The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism

Gerald Horne exposes how the Three Horseman of the Apocalypse – Slavery, Capitalism and White Supremacy gave birth to the rise of the West, finds Adam Tomes


Gerald Horne,The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean) Monthly Review Press 2018), 256pp.

In a recent appearance on Nick Ferrari’s LBS show, Jacob Rees-Mogg defended the UK’s colonial past, saying that it was ‘not wholly a bad thing’ with ‘bad bits’ and ‘good bits’ such as Britain’s role in ending the slave trade which he describes as ‘really wonderful’. He has this Great White Man view of history, talking of noble ‘heroes’ such as General Gordon at Khartoum, as well as ‘rogues’. It is this sort of history that Gerald Horne eviscerates in this scholarly, brutal and powerful book. Settler colonialism does not have good bits and bad bits, but rather is the cause of the ‘towering mountains of cadavers’ (p.8) brought about by the genocide of indigenous Americans and the enslaving of thirteen million Africans and two to four million Native Americans to bring benefits to the European and Euro-American powers.

Settler colonialism was not the act of ‘rogues’, but rather the story of systemic, brutal oppression that was central to the rise of the West, and to credit its ending to the actions of the British state is nonsensical. This white-supremacist view of history gives no agency to Africans or indigenous peoples who constantly revolted and rebelled, as in the indigenous revolt in New Mexico in 1860 or the Haitian revolution of 1791. For Gerald Horne, it was thanks to the Haitian Revolt that ‘a general crisis of the entire slave system was ignited, which could only be resolved with its collapse’ (p.191).

Gerald Horne focusses particularly on how the crimes committed in the name of slavery, white supremacy and capitalism have been rationalised, or even justified by historians. Historians have argued that the by-product of these crimes was the ‘advancement of the productive forces or the flowering of bourgeois liberties’ and the deliverance of ‘poorer Europeans from the barbarism that they endured on their home continent’ (p.29). This rationalisation is seen as the result of historians being unable to escape the trap of white supremacy, as they appear to value the progress of white Europeans over the appalling suffering of those victimised in the process. At the same time these supposed advancements are still not enjoyed by many African Americans or Native Americans today in the USA. Whilst this type of rationalisation of heinous crimes against humanity continues, it remains impossible for the modern world to ‘overcome the odious legacy of tragic events of recent centuries’ (p.29).

The seventeenth century

Gerald Horne investigates in depth how, in the seventeenth century, Britain moved from being a second-class power to become the ‘planet’s reigning superpower’ by the beginning of the eighteenth century, before passing on the baton to its ‘revolting spawn’, the United States of America (p.7). Horne shows that the UK’s and the USA’s rise needs to be understood through slavery, colonialism, emerging capitalism and white supremacy. These interlocking systems of oppression enabled London to become the ‘prime beneficiary of this systemic cruelty’ (p.9), rising above the Dutch, the French and the Spanish. In 1673, England had 33% of the slave trade but this had risen to 74% by 1683, enabling England to make handsome profits by ravaging Africa.

The key moment in the seventeenth century, for the author, is the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This is seen by many as a peaceful revolution that established the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy and the decisive move towards constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government. It is seen as the first flowering of bourgeois liberty. Horne argues that the Glorious Revolution was a ‘Magna Carta for racialized bourgeois democracy (p.9)’. It should be noted here that 1688 was in no sense a democratic revolution; it was the final triumph of the propertied class against absolutist monarchy, and the form of parliamentary government that followed largely included only a wealthy elite in the franchise. The radical democratic tradition of the 1640s had been defeated beforehand when Monmouth’s Rebellion of 1685 was crushed, and it was precisely that defeat which allowed the propertied to feel assured that overthrowing the Stuart monarchy would not unleash a dangerous wave of democratic radicalism.

Nonetheless, it is true to say that the attempts to weaken the monarchy were driven in no small part by the desire for merchants to access the ‘sinfully profitable market’ of slavery, of which the Royal African Company, under the aegis of the Crown, controlled 90%. The outcome of the Revolution was that the Crown’s share dropped to 8% in 1690. This victory over the monarchy by the merchants was built on a popular politics of republicanism that later informed the American War of Independence of 1776. The popular politics that emerged in the United States, based around ‘free trade, anti-monarchism, and a racially sharpened and class-based democracy’ (p.9) is still central, in various forms, to capitalist societies today and is clearly illustrated by the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as well as his midterms strategy of 2018.

