Caribbean Dance, London Symphonies & The Triangular Trade

Sounding History

Nov 16 2021 • 39 mins

Colonialism reconfigured the world economy around the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of humans to provide the labor for that extraction. A by-product was profound change to how people made, heard, and paid for music.

In this episode we talk about what sound has to do with the Anthropocene, explore how profits from the slave trade had a direct impact on European musical life in the eighteenth century, and immerse ourselves in the soundscape, full of colliding cultural experiences, of a Jamaican dance hall at the turn of the 19th century.

We begin by grappling with the Anthropocene, the era of human-caused climate change. There are solid arguments that it was sparked by European colonialism. Together we explain how empire, as early as 1600 CE, contributed to a “Little Ice Age,” before industrialization--and the intensive use of fossil fuels such as peat, wood, coal, steam, and petrochemicals--set temperatures rising again.

Individual people paid the price. To find out more we look at the origins of the “triangular trade” of wind-borne commerce between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. We then turn to some pretty famous names from the history of Western Art Music, to discover the impact of the lucrative profits of this commerce, in particular the trafficking of enslaved people from Africa, had on their careers.

Hearing the names of Handel, Mozart, and Haydn in association with the murderous trade in enslaved people may come as a shock, so we take some time to understand music-makers and consumers as actors in music history, unpacking connections between high art and the global economy of the early Anthropocene. Or to put it more bluntly, between “then and them,” and “now and us.”

Our next stop is early nineteenth-century Jamaica. We take a look (and a listen) to that island’s fraught colonial history, by “entering” Abraham James’s painting, “A Grand Jamaica Ball,” moving from its two dimensions to an imaginary sonic three.

Pictures don’t make noise, it’s true, but if you take time with them, they can reveal a lot about the human experience of sound. We’ll be doing this frequently in the podcast: looking across times and places for unexpected sonic clues about how people lived their lives. Especially in the pre-electrical era paintings, sculpture, prose, and other objects are key materials in our sonic-historic workshop.

Key Points

  • Global history took a new turn around 1500 with the beginning of Western colonial expansion and the rise of a new global economy based on resource extraction and long-distance trade.
  • This new turn had a direct and measurable impact on Earth’s environment: many historians now place the beginning of the Anthropocene (the era of human-made climate change) around 1600.
  • One fundamental impact of Western expansion and empire included the large-scale eradication of Indigenous people through disease and violence. Another was the enslavement of Africans and their transport to the Americas, a process marked by unspeakable mass violence. Both catastrophes changed global soundworlds in many ways.
  • Historical honesty compels us to recognize that heroes of Western Art Music such as Haydn, Handel and Mozart were all connected to the new global economy. None of them could have had the careers they did without money from patrons whose money came from trade in resources like sugar, which in turn depended on enslavement and the exploitation of human suffering.


All of the books mentioned in the episode can be found in our Sounding History Goodreads discussion group. Join the conversation!