Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The White Plague

An excerpt from "The Spread of European Settlement", Chapter 7 of
A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991) by Clive Ponting

Despite the rise in population and the large extension of the settled area, Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries remained a backward region, on the margins of the main developments of world history. China was the most populous and advanced country in the world and the Islamic states of the Mediterranean and Near East, about to be revived under the Ottoman empire, were culturally far in advance of a relatively impoverished Europe. The crusades were a short-lived enterprise and Christian control of parts of the Levant, in most places maintained for no more than a few decades, passed almost without disturbing the Islamic world. In 1241 the Mongols reached the river Oder and western Europe only avoided invasion after the Mongol victory at the battle of Wahlstatt because of the death of the Mongol leader Ogodai and the resulting internal confusion within the empire. Nevertheless a few decades later the Mongols ruled the most extensive empire the world had ever seen stretching from the Volga in the west to China in the east and taking in large parts of south-west Asia. The rise of the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century destroyed most of the last remnants of the Byzantine empire (which had already been undermined by the conquest of Constantinople by the western Christians during the Fourth Crusade in 1204), although Constantinople itself survived until 1453. But the Turks pushed further westwards and defeated the Christians at the battle of Nicopolis in 1396 to extend their control over most of the Balkans and later conquered Cyprus and other islands in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time the Chinese were also exploring further westwards - the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho led seven armadas of sixty-two vessels and 37,000 soldiers, between 1405 and 1430, to twenty countries as far apart as Kamchatka in the north and Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. If it had not been for the death of the Emperor and the subsequent faction fighting at court that brought about a new policy of shunning external contacts, the Chinese might well have gone on to 'discover' much of the world before Europe did so.

The remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Europe that was to lead not just to a reshaping of the political map of the world but to extensive control over the world's resources began in the fifteenth century. The great advantage for the countries of western Europe was that exploration westwards encountered no strongly organised states like those in the Mediterranean and further east which were able to challenge European power. Spain and Portugal, the first nations to explore the eastern Atlantic and launch the long period of European expansion overseas, established control over the Atlantic islands (the Canaries and the Azores) in the fifteenth century and the Portuguese continued their voyages down the west coast of Africa. Once they had rounded the Cape in 1488 they were able to make use of the already well-established trade routes of the Indian ocean to obtain goods for sale in Europe. The Portuguese, with a population of only about one-and-a-half million, had little military power and were not able to challenge seriously the existing states of India and south-east Asia. They were, however, able to capture a few key trading sites - Goa (1510), Malacca (1511) and Hormuz (1515) - their main aim being not conquest of territory but trade and exploitation of the wealth of the area. The Spanish, moving westwards into the Caribbean after Columbus's voyage in 1492, encountered only relatively primitive tribes on the various islands. When they reached the mainland they found more advanced states in the Aztec and Inca empires but, because of the slow development of complex societies in the Americas, technologically these indigenous empires were still at least three thousand years behind the Europeans. Conquest, also taking advantage of internal dissension within the empires, was therefore a relatively easy task even for the small number of Spaniards involved. The Portuguese found people at a level equivalent to those of the Caribbean islanders in Brazil after 1500 and soon established settlements along the coast.

The first phase of European expansion, from 1500 to about 1700, was largely confined to the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of central and south America, the settlement of north America, principally by the British and French, and the extension of trade along the African coast and into the Indian ocean and south-east Asia. The second phase, lasting from about 1750 to 1850, saw the British defeat the French for control over the Indian sub-continent, growing trade between Europe and China and the settlement of Australia and New Zealand. In the last phase after 1850 attention was concentrated on carving up Africa and in 1919, after the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the First World War, France and Britain established control over most of the Near East. The last European war of conquest came in 1935 when Italy defeated the long-lived empire of Ethiopia. Throughout this period there was a wave of European settlement spreading across the globe. The settlers of North America pushed westwards to the Pacific, the new colonies of Australia and New Zealand were founded and the colonial settlements along the coasts of South America pushed further inland. In parallel with these developments came the great expansion of Russia moving out from its narrow enclave in the north centered around Moscow. In 1552 and 1554 the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga were conquered, opening up the regions to the south and east of Moscow to settlement. For the next three centuries Russians from the north and Ukrainians from the west moved into this wooded steppe area and by the early eighteenth century a quarter of the Russian population was living in the region. At the end of the eighteenth century the defeat of the Turks opened up the grass steppes around the Black Sea to settlement. In the first half of the nineteenth century about fifty million acres of new land were brought into cultivation by farmers in the Ukraine and Volga areas. But the Russians were also moving eastwards. In 1581 they crossed the Urals and parties of traders and developers rapidly moved across Siberia, covering over 3,000 miles in sixty years, founding Tomsk in 1604 and reaching the Pacific coast at Okhotsk in 1649. By 1707 Kamchatka was conquered and thirty years later settlements in Alaska were established. This process was nominally under state control but in practice, especially outside the towns, Russia was as much a frontier society as the United States.

