The United States may have declared its independence from Britain in 1776, but it was from England and other European powers that the breakaway colonies inherited an evil that was of fundamental significance to its future: slavery. By the time of the Revolutionary War, slavery, settler colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism were essential features of what would become the United States. We are still experiencing the ruinous legacy of that heritage today.
The following are excerpts from the introduction to The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism:
The years between 1603 and 1714 were perhaps the most decisive in English history. At the onset of the seventeenth century, the sceptered isle was a second-class power but the Great Britain that emerged by the beginning of the eighteenth century was, in many ways, the planet’s reigning superpower. It then passed the baton to its revolting spawn, the United States, which has carried global dominance into the present century.
There are many reasons for this stunning turnabout. Yet any explanation that elides slavery, colonialism, and the shards of an emerging capitalism, along with their handmaiden — white supremacy — is deficient in explanatory power. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans were brutally snatched from their homelands, enslaved, and forced to toil for the greater good of European and Euro-American powers, London not least. Roughly two to four million Native Americans also were enslaved and traded by European settlers in the Americas, English and Scots not least.
From the advent of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, it is possible that five million indigenous Americans were enslaved. This form of slavery coexisted roughly with enslavement of Africans, leading to a catastrophic decline in the population of indigenes. In the Caribbean basin, the Gulf Coast, northern Mexico, and what is now the US Southwest, the decline in population during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nothing short of catastrophic. Population may have fallen by up to 90 percent through devilish means including warfare, famine, and slavery, all with resultant epidemics. The majority of the enslaved were women and children, an obvious precursor, and trailblazer, for the sex trafficking of today. But for the massive revolt of the indigenous in 1680 in what is now New Mexico, the toll might have been much worse.
What is euphemistically referred to as “modernity” is marked with the indelible stain of slavery, white supremacy, and capitalism, with the bloody process of human bondage being the driving and animating force of this abject horror.
The United States is the inheritor of the munificent crimes of not only London but Madrid, too. When Hernando De Soto crossed what became known as the Mississippi River in the 1530s, he had in tow enslaved indigenes, as he helped to clear the land for what became the future’s comfortable US suburbs.
Though disease spread by these interlopers is often trotted out to explain the spectacular downturn in the fortunes of indigenous Americans, genocide — in virtually every meaning of the term, including volitional acts by invading settlers — is the proximate cause of this towering mountain of cadavers. Thus, even when enslaved Africans chose suicide, which they were often forced to do, it would be folly to suggest that enslavers were guiltless.
But within that broad expanse of centuries, it is the seventeenth that stands out conspicuously as the takeoff for London’s involvement in the nasty business of enslavement, which simultaneously delivered bounteous profits that set the stage for a racializing rationalization of inhumanity, while setting yet another stage for the takeoff of an enhanced capitalism. A recent study revealed that before 1581 there were no enslaved Africans brought to what was referred to as the “British Caribbean” and “Mainland North America.” From 1581 to 1640 there were scores brought to each. But from 1641 to 1700, 15,000 Africans were brought to North America and 308,000 to the “British Caribbean.” Similarly, trade from Dutch forts in Africa amounted to about 700 of the enslaved yearly between 1600 and 1644 but would increase sixfold by the late 1660s. Europeans generally enslaved some two million Africans during the seventeenth century, half of them from West Central Africa and most of the rest from the states abutting today’s Ghana and the Bights of Benin and Biafra.
What is euphemistically referred to as “modernity” is marked with the indelible stain of what might be termed the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism, with the bloody process of human bondage being the driving and animating force of this abject horror. Decades ago, the Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney sketched adroitly “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” and, correspondingly, how Western Europe was buoyed by dint of ravaging this beleaguered continent. The slave trade left the infirm and elderly behind — and took the rest. Systems of agriculture, mining, production of metal, cotton, wood, straw, clay and leather goods, trade, transport, and governance that had evolved over centuries were wounded severely. Community was turned against community, neighbor against neighbor. Simultaneously, the agents of this apocalypse profited handsomely.
