhaustion of one of the necessaries of existence is wholly in the interest of landlords and capitalists, [[p. 370]] while millions of our people have not sufficient for the ordinary needs or comforts of life, and even die in large numbers for want of the vital warmth which it would supply. Another large quantity of coal is consumed in the manufacture of iron for export, which amounts now to about two millions of tons per annum. A rational organization of society would ensure an ample supply of coal to every family in the country before permitting any export whatever; while, if our social organization was both moral and rational, two considerations would prevent any export: the first being that we have duties toward posterity, and have no right to diminish unnecessarily those natural products which cannot be reproduced; and the second, that the operations of coal-mining and iron-working being especially hard and unpleasant to the workers, and at the same time leading to injury to much fertile land and natural beauty, they should be restricted within the narrowest limits consistent with our own well-being.

    In America, and some other countries, an equally wasteful and needless expenditure of petroleum oils and natural gas is going on, resulting in great accumulations of private wealth, but not sensibly ameliorating the condition of the people at large. Such an excellent light as that afforded by petroleum oil is no doubt a good thing; but it comes in the second grade, as a comfort, not a necessity; and it is really out of place till everyone can obtain ample food, clothing, warmth, house room, and pure air and water, which are the absolute necessaries of life, but which, under the conditions of our modern civilization--more correctly barbarism--millions of people, through no fault of their own, cannot obtain. In [[p. 371]] these respects we are as the Scribes and Pharisees, giving tithe of mint and cummin, but neglecting the weightier matters of the law.

    Equally disastrous in many respects has been the wild struggle for gold in California, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. The results are hardly less disastrous, though in different ways, than those produced by the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru four centuries ago. Great wealth has been obtained, great populations have grown up and are growing up; but great cities have also grown up with their inevitable poverty, vice, overcrowding, and even starvation, as in the Old World. Everywhere, too, this rush for wealth has led to deterioration of land and of natural beauty, by covering up the surface with refuse heaps, by flooding rich lowlands with the barren mud produced by hydraulic mining; and by the great demand for animal food by the mining populations leading to the destruction of natural pastures in California, Australia, and South Africa, and their replacement often by weeds and plants neither beautiful nor good for fodder.

    It is also a well-known fact that these accumulations of gold-seekers lead to enormous social evils, opening a field for criminals of every type, and producing an amount of drink-consumption, gambling, and homicide altogether unprecedented. Both the earlier gold-digging by individual miners, and the later quartz-mining by great companies, are alike forms of gambling or speculation; and while immense fortunes are made by some, others suffer great losses, so that the gambling spirit is still further encouraged and the production of real wealth by patient industry, to the same extent [[p. 372]] diminished and rendered less attractive. For it must never be forgotten that the whole enormous amount of human labor expended in the search for and the production of gold; the ships which carry out the thousands of explorers, diggers, and speculators; the tools, implements, and machinery they use; their houses, food, and clothing, as well as the countless gallons of liquor of various qualities which they consume, are all, so far as the well-being of the community is concerned, absolutely wasted. Gold is not wealth; it is neither a necessary nor a luxury of life, in the true sense of the word. It serves two purposes only: it is an instrument used for the exchange of commodities, and its use in the arts is mainly as ornament or as an indication of wealth. Nothing is more certain than that the appearance of wealth produced by large gold-production is delusive. The larger the proportion of the population of a country that devotes itself to gold-production, the smaller the numbers left to produce real wealth--food, clothing, houses, fuel, roads, machinery, and all the innumerable conveniences, comforts, and wholesome luxuries of life. Hence, whatever appearances may indicate, gold-production makes a country poor, and by furnishing new means of investment and speculation helps to keep it poor; and it has certainly helped considerably in producing that amount of wretchedness, starvation, and crime which, as we have seen, has gone on increasing to the very end of our century.

    But the extraction of the mineral products stored in the earth, in order to increase individual wealth, and to the same extent to the diminution of national well-being, is only a portion of the injury done to posterity by the [[p. 373]] "plunder of the earth." In tropical countries many valuable products can be cultivated by means of cheap native labor, so as to give a large profit to the European planter. But here also the desire to get rich as quickly as possible has often defeated the planter's hopes. Nutmegs were grown for some years in Singapore and Penang; but by the exposure of the young trees to the sun, instead of growing them under the shade of great forest-trees, as in their natural state, and as they are grown in Banda, they became unhealthy and unprofitable. Then coffee was planted, and was grown very largely in Ceylon and other places; but here again the virgin forests were entirely removed, producing unnatural conditions, and the growth of the young trees was stimulated by manure. Soon there came disease and insect enemies, and coffee had to be given up in favor of tea, which is now grown over large areas both in Ceylon and India. But the clearing of the forests on steep hill slopes, to make coffee plantations, produced permanent injury to the country of a very serious kind. The rich soil, the product of thousands of years of slow decomposition of the rock, fertilized by the humus formed from decaying forest trees, being no longer protected by the covering of dense vegetation, was quickly washed away by the tropical rains, leaving great areas of bare rock or furrowed clay, absolutely sterile, and which will probably not regain its former fertility for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The devastation caused by the great despots of the Middle Ages and of antiquity, for purposes of conquest or punishment, has thus been reproduced in our times by the rush to obtain wealth.