Although the Spanish easily conquered the societies of the Caribbean together with the Aztec and Inca empires, the extension of European settlement was a slow process. In Africa new settlements were largely confined to coastal trading posts until well into the nineteenth century. In China influence was restricted to a few trading stations until the middle of the nineteenth century. Even in North America, European settlement was almost entirely in an area to the east of the Appalachians until about 1800. By that date only a small number of Europeans had settled abroad. The white population of North America was about five million, that of South America some 500,000 and Australia 10,000 (New Zealand had still not been settled). Few of these were free settlers. About two-thirds of the whites who went to America before the Revolution were indentured servants forced to work for their masters for a period of years before being granted their freedom - if they lived long enough, and most did not. Until the 1830s the majority of emigrants to Australia were convicts and only New Zealand was entirely settled by free people. The great wave of European emigration did not begin until the 1820s when the combined pressures of rapidly rising population in Europe, poor food supplies and a low standard of living (plus better transport) all encouraged emigration. Between 1820 and 1930 about fifty million people emigrated from Europe. Apart from the White Highlands of Kenya, and Costa Rica, few settled in the tropics; most went to the United States and the white colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand together with South America. The same upsurge can be seen in the movement of people from Russia to the sparsely populated and difficult lands of Siberia. In the early eighteenth century the total population of Siberia was about 250,000 (although European settlers already outnumbered the natives). A hundred years later there were 1.5 million people living there, and the figure was nine million by 1914. It is now over thirty million.

The expansion of Europe resulted in a complex clash of cultures. The long-established, advanced and culturally secure societies such as India and China survived best, although they eventually succumbed in differing degrees to European political, military and economic power. (Only Japan was able to maintain its independence politically and economically.) The people who suffered the most were the less developed societies, in particular the population of the Aztec and Inca empires, and the native peoples around the globe who were still gatherers and hunters or primitive agriculturalists. Many indigenous societies disintegrated under European pressure when they were not deliberately destroyed. The stark truth is that the native peoples lost their land, livelihood, independence, culture, health and in most cases their lives. Despite differences in approach the common themes running strongly through European attitudes to the process were a disregard for the native way of life and an overwhelming urge to exploit both the land and the people. In every continent people such as the native Indians of North and South America, the Aborigines of Australia and the islanders of the Pacific found that their societies collapsed under European influence. The story of the natives under the impact of Europe is one of soaring death rates brought about by disease, alcohol, and exploitation together with social disruption and the decline of native cultures, especially under the influence of the missionaries. The Europeans showed little or no interest in native beliefs or customs until anthropologists in the last hundred years tried to investigate the remains of the shattered societies.

