Century of Commerce

Imperialism, Morris saw, was the inevitable and most vicious outcome of the “Century of Commerce”. He denounced it both in artistic and political terms. “While we are met here in Birmingham”, he said at the beginning of 1879.

“to further the spread of education in art, Englishmen in India are . . . actively destroying the very sources of that education—jewellery, metalwork, pottery, calico-printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making—all of the famous and historical arts of the great peninsula have been . . . thrust aside for the advantage of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce.”

At the end of January 1880, in a lecture which was probably designed for some working class Radical Club in connection with the election campaign, and which was devoted to combating “the tribe of Jingoes”, and the slogan, “Our country Right or Wrong” blazoned upon their banners, he declared:

“England’s place—what is England’s place? To carry civilization through the world? Yes, indeed, the world must be civilized and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilization.

“And yet, since I have heard of wine with no grape juice in it, and cotton-cloth that is mostly barytes, and silk that is two-thirds somach, and knives  whose edges break or turn up if you try to cut anything harder than butter with them, and many another triumph of Commerce in these days, I begin to doubt if civilization itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying—anyhow, it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it . . .”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.260

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