Five centuries of plunder

October 16, 1991

By Pip Hinman

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to the "New World" on behalf of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, beginning European colonisation of America. In the rich north, some will celebrate this event, but in South and Central America, millions will mourn the wilful murder of the indigenous people, centuries of repression, plunder and exploitation and the accelerated ecological destruction of a continent.

Emphasising the "discovery" of America, Eurocentric historians ignore the likelihood that America was visited earlier by Egyptians, Libyan-Nubians, Carthaginians and Afro-Arab traders.

More significantly, the indigenous Americans knew where they were and didn't feel any need to be "discovered". But the discovery myth established assumptions that served European colonial interests: it was as though these lands and people had previously been outside "the world" and were therefore the property of those who "discovered" them.

Eduardo Galeano's book The Open Veins of Latin America documents the bloody consequences. When the Spanish first settled on the Caribbean islands, they launched such vicious attacks on the indigenous population that in a few years it was wiped out. A Spanish scholar and Dominican priest with Columbus described the scene like this:

"As soon as the Spanish discovered their existence (Arawakian Lucayos) they hurled themselves up on them like wolves, like ferocious tigers and lions after ten days of starvation. For forty years (and today it continues) they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict, torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible, innovative and previously unheard of cruelty."

In 1495, the Spanish launched an attack on Haitians, almost wiping out the indigenous population in the process of plundering all their mineral resources. Those who were not killed were forced to work as slaves. Many Haitians committed suicide, after killing their children, rather than face slavery.

After the mercury amalgam process of extracting gold and silver was discovered in 1560, the search for precious metals intensified, and the lives of many thousands of indigenous people were shortened slavery in the mines.

A native American writer of the period commented on the Spanish lust for gold: "They lifted up gold as if they were monkeys, with expressions of joy, as if it had put new life into them, and lit up their hearts. As if it was certainly something for which they yearn with great thirst. Their bodies fatten on it and they hunger violently for it. They crave gold like hungry swine."

The plunder of America, Africa and Asia was the source of the wealth that created capitalism in Western Europe. Karl Marx commented in Capital:

"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and the looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation."

Marxist economist Ernest Mandel has calculated that the value of just part of this plunder — the gold and silver exported from America from 1492 to 1660, the booty extracted from Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company 1650-1780, French profits from the 18th century slave trade, and the profits from slave labour in the British Antilles and from half a century of looting India — exceeds the capital invested in all European enterprises operated by steam in 1800.

The looting that created capitalism in Europe retarded economic development in the plundered regions, ensuring their continued exploitation by the "free market" right up to the present day.

Slavery and resistance

Resistance by the indigenous Indians was brutally suppressed. According to the Spanish King Philip II, 40 years after the Spanish set foot in South America, over one-third of the Indian population had been wiped out. Church and state authorities refused to acknowledge the scale of this terrorism. Slaughter was justified on the grounds that the Indians were "just hiding out to avoid paying tribute — abusing the liberty they enjoy".

The few laws passed by the colonisers to protect Indians were never enforced. The ruling class worked out a racist ideological justification for the treatment of Indians. Colonising the new world was "an act of charity", an "argument for the faith", while Indians were "wicked", "sinners", "degraded", "lazy".

In fact many Indian societies had left testimony to their high achievements — the Mayans in the fields of engineering and astronomy, the Aztecs in irrigation and agriculture.

The resistance to the European conquerors is not well known. In 1781 Tupac Amaru, a mestizo chief and direct descendant of the Inca emperors, headed a broad revolutionary movement which toppled a Spanish royal in Potosi — the capital of the region now divided between Peru and Bolivia. Before his defeat and torture, Tupac Amaru had abolished all taxes and forced labour.

While slavery had long been abandoned with the emergence of feudalism in much of the world, it was reintroduced in the Americas to aid the accumulation of capital by the emergent European capitalist class.

After the Haitians were largely wiped out by the Spanish, they were replaced by slaves imported from Africa and put to work in the mines, and later in the sugar plantations, which by the 17th century dominated agriculture in the West Indies. There were slave revolts as early as the 16th century, such as a 1522 revolt in the Caribbean. The first major rebellion, which coincided with the French revolution, occurred in Haiti in 1791. More than 200 sugar plantations were burnt to the ground, and the world's first black republic was declared in 1804.

In the fight for spoils among the European powers, Britain came to "rule the waves" and thus the colonial trade. British ships carried everything from slaves from Africa to opium to the Chinese and enforced their "right of way" with guns. The profits spurred the growth of British capitalism ahead of its rivals.

From 1816 to 1825, the British conquered the markets of South America. Only when British industry had achieved this dominance based on slavery did its ruling class start to oppose slavery — which was now an obstacle to the expansion of markets. Even then, when it suited their interests, British capitalists could sympathise with slavery, as during the US civil war of 1861-1865.

North America

In both South and North America, Indians were massacred and their lands stolen. However, it was the North which went on to become rich and later the new colonial master of the South. Galeano traces this back to the different motives and methods of colonisation.

The New England colonialists were primarily pioneers, seeking to create new homes for themselves, not agents for European capitalist accumulation. They were free workers and farmers, some of whom eventually become capitalists. The Spanish and Portuguese colonisers, in contrast, were more unconscious agents for emerging European capitalism, with little interest in the independent economic development of America. Their greed focussed on the South because North America initially offered less plunder.