Just how rapidly the vulnerable native societies in the Americas could collapse is demonstrated by events on Santo Domingo, one of the first islands to be discovered by Columbus. At the time of the Spanish conquest the population was about one million yet within forty years, after intense exploitation, slavery and many deaths through European diseases, there were only a few hundred natives left. The same happened on an even larger scale in Mexico after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519. There the population fell from about 25 million in the early sixteenth century to some six million by 1550 and to one million about 1600. The complex culture which had evolved over thousands of years could not withstand such catastrophic losses. The people were unable to come to terms with this disaster and their way of life and beliefs disintegrated. Many of the surviving natives were enslaved even though native slavery was technically illegal in the Spanish empire after 1542. In the first half of the sixteenth century over 200,000 Indians were taken from Nicaragua alone as slaves. Slavery continued on the borders of the Spanish empire for centuries - the Araucanians in southern Chile were used as slaves until the 1680s and the Apache, Navaho and Shoshoni in the north until the nineteenth century. After the conquest of the Incas in Peru in the 1530s the native population fell to about a quarter of its pre-conquest level under the pressure of the forced extraction of food, slaughter of the flocks of llamas, new European diseases and labour exploitation by both the Spanish civil and religious powers. The natives were forced into two highly dangerous occupations. The first - cultivation of the coca plant took place in the lowlands where the natives from the Andes found it very difficult to live. About half of the workers died during their spell at the plantations, most from 'mal de los Andes', a wart-like disease spread by an insect, that destroyed the nose, lips and throat. The second area where the Spaniards exploited native labour was in the silver mine at Potosi, 12,000 feet up in the Andes. It was discovered in 1545 and forced labour was introduced in 1550, after the Spanish found that African slaves could not live at this height. By the early seventeenth century about 60,000 Indian labourers were employed at any one time in wretched conditions. They were forced to stay underground for a week at a stretch without coming up to the surface. Not surprisingly such treatment, together with the miserly rations they received and the use of highly toxic mercury in processing the metals, produced a very high death rate. In both Mexico and Peru the indigenous culture was destroyed, much of it simply to secure loot. Nearly all the great treasures of the Aztec and Inca states were melted down and shipped to Europe. Altogether between 1500 and 1650 Spain imported about 450,000 pounds weight of gold and thirty-five million pounds weight of silver from the Americas.

Like the Spaniards, most of the Portuguese regarded the Indians as inferior beasts to be exploited as much as possible. The missionaries wanted their souls (but also their bodies for work) and others just wanted their land and labour. Even when the number of European settlers had increased significantly and the number of Indians was reduced, the disregard of the natives' rights and welfare continued. The first settlers did not plan to work themselves and expected the Indians to do it for them. The Indian attitude, like so many gathering and hunting groups, was that they had no need to work because they already had the goods that they needed. The Portuguese rapidly captured and enslaved as many Indians as they could and when the supply proved to be inadequate moved in people from Africa as slaves. As one early commentator on the Portuguese immigrants in the mid-sixteenth century wrote:

'The first thing they try to obtain is slaves to work the farms. Anyone who succeeds in obtaining two pairs or half a dozen of them has the means to sustain his family in a respectable way, even though he may have no other earthly possessions. For one fishes for him, another hunts and the rest cultivate and till his fields.'

By 1610 in the province of Bahia there were 2,000 white settlers, 4,000 black slaves and 7,000 Indian slaves on the large-scale sugar plantations that were already well established. In 1600 when almost all the eastern seaboard of Brazil was under Portuguese control there were about 50,000 white immigrants but 100,000 slaves. Many of the coastal Indians died of disease or migrated to the interior so that by the 1630s when the Dutch captured north-east Brazil they found a largely deserted land - along 800 miles of coast where a century earlier there had been hundreds of thousands of Indians there were a mere 9,000 left.

As the Indians moved inland to avoid the white settlement, large slaving expeditions were set up to find the slaves the whites still wanted. There was a long tussle between the Jesuits, who set up 'missions' that were effectively sugar and cattle plantations where the Indians were forcibly converted, and the settlers over who should have control of the remaining Indians. The Jesuits organised some of these slaving expeditions (the rebuilding of the cathedral of Sao Luis in 1718 was financed by one of them), branded the natives on capture and forced them to work on their missions. In the seventeenth century white settlement was moving away from the coast into the dry sertao inhabited by the Tapuia Indians who were forcibly removed as large cattle ranches were set up. In the 1690s the discovery of gold in north-east Brazil brought on a gold rush in which the local Indians were enslaved and exploited by the prospectors. Even though slavery was abolished at the end of the nineteenth century in Brazil, the exploitation and destruction of the natives continued. Numbers fell rapidly - about half the tribes still in existence in 1900 are now extinct and the Indian population, which probably numbered about two-and-a-half million in 1500 before the arrival of the Portuguese, is now less than 200,000 and still declining. Since independence the Brazilian government has made only token gestures towards protecting the Indians. In 1967 the official government agency for protecting the Indians (SPI) had to be disbanded after an investigation showed that it had carried out deliberate genocide by introducing disease amongst the Indians and joined with speculators in large-scale robbery and murder. It was described by the Brazilian Attorney-General as 'a den of corruption and indiscriminate killings'. Its successor FUNAI has done little to protect the Indians. The attitude of the Brazilian government is best summed up by an official spokesman who said:

