The Settler Americas
MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, August 6 2012
Some time ago the DNA of a number of Jews was tested and compared with the DNA of a number of populations which now inhabit the Middle East. Those DNA results proved that all the groups, including Jews, were closely related. The Jews who were tested were not from the Middle East of today. They came mainly from Europe.
DNA testing of Amerindian populations found that they were related to populations in Far East Asia and Siberia. This seems to confirm that the Americas were first populated by peoples crossing over what was once a land bridge between North Asia and Far North America. More broadly, what DNA testing is confirming is that members of that category known as Homo sapiens are great travellers. They travel, they settle. Some move on. Colonialism is to some extent one way of travelling and settling. It is, however, vastly different from the nomadic herders who migrated in small groups from the Middle East to Pakistan and North India or the groups of slaves who escaped slavery and settled in the interior of Suriname.
The Day of the Race
Around this time of the year some Latin American countries celebrate “the day of the Race.” It marks the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The importance of Columbus was not that he was the first to discover the Americas. He may well have been preceded by a number of other skillful navigators. It is Columbus, however, who began that trek across the Atlantic which would produce the Settler Americas, North and South, of which we here in Trinidad and Tobago are a part. Settler Americas demolished all myths of homogenous societies or cultures.
In 1967 UNESCO called a meeting on Race. It followed a meeting of Human geneticists and biologists who in 1964 had declared that race in Homo sapiens did not exist. It was therefore not their affair. It was the affair of the social scientists. In the meeting of 1967, sociologists and historians indicated the social conditions which could give rise to race and to racism. Among these conditions was conquest. The meeting cited Latin America as an example. Every Latin American country protested. No, not because their countries were considered countries of conquest. But because their conquest was different to others. Wasn’t it spelt with a capital “C”? And, they argued, there is no racism in Latin America.
A study of Brazil done by one of France’s finest anthropologists of the time: Roger Bastide, remained locked away in a UNESCO drawer lest it ruffled the feathers of Latin Americans.
And yet it was Latin American research which illustrated that according to the Mexican anthropologist Roger Bartra, the mythical “Indian” entered Mexican culture through the front door. The real Indian entered through the back door.
The cultures of Aztec, Maya or Inca were considered national cultures to be proud of and to be kept. The Aymara, Quechua, Mapuche or others were nevertheless discriminated against as poor, as non-Hispanic speaking, and as “Indians”.
Not all settler groups behaved in the same way. Invaders of China became Chinese at least publicly. Newcomers to India attempted to be integrated into a high sub-caste. The first Dutch settlers establishing a camp at the Cape of Good Hope married into the native population, provided that they were or became Christian.
There is often the assumption that it was the first Conquistadores who decimated the populations of Latin America and the Caribbean. This was not generally true. Rather, it is the colonisation of the interior with its alienation of Amerindian lands, the establishment of the Latifunda or plantation, and its introduction of plantation slavery, which establishes the same form of racism seen in other plantation societies.
What conquest or the Day of the Race did was to legitimise this. But this is in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is at the same time that Latin Americans fought for liberation from Spain and at the same time that Human Rights were hotly debated in a number of Latin American countries.
Wilson Cantoni (Brazil) and Dominique Lecourt (France), belonging to different countries and different intellectual traditions, would nevertheless both argue that introducing “race” made it possible to refuse rights on the grounds, not of denying human rights, but on the grounds of “natural inabilities”. This was not necessary in either a feudal society or a caste society. In both, inequality was crucial to the structure of the society and was marked by difference in rights.
With ancestor worship, the ancestors of the chief or the king may be considered the ancestors of the tribe society or empire. Rights then are not equal but flow from the relationship of the ancestors to the monarch.
There can, therefore, be in the same society due regard for Rights on the one hand, and a social selection, often defacto, on the basis of class, or of “race”, on the other.