Where did the colonial empires go to trade?

A stunning new infographic reveals the trade patterns of the great naval empires.

Click to enlarge

There’s a jingoistic song that remains a faintly guilty pleasure for millions of Brits – "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves". Thanks to pesky modern-day budget cuts, though, it’s sadly no longer true: the USA has a much bigger navy.

However, if we jump back to the 18th century, when the song was written, the claim had a good case for being taken not as a boast, but as a simple statement of fact. And it’s one backed up by an amazing dataset.

A project looking at climate change in the world’s oceans gathered an array of location information from the logbooks of British (yellow), Spanish (red) and Dutch (green) ships between 1750 and 1850 – and James Cheshire of University College, London, assembled the first 50 years of that information into this amazing graphic. It tells us that all three nations were eager and frequent travellers between the old and new worlds for trade, but while Spain frequented both North and South America, the Dutch stuck largely to the South (and the Caribbean), and the British focused far more on the North.

The Brits were also the only one of the three great trading nations to bother making the trip to Canada all that often (maybe not a surprise given that a large chunk of Canada was a British colony). When it came to traversing the Cape of Good Hope for the perilous trip to Asia, the Brits won out again. Though numerous Dutch vessels plied their trade through these waters (the Spaniards never much bothered), British vessels dominated here too.

Whether Britain’s naval dominance fuelled its trading empire or vice versa, the UK certainly had a good thing going. Jolly unfair that someone had to go and invent powered flight, and ruin the whole thing, really.

This infographic, and many others, can be found in The Infographic History of the World, available now.

James Ball and Valentina D'Efilippo are the co-authors of The Infographic History of the World.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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