« We have been told and continue to be told that the Mayflower Pilgrims came to populate America. But was America uninhabited? »Eduardo Galeano
1492 marks the misnamed « discovery of America », but it is also the year when Spain, after nearly eight centuries, defeated the last bastion of the Muslim religion. The so-called « holy » war of the Church against Islam, led by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, was victorious. That same year, approximately 150,000 Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism were expelled from Spanish territory. The warrior culture of the crusades was exported to the new colonies. Queen Isabella, who had sponsored the Inquisition, was consecrated the first Lady of the New World by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI. The kingdom of God was expanding and the conquistadors were urging the many misnamed native peoples, the « Indians, » to convert to the Catholic faith by force. At least 10 million inhabitants of the Americas were exterminated between 1500 and 1600 with the blessing of the Vatican.
It is important to place these two major events of 1492 in their contexts. We cannot understand the violence perpetrated in America without placing it in the sequence of the horrors of the crusades. Disassociating them from each other, as in school textbooks, does not help to understand one of the darkest pages of our history.
OCCUPATION AND LOOTING AS « DISCOVERY
The great colonial powers, Spain, France, England, Holland and Portugal, caused the death of a large part of the indigenous populations of the Americas, Asia and Africa in order to extract their natural resources (gold and silver in the first place) and to make a maximum profit.
Following the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish conquest devastated kingdoms and entire regions, depopulating and burning them. The Indians, however, welcomed the Christians as best they could, often offering accommodation, food and gold. But the Spanish colonists massacred, tortured and burned the Indians as soon as they arrived in order to ensure their domination. Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the few to denounce this genocide at the time of the events, will describe the horror with which these tyrants decimated the local populations. The massacre is so gigantic and this New World so depopulated, that the colonial powers will have to call upon African foreign labor. At least 12 million Africans were deported to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th and 19th centuries. But many of them will not survive the journey: an estimated 20% of slaves died during their transfer and the transatlantic crossing before arriving at their destination in the European colonies. For the survivors, their fate is governed, as far as France is concerned, by the famous Code Noir, prepared by Colbert and enacted in 1685, which declares in its article 44 « slaves to be movable property » thus legislating the slave trade and slavery.
In the year 1545, the discovery of Potosi, a huge silver mine in Bolivia, marked the beginning of the expropriation of the riches of the Latin American subsoil. What about the huge amount of silver extracted from the mine of Potosi with the sweat of the Bolivian miners when we see the state of poverty of the city of the same name? It is quite reasonable to say that the expropriation of resources and the trade that followed via colonization are largely responsible for the current wealth of the colonial powers and, to take just one example, Brussels would not be what it is today without the plundering of the Congo. In addition to the colossal fortune of the extorted precious metals, notably gold and silver, the Europeans would not have had access to silk and cotton, to the technique of blown glass, to the cultivation of rice and sugar cane coming from Asia as well as to the potato, tomato, corn, tobacco, chili pepper, cocoa from America so quickly without the devastating enterprise of colonization.
Finally, today’s so-called « developing countries » (DCs) are replacing yesterday’s colonies: multinationals are moving into former colonies, investing with the support of Northern governments and the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and then extorting their resources to accumulate huge profits.
The misery of the colonized countries increased largely because of a transfer of debt: the debts contracted by the colonial powers (Belgium, England, France) with the World Bank to make their exploitations in their colonies as profitable as possible were then transferred without their consent to the countries that gained their independence. They constitute a case of odious debt, as do the subsequent debts incurred to repay them. In the case of Haiti, the country is even being made to pay for its independence. In Santo Domingo (formerly Haiti), on the night of August 23–24, 1791, 50,000 slaves simultaneously went into armed insurrection, setting in motion a long process that led to the proclamation of independence in 1804. Santo Domingo, recovering the name of Haiti, becomes the first independent black republic. It paid dearly: in 1825, the country was forced to give France 150 million gold francs for the recognition of its existence as a nation state. This ransom, even if it was reduced in 1838 to 90 million (the last term of which was paid at the beginning of the 20th century), was still a debt for independence. Haiti, which struggled for many years to emancipate itself from French tutelage, must pay for its independence. This too constitutes an odious debt and Haiti is entitled to claim reparation from France.
The plundering of raw materials continues to this day in the colonies or ex-colonies: the mercury used by gold miners in French Guiana is poisoning the Amerindian populations living in the Guianese rainforest. Indeed, the Amerindians are contaminated by the fish that constitute a large part of their diet.
« Numerous scientific studies practiced on Wayana Indians have confirmed that mercury levels are up to twice the World Health Organization (WHO) threshold. » With miserable wages, 3 tons of gold are extracted each year from French Guiana at the risk of the health of the indigenous populations and their environment. Will the poisoning of lands and rivers ever be recognized as an ecological debt owed to indigenous peoples?
THE HEIGHT OF PARADOX
In Africa, the plundering of raw materials continues, and as in the days of the colonies, the transformation takes place in the North, before eventually returning to the country producing the raw material. Thus, the crude oil extracted from Africa is mostly committed to export even if it has to be refined again in the importing country. Of the 40 or so refineries in Africa, many suffer from a lack of investment and maintenance, are subject to rampant privatization and are unable to meet regional demand. As a result, the continent remains dependent on imports of refined products for its own consumption. Nigeria, the continent’s largest producer and eleventh largest in the world, cannot satisfy its domestic market and, paradoxically, imports 70% of its refined oil needs despite producing about two million barrels of crude oil a day! To meet its domestic demand, each day of 2016, Nigeria imported $21 million worth of fuel (refined oil), representing nearly $8 billion over the year. In addition to having their raw materials plundered, the populations of the producing countries pay the added value of the products processed in the North by Western multinationals.
In the same way that former colonies helped the development of great powers, the debt mechanism serves these same powers and acts as a financial neo-colonialism, thus perpetuating a system of oppression and domination that is being reinforced. When we look at the flow of money between new loans and debt repayments at the global level, it is the so-called « developing countries » (DCs) that provide capital to the most industrialized countries and not the other way around. Even the « generous » official development assistance (ODA) does not counterbalance this hemorrhage of capital. The status of donor gives free rein to our good conscience and the rich countries restore their image tarnished by centuries of colonialism. This scandal of reality reveals this affront to the world: despite the « efforts » of industrialized countries in terms of aid to developing countries and despite appearances, the flow of money goes mainly from the South to the North, and not the other way around. In other words, the impoverished countries of the South, by being literally plundered for resources and cheap labor, finance the development of the industrialized countries of the North, fattening the corrupt elites of the South in the process!
As the World Bank itself admits, « Developing countries taken together are net lenders to developed countries. In the 2005 edition of the World Bank’s Global Development Finance report, the bank writes « developing countries are now exporters of capital to the rest of the world.
LATE RECOGNITION IN ORDER TO EVADE POSSIBLE COMPENSATION?
It was not until May 10, 2001 that France officially recognized the slave trade as a crime against humanity by adopting the so-called Taubira law. And yet, despite this late advance, a law of February 23, 2005 with colonial overtones announces: « The school programs recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa, and give the history and sacrifices of the French army fighters from these territories the prominent place to which they are entitled. (second paragraph of article 4 of the law of 23 February 2005). Is it a nod to Jules Ferry, considered the promoter of secular, free and compulsory public schooling? Jules Ferry, a former president of the French council (equivalent to prime minister today), was also an active thinker of French imperialism, a supporter of colonial expansion and the massacre of communards during the Paris Commune uprising. He declared in 1885, in his speech to the Chamber of Deputies: « The colonies are, for the rich countries, a most advantageous investment of capital ». We also owe him this quote: « The superior peoples have the right and even the duty to civilize the inferior peoples ».
Let’s remember that some fundamental parts of our history are hidden from our teaching books. An example, Setif, Algeria, May 8, 1945: « The Algerian nationalists of the PPA (Algerian People’s Party, banned) of Messali Hadj (under house arrest) and the AML (Friends of the Manifesto and Freedom) of Ferhat Abbas organize a parade to celebrate the fall of Nazi Germany. Allied flags are in the lead. Suddenly, signs and flags
Algerian skin are deployed. The signs bear the slogans Free Messali », »Long live free and independent Algeria », »Down with fascism and colonialism ». Bouzid Saal refuses to lower the Algerian flag he is carrying; he is shot by a policeman. This triggers the riot. » On the orders of General Duval, tens of thousands of people will be assassinated, tens of thousands of others wounded. Here again, amnesia was tenacious: it was not until 60 years later, on February 27, 2005, that France, through the voice of the French ambassador in Algiers, recognized the « massacres » of Setif and Guelma (May 8, 1945) as « an inexcusable tragedy. How can these entire sections of history disappear from school textbooks and our memories without leaving a single monument or stele to face oblivion?
On the evening of October 17, 1961, a demonstration was organized in Paris to protest against the curfew imposed on Algerians. About 30,000 Algerians converged from the suburbs to the center. The gathering is peaceful, however, by the use of rifle butts and weapons, blood flows in the middle of Paris, bodies are thrown into the Seine. Dozens of Algerians were murdered even in the metro by the Parisian police under the orders of Maurice Papon, Prefect of Paris. Since then, no public monument is there to remind us of the facts, we prefer to celebrate the memory of the Secret Army Organization (OAS) grouping the supporters of the maintenance of French Algeria by armed struggle and responsible for several thousand deaths: in Perpignan, a monument to the glory of the OAS had to be moved to a private place thanks to the mobilization of human rights activists. Another one in Marignane will be erected in 2005 and will stay more than three years before being dismantled…
A PLACE LUMUMBA AGAINST OBLIVION?
On the day of the independence of the Congo, June 30, 1960, King Baudoin praised the « great civilizing work » of King Leopold II: « When Leopold II undertook the great work that today finds its crowning glory, he did not come to you as a conqueror but as a civilizer. » On the same day, the Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, described the fate of the Congolese people during 80 years of colonial rule, recalling the insults and beatings suffered « the spoliated lands and the apartheid regime where the « Black was not allowed in cinemas, restaurants or so-called European stores. Six months later, on January 17, 1961, he was assassinated. In 2013, despite the mobilization to name a small square in the Matonge neighborhood where many Congolese live in Brussels after Patrice Lumumba, the project was rejected by the municipal authorities. These same authorities do not seem to see any problem with the fact that not far from there, for almost a century, passers-by have been crossing the imposing silhouette of the statue of Leopold II on the Place du Trône. Belgium is probably the only Western state that has not acknowledged the massacres it perpetrated during its colonial empire (1885–1960) which, supported by the Church, the media and the Kingdom, led to the depopulation of several million Congolese, forced labor and political assassinations.
In other latitudes, it was not until February 2008 that the Australian government, through its Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, presented the first official apology from the descendants of the settlers to the Aborigines for the injustices suffered during two centuries. A speech to denounce the attack on the dignity and humiliation of the first inhabitants of Australia. This speech de facto destroyed the claims for economic compensation (A$1,000 million) brought by indigenous groups for past policies. Forgiveness here has the virtue of eluding justice and reparation for a historical debt.
After some timid advances in terms of recognition, the impoverished peoples of the South, formerly under the yoke of inquisitive colonists, continue to see their wealth extorted and by strangulation of the debt suffer a hemorrhage of capital. They have the right to ask for reparation for a historical, odious and unforgivable ecological debt.
Jérôme Duval, member of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debts (www.cadtm.org) and of the PACD, the Platform for Citizen Audit of the Debt in Spain (http://auditoriaciudadana.net/). Author with Fátima Martín of the book Construcción europea al servicio de los mercados financieros, Icaria editorial 2016.