'When we are certain that every corner of the Amazon is inhabited by genuine Brazilians and not by the Indians, only then will we be able to say that the Amazon is ours'.

The Indians of North America suffered as much as those further south. In 1500 the native population of the current area of the United States was about one million, with a wide variety of cultures and ways of life. Within four hundred years these had virtually been wiped out. The Indians were able to adapt to some of the things that the Europeans brought with them such as horses and metal tools. The plains Indians abandoned agriculture, domesticated the horse and used it to hunt buffalo. Others such as the Iroquois used European weapons to establish a large empire, covering present day New York, Pennsylvania and the upper Ohio valley. Many of the first European settlements such as Jamestown actually depended on the Indians for their very survival in their early stages but once they were firmly established the latent hostility of the settlers soon surfaced. Within a few years of the first settlements in New England, the Puritans, who believed God was on their side in killing the heathen Indians, were at war with the local tribes. Already in the seventeenth century the first 'reservations' were established to remove the Indians from land the Europeans wanted and all along the eastern seaboard Indian numbers were in decline. Of the early settlers only the Quakers in Pennsylvania treated the Indians with any degree of decency and humanity.

From very early in the European settlement of North America a pattern in the treatment of the Indians emerged. The first contacts were usually with European fur traders, who encouraged the Indians to trap animals and trade them for a variety of European goods. This phase of relative prosperity rarely lasted long and the Indians soon came under pressure from the advancing frontier of European settlement. In many cases the Europeans at first bought land from the Indians but, sooner rather than later, war broke out, which, even if they had a few initial successes, the Indians eventually lost and they were then forced to cede large amounts of land. Once they were in decline the Indians would be forced to give up more and more land until they were no longer able to support themselves on what remained of their ancestral territory. Then they migrated westwards (putting more pressure on other tribes) or were forced onto reservations where the poor land, combined with disease, alcohol and massive cultural disruption, led to very high death rates and often extinction of the tribe. For the first two hundred years of European settlement this encroachment was largely confined to the area east of the Appalachians. From the early nineteenth century the Indians had to face the full weight of American expansion. Although land sales were enforced (at nominal prices) this method proved inadequate in clearing the amount of land the whites wanted. In the southern United States, as the pressure to extend cotton cultivation increased, the Cherokees, who had adopted a settled and reasonably prosperous way of life with schools and even their own newspaper, remained a major obstacle to white exploitation of their land. A forced removal bill was passed through Congress; the Cherokees were paid half a million dollars in compensation and a total of 90,000 Indians were forced westwards by the army. About 30,000 died as a result of conditions on the march. The process continued with other tribes and in other parts of the country. For example, between 1829 and 1866, the Winnebagos were forcibly moved westwards six times and the population fell by a half. By 1844 there were less than 30,000 Indians in the whole of the eastern United States, most of them living in a remote around Lake Superior.

In a series of brutal wars in the 1860s and 1870s the Indians on the Great Plains were brought under control and removed from all the best land. About twenty-five tribes were relocated to 'Indian Territory' (now Oklahoma), where rudimentary attempts were made to make them break with the past and lead settled lives but most of the government assistance was squandered by corrupt contractors. When Oklahoma was opened for white settlement in the early twentieth century the Indians were removed to even worse land. Between 1887 and 1934, the Indians lost two-thirds of their remaining land (86 million acres) and were left with the worst desert or semi-desert parts that the whites did not want. Conditions on the reservations were terrible and most Indians had to exist on meagre government grants at the bottom of the social and economic ladder and with their institutions and way of life rapidly disintegrating. Despite some improvements in the 1930s and after, the Indians remained the most depressed minority in the United States, suffering from discrimination, a very low standard of living and high infant mortality, and left largely dependent on federal government welfare.

