Simply... The Stolen Continent

new internationalist
issue 226 - December 1991

Simply... The stolen continent
Spiritual malaise and social turmoil were rife in 15th century Europe. Epidemic diseases and famine raged. Death was omnipresent. War was widespread and institutions of authority like the Church were venal and corrupt. The 'discovery' of America offered the possibility of a new beginning for Europe. Unfortunately, the invading powers chose to solve their problems at the expense of the new land and the native Americans who lived there.


1. Gold and silver

COLUMBUS hungered for gold but found little. However his followers did: Cortes plundered the Aztec temples and Pizarro stole shiploads of Inca wealth. But while Indians worked the Spanish mines of Bolivia and Mexico, most of the wealth eventually wound up in the pockets of Dutch, British and French businessmen.

The old European mercantile economy was shaken by the massive injection of American wealth. In 1500, Europe had $200 million worth of gold and silver: a century later the amount was eight times greater. Inflation sent the value of precious metals plummeting worldwide. (The Ottoman Empire saw the value of its silver hoard fall 50 per cent by 1584, knocking the Islamic power from contention as a major trading bloc.) And as the American booty spread around Europe, a new merchant and capitalist class was launched.

Soon the British and Dutch expanded into North America, India, China and southeast Asia. By 1750 a truly global trading network had been established with Europe in firm control. The catalyst: American gold and silver.


2. Profit and slaves

THE unimaginable wealth of the Americas soon rendered redundant the old trade routes through Africa - once the main source of new supplies of gold and silver. Africa now had only one thing the Europeans wanted: slaves to work the mines and plantations of the new world. Slavery had existed in Africa for centuries but the demand for cheap labour in the Americas turned the sale of black flesh into a booming and immensely profitable business.

By 1619 a million slaves had been brought to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. The British and French easily dominated the slave trade as Spanish ships were too busy hauling all the new American wealth back home. Like American Indians, black people throughout the Americas were abused, degraded and murdered in the pursuit of profit. This legacy of racism and intolerance still cripples social relations throughout the Americas - from Argentina to the Arctic.


3. Banks and business

OPPORTUNITIES for profit in the Americas also produced the ancestors of today's giant multinational corporations. Pirates like Francis Drake got private financing and royal approval for his plunder of Spanish treasure. Later these pirates also branched out into slavery (forming businesses like the Royal African Company) and eventually plantation agriculture.

In the Caribbean and along the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas, plantations growing sugar, tobacco, rice and cotton were hacked out of the forest and black slaves imported to work them. Later, British traders launched business ventures like The Hudson Bay Company (which was 'granted' by Charles II a chunk of Canada larger than Western Europe) and The Virginia Company. The imperial goals of Britain were closely tied to these private business interests. As the corporations prospered (backed by the unrivalled strength of the British Navy) a sophisticated banking system sprang up to handle all the new wealth, followed soon by stock markets to attract new investors.


4. Cotton catalyst

THE industrial revolution began in Europe, sparked by raw materials from the colonies - especially American cotton, which was stronger, cheaper and more plentiful than cotton from Asia. As thousands of bales of the new variety poured into Europe derelict grain mills were quickly converted to process it into cloth.

But the textile industry really took off when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in Massachusetts in 1793. This new technology / allowed a single worker to process 50 pounds of cotton a day. Soon spinning and weaving were also mechanized and the industrial revolution was in full gear. From 1790 to 1860, raw cotton production in the US jumped from 3,000 to 4.5 million bales a year. By 1850, finished cotton cloth accounted for half of all British exports.

The highly-mechanized textile business became a model for other newly-emerging industries. As this model spread, so did the demand for raw materials. Cotton plantations sprang up right across the US South, scattering the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee Indian nations in the process.


5. Pizza and potatoes

COTTON was not the only American plant with global impact. In the centuries following Columbus, new foods from the Americas changed diets around the world. Imagine India without curry, Russia without vodka, Italy without pizza, Switzerland without chocolate or Africa without maize. Chili peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and maize-corn all originated in America. In fact 60 per cent of all crops around the world were first cultivated and eaten by American Indians.

The potato, in particular, transformed Europe. Although slow to gain acceptance, by the late 1600s the little tuber was widely grown by peasants and soon became a staple. Potatoes were easier to grow than traditional grains like wheat; they also produced more calories per acre, had limitless uses and were easily stored. As the potato was adopted across northern Europe, famines disappeared, general nutrition improved and populations increased; the Irish population tripled in the century after the potato was introduced. Indeed this vegetable became so crucial to the Irish diet that thousands starved to death after potato blight struck Ireland in 1845.


6. Cornucopia

[image, unknown] INDIAN corn had a similar impact. It was carried by returning slave ships to Africa where thick maize porridge quickly became an essential part of the African diet - especially in southern Africa. In Europe maize was mainly used to feed livestock and poultry, producing healthier animals and increasing the supply of protein-rich milk, eggs, cheese and meat. By the late 1700s maize was widely cultivated in Italy and Spain; more abundant protein led to improved health, lower infant mortality and larger populations. The number of people in Italy grew from 11 million to 18 million in less than a century after maize was introduced.


7. Guano-ecology

AMERICAN Indians also practised farming techniques which were eagerly adopted by the colonizers. The Indians planted mixed crops like corn, beans and squash in small mounds, not neat rows of one plant variety. The method was copied by early white settlers, since it was ideally suited to newly-cleared land studded with tree stumps. Recent Mexican studies have shown that this kind of mixed cropping can increase maize yields by as much as half.

In Peru, Inca farmers collected guano - the nitrogen-rich droppings of sea birds along the Pacific coast. The fertilizer was so valuable that Inca law forbade the killing of sea birds. In the 19th century millions of tons of guano were exported to Europe, reinvigorating depleted soils and improving yields in an ecologically sound way. From 1840 to 1880 Peru exported 11 million tons of guano worth $600 million. More importantly the guano trade prompted research into other fertilizers and was an important step in the development of modern agriculture.


8. Native democracy

A woven wampum belt, symbol of the original Iroquois Confederacy. THE political structures of North American Indians did more than classical Greece to spread ideas of freedom and democracy around the globe. From the time of Columbus Europeans were astounded by the lack of hierarchy in Indian society. In general, there were no kings, no social classes and community respect was based on good works, not wealth or property. Life was ruled by ceremony, tradition and kinship, although there were wide variations between Indian nations and many undemocratic tendencies. (The Maya and the Aztecs practised blood sacrifice, and slavery was common.)

Indian democracy inspired both Europeans and the emerging United States. (The eagle design on the US insignia was stolen from the Iroquois; the six arrows in the bird's talons represent the six Iroquois nations.) The Iroquois League was studied by Tom Paine (whose writing influenced both the American and French Revolutions) and Ben Franklin, one of the fathers of the American constitution. The Iroquois system, which underlies US democracy today, is a true 'federal' democracy, blending several sovereign nations into one government. The French and British could never accept that Indian nations were run collectively rather than by supreme rulers. They insisted on dealing with a 'chief', even though political power was vested in a group. This fundamental conflict in political values continues to poison relations between Indian nations and white governments throughout the Americas.

Source: Much of the above is based on the work of Jack Weatherford, from his book Indian Givers (Ballantine Bocka, New York, 1990).

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