But the fruits of the plunder of the South were recycled to capitalist Europe and some eventually added indirectly to the capitalist development of North America.

From a very tender age, US capitalism saw itself as the "natural" master of the hemisphere. It went to war with Britain during the Napoleonic Wars largely in the hope of conquering Canada. As early as 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned Europe that South and Central America was a US "sphere of influence". In the 1840s, it gobbled up more than half of Mexico. Privateers such as William Walker had no trouble gaining backing to launch invasions of Central America. At the end of the century, it took Cuba and Puerto Rico (and, further afield, the Philippines) from the crumbling Spanish empire, and engineered the separation of Panama from Colombia.

'Racketeer for capitalism'

In 1912, US President William Taft declared that "the whole hemisphere would be ours". What this meant in practice was explained bluntly by General Smedley Butler, who wrote in 1935:

"I spent 33 years and four months in active service as a member of ... the Marine Corps ... And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, short I was a racketeer for capitalism ... I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank ... I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in 1903."

When Bolivia nationalised the tin mines in 1952 after a revolution, the US was instrumental in getting the military to take over and to install a succession of dictators ever since.

In 1944 in Guatemala when there was a revolt against the autocrats led by students and a reform section of the army. Juan Jose Alevaro set up a government committed to land and education reforms, new labour codes, and the independence of trade unions. This pattern was extended by Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who broke the United Fruit Company's monopoly on transportation and fruit export. He passed new agrarian laws aimed at developing peasant small commodity production in 1952. The CIA under President Dwight Eisenhower in organised an "anticommunist" rebellion and the military took over. It has remained at the helm ever since.

The Cuban revolution was met by invasion, attempts to assassinate its leaders and an economic embargo that continues to today. When Chile elected a socialist president, Salvador Allende, the US organised a military coup which drowned that country in blood. Against the Sandinista revolution, the US mined Nicaraguan harbours in contravention of international law, imposed an economic embargo and funded the contra war which finally led to the Sandinistas' electoral defeat in 1990. In the 1980s US marines invaded Grenada and Panama.

Economic distortion

The European colonisers introduced mono-cropping to secure the cheapest possible production of food and of raw materials for European and, later, North American industry. The legacy for Central and South America is poverty and ecological destruction.

In 1848 Marx observed of the West Indies, "Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugar cane nor coffee trees there". Columbus' second voyage brought sugar cane to Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Soon sugar cane plantations took over Barbados, Jamaica, Guadaloupe, Cuba, Puerto Rico and north-eastern Brazil. Sugar became "white gold" — and legions of slaves were brought from Africa to provide the labour.

Sugar mono-cropping became the vehicle to develop "latifundios" — large tracts of land owned by foreigners, subordinated to foreign needs and financed from abroad, contributing nothing to the national economy and choking national economic development.

Brazil, Portugal's largest colony, became the world's largest sugar producer and chief market for slaves until the mid-17th century. Then competition from Barbados caused Brazil's exports to plummet. The extreme poverty and underdevelopment of north-eastern Brazil today are partly a legacy of this history.

In 1762 Cuba was taken briefly by the British. Tobacco farming and foundry work were abandoned in favor of sugar monoculture. Small peasant farmers turned to sugar, extensively reducing the soil's fertility. Dried meat, once an export, became an import, along with other food. Early accounts of the island tell of giant palms, leafy forests of mahogany, cedar and ebony. These were destroyed for sugar, and Cuba became an importer of timber.

Jose Martí, the 19th-century nationalist leader, warned that "a people that entrusts its subsistence to one product alone commits suicide". Ché Guevara observed in 1961: "The nation that buys commands, the nation that sell, obeys. It is necessary to balance trade in order to ensure freedom; the country that wants to die sells only to one country, and the country that wants to survive sells to more than one country."

One of the ongoing goals of the Cuban revolution has been to diversify agriculture, revitalise the soil and increase its productivity. As a result of the reforms brought in by the Castro government, and despite the economic blockade, during the 1980s the Cuban economy grew by 30%, twice the result of Colombia which had the next highest growth rate in Latin America. But growth has slowed in the last few years because of the slump in world sugar prices and more difficult terms of trade, the abolition of Comecon and the ongoing economic embargo.

The 1990s — 'free' trade?

When British industry conquered South America in the early 19th century, it did so under the banner of free trade — which always benefits the more developed capitalist power against the less developed.

Today "free trade" is the buzz word from Washington — regarding Central and South America, not US grain exports to the rest of the world.

US imperialism's latest plan, announced by Bush in June 1990, is for a giant free trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. The arket where the US is guaranteed dominance in a world increasingly divided between capitalist trading blocs.

To the US, "free trade" means the freedom to exploit cheap labour in what it still regards as its "back yard". The biggest economies of the region, Mexico and Brazil, are also the countries with the biggest foreign debts, making it extra difficult for them to resist US pressures.

Mexico is first in the firing line, and President Salinas has already signed on the dotted line. He is expected to open large parts of the state-owned economic infrastructure to private US investment and further gear the economy towards the production of exports.

Five centuries after Columbus, only the forms of exploitation have changed.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.