The impact of the Europeans on the peoples of the Pacific was equally dramatic. Before the arrival of the Europeans the area was not quite the Arcadia that some accounts, and European wishful thinking (particularly prevalent in the eighteenth century) about an idealised primitive existence, suggested. Warfare and cannibalism were, in fact, widespread but the area was relatively free of disease - it had no smallpox, measles, typhus, typhoid, leprosy, syphilis or tuberculosis - subsistence was obtained with little effort and the way of life was easy going. The European impact from the late eighteenth century meant the arrival of alcohol and a host of fatal diseases and the onset of massive cultural disruption. By 1900 the native population had collapsed to about a fifth of its level before the arrival of the Europeans. The population of Hawaii fell from about 300,000 at the end of the eighteenth century to 55,000 in 1875 and that of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands went from 7,000 in 1827 to 1,850 in 1867. In places the native society was effectively wiped out altogether. For instance, when the Russians arrived in the Aleutian Islands in the 1750s they forced the natives to work, hunting sea otters, so that the furs could be sent back to Europe and China. As a result, the animals were virtually extinct within thirty years and when the native population had collapsed to about five per cent of its original level, the survivors were resettled on the Pribilof Islands to continue working for the Russians.

The story of Tahiti is an illustration of what happened across the whole of the Pacific in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On his second visit to the island in 1773, Captain James Cook was already worried by the impact the Europeans were having on native peoples, as he wrote in his journal:

'We debauch their morals already prone to vice and we introduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew ... If any one denies the truth of this assertion let him tell what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans'.

The violent crews of the whalers which called at the island (about 150 a year by the 1830s) introduced prostitution, venereal diseases and alcohol but the changes deliberately imposed by the first missionaries after 1797 had the effect of permanently undermining the islanders' way of life. The native religion was abolished and Tahitian music, tattooing and the wearing of floral garlands were banned. The natives were forced to wear European clothes and to work gathering coconut oil for export. Within a relatively short period the population was drastically reduced and the local culture was destroyed. In the 1770s, when the first Europeans arrived, the population was about 40,000: it had dropped to 9,000 when the islands were annexed by France in the 1840s and eventually fell to less than 6,000. When the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, visited the islands in the 1840s whilst working on a whaler, he was shocked at the condition of the islanders, as was the painter Paul Gaugin when he arrived in the 1890s:

'The natives, having nothing, nothing at all to do, think of one thing only, drinking ... Many things that are strange and picturesque existed here once, but there are no traces of them left today; everything has vanished. Day by day the race vanishes, decimated by the European diseases ... there is so much prostitution.'

On one of his voyages to the Pacific Captain Cook also visited Australia where he came across the Aborigines still living in much the same way as when they first arrived on the continent 40,000 years earlier. He was impressed by the friendliness of the natives and their way of life, writing that, 'they may appear to some to be the most wretched people on earth but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans'. The botanist on the expedition, Joseph Banks, reached the same conclusion: 'Thus live these I had almost said, happy people, content with little, nay, almost nothing'. The British government, though, decided to turn the country into a penal colony and the first fleet of prisoners arrived in what is now Sydney Harbour in 1788. The Aborigines tried to live their lives in the face of a wild frontier society run by slave labour and violence and up against a continually expanding area of European settlement, but coexistence proved impossible. All land was declared a possession of the Crown but the natives could not understand the idea of land ownership, which was utterly alien to their traditions, and could not adjust to that or the equally strange new legal system introduced in the colony. The indigenous population were denied any claim to the land or to the same rights as Europeans. For example, in 1805, the colonial authorities decided that since the Aborigines could not understand European law there was no need to put them on trial and they could therefore be dealt with by immediate settler 'justice'. As the Europeans took more and more of the land, the Aborigines resisted but the conflict was hopelessly one-sided - some 2,000 Europeans were killed along the frontier but about 20,000 Aborigines died. Those who were not killed on the frontier or forced to retreat into the more inhospitable parts of the country were left as beggars and prostitutes, ruined by alcohol, on the edges of the towns. By the 1840s in the Sydney area there were just a handful of survivors.