During the seventeenth century, the class struggles in both England and Scotland created a crisis for the monarchy and the remnants of feudal power. Horne argues that violence targeted at each side by the other in the Civil War was substituted by violence directed outwards towards the glittering prize of the ‘dispossession of the indigenous of the America and mass enslavement of Africans’ (p.71). For Horne this prize, in the end, was ‘sufficiently enormous to divert revolt’ (p.71). This again is to misread the nature of seventeenth-century class struggles. Ruling-class violence within Britain continued throughout the 1700s, from the quasi-colonialist suppression of the Highlands in 1715 and 1745, and during the clearances, to the routine violence of the press-gangs, the vindictive criminal law system, and the suppression of common rights, through enclosure and the Black Acts for example. It is nonetheless true that the violence unleashed upon the world outside Britain was made possible by the triumph of oligarchical bourgeois power in 1688.

In this sense, the rise of London was built on the fall of Africa and the Americas. Africa saw the young and strong ripped away to leave the elderly and the infirm, destroying in the process systems of agriculture, production, trade, transport and governance that had evolved over centuries. It turned community against community as well as neighbour against neighbour in a process that systematically underdeveloped Africa to the benefit of the West. The author argues that Africa has arguably yet to recover from the slave trade and colonialism.


With the desire to expand and dispossess indigenous peoples of their land, the main issue that arose was how to provide the necessary labour for the land to produce fabulously wealthy crops such as sugar without weakening the workforce at home. The Irish and other dissidents had been sent abroad as labour, but the supply was simply not enough. As more and more slaves were shipped into colonial settlements, such as in Jamaica, the Irish and other dissidents that had been conscripted to work in the fields were promoted to overseers or soldiers to keep the growing numbers of Africans in check. The issue for the colonial elites was becoming clear; they could not untie ‘the Gordian knot of bringing in more Africans to produce immense wealth while preventing them from rebelling and taking power’ (p.132).

The answer lay in creating a new form of aristocracy, ‘whiteness’ in order to create a ‘cross class collaboration between and among Europeans’ against Africans and indigenous peoples. The author argues that this cross-class collaboration amongst those of European descent is yet to disappear in North America and has found its ‘tribune in a vulgar billionaire’ (p.29) who has united the rich and powerful with poorer Europeans ‘in mutually feasting upon the misery of those not defined as white’ (p.191). This siren song is growing all the louder in a country where the census predicts that the white population will be a minority by 2045.

This process was one of moving from societies with slaves to slave societies and societies with racism to racist societies. This involved implanting racialisation into settler colonies in America, which involved ensuring that certain peoples don’t have the right to have rights, making them ‘permanent aliens’ (p.17). Understanding this process is vitally important, as you can end slavery as the USA did after its Civil War, but unless you tackle racism head-on and with full force, it will ‘allow this pestilence to fester and morph’ (p.19) as it has in modern America. The lack of a truth and reconciliation process means that the battles fought in the Civil War are still being fought 158 years later.

The American War of Independence

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the dawn of the apocalypse for Africans and indigenous peoples, but 1776 completed the process. Just as an exhausted British state was turning its eyes from further westward expansion towards British India and Africa, the settlers threw out the Crown so that they could continue to steal the land of the indigenes and stock it with enslaved Africans. Independence is often dressed up as a great leap forward for liberty and bourgeois democracy but this no more than ‘a creation myth’ (p.191). This myth sees slavery and dispossession not as ‘foundational but inimical to the founding of the nation known as the United States’ (p.191). The ugly truth is that the arrival of bourgeois democracy in the United States should be seen as a way ‘to consolidate colonial rule by dint of “race”, providing a kind of “combat pay” to settlers’ (p.17).

In the end, Gerald Horne marshals his historical evidence into a devastating argument to support his view that the British Empire and its offspring, the United States, will be seen in the future ‘to rank with the dictators of the twentieth century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale’ (p.17). Yet throughout his work, there is a sense that this modern variant of capitalism is reaching crisis point and it is possible to imagine a world after capitalism and its ‘maniacal obsession with “race”’ (p.191). In the making of this new world, those victimised in the emergence of capitalism – the indigenous and enslaved Africans – should never be forgotten and ‘need to be compensated and made whole (somehow)’ (p.29).