The three discoveries of America

For thousands of years, the American continent remained undisturbed by the presence of humanity. It was isolated from the migration of human tribes, as proved by the lack of fossil remains previous to those of the Homo Sapiens. The first humans arrived in America probably from Asia across the Bering Strait between 25,000-40,000 years ago. This would constitute the very first discovery of the continent.  The human tribes from Mongolia spread throughout the continent in the course of thousands of years and several distinct ancient American civilizations, each one with their own idiosyncrasies, were born as a result.

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The next incursion of humans from other parts of the world took place in the 11th century AD. In the 9th century, Scandinavians from Norway occupied Iceland and in the 10th century, the Icelander Eric the Red discovered Greenland. Of course, he wasn´t the first human in Greenland, where he found a colony whose economy was based on livestock and the export of walrus ivory and falcons. Then, one of Eric the Red’s men called Biarni Heriulfson saw land to the West of Greenland around the year 986, and Eric the Red’s son Leif decided to explore it, reaching its coast in 1001. Leif spent a winter there, in Newfoundland, and then returned to Greenland. Around 1010-15, another Icelander, Thorfinn Karlsefni, together with a group of Eric the Red’s men, explored the coast of Newfoundland -known then as ‘Vinland the Good’- and attempted to settle there, spending two or three winters with the natives. But the natives proved to be quite hostile and the Norsemen returned to Greenland and made no further attempts. Again, the American coast remained undisturbed until 1492.

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Driven by social convention, people celebrate the discovery of America on the day Columbus reached the American coasts in 1492, but he didn´t really ‘discovered’ anything that hadn´t been discovered a long time ago. In the same celebratory mood, we could choose the fist option and establish a day 40,000 years ago to throw a commemorative party, or decide on Biarni Heriulfson’s sight of land in the year 986, or select Leif’s expedition in 1001 rather than Christopher Columbus’s arrival. The debate is open.

Source: A concise history of the American Republic, volume I.

Colonized brains: ignorance and the victor’s version of history

A positive aspect of the social networks is the fact that we take a glimpse into other cultures and places throughout the world and talk to people with a different background. It is indeed very enriching, and it provokes some awkward situations as well! For instance, a young fellow from India, Vivek Singh, asked me about the history of his country before the East India Company poked its nose in there. It made me feel embarrassed to acknowledge my ignorance, as I explained to him how in the western countries – as stated by Walter Benjamin: “History is told by the victors”- we are only taught history when/only as much as it involves western people, and western versions of it only. I feel we have a huge gap in our knowledge, no wonder we may behave as hillbillies when we encounter cultures and behaviours different to ours.

Gramsci Foucault

I resorted to Ravi Kumar (www.hindicenter.com), who sent me some bibliography on colonial and post-colonial contexts in translation. I tried to fill the gaps by researching a bit and trying to reflect in order to answer Vivek Singh’s question: why were the colonial incursions in America and India so different?

We could say that time was an important factor, as more than one century separates both invasions. The way they happen was also particular to each of them; the Spaniards assumed to role of “gods” and took over, plundering, raping and erasing entire cultures with their microbes and swords alike. The British disguised it as commercial intentions only, while they publicised it as a “christianising enterprise” in their homeland. Their intentions were not as bare faced as that of the Spaniards’ because Indian society was very much developed, organized and sophisticated already, so they could not get away so easily.

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They landed at Surat in 1612 with the permission of prince Khurram, who allowed them to trade there. A hundred years after that, in 1712, empires within India crumble, there are uprisings and invasions from Persia and Afghanistan. The East India Company take advantage of the invasions effected by other countries and the vacuum of power by the death of Aurangzeb (1707) to impose their own idea of an empire, displaying their own private army and plan to take direct control over the land in order to increase their profits. In the battle of Plassey (1757) they fight against the forces of the Nawab Surajudduallah of Bengal, backed by France -out of their own self-interest, I guess-. The Indian side fails, due to Surajudduallah’s General Mir Jafar’s treachery, who was made the new ruler of Bengal by the British as a reward for betraying his own fellow citizens -that sounds familiar throughout history, doesn’t it?-.

The Indians started to build alliances in order to better fight the British. In 1764, Mughal emperor Shah Allam II allied with Mir Qasim -Mir Jaffar’s son, who had turned against the British rule- and Shujaudduallah -ruler of Awadh- to expel the Brits. It results in another failure, in the battle of Buxar (1764); they were allowed to rule their areas but forced to acknowledge the East India Company as administrator.

The company started becoming a political force and its ambitions to gain control of India started to be obvious. For the next year they exerted their power through a combination of diplomacy and sheer force. By 1840 India was under its rule. The company exploited Indian resources, started introducing Christianity -which they were advised not to do during the first stages of their sojourn-, and developed an increasingly aloof, arrogant and racist attitude. They also introduced their language, a fact which is one of the basic and most common weapons used by colonialism. Indian craftsmen became ruined, as the Europeans living in India introduced cheaper products from British factories -a phenomenon which is also familiar nowadays, but the other way round, impulsed as well by the Europeans’ outsourcing-. The British established a kind of “apartheid” which resulted in the higher rank posts being reserved for their own kind. They also introduced the Doctrine of Lapse, allowing themselves to annex any land whose ruler died or which did not have a male heir -of course they practised gender apartheid as well-. India became an important site to exploit for Britain, thus Queen Victoria became the official ruler.