With white supremacists emerging into the daylight of post-Trump America, The Dawning of the Apocalypse, is timely, says Peter Arkell.

Tracing the origins of slavery, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism itself, author Gerald Horne, a professor of history at Houston University, takes us back to the 15th century when Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands began looking for territories overseas.

The so-called discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus marks the start of 115 years of blood-soaked rivalry between the European powers for a piece of the action, for realising the wealth of new foreign lands, and for trading opportunities including the trading of African slaves.

The Dawning of the Apocalypse shows how “the minor archipelago on the fringes of the continent (the British Isles) was poised to come from behind, surge ahead and manoeuvre adeptly in the potent slipstream created by Spain, Portugal, the Ottomans, even the Dutch and the French”.  

And it tells the story of how, under the British, the seeds of the current ideologies in the Republican Party of today were sown hundreds of years ago. Benefitting from the technological advances in the fields of navigation and guns developed by other countries, they drove the process of seizing outposts in foreign lands, establishing settlements, eradicating the indigenous people, confronting rival European powers and clearing land to grow sugar and coffee with African slave labour.

Slavery was not new to the period. There were European slaves in Morocco and within the Ottoman Empire and African slaves in Spain. This was one of the consequences of the wars between the empires of the period fought in the name of religion but which were in reality struggles for power and dominance.

Spanish Conquistadors in the ‘New World’

Spanish conquistadors had opened up Mexico and large parts of South America around the Andes in the early part of the 16th century for colonisation as well as for plunder. And it was the Spanish who first set up colonies in Cuba and Florida to start with.

But Spain had a strict policy of allowing only Catholics to make the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and of refusing to co-operate with Protestants or Jews of other nations already inside the colonies. This was cruelly enforced by the Inquisition. When soldiers or new settlers were needed in the early Spanish colonies, the settlements often ended up short and became vulnerable to the frequent attacks by the indigent peoples or by uprisings of slaves.

The British had no such sectarian scruples. Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Jack Hawkins and others, with their highly profitable raids on Spanish ships carrying treasure back to Europe, had enlisted royal patronage for their exploits and had also fired the imagination of many for wealth and for escape from a rigid system and religious persecution. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the weakening of the dominant power in Europe, opened the way for London`s own invasion of North America.

Spain was over-stretched. By the 1560s Africans out-numbered the Spaniards in the settlements. Being first on the scene, Spain had laid claim to most of the two American continents “but its appetite exceeded its digestive ability in that Spain’s population was too small and much of it could not be allocated overseas given European challenges”. And religious sectarianism was hampering the ability of Madrid to pursue what turned out to be the winning course executed by London.

In the early 1600s, new settlers, were uniting across class and even religious lines, and what united them was their “whiteness”. The settlements had become a kind of joint European enterprise. Religious differences, that had so hampered the Spanish invasions, fell away as the white invaders came together “to bludgeon indigenes and batter Africans”.

This transition, writes Horne, “is best understood as a response to the brutal logic of settler colonialism in an alien land with inhabitants not necessarily polite to invaders”. It was an essential part of the transition from religion as an animation of society to race.

Francis Drake led raids on Spanish ships on behalf of Elizabeth 1

The British, under whose power the new settlements were founded, were greatly assisted in these invasions by the conflicts raging within Europe at this time. Spain was embroiled in a Protestant uprising in the Netherlands, as well as trying to impose their power on England. The massacre of French Huguenot Protestants (the 1572 St Bartholomew Day massacre) led to mass emigrations from France to Britain and on to America.

Many Irish and Dutch also chose to emigrate to America to escape wars and persecution at home. And there were plenty within Britain who chose to escape for religious reasons or for the pursuit of wealth and opportunity.

The indigenous peoples in America had been weakened by the earlier Spanish invasions. The disparate religious and national elements of the invaders were able to unite to survive. What united them was their whiteness, says Horne.  “Bringing more Europeans on board in the name of ‘whiteness’, Horne writes, “broadened the base of the settler project in a way that religion could not”.

In the course of establishing the settlements, and of defending them against the indigenous peoples and the rebellions by slaves (who often fought side by side), it was this bond of race, of whiteness that tied the settlers together in the common enterprise. And it was these attitudes that held sway after America became a republic and have been carried into the present.

The Dawning of the Apocalypse: the roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism and Capitalism in the long sixteenth Century, by Gerald Horne. Monthly Review Press, New York £18.99