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Horne’s history of early colonialism in the Americas reveals how structures of racism were constructed to support the development of capitalism, finds Jamal Elaheebocus

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Gerald Horne, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (Monthly Review Books 2020), 303pp.

The disease of racism continues to cause suffering and misery across the globe. The eruption of the Black Lives Matter protests this year has exposed the extent to which systematic racism continues to oppress and demonise black and minority ethnic communities, particularly in the US and Britain. This racism in many ways stems from colonialism and imperialism, and therefore capitalism, particularly through the devastating trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In The Dawning of the Apocalypse, Horne outlines the events of the devastating, long sixteenth century from 1492, when Columbus first reached America and enslaved over 650,000 indigenes (p.16), to 1607, when Britain launched a mass invasion of North America, symbolising the start of centuries of slavery, settler colonialism and genocide in the Americas and Africa.

Horne shows how this long century was the origin of the shift from feudalism and religious division to capitalism and the creation of race in order to justify the despicable acts by the ruling classes across Europe. For the majority of the centuries before the long sixteenth century, divisions were ideologically conceived as based on religion, Horne argues. Antisemitism was rife across Western Europe; Jews started fleeing Europe (or being expelled, from England in 1290 for example), from countries such as Spain, England, Italy and the Netherlands, especially from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century. Persecution had intensified further where they were blamed for the spread of the Black Death.

As Horne notes, this antisemitism possibly served to unite Christians against Muslims, as part of the non-Christian enemy, with this opposition likely fuelled by the expanding Ottoman empire. The Ottomans were seizing more and more territories and expanding westwards, making inroads into Eastern Europe for example. Spain, along with the Ottoman Empire, was the major power in the first half of the long sixteenth century. The first Spanish colonial settlement in North America was built in the 1520s (p.59), as the Spanish advanced from their established base in the Caribbean. The Spanish built several more settlements in what is now the United States, for the most part using indigenous people as slaves ruthlessly, causing the deaths of millions. They utilised conquistadors to advance further north, in an attempt to counter the increasing threat of England, France and Portugal, building one of the largest settlements in St Augustine, Florida.

Despite the religious division of Catholic and Protestant powers, the notion of ‘whiteness’ was increasingly being used as a more effective way of dividing and ruling, thus signalling the beginning of the shift from feudalism to capitalism.

Fall of Spain, rise of England

However, Horne argues, the downfall of Spain, and consequently the rise of England as a major colonial power, was largely down to the empire’s insistence on dividing by religion, as was typical during feudalism, rather than race, which became the defining structural characteristic of capitalism. The Spanish expelled thousands of Jews and Muslims from Iberia across the sixteenth century and worked with freed Catholic Africans to build settlements in North America.

Spain also heavily invested in war against the Ottomans, and intervened in Ireland, where Catholics were struggling against the English re-conquest and colonisation. With the brief exception of Mary I’s reign, this involved the imposition of Protestant supremacy, particularly from the time of Queen Elizabeth’s accession in 1558. There were several threats of invasion by Spain, with much of the hostility coming from the Pope, who excommunicated Elizabeth in 1571 (p.125) and proposed invasion of England. This hostility between Spain and England reached its climax in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which signalled a wider defeat of Spain.

By contrast, England did deals with countries regardless of religion, with the sole purpose of invading and looting Africa and the Americas, and because of this, rapidly took the place of Spain as the major colonial power. Morocco was, amongst others, an important partner for England, partly because of trade between the countries, which helped revive the English economy after it was drained by wars with Scotland and Ireland. England’s varied allies also provided military assistance in the invasions of Africa and the Americas (p.158).

Trade and collaboration with Holland, in rebellion against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs from 1568, was also key to England’s rise from a debt-ridden, weak country to becoming the most powerful colonial force in the world during the seventeenth century. Slave traders John Hawkins and Francis Drake were increasingly making expeditions into west Africa, seizing gold and slaves, and reached Florida in the 1560s (p.102). This began the looting of the Americas alongside Africa by the increasingly powerful England.

Fighting back

While Horne outlines the savage pattern of invasions and colonisations, he also describes the almost constant revolts which shook all the imperial powers, particularly Spain. The arrival of the Iberians in the Caribbean was met with fierce resistance; one figure of note was Hatuey, who fled to Cuba and fought the invaders up until he was burned alive in 1512. The Wolof launched a major revolt against Columbus’ son, in an attempt to seize back the land he had stolen from them years before (p.59).

The most powerful revolts were of African slaves against Spanish settlers in North America. Because of Spain’s insistence on division by religion, it was forced to rely on Catholic Africans, often recently converted, to build and defend settlements, such as St Augustine, from the increasing threat of invasion as the Portuguese and English made inroads into what would eventually become the United States. These enslaved Africans, along with indigenes such as the Acoma people, revolted against Spanish settlers on multiple occasions across the Americas, severely weakening their position in North America in particular.

Rise of capitalism

The major turning point in the rise of England, and consequently capitalism in general, came with the ‘mass invasion’ of North America in 1607, whereby they advanced north of Florida (p.195). This was made possible by what Horne calls ‘militarised identity politics’, whereby settlers provided land and rights to minorities who worked with them to invade, loot and murder, behind the banner of ‘whiteness’. After 1607, England had the wealth and power to reach into India, following the Dutch, where the East India Company was set up, one of the prime examples of a version of state monopoly capitalism (p.199).

Horne’s account of the apocalyptic long sixteenth century demonstrates how so much of the oppression and discrimination in capitalist societies today can be connected to the rise of capitalism during that century. The Dutch settlers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1597 were responsible for a settlement that was the beginning of a ‘hateful contribution of capitalism to global culture: apartheid’ (p.184).

The seizing of the present-day United States by England laid the groundwork for the dominance of republicans, from the founding fathers to the present-day ruling class, who have been able to take advantage of the centuries-long enslavement of Black people in the United States to continue to accumulate obscene wealth from the deep-rooted racism created by English settlers centuries ago.

Horne’s book is an insightful account of the way in which the creation of race and racism by ruling classes allowed for the accompanying rise of capitalism and imperialism, and can therefore explain much of the oppression across the capitalist world today. The events of the long sixteenth century are also vital to breaking down liberal ideas of racism as an individual attitude, instead showing how it is very much systematic and has its cause in capitalism.

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