The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth Century North America and The Caribbean

By Gerald Horne
Book Review Details
Author: Gerald Horne
Publisher: Monthly Review Press
Edition: 2018

As you will have probably gathered from the title, Professor Gerald Horne wastes no time with mincing his words. The first paragraph of the Introduction is likewise refreshingly uncompromising about the position that the book takes:

The years between 1603 and 1714 were perhaps the most decisive in English history. At the onset of the seventeenth century, the sceptered isle was a second-class power but the Great Britain that emerged at the beginning of the eighteenth century was, in many ways, the planet’s only reigning superpower. It then passed the baton to its revolting spawn, the United States, which has carried global dominance into the present century. [My emphasis]

Professor Horne is under no illusions as to the reception which such bold, defiant assertions will be received by bourgeois and liberal historians, because every statement in the book is scrupulously footnoted, and indeed there are no less than two in the introductory paragraph quoted above. Professor Horne comes to the field of combative ‘history from below’ both well-armed and unwilling to take prisoners. This is an assertive position, which in the view of this reviewer, is well due admiration and applause.

Professor Horne then proceeds to make a compelling sweep of the century, fitting together the apparently isolated but in fact wholly integrated strands of the settler colonisation of America and the Caribbean and the slave trade – into the classic Marxian model of capitalist ‘primitive accumulation’. Because it was in this turbulent century of a dramatically changing world that these two threads became inextricably interwoven, and the author explains how the racialised ideology of ‘whiteness’ was created as the means for a newly emerging ruling class to try and resolve the pressing existential contradictions that had arisen in the process.

Horne starts with presenting the picture of competing absolutist monarchies in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century – Spain, Portugal, France, Austria and Turkey, and also two minor powers but places where capitalism was already relatively highly developed – England and The Netherlands. Spain and Portugal had been pioneers in expanding state power and desire for plunder overseas to the Americas, but despite the devastation that they had wrought on the indigenous civilisations therein, the means to properly exploit the resources of these lands had eluded them. Turkey and Austria due to their geographical positions lacked the capacity to get involved, and so it was left to France, England, and by the 1640s also The Netherlands, to drive forward the next phase of the colonial project started by Portugal and Spain.

The key problem, as Horne outlines, was the critical shortage of labour for raising the revenue that capitalism needed for its development and competitive edge. Forests needed to be felled, plantations worked, trade routes plied and workshops manned, and even with a constant flow of refugees and prisoners-of-war from the wars of religion, or with the new developments out of the old traditions of slavery and serfdom such as indentured labour, Europeans could not be induced, voluntarily or by force, in large enough numbers to cross The Atlantic and take part in the ambitions of the competing absolutist monarchs and their merchant accomplices.

And amongst those initial European semi-slaves who survived their Trans-Atlantic journey, discontent with the sort of gruelling labour required ensured that those who did not succumb to tropical disease could achieve freedom by running away to blend into the towns or frontier fastnesses and escape recapture. Furthermore, there was a time-limit on how long indentured labour or prisoners-of-war could be exploited for free, for example if a war ended in a treaty, or if the period of indenture ran out. Indigenes of North America who survived genocide and European viruses also tended to flee their conquerors into the vastness of the interior, while those that remained at closer quarters fought back with remarkable ferocity and diplomatic dexterity against any attempts to turn them into cogs of the capitalist machine.

So a new and self-reproducing labour force was needed, and luckily for European merchants and monarchs though unluckily for Africans and Native Americans alike, simultaneously there was a new market in human bodies emerging out of Africa. This ‘trade’ had humble enough beginnings but had been present from the start, and the initial victims were in fact treated no differently to their European or indigenous counterparts – they could be ‘manumised’ or freed after their term of bondage was over, and advance to acquire property or even slaves of their own. All this however was to change once European merchants realised that the ever-urgent demand for labour by the plantation aristocracies could be filled cheapest by the transport of Africans directly from the continent, exploiting wars fuelled by the introduction from Europe of superior flintlock muskets and other manufactured novelties to African elites.

Horne shows us vividly how the Trans-Atlantic African slave trade was rapidly expanded in the later half of the seventeenth century – first how it delved to new depths of human degradation both in Africa and the Caribbean, and secondly how this immediate realisation of vast fortunes by a few impacted the unstable balance of power between an absolute monarch and the merchants he relied upon, in England in particular. So the racialisation of slavery now swung to the fore, as new means were needed to divide a potentially rebellious work force in the colonies – black, brown and white alike. The former divisions of religion were starting to fade in Europe in the wake of the calamity of the Thirty Years War and as Ottoman power receded, so a new divisive ideology of ‘whiteness’ started to grow in its place, arising out of the economic needs of the slave trade. It had the additional bonus of being able to divide the Africans from the Europeans and ‘identify’ fugitives etc by the simple means of skin colour. It also solved the other problem of the term of labour running out, because if you could propagate the racist idea that African people were chattels fitted only for hard, back-breaking labour, then it stood to ‘reason’ that they and their offspring in captivity could likewise be perpetually defined in the same context in relation to bourgeois concepts of ‘property and freedom’. In one ideological stroke, black Africans had been transformed into a self-perpetuating force of slave labour.

But new problems were arising in that the Caribbean was attracting fewer and fewer ‘whites’ to take advantage of their new overseer/free artisan role due to the still high death rate from tropical diseases, and with the plantation owners being simultaneously confronted by growing and successful slave revolts, in the case of England the whole project shifted gear instead to the North American mainland, a much more receptive environment to the project and able to be far easier transformed into the apocalyptic epicentre of settler-colonialism that the book’s title refers to. Because here there were enough ‘white’ settlers of all classes to – if sufficiently indoctrinated with the ideology of ‘whiteness’ conferring privilege – feel motivated enough to suppress the Africans (or indigenes) that surrounded them should they get too restive. Savage punishments already tried and tested in the Caribbean on the ‘subhumans’ were imported and applied with gory ruthlessness on the mainland, to set the example for the centuries ahead.

Professor Horne concludes his study of this pivotal era in capitalist primitive accumulation by England with the 1689 ‘Glorious Revolution’, exposing it as the crass means whereby the wider merchant classes, until then excluded from the profits of slavery by the royal monopoly, were able to prise this jewel from the monarch’s grip and so seize (and expand, hugely) the trade itself – in a decisive blow against the economy of the crown. And as he has argued elsewhere – on the eighteenth century in America in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 – Horne restates that it also signalled the birth of an independent North American ruling class, founded in no small part on the institution of racialised chattel slavery, and whose class interests by 1776 virulently opposed the end of a system which the English bourgeoisie had already exhausted and wished to move away from – to even more convenient means of surplus-labour extraction and exploitation.

This is a highly impressive book and well deserving of being read by anyone interested in the origins of western capitalism, and in particular as to how its racialised forms of expropriation and exploitation took shape. It gives explanation furthermore for the modes of racial division and oppression that continue to this day particularly in the US, and provides a welcome class-based riposte to the woeful identitarian politics that often dominate this subject in the liberal mainstream.

Kev Boylan (May, 2020)

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