According to Marx, “The discovery of the gold and silver deposits of America, the extermination, enslavement and burial in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and plunder of the East Indies, the conversion of the African continent into a hunting ground for black slaves: these are the facts that mark the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These processes represent fundamental factors in the movement of original accumulation”.
The 12th October 1492 is a date that is annually celebrated with jubilation by many Spaniards. Probably many of them do not know what this date really means, apart from the partisan and manipulated use that the Spanish state has given it for years, describing it as the day of the race, an element of the highest xenophobic and racist expression, as the day of the discovery of the new world, as if America had only existed since 1492, or as if this event had meant something positive for the indigenous American population.
However, far from being perceived from this distorted perspective, for many people this unfortunate date symbolises the beginning of the decadence, exploitation and misery of the entire American continent for centuries, first through European exploitation and later through Creole exploitation.
Thus, on 12 October 1492, the Spanish ships captained by Christopher Columbus (who would later demonstrate his skills of command and exploitative slavery), Juan de La Cosa (a wealthy cartographer) and the brothers Vicente Yáñez and Martín Alonso Pinzón (representatives of the Andalusian high bourgeoisie) reached the Caribbean coast of Guanahani, The possibility that they landed further south, on the shores of Cayo Samaná, is not very precise, as it is also thought that the Americans first saw the crosses and banners of the unknown Westerners, unaware at the time of the disaster that this event was going to mean for their civilisation.
The most shameful conquest, colonisation and massive plundering in history began immediately. At first, the Castilians limited themselves to the theft of the jewels and valuables in the Indians’ possession, and when these were exhausted, they continued with the plundering of the precious metal mines, exploited through the forced labour of an enslaved indigenous population whose standard of living soon deteriorated, reflected in a very pronounced increase in the mortality rate in a short period of time.
In this respect, it is worth noting the responsibility not only of the Castilian soldiers, but also of Christopher Columbus himself, so idealised by many, who initiated the first foreign government in the Americas. His rule in the Caribbean islands (since the American continent had not yet been explored) lasted from 1492 to 1500, a time that Columbus used for his personal enrichment and that of his family. Irrefutable proof of this are the enormous powers granted to him in the capitulations of Santa Fe of 17 April 1492, where he obtained absolute powers:
“Otrosi, que vuestras altezas hacen al dicho Cristóbal Colon su virrey y gobernador general en las dichas islas y tierras firmes que el descubriere. That of all the merchandise, Don Cristóbal shall take for himself a tenth part of it all. That in the said islands and firm lands, should any lawsuit arise, he or his lieutenant, but no other judge, shall hear the lawsuit and provide for it from now on. Inasmuch as you, Christopher Columbus, shall go by our command to discover and gain islands and dry land, since you have discovered them, you shall be named Admiral, viceroy and governor of them, etc.” (Historia de las Indias, Bartolomé de las Casas, 1527-1561).
Colon thus began his rule in America with an iron fist. But the economic situation was becoming unsustainable; gold and silver were running out, and Colon saw the need to look for another resource. His brilliant alternative was not long in coming; trafficking in indigenous slaves as merchandise would be the perfect way to continue to profit economically from the American colonies, so that in a short time huge numbers of indigenous people were brought to the peninsula to be traded and enslaved in the crown’s territories. This, logically, led to a harsh reaction of resistance and rejection by the indigenