By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
What happened in the 16th century in the course of tragic encounters of peoples who had been building up their own civilizations without contact with the world around them was a turning point. It set a new pace in the history of military deeds, conquests, expansion and enslavement of indigenous peoples and reshaped the physical and mental landscapes of the world forever.
Of all nations which undertook to conquer the world, from Alexander the Great to the Romans, what the Spaniards achieved over a period of 70 years in the Americas during this period, overshadowed all previous discoveries and conquests of foreign lands in unparalleled journeys of exploration with unbelievable bravery over the seas, endurance, cruelty and greed.
Indian chieftains responded in a rational and civilized manner in preparing food for a warm reception to the blue-eyed bearded Spaniards though the conceptual tools of their civilization did not initially enable them properly to categorize the aliens who had landed.
In Peru, a local Inca governor told the White newcomers they were ‘welcome to come ashore and provision themselves with water and whatever they need without fear of harm…’, reported Conquistador Cieza de Leon. The Incas took the visitors for very rational people since they were not causing any harm. The Aztecs prepared food for a warm reception to the strangers.
But soon, Aztec leadership correctly assessed the Spaniards as foreign invaders. The Conquistadores went on a rampage and went on to destroy everything in their fiery passion for conquest. One of the most heart-rending scenes is that of the Spanish captain dragging the Aztec chief with a rope after stripping him of his clothes and forcing him to walk on his fours, naked, in front of his wife, children and people.
In the summer 1550, at the King’s court in Spain, the issue of humanity, religion and civilization was hotly debated. The concept of ‘natural slaves’ was supported by Aristotelian scholar and humanist Juan Gines de Sepulveda. ‘All the world is human,’ was the cri de coeur of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican defender of Indian Rights with a vast dossier of a first-hand reportage of devastation of native culture, towns, possessions and extreme cruelty inflicted by the Spanish Conquistadores on the Aztec population in Mexico. Subsequently, Charles V ordered the conquests to be stopped.
Regrets came late. On his deathbed, one of the conquerors of Peru, Mansion Serra de Leguizamon, expressed profound regret for the unjust destruction of Inca society: ‘I have to say this now for my conscience for I am the last to die of the Conquistadores…’ Other Conquistadores were moved to compare the tragedy of Mexico with the Fall of Troy.
From Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Chili, across the Andes, the dream of the Eldorado brought treasures in terms of agricultural produces; potatoes, maize, pineapples, chilies, chocolate, magnolias, all were shipped across the Atlantic. A flourishing trade whetted the appetite of the Europeans.
What can be termed as the ‘16th century holocaust’ was continued by English Puritan settlers in New England colonies with the same pattern of native welcome to foreigners, reciprocated by devastation and conquests. ‘A good Indian is a dead Indian’ became the slogan for the conquest of the western territories. Tens of millions died in the pandemics of 16th century, victims of diseases brought by Europeans. After the defeat and extermination of the native societies, came the arrival of European settler class, the appropriation of native lands and natural resources, and the need for unpaid labour.
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Though they initially had the status of ‘indentured servants’, Irish men, women and children sold to English settlers in America and the West Indies were treated as human cattle.
– In 1625, James II sold 30 000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World.
– In the 1650s, 100 000 Irish children, between 10 and 14, were taken from their parents and sold in the West Indies and New England.
– 52 000 Irish women and children were sold to Barbados and Virginia.
– In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered 2000 Irish children to be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
Subsequently, the ‘exportation’ of Irish people brought down the Irish population itself.
The Irish bore the much-hated stain of Catholicism and were not treated better than African slaves. By the late 1600s, an African slave was sold for 50 sterlings, and an Irish slave for 5 sterlings.
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‘Us and Them’
The issues of ‘civilization’, ‘religion’ and ‘humanity’ which started at the King’s court in Spain and were thoroughly debated in the mid-16th century proved to be a determining factor that shaped mindsets, opinions and attitudes in Europe towards ‘The Encounter of the Third Kind’, ‘other people’. It was sparked by the meeting of civilizations which previously had no idea of each other’s existence. Adventure, trade and greed for new lands, gold and resources drove the European merchant class to sail over hostile seas to distant lands.
Religion was another factor which sustained the spirit of adventure. Contrary to what is widely believed, the Middle Ages was not such a period of darkness and backwardness. Christianity took centuries to make a breakthrough in the minds and hearts of Europeans who initially were not religious-minded. It boosted the artistic spirit and the sensuousness of the Latin and the vigour of the Teutons, and inspired great works of art, sculpture and the construction of cathedrals. The late Middle Ages was probably the culminating point of religious fervour and faith. It was also the pride of their religious identity that gave Europeans a stronger impetus to set sail for adventure, conquest and trade in distant lands in the name of their respective kings and the Christian religion.
The concept of the ‘Third kind’, the ‘others’ was reinforced in the European discourse over African slaves who were shipped off to the Americas to replace the indigenous populations which had been decimated by the Europeans themselves, and to the Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands by the merchant class of Britain and France. The derading treatment was meted out to Africans notwithstanding the fact that Africa was known to Europeans; Ghana was a prosperous country with splendid buildings, African royals were respected and welcome in Europe, the Queen of Ethiopia travelled to Rome in great pomp, Othello was a ‘valiant Moor’ who commanded respect. Earlier on, Arab chieftains warned that the arrival of Europeans on African coasts would disrupt the local economy, trade and cultures. The first African who set his eyes on a White man on the bank of the Congo river was said to have run back home and washed himself to shed off the impurity.
An intellectual discourse on ‘us and them’ to support the mercantile interests of the merchant class wiped away all the achievements of Africa, obliterating its history, navigators, medical science, technology, sculpture and the arts. The new questions at the French court were reminiscent of the 16th century Spanish discourse: “Are they humans? Do they have a soul?” Conversion to Catholicism was a prime condition set by the French king, who was quite uncomfortable with slavery, to carry on the slave trade in the West Indian islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as Bourbon and Ile de France.
If we go by historical records, probably the country where African slaves were treated the most cruelly was America where the slave owners harbored a deep hatred for the black color.
From the time of the Conquistas, which Karl Marx and Adam Smith called the greatest event in history, the opening of the American continent throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the world moved faster for the European merchant classes. Free unpaid-for labour boosted trade across the oceans, whetted the appetite of merchants to set up trading posts in Africa and Asia and, thence, encroach upon the hinterlands until they ousted local rulers and opened the doors for the covetous adventure of colonization.
Out of the cohabitation of French merchant class and slave descendants in Mauritius, new identities emerged in the different types of Creoles. Thus, the African past, the culture, languages, names and beliefs were totally erased from the collective memory of the descendants. Africa was the continent that lost the most of its children to the colonization drive. The colonizers moulded them in turn to such an extent as to make them turn their back on Africa. Yet, apart from obvious culinary tradition, other things get handed down in the manner of genetics, in relation to Time, to Power, kinship among other features. This is why the current emergence of Africa on the international stage has a deeper implication than merely economic interests. It is about a whole people which has been denied its rightful claim in history.
The harsh reality is that African slaves worked in the fields and factories for free and set the founding stones for the economic development of the country. Their descendants remained the worst-off until not too far back in the past, with negative stereotypes unjustly attached to them by those who believed they were superior. The ‘us and them’ theory stupidly found new followers in the process.
Now that wildcat capitalism has been emptying faster than ever before the Earth of its resources, consumerism has soared to frightening heights, the planet is endangered, recession is giving nightmares to world leaders, the world is not moving so fast in Europe but the cultural conquest and enslavement is still alive across the world.
* Published in print edition on 31 January 2013