New Internationalist

Errant paradox

May 2008

View from Montevideo by Eduardo Galeano

Reading the paper each day is a sort of history class. The papers teach through both what they say and what they don’t.
History is an errant paradox. It is the contradictions that keep its legs moving. Maybe this is why its silences say more than its words, and frequently its words reveal when they are lying.
A book of mine entitled Mirrors is about to be published. It is a sort of – pardon the audacity – universal history. As Oscar Wilde said: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’; and I confess I have succumbed to the temptation of recounting certain episodes of the human adventure in this world, from the point of view of those who were left out of the picture.
To put it another way, it has to do with events that are not well known.
I’ll set out a few here, just a few.


When they were evicted from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve moved to Africa, not Paris. Some time later, when their children had embarked on their ways in the world, writing was invented. In Iraq, not Texas.
Algebra was invented in Iraq too, by Mohammed al Jwarizmi, 1,200 years ago, and the word ‘algorithm’ was derived from his name.
The three novelties that made the European Renaissance possible – the compass, gunpowder and the printing press – were invented by the Chinese, who also invented almost everything that Europe reinvented.
The Hindus knew before anybody else that the world was round, and the Mayans created the most precise calendar ever devised.


The tallest monument in Argentina was erected in honour of General Roca, who exterminated the Indians of Patagonia in the 19th century.
The largest avenue in Uruguay bears the name of General Rivera, who exterminated the last Charrua Indians in the 19th century.


John Locke, renowned philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which bought and
sold slaves.
At the dawn of the 18th century, the first of the Bourbons of Spain, Philip V, inaugurated his new throne by signing a contract with his cousin the King of France that allowed the Guinea Company to sell blacks in America. Each king would receive a 25-per-cent cut of the profits. The names of some of the ships that carried this cargo: Voltaire, Rousseau, Jesus, Hope, Equality, Friendship.
Two of the founding fathers of the United States disappeared in the fog of official history. No-one remembers Robert Carter or Gouverneur Morris. This amnesia is recompense for their acts: Carter was the first of the champions of independence to free his slaves; Morris, one of the authors of the Constitution, opposed the clause stipulating that a slave was equal to just three-fifths of a person.


A few dates: From the year 1234 and through the next seven centuries, the Catholic Church barred women from singing in church. Their voices were considered impure, because of the incident in the Garden of Eden.
Until 1986 it was legal in English schools to punish children with belts, sticks and clubs.


In the name of freedom, equality and fraternity the French Revolution proclaimed in 1793 the Declaration of the Rights of Men and the Citizen. Shortly after, the militant woman revolutionary Olympe de Gouges proposed the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. She was executed by guillotine.


The Christian Emperor Theodora never said she was a revolutionary or anything of the sort. But 1,500 years ago, thanks to her, the Byzantine Empire became the first place in the world where women had the right to abortion and divorce.


Lootie was the first Pekinese dog to reach Europe. He travelled to London in 1860. The English baptized him thus because he was part of the loot taken from China after the two prolonged opium wars.
In the name of freedom, freedom of trade, Paraguay was annihilated in 1870. At the end of a five-year war, this country, the only country of the Americas that didn’t owe anyone a cent, inaugurated its foreign debt. Its very first loan reached it in smoking ruins. It was destined to pay gigantic reparations to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Thus the assassinated country paid its assassins for their service.


In 1936 the International Olympic Committee did not tolerate insolence. In the Games of that year, organized by Hitler, the Peruvian football team defeated the team from Austria, the Führer’s birthplace, 4-2. The Olympic Committee annulled the game.


In 1953 a labour protest erupted in communist East Germany. The workers flooded the streets and Soviet tanks were deployed to shut their mouths. Bertolt Brecht had this suggestion: ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if the Government simply dissolves the people and elects another?’


Thousands of years before the US invasion brought civilization to Iraq, this barbaric land bequeathed the world the first love poem of world history. Inscribed in the Sumerian language in clay, the poem tells of the encounter of a goddess and a shepherd. For that night Inanna, the goddess, loved as if she had been mortal. Dumuzi, the shepherd, was for that night immortal.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is author of The Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire.

This column was published in the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 411

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