When a Pole, Count Strzelecki, visited the country in the 1830s, he left an account which contrasts vividly with Captain Cook's experience only sixty years before. This time the Aborigines were described as:

'Degraded, subdued, confused, awkward and distrustful, ill concealing emotions of anger, scorn or revenge, emaciated and covered with filthy rags; these native lords of the soil, more like spectres of the past than living men, are dragging on a melancholy existence to a yet more melancholy doom'.

That doom came first on Tasmania. Sporadic warfare between the Europeans and the natives, who numbered about 5,000 at the end of the eighteenth century, began in 1804 and continued with a long series of atrocities committed by the whites. By 1830 only about 2,000 Aborigines were left alive but the Governor of the island decided to remove them altogether from the settled central part of the island. A seven week drive across the island by a line of troops and settlers captured only a small number of Aborigines but by 1834 all of them had been expelled from Tasmania to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. There, thoroughly disoriented, particularly by the attempts of evangelical Christians to make them wear European clothes and give up their native habits and traditions, they declined rapidly. By 1835 there were only 150 of them left alive and by 1843 just forty-three remained. The last lonely and neglected survivor of the Tasmanian Aborigines died in 1876. The Aborigines on the mainland declined too as their ancestral lands were expropriated by the white settlers and they were forced into ever less hospitable country, attacked by the whites or left on the fringes of white society. A few managed to preserve their way of life in the more remote areas but all of them suffered from extensive discrimination.

The last major area of the world to fall under European domination was Africa. Although the sheer scale of the continent and the problems of access made it difficult to wipe out whole peoples and cultures, the results of European intervention and eventual control were still drastic. The slave trade was the main form of contact between Europe and Africa for the first three hundred years after the Portuguese made their voyages along the coast, and economic exploitation was to remain at the core of the relationship. Unlike the native Americans and the inhabitants of the Pacific, the Africans were part of an area subject to many of the same diseases as Europeans and so did not suffer the rapid decline in numbers experienced by the other groups - indeed the Europeans suffered more, especially from tropical diseases. In the areas where the Europeans did choose to settle, a common feature was expropriation of native land. In Algeria 20,000 French settlers took six million acres of the best land and left 630,000 natives with twelve million acres of poor land. In Southern Rhodesia 50,000 whites owned 48 million acres and 1.5 million blacks had 28 million acres. In South Africa the blacks (over three-quarters of the population) were left with just twelve per cent of the land and nearly half of that was in semi-arid areas. When South Africa took over the former German colony of south-west Africa in 1919 under a League of Nations mandate, sixteen per cent of the population was white but they owned sixty per cent of the land including all the best farm land, the mineral deposits and the ports. As Leutwein, the first German Governor, wrote in July 1896, in a moment of candour: 'Colonization is always inhumane. It must ultimately amount to an encroachment on the rights of the original inhabitants in favour of the intruders.'

The Europeans also brought with them an innate sense of superiority, tinged with a strong degree of racism. Although some Europeans tried hard to improve life for the natives through medical and educational programmes, many undermined the local culture by forcing them to adopt European ways. Few seemed to be worried by the decline of native culture. The British Commissioner of Kenya wrote in 1904: 'There can be no doubt that the Masai and many other tribes must go under. It is a prospect which I view with equanimity and a clear conscience.' Beneath the surface, and often not even well disguised, was a contempt for the Africans, well expressed in a petition from the German settlers in south-west Africa to the Colonial Office in July 1900:

'From time immemorial our natives have grown used to laziness, brutality and stupidity. The dirtier they are, the more they feel at ease. Any white man who has lived among natives finds it almost impossible to regard them as human beings at all in any European sense.'

