The beginnings of the modern world are generally traced to the sixteenth century. Most descriptions of the period of human history since then have described this period as a period of the greatest human progress and the special role of the countries which started playing a more leading role in world affairs in the 16th and 17th centuries is shown generally to be that of preparing the foundation for such a period of the greatest progress. However a more careful look at what actually happened would reveal a history of extreme violence and cruelty on the part of the leading forces to establish their dominance during this period of the emergence of the so-called modern world..
While earlier wars also witnessed much cruelty and distress, the scale of this was limited by the technology available at that time. From 16th century onwards new discoveries and inventions opened up the entire world to invaders, and in addition armed them increasingly with weapons of much larger-scale destruction.
The French philosopher Montaigne wrote at the end of the sixteenth century, “So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world topsy-turvied, ruined and defaced for the traffic of pearls and pepper.”
Las Casas who was an eyewitness to the Spanish conquest of South America described the genocide of the native American population in Espanola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as follows : “As they rode along, their lances were pierced into women and children, and no greater pastime was practised by them than wagering as to a cavalier’s ability to completely cleave a man with one dexterous blow of his sword. A score would fall before one would drop in the divided parts essential to winning the wager. No card or dice afforded equal sport. Another knight from Spain must severe his victim’s head from the shoulder at the first sweep of his sword. Fortunes were lost on the ability of a swordsman to run an Indian through the body at a designated spot. Children were snatched from their mother’s arms and dashed against the rocks as they passed. Other children they threw into the water that the mothers might witness their drowning struggles. Babes were snatched from their mother’s breasts, and a brave Spaniard’s strength was tested by his ability to tear an infant into two pieces by pulling apart its tiny legs. And the pieces of the babe were then given to the hounds that in their hunting they might be the more eager to catch their prey. The pedigree of a Spanish blood-hound had nothing prouder in its record than the credit of half a thousand dead or mangled Indians. Some natives they hung on gibbets, and it was their reverential custom to gather at a time sufficient victims to hang thirteen in a row. I have been an eye-witness of all these cruelties, and an infinite number of others which I pass over in silence.”
This cruel behavior, at least for some time, had the support in the home countries at the highest levels: “In 1775 King George III of Britain in a Royal Proclamation decreed that ‘For every scalp of a male (American) Indian brought in as evidence of their being killed… forty pounds, … for every scalp of such female Indian or male Indian under the age of 12 years…twenty pounds’.” Third World Resurgence magazine has written : “Indian generosity and honour were repaid with European treachery and cruelty. The whites broke every treaty they made with the Indians to deprive them of their lands. Between 1887 to 1934 the Indians lost some 100 million acres of their land to the white man. Nations of Indians were destroyed and European diseases were used to exterminate them.”
At the time of Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 the Americas were the home, according to the most recent estimates, of some 100 million people – compared to a European population of only about 70 million (in 1500). “Within a century after 1492, the indigenous population had dropped by 90 percent – the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.”
In the nearly four centuries of the slave trade nearly 10 to 12 million slaves were obtained and captured from Africa and ‘exported’ mainly to the Americas to labour, and perish, there in the most inhuman conditions. About 2 million died along the way. This was the largest forced migration in history, says Chris Brazier in the New Internationalist, and adds, “The experience of being ripped from your home, of being squeezed onto a deck with no room to move, of lying in chains for weeks amid your own excrements, of staggering out at the other end into a half-life of back breaking labour at the crack of a whip – all of this is beyond imagination.”
In the late 18th and 19th century it was the turn of the aborigines of the Australian continent to be subject to large-scale killing by the newly arriving British convicts. The British Commissioner reported from here in 1833, “I have heard men of culture and refinement, of the greatest humanity and kindness to their fellow whites… talk, not only of wholesale butchery… but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day’s sport, or of having to kill some troublesome animal.” Two thirds of Koorie natives of Australia perished within a century.
Charles Darwin had observed, “Wherever the European has trod death seems to pursue the aboriginal.”
The spirit of imperialism was voiced loud and clearly by Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, who is reported to have stated : “I would annex the planets if I could.” Rhodes explained the motivation behind British imperialism in this way : “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.” In 1820 the Indian, subcontinent took 11 million yards of British cotton textiles; by 1840 this had grown to 145 million yards. British goods were forced upon India without paying any duty and the foreign manufacturer employed the arm of political injustice to keep down and ultimately strangle a competitor with whom he could not have contended on equal terms. William Bentick, the British Governor General in India, reported in 1834-35, “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.” John Sullivan, President of the Board of Revenue, Madras remarked, “Our system acts very much like a sponge drawing up all the good things from the banks of the Ganges and squeezing them down on the banks of the Thames.”
According to a study of year 1878 published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society there were 37 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia in India.
However it is important to note that during the entire course of all these extreme injustices, the leaders of the dominant forces were saying that they are actually helping those whom they were plundering and killing. Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies , stated, “ Through our colonial policy , as soon as we acquire and develop a territory , we develop it as agents of civilization, for the growth of world trade.” This discourse on presenting themselves as harbingers of civilizations continued unabated during most of colonial violence and plunder.
Why is it important to recall this today? Because to understand the world today it is important to know and understand its roots, its beginnings in such violence and dominance. These tendencies exist to this day but it is more important today for the most powerful persons and institutions to hide them and hiding these tendencies takes very strange forms. Some of the worst and most harmful things are still being done in the name of development, help, assistance, protection, piety etc. and it is very important to understand such tendencies and forces, so that these can be checked and the creative energies and efforts and wisdom of the world can instead be channelized towards building a safe and peaceful world, a world based on justice and equality.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.