Rock & roll, the Triangle Trade and world-systems theory
Christopher Columbus did a remarkable thing in 1492, sailing west-south-west from the Canary Islands into the void of the Atlantic Ocean. He was aiming for a western passageway to the Spice Islands of the Indies, what we call Southeast Asia, but bumped into what is now Central America.
This journey was momentous, establishing a sea-lane subsequently exploited enthusiastically by various European states, making them empires. Trading posts and garrisons had previously spread down the African west coast, and these three locations – Europe, Africa, and Central America – were the points of what became known as the ‘triangle trade’.
Sadly, almost all the previous inhabitants of the Americas were killed by disease, slavery, and oppression. Landowners began buying labour from Africa, brought over by slave-traders, who rapidly grew rich. In exchange, the slavers brought alcohol, weapons, linen, and other manufactured goods to the West African coast. Tea, cotton, sugar, gold, and silver going to Europe completed the triangle. Later, a fourth corner was added with the establishment of the British colonies in New England, on the northern American Atlantic coast.
As always, with trade along went culture and one of its universal expressions, music. Missionaries and sailors brought hymns and sea-shanties to Africa. The slaves combined these with their own rhythms and working songs from the islands as they laboured in the plantations of the Caribbean and the (US) American South. Spirituals became blues and eventually jazz, moving north in the Great Migration of the newly free after the US Civil War. Then along came Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and a host of others as rock’n’roll took over the world. On another branch, songs of protest galvanized dissent.
This is an oversimplified picture, necessarily. Such simplifications – analogy, description, argument, law, theory – enable scholars to make sense of the impossibly complex realities they inhabit. For example, we can think of the Triangle Trade as an analogy for the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. In this view, the trade and the imperial systems it supported were a hugely diverse and complex system by which the European maritime empires robbed the rest of the world of its riches. At the same time, the threads of European political and economic thought began to weave themselves into a blanket for the world.
There had been empires before, certainly. Large, cohesive polities had come and gone. The European imperial system, taken as a whole, dwarfed them all. It essentially defines the modern period, from Columbus’s voyage to the break-up of the formal empires after WWII. Decolonization was an expression of a principle of national self-determination that had its origins in Europe itself. Karl Marx lived in Germany and London, but descendants of his theories have formed the basis of economic and politic ideologies in China, Cuba, and Vietnam. In many places, these ideas have been used against European hegemony. Wallerstein’s description of the hub-and-spokes system of imperial centre and exploited periphery is both profoundly European, born of Enlightenment reason and materialism, and profoundly critical of the various depredations of the empires. The same could be said of the liberalism that came before, and the Critical Theory and post-modernism that came after. If there is such a thing as ‘western civilization’, robust intellectual and political disagreement must be part of it, including rock’n’roll rebels.