The history of German south-west Africa (now Namibia) gives a striking picture of the realities of European colonialism. It is an important example because it took place not in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries but at a time when Europe prided itself on being the most advanced society in the world. South-west Africa was inhabited by three main tribal groups - the Ovambo in the north, the Herero (nomadic cattle raisers) and the Nama, who had been forced into the region by the expansion of white settlement in South Africa - and there was continual conflict between the different tribes. The area was allocated to Germany at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, which divided most of the remaining independent parts of Africa between the European powers. Within twenty years the Africans were dispossessed of all their land and turned into an underclass of labourers living in appalling conditions. German settlement remained small - 2,000 in 1896, 4,700 in 1903 and 14,000 in 1913 - compared with a native population estimated at 500,000 in the 1890s. German control was exercised through a steadily expanding area of direct military administration and indirect rule through the tribal chiefs. The German plan for the colony was to set up large-scale cattle ranches owned by the settlers and employing cheap African labour. This inevitably involved taking over tribal land, dispossessing the natives and disrupting African life. The outbreak of a rinderpest epidemic in 1897, which killed ninety per cent of the Herero's cattle, followed by a malaria epidemic brought about the disintegration of Herero society. During the next seven years the Germans showed no concern with preserving the native way of life even in the areas allowed to them and were in the first stages of establishing an apartheid society with the Africans confined to native reserves.

In 1904 the Herero and Nama, faced with a bleak future as labourers on land they once owned, rose in revolt. In response the German authorities embarked on a policy of suppressing and destroying the African inhabitants. At the end of a brutal military campaign the Herero were reduced from a population of about 80,000 to 16,000 after many were imprisoned in camps that were little better than death camps. The Nama revolt lasted till 1907 and by the end half the tribe were killed. A large part of the remaining Herero and Nama tribesmen were pursued into the desert where, as the official German report commented: 'The arid Omaheke [a desert in north-east Namibia] was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation'. All land still occupied by Africans was expropriated, they were banned from raising cattle and all tribal organisations were dissolved. The Africans were turned into a class of landless labourers needing an identity card and travel permit to move around the country and ninety per cent of males were forced to work for Europeans. In 1915 a survey showed that three-quarters of the Africans were either paid wages insufficient to buy a subsistence diet or instead given food that was similarly inadequate for their needs. The Africans were, therefore, reduced to scavenging to try and survive. With their culture and native way of life destroyed and continuing to suffer a low level of violence and killings from the white settlers, the Africans had been reduced to an underclass. There was no change for the better when the territory was administered by South Africa after 1919.

The expansion of Europe was a disaster for the native peoples of those areas of the world which could hot survive as independent, or quasi-independent entities or restrict the amount of European contact. Some, such as the Tasmanian Aborigines, were exterminated, others suffered a huge fall in numbers through various different combinations of disease, warfare, alcohol and economic and social disruption. All saw their native culture and way of life undermined and often destroyed by Europeans determined to impose their own values. This saga of displacement and destruction was not confined to the early stages of European expansion and colonialism but continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In many areas of the world it is still continuing as newly independent states continue the assault on the few remaining native tribes in the world who still try to maintain their old way of life. The expansion of Brazilian settlement and economic exploitation into the Amazon has resulted in the extermination of some tribes and the few now remaining are on the verge of destruction. Indonesia's vast transmigration programme - the move of settlers from the densely populated central islands such as Java to the outlying islands - has meant tribespeople have been attacked and killed.

The spread of European settlement overseas opened up huge new areas of the world for exploitation, with a devastating impact on the flora and particularly the fauna of the world. It also meant a recasting of economic relations and increasing European domination and manipulation of other economies so that they grew the food and produced the goods that Europe required. As part of the same process European ideas have also come to dominate the world. What ideas about the relationship between humans and the rest of life on earth had Europe inherited and how did it develop, transform and add to them?

Bill Totten


  • I visit your blog every day. It is a fascinating coincidence that you posted a chapter from this book the very day I received it!

    I will be reading the 2007 revised edition, renamed "A New Green History of the World."

    Cheers from Atlanta.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:57 AM, December 30, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home