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From Slave Trade to Debt: Occupation Disguised as “Discovery”

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Photo by Alex Wright | CC by 2.0

We have been told, and still are, that it was the pilgrims of the Mayflower that populated America. Had it been empty before?

— Eduardo Galeano.

What was really discovered [in 1492] is what Spain really was, the reality of Western culture and that of the Church at that time. (…) They did not discover the other world, they covered it. What was manifested was a ‘discovering of the conquest’, and a ‘violent and violating covering of the conquered populations, their cultures, their religion, the people themselves, their languages. What remains to be done today is to discover what was covered over, and to create a ‘new world’ that is not just the repetition of the old, but which is truly new. Is this possible? Is it pure utopia?

— Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a few months before being savagely murdered by the Atlácatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army on 16 November, 1989.

The so-called “developing countries” (DC) of today replace the colonies of yesterday: large Western multinational companies settle in former colonies, invest and extort resources to accumulate exorbitant profits which escape into tax havens. All of this is taking place under the approving gaze of corrupt local elites, with the support of northern governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) demanding repayment of odious debts inherited from the colonial period. By means of debt leverage and the imposed neo-capitalist policies that condition it, the dispossessed populations still pay for the colonial crimes of yesterday and the elites surreptitiously perpetuate them today. This is what is known as neocolonialism. Meanwhile, apart from some late and altogether far too few acknowledgements of the crimes committed, every effort has been made to organize collective amnesia and avoid any debate about possible reparations. For they would pave the way for popular claims, and could set in motion an emancipating memory trail that might lead to demands for restitution, something that should certainly be nipped in the bud!

The demographic catastrophe of genocide

 On Friday the 3rd of August, 1492, la Pinta, la Niña and la Santa María, the three ships of Christopher Columbus, left the port of Palos de la Frontera in Andalusia with nearly 90 crew members. Less than three months later, the expedition landed in several parts of the Americas, including Cuba on the 28th of October. 1492 marks the misnamed “discovery of America”, but it is also the year when Spain, after nearly eight centuries, finally overcame the last stronghold of the Muslim religion with the conquest of Granada on 2 January 1492. The Church’s so-called “holy war” against Islam, led by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who had unified their rival domains through marriage, was victorious. “Nationalist” exaltation fed a xenophobic impulse based on intolerance. Three months later, approximately 150,000 Jews who had refused to convert to Roman Catholicism were expelled from Spain (31 March 1492). The warlike culture of the crusades was exported to the new colonies. Queen Isabella, who had patronized the Inquisition, was also consecrated the First Lady of this “New World” by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI. The kingdom of God was extended, and the conquistadors forced the various native peoples, misnamed “Indians”, to convert to the Catholic faith. At least 10 million people from the Americas were exterminated between 1500 and 1600, with the Vatican’s blessing. But the figures could be much more alarming than this low estimate, if we consider that the Americas were much more heavily populated than has been previously acknowledged. Indeed, many scientists now estimate that “the population of the two American continents before 1492 was somewhere between 90 and 110 million inhabitants (including 5 to 10 million in the Amazon rainforest). In other words, contrary to what we still learn in history textbooks, more people lived in America than in Europe at that time!”. Taking into account the “septic shock” upon contact with the first conquistadors: shipments of unknown epidemics in these territories, namely smallpox, influenza, measles, the plague, pneumonia or typhus, spread like wildfire among native populations, decimating 85 to 90% of the Native American population in the century following the arrival of Christopher Columbus. If we add to that malaria and yellow fever imported by the Europeans to America, the conquest by arms and forced labour, which often led to death, we reach a figure of 95% of Amerindians who disappeared between 1492 and 1600. As Charles C. Mann points out in his works of reference 1491 and 1493, the human and social cost is beyond comprehension; indeed there is no comparable demographic catastrophe in the annals of human history.

The massacre was on an immense scale. As there were too few Amerindians left to constitute a durable workforce, the colonial powers had to rely on  African labour to pursue the colossal enterprise of the greatest looting of all time. As the aforementioned genocide of Native Americans took place, historian Aline Helg reminds us that 8 to 10 million Africans died “when captured on their land, in the marches to reach African ports and during the long wait in the coastal warehouses” before being crammed into the holds of the slave ships leaving for the “New World”. Eventually, at least 12 million Africans torn from their homeland were deported to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th and the 19th centuries. But a large number of them, almost 2 million (about 16% of the total) did not survive the trip and died during the transatlantic crossing before reaching the European colonies. For the survivors, their fate was governed, as far as France was concerned, by the infamous Code noir, drafted by Colbert and enacted in 1685, of which Article 44 declared “slaves are moveable property” thus conferring legal status on the slave trade and slavery. Thousands of African captives landed each year for sale in the slave markets of the Americas. The decade from 1784 to 1793 was the culmination of the slave trade with imports averaging nearly 91,000 Africans a year. But the absolute record was reached in 1829, when 106,000 captives landed, almost all in Brazil, Cuba and the French Caribbean. Once bought by their masters, the slaves were branded (after earlier branding on the boat or while boarding), suffered all sorts of blows to encourage work, and women were frequently raped. Attempts to rebel, whether proven or not, were severely repressed by whipping, followed by a sentence of death by torture. Slaves were torn apart by stretching on the wheel, and were mutilated, castrated, hanged or burned alive at the stake. Heads were exhibited, in the public square or in front of the plantations, to set an example. For escape attempts, ears were cut off or the shin sliced. There was no limit to the forms of torture that could be imagined… this list is not exhaustive.

It is important to put these two major events of the year 1492 into context, and to emphasize the fact that they were intrinsically linked. We cannot understand the violence perpetrated in America without perceiving it as the result of the Crusades. Dissociating them from one another, as textbooks do, does not aid our understanding of one of the darkest pages in our history and underestimates the predominant role of the Church on the old continent as in the “New World”. Religious orders also owned slaves, and in the Iberian and French colonies, Roman Catholicism imposed on them evangelization and baptism, whether they were African captives or born in America. Spanish and Portuguese become the languages of conquest, with the Church’s blessing.

Colonial heritage and cultural debt in Africa

Imperial languages, like the Islam and Catholicism, the religions imported by the colonizers, played a major role in the annihilation of local ancestral cultures and prevented their memories from being handed down. We can speak here of cultural debt whose most visible aspect is undoubtedly materialized by the looting of the art objects of these peoples, exhibited in the museums of the colonial West. At the end of 1996, Jacques Chirac received a terracotta statuette from Mali for his birthday. The work came from a group of objects seized by the police a few years earlier on the grounds of illegal excavation, stolen during their transfer to the Museum of Bamako. After more than a year of negotiations, Mr. Chirac had to return the work to the Malian museum. Apart from some restitutions like this one or that of the three terracotta nok and sokoto originating from illicit excavations in Nigeria and exhibited in April 2000 at the inauguration of the Louvre Museum’s Tribal and Aboriginal Arts gallery in Paris (showcase for the future Quai Branly Art Museum of Indigenous Arts), and finally returned to the Nigerian State, countless works of art still remain outside their country of origin and have not yet been restored. However, many resolutions adopted since 1972 by the UN General Assembly “promot[e] the return of cultural property to its country of origin or its restitution in the case of illegal appropriation”.

Knowing and acknowledging past genocidal horror helps to understand, on the one hand, how North America was propelled into becoming a new capitalist empire and, on the other, the impasse of false development into which the imperialist West has led the subjugated Southern countries.

Translated by Jenny Bright and revised by C. Pagnoulle and V. Briault (CADTM) from the the original French version.

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