London was a prime beneficiary of this systemic cruelty. England had a 33 percent share of the slave trade in 1673 and 74 percent by 1683. Of that dreadful total, the Royal African Company, under the thumb of the Crown, held a hefty 90 percent share in 1690, but with deregulation and the entrance into this sinfully profitable market by freelance merchants, this total had shrunk to 8 percent by 1701. This political and economic victory over monarchy by merchants also undergirded the “popular” politics they represented, which eventuated in a republicanism that scored its paradigmatic triumph in 1776. As scholar William Pettigrew has argued forcefully, the African Slave Trade rested at the heart of what is still held dear in capitalist societies: free trade, anti-monarchism, and a racially sharpened and class-based democracy. To put it another way, the weakening of monarchy which was essential to the emerging republicanism was driven in no small way by the desire of certain merchants to weaken the monarch’s hold over the lushly lucrative African Slave Trade.
As the filthy wealth generated by slavery and dispossession accelerated, capitalism and profit became the new god.
However, the surging merchants so essential to the fomenting of the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688, which was a kind of Magna Carta for racialized bourgeois democracy, contained aching contradictions beyond the obvious of being immersed in flesh peddling. In order to undermine Madrid, London in the late sixteenth century commissioned pirates to hound the vessels groaning with wealth purloined from the Americas. These swashbucklers found sanctuary in Jamaica, particularly in 1655, a true turning point that marked the decline of the ousted Spanish Empire and the rise of its London-based counterpart. But this was just one more catastrophic success for the Crown as powerful colonists then began to undermine a proper colonialism by seeking to break the bonds of “imperial preference” and trade with any they so chose, including London’s fiercest foes, thus setting the stage for 1776 and a profound loss for Great Britain. The contradictions did not end there as piracy not only facilitated the slave trade, particularly after London moved to crush it, but infused the capitalism that emerged in the republic with the ethos of the gangster.
Similarly, as the religious conflicts that animated the seventeenth century began to recede — Christian vs. Muslim; Catholic vs. Protestant — as the filthy wealth generated by slavery and dispossession accelerated, capitalism and profit became the new god, with its curia in the basilicas of Wall Street. This new religion had its own doctrine and theologies, with the logic of the market and its “efficient market theory” supplanting papal infallibility as the new North Star. Management theorists have sanctified capitalism in much the same way that clergymen of yore sanctified feudalism. Business schools are cathedrals of capitalism. Consultants are its traveling friars. Just as the clergy in the days of feudalism spoke in Latin to give their words an air of authority, the myrmidons of capitalism speak in a similarly indecipherable mumbo-jumbo. To this day, a Reformation — akin to Martin Luther’s of 1517 — has been delayed in arrival.
Actually, reducing the present to capitalism is somewhat misleading since today’s status quo represents a complex mélange of vestiges of slavery — the still exploited African population in the United States and elsewhere — capitalism, and the feudalism from which it emerged.
Moreover, underdevelopment, particularly in Africa, is not only a product of the depopulation of the halest and heartiest delivered by the ignominious slave trade. It is the almost casual destruction of Africa, as when Vasco da Gama whimsically bombarded Mogadishu in the late fifteenth century — then continued his rapacious journey — followed shortly thereafter by one of his comrades leaving in his wake a trail of blood along the Swahili coast, not to mention the brutal reconfiguration of what is now Eritrea, leaving tensions and contradictions that have yet to be resolved.
Like a seesaw, as London rose Africa and the Americas fell. As one scholar put it, “the industrial revolution in England and the cotton plantation in the South were part of the same set of facts.” (The only friendly amendment to this aphorism would be to include the 17th century so-called “sugar boom” as an antecedent of both.) More to the point, as yet another wise writer put it, “without English capitalism there probably would have been no capitalis[t] system of any kind.” As early as 1663, an observer in Surinam noticed that “Negroes [are] the strength and sinews of the Western world.” The enslaved, a peculiar form of capital encased in labor, represented simultaneously the barbarism of the emerging capitalism, along with its productive force.
The continent that was compelled to contribute to this process (those now known as “African-American”) arguably has yet to recover from the slave trade and the concomitant colonialism that accelerated in the seventeenth century, which in turn has marked this population wickedly with the stain of slavery. Surely, if one seeks to understand how and why it is that so many Africans reside in North America speaking a language with roots in Western Europe, an intimate understanding of the seventeenth century is a requisite.
Enslaved Africans constituted two-thirds of the total migration into the Americas between 1600 and 1700. These forced migrants can be viewed, metaphorically and actually, as currency, helping to enrich certain Englishmen, aiding their nation’s rise from second-class status to global empire. Their arrival in the Americas represented a horrific leap for constructions of “race” that can be said to precede this bloody century….
