2.3 Conquest, Slavery and Genocide in the Americas
- What does Professor Sachs mean by the “hidden” Columbian Exchange?
- This chapter describes the so-called triangular trade; what is it and why is it relevant in this context?
Adam Smith emphasized that globalization brought impunity. That when the Europeans discovered how to navigate to the Americas and to Asia, that what should have been mutual benefits of trade turned out to be plunder and misery for the native inhabitants, both of what he called the East and the West Indies. I want to elaborate in this chapter on that misery. It’s important, because we need to remember if we’re looking for a humane, a decent, a sustainable globalization that impunity has often accompanies vast imbalances of wealth and of military power.
And we have to be on guard, even in our own times. There’s another lesson, one that Smith could not really have fully understood and as far as I know, did not mention, and that is that along with the Columbian Exchange of sugar and tobacco and cacao and potatoes and maize was another kind of hidden Columbian Exchange and that was especially of the pathogens.
When the Europeans came to the New World, and they brought their she eps and their goats and their horses, and the diseases that they themselves carried, they were bringing disease to a virgin population that had no experience with those diseases.
A population that was therefore, extraordinarily vulnerable to epidemics without the immunity that was acquired through repeated childhood exposure, or that may have co-evolved by living together with these pathogens over the course of centuries and millennia.
The result was that there was vast disease and death within the native populations. Some of the diseases that caused the mass deaths included small pox, measles, the introduction, we believe, of malaria, from the sub-tropics of Europe, and we know that in hinge moments of history, for instance, when Hernán Cortés marched his conquistadors into the Aztec Kingdom and was vastly outnumbered, one of the reasons that a small number of conquistadores lead by Cortés was able to overthrow the Aztec Empire, was that they brought a small pox epidemic with them that raged throughout the Aztec community and enabled Cortés to not only survive what otherwise, probably would have not be possible, but actually to conquer the Aztecs.
And that repeated phenomenon of Europeans inadvertently, in most cases, or almost all cases, spreading disease and leading to the mass loss of the native populations is a repeated phenomenon in the history of the Americas.
Smith could not really have known this, and so he looked at the episodes through the lens of force, subjugation, slavery, direct murder and genocide of populations, and without question, that was part of the visitation of the Europeans, but the germ theory of disease itself would only be understood 100 years after Smith wrote those famous lines, only with the discoveries of Koch and Pasteur in Europe in the 1870s onward.
And so, the role of pathogens in making the way for European conquest could not be fully appreciated until modern times. If one combines the brutality which was undoubted, the enslavement of native populations, the direct slavery that was brought by Europeans from Africa to now work the plantations of the New World, the result was nothing less than a human catastrophe for the Amerindian populations of the Caribbean Basin first, and then of North and South America and of the massive numbers of Africans who were enslaved and transported brutally and forcibly to the Americas, many of whom died in passage and those who survived the passage faced lives of brutality and opened up generations of enslavement to come.
The results of all of this are absolutely shocking. I’m showing you here an estimate of the Native American population in Mexico for example following the conquests of Cortés. And what you see here is of course only an estimate. But the estimate is that in the year before Cortés’ conquest, there may have been on the order of 25 million Native Americans in Mexico, but by the end of the century, the number was less than one-tenth of that.
So almost a complete elimination of the Amerindian population in this case. And this kind of massive destruction of the population is something that would be experienced in many parts of the Americas. It’s mainly in the highland and the landlocked regions, in Paraguay, in Bolivia, in the highlands of Peru, in the highlands of Central America, where you did not have the plantation labor, where the Europeans were far fewer in number, where indigenous populations could thereby survive.
But it was more in the coastal areas, in the more favored areas from an agricultural point of view, in the areas where Amerindian populations would come into contact more frequently with European populations as carriers of disease and as carriers of brutality where the shocking declines and almost complete loss of populations occurred.
One famous orientation of this new global industry is summarized as the so-called triangular trade that took place. Europe in the 16th Century onward became a manufacturing center, a processing center for agricultural goods.
A increasing creator of textiles, apparel, metal goods that were desired by chieftains and those in Africa who would trade slaves for those manufactured goods from Europe. So the first leg of the triangle is the export of manufactured products, increasingly from western Europe to West Africa, to today’s Senegal, or today’s Ghana, or the coastal countries which became the major sources of slave labor.
Those slaves were then carried to the Americas where they worked the tropical plantations, whether it was the growing cotton plantations or especially the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean which became the richest part of Europe’s colonies in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries and where the slave labor was murderous, because the conditions were horrendous and the diseases that the slave populations incurred were devastating to them.
Those slaves in turn produced commodities that then could be exported to Europe and that completed the third side of this so-called triangular trade. African slaves provided labor that fueled this early stage of European capitalism that came to dominate the period from 1500 to 1800.
This graphic illustrates the massive movement of slaves from Africa, almost all in the direction of the Americas. A few from East Africa to enslavement in the Middle East. The overwhelming numbers came from the Gulf of Guinea and from…from the Atlantic coast of Africa, heavily to Brazil, massively to the Caribbean and some to the Americas, where slave labor would take hold and become the basis of the cotton empire in the U.S. colonies of the south and then of the southern United States after the War of Independence.
In total, it’s estimated that 14 million Africans were carried as slaves during this period. This is truly a grim and horrific stage of global capitalism. And the cruelty that accompanied the development of the modern world economy must not be forgotten, because that cruelty shows up in other ways until today in human trafficking which continues, in bonded labor, in child labor, which still become part of global supply chains. We’re not done with this horrific abuse of humanity by others in pursuit of greed and profit.