    Even the lust of conquest, in order to secure slaves [[p. 374]] and tribute and great estates, by means of which the ruling classes could live in boundless luxury, so characteristic of the early civilizations, is reproduced in our own time. The Great Powers of Europe are in the midst of a struggle, in order to divide up the whole continent of Africa among themselves, and thus obtain an outlet for the more energetic portions of their populations and an extension of their trade. The result, so far, has been the sale of vast quantities of rum and gunpowder; much bloodshed, owing to the objection of the natives to the seizure of their lands and their cattle; great demoralizations both of black and white; and the condemnation of the conquered tribes to a modified form of slavery. Comparing our conduct with that of the Spanish conquerors of the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru, and making some allowance for differences of race and of public opinion, there is not much to choose between them. Wealth, and territory, and native labor, were the real objects of the conquest in both cases; and if the Spaniards were more cruel by nature, and more reckless in their methods, the results were much the same. In both cases the country was conquered, and thereafter occupied and governed by the conquerors frankly for their own ends, and with little regard to the feelings or the material well-being of the conquered. If the Spaniards exterminated the natives of the West Indies, we have done the same thing in Tasmania, and almost the same in temperate Australia. And in the estimation of the historian of the future, the Spaniards will be credited with two points in which they surpassed us. Their belief that they were really serving God in converting the heathen, even at the point of the sword, was a genuine [[p. 375]] belief shared by priests and conquerors alike--not a mere sham, as is ours when we defend our conduct by the plea of introducing the "blessings of civilization." And, in wild romance, boldness of conception, reckless daring, and the successful achievement of the well-nigh impossible, we are nowhere when compared with Cortez and his five hundred Spaniards, who, with no base of supplies, no rapid steam communication, no supports, imperfect weapons and the ammunition they carried with them, conquered great, populous, and civilized empires. It is quite possible that both the conquests of Mexico and Peru by the Spaniards, and our conquests of South Africa, may have been real steps in advance, essential to human progress, and helping on the future reign of true civilization and the well-being of the human race. But if so, we have been, and are, unconscious agents, in hastening the great

"far-off, divine event
To which the whole creation moves."

    We deserve no credit for it. Our aims have been, for the most part, sordid and selfish; and if, in the end, all should work out for good, as no doubt it will, much of our conduct in the matter will yet deserve, and will certainly receive, the severest condemnation.

    Our whole dealings with subject races have been a strange mixture of good and evil, of success and failure, due, I believe, to the fact that, along with a genuine desire to do good and to govern well, our rule has always been largely influenced, and often entirely directed, by the necessity of finding well-paid places for the less wealthy members of our aristocracy, and also by the [[p. 376]] constant craving for fresh markets by the influential class of merchants and manufacturers. Hence the enormous fiscal burdens under which the natives of our Indian Empire continue to groan; hence the opium monopoly and the salt tax; hence the continued refusal to carry out the promises made or implied on the establishment of the Empire, to give the natives a continually increasing share in their own government, and to govern India solely in the interest of the Indians themselves.

    It is the influence of the two classes above referred to that has urged our governments to perpetual frontier wars and continual extensions of the Empire, all adding to the burdens of the Indian people. But our greatest mistakes of all are, the collection of revenue in money, at fixed times, from the very poorest cultivators of the soil; and the strict enforcement of our laws relating to landed property, to loans, mortgages, and foreclosures, which are utterly unsuited to the people, and have led to the most cruel oppression, and the transfer of numbers of small farms from the ryots to the money-lenders. Hence, the peasants become poorer and poorer; thousands have been made tenants instead of owners of their farms; and an immense number are in the clutches of the money-lenders, and always in the most extreme poverty. It is from these various causes that the periodical famines are so dreadful a scourge, and such a disgrace to our rule.1 The people of India are industrious, patient, [[p. 377]] and frugal in the highest degree; and the soil and climate are such that the one thing wanted to ensure good crops and abundance of food is water-storage for irrigation, and absolute permanence of tenure for the cultivator. That we have built costly railways for the benefit of merchants and capitalists, and have spent upon these and upon frontier-wars the money which would have secured water for irrigation wherever wanted, and thus prevented the continued recurrence of famine whenever the rains are deficient, is an evil attendant on our rule which outweighs many of its benefits.

    The final and absolute test of good government is the well-being and contentment of the people--not the extent of empire or the abundance of the revenue and the trade. Tried by this test, how seldom have we succeeded in ruling subject peoples! Rebellion, recurrent famines, and plagues in India; discontent, chronic want, and misery; famines more or less severe, and continuous depopulation in our sister-island at home--these must surely be reckoned the most terrible and most disastrous failures of the nineteenth century.

    "Hear then, ye Senates! hear this truth sublime:
    They who allow Oppression share the crime."

[[p. 378]] Concluding Remarks.

    We are now in a position to form some general estimate of progress and retrogression during the nineteenth century, and to realize to some extent what will be the verdict of the future upon it. We have seen that it has been characterized by a marvellous and altogether unprecedented progress in knowledge of the universe and of its complex forces; and also in the application of that knowledge to an infinite variety of purposes, calculated, if properly utilized, to supply all the wants of every human being, and to add greatly to the comforts, the enjoyments, and the refinements of life. The bounds of human knowledge have been so far extended that new vistas have opened to us in directions where it had been thought that we could never penetrate, and the more we learn the more we seem capable of learning in the ever-widening expanse of the universe. It may be truly said of men of science that they have now become as gods knowing good and evil; since they have been able not only to utilize the most recondite powers of nature in their service, but have in many cases been able to discover the sources of much of the evil that afflicts humanity, to abolish pain, to lengthen life, and to add immensely to the intellectual as well as to the physical enjoyments of our race.

    But the more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them. With ample power to supply to the fullest extent necessaries, comforts, and even luxuries for all, and at the same time allow ample leisure for intellectual [[p. 379]] pleasures and æsthetic enjoyments, we have yet so sinfully mismanaged our social economy as to give unprecedented and injurious luxury to the few, while millions are compelled to suffer a lifelong deficiency of the barest necessaries for a healthy existence. Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.

    With ample knowledge of the sources of health, we allow, and even compel, the bulk of our population to live and work under conditions which greatly shorten life; while every year we see from 50,000 to 100,000 infants done to death by our criminal neglect.

    In our mad race for wealth, we have made gold more sacred than human life; we have made life so hard for the many that suicide and insanity and crime are alike increasing. With all our labor-saving machinery and all our command over the forces of nature, the struggle for existence has become more fierce than ever before; and year by year an ever-increasing proportion of our people sink into paupers' graves.

    Even more degrading, and more terrible in its consequences, is the unblushing selfishness of the greatest civilized nations. While boasting of their military power, and loudly proclaiming their Christianity, not one of them has raised a finger to save a Christian people, the remnant of an ancient civilization, from the most barbarous persecution, torture, and wholesale massacre. A hundred thousand Armenians murdered or starved to [[p. 380]] death while the representatives of the Great Powers coldly looked on--and prided themselves on their unanimity in all making the same useless protests--will surely be referred to by the historian of the future, as the most detestable combination of hypocrisy and inhumanity that the world has yet produced, and as the crowning proof of the utter rottenness of the boasted civilization of the nineteenth century.

    When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.

    But although this century has given us so many examples of failure, it has also given us hope for the future. True humanity, the determination that the crying social evils of our time shall not continue; the certainty that they can be abolished; an unwavering faith in human nature, have never been so strong, so vigorous, so rapidly growing as they are to-day. The movement toward socialism during the last ten years, in all the chief countries of Europe as well as in America, is the proof of this. This movement pervades the rising generation, as much in the higher and best educated section of the middle class as in the ranks of the workers.

    The people are being educated to understand the real causes of the social evils that now injure all classes alike, and render many of the advances of science curses instead of blessings. An equal rate of such educational progress for another quarter of a century will give them [[p. 381]] at once the power and the knowledge required to initiate the needed reforms.

    The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers, great thinkers, to cheer and guide us; and an ever-increasing band of earnest workers to spread the light and help on the good time coming. And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the coming century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount. That advance is prefigured in the stirring lines of Sir Lewis Morris, with which I may fitly close my work:

        "There shall come, from out this noise of strife and groaning,
            A broader and a juster brotherhood,
        A deep equality of aim, postponing
            All selfish seeking to the general good.
        There shall come a time when each shall to another,
        Be as Christ would have him, brother unto brother.

        "There shall come a time when brotherhood grows stronger
            Than the narrow bounds which now distract the world;
        When the cannons roar and trumpets blare no longer,
            And the ironclad rusts and battle-flags are furled;
        When the bars of creed and speech and race, which sever,
        Shall be fused in one humanity forever."

Note Appearing in the Original Work

    1. These facts, together with our most cruel and wicked robbery of the rayats, or cultivators, constituting three-fourths of the entire population, by changing the land-tax to a rack-rent as exorbitant and impossible of payment as those of the worst Irish and Highland landlords, have been long known, and have been again and again urged by the most experienced Indian administrators as the [[p. 377]] fundamental cause of all Indian (as they are of all Irish) famines. But, quite recently, they have been again described, with admirable lucidity and almost unnecessary moderation, by Sir William Wedderburn, whose great experience in India as a District Judge, and long study of the subject, constitute him one of the first authorities. See a series of articles in the periodical India for February, March, May, and June, 1897. A reprint of the whole under the very appropriate title, "The Skeleton at the [Jubilee] Feast," has been sent to all members of the House of Commons; and they should be read by everyone who wishes to comprehend the terrible misgovernment of our Indian Empire. [[on pp. 376-377]]

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