This desensitizing is also revealed by the depredations of the English Civil War and the Thirty Years’ War, which had sent many fleeing to North America in the first place. Those who witnessed mass rape and beheadings were hardly well placed to display humanitarianism, especially toward Native Americans and Africans, which incipient racialization was placing beyond the pale in any case. Moreover, helping to propel migration to the wilds of North America was the felt need to elude the distinct possibility of enslavement by Muslims. When New England settlers began to sell Native Americans into Turkish slave markets, it can be seen as not only a way to execute “ethnic cleansing” while clearing a tidy profit but also to sate the seemingly vast appetite overseas for the enslaved….
In sum, the seventeenth century is critical to comprehension of the rise of capitalism and the companion rise of London, then New York. Spain and the Netherlands weakened each other, creating an opening for England, which was able to establish a toehold in what is now Virginia in the early seventeenth century. Buoyed by the wealth brought by dispossession, merchants and nascent capitalists, particularly in New England, backed Oliver Cromwell as the monarchy was symbolically and actually beheaded in the 1640s. The end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 allowed Europeans to concentrate more pointedly on Africa and the Americas. By 1654 the Dutch were driven from Brazil by returning Portuguese and fleeing alongside them were some from the Iberian Jewish community, who had invested heavily in sugar and slaves. They were then welcomed into Jamaica, which in 1655 had been taken from Spain by Cromwell’s forces. By 1660 a royal restoration of sorts had taken place, and arguably the monarchy, playing second fiddle to the rising merchants and capitalists, was already on a glide path to the figurehead status it enjoys today. The Caribbean venture led to a sugar boom and still vaster wealth that was then used in 1664 to attack the Dutch on the mainland, with Manhattan and many of what are now the US Mid-Atlantic States falling. This opened up more land to be stocked with enslaved Africans, particularly in what is now New York City. By 1672 the slave trade was systematized in the Royal African Company under the Crown. By 1683 the Ottoman Turks were halted at the gates of Vienna, providing more breathing space for Western Europeans, allowing them to turn more fully toward plundering Africa and the Americas. Then in 1688, the “Glorious Revolution” marked the deregulation of the slave trade and even more enrichment for merchants — and the dawning of an apocalypse for Africans and the indigenous.
As one considers the many crimes committed in the name of slavery, white supremacy, and capitalism, what might be most shocking is how these bloody felonies have been rationalized, even justified — even by some who consider themselves to be “radical.” The by-product was supposedly an advancement of the productive forces or the flowering of bourgeois liberties, which even today many of African and indigenous descent in North America hardly enjoy, notably in due process of law before being executed by an officer of the state. This rationalization of crime makes it all the more difficult to overcome the odious legacy of tragic events of recent centuries. But what is similarly revealing is that those who heartily castigate and declaim the crimes of socialism, a system that led directly to the liberation of millions of Africans and “darker peoples” from the domination of the routinely praised North Atlantic powers, lose all sense of proportion when they simultaneously downplay and warp what was required to build the United States and “modernism” and a supposed “democracy.”
Future historians may very well conclude that an explanation for this abject hypocrisy is that too many could not see beyond the deliverance of poorer Europeans from the barbarism they endured on their home continent to a sympathy with those victimized in the process. Ultimately they could not overcome the poisonous snare of white supremacy. That is, the seeds of the fiasco of an election in November 2016 in the United States, where the less affluent of European descent, including more than half of the women of this group, found their tribune in a vulgar billionaire, has roots in the cross-class coalition that spearheaded colonial settlement in the seventeenth century at the expense of the indigenous and enslaved Africans.
In other words, it is not premature to contemplate life after capitalism in what is now the United States, the disastrous result of November 2016 notwithstanding. When this monumental task is undertaken, however, never to be forgotten is that those who were victimized in the first instance — enslaved Africans and the indigenous — need to be compensated and made whole (somehow) as this elongated process unfolds.
This is a book about the events in the seventeenth century that led to the creation of what is now called the modern and advanced world. It concerns the roots of slavery, white supremacy, and the ultimate expression of the two: capitalism. These events mostly unfold on the eastern seaboard of North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and what is now Great Britain. Though the mode in these pages is decidedly historical, I am seeking to shed light on the contemporary moment, wherein it appears that these malevolent forces have received a new lease on life.
Gerald Horne is John J. and Rebecca Moores Professor of African American History at the University of Houston. A prolific scholar, he has published more than three dozen books, including Confronting Black Jacobins and Race to Revolution.