The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism

By Horne, Gerald | Monthly Review, April 2018 | Go to article overview

The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism


Horne, Gerald, Monthly Review


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.1 It then passed the baton to its revolting spawn, the United States, which has carried global dominance into the present century.2

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 EuroAmerican 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 U.S. 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.3

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 later became comfortable suburbs.4

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.5 Thus, even when enslaved Africans chose suicide, which they were often forced to do, it would be folly to suggest that enslavers were guiltless.6

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."7 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.8 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 as the driving and animating force of this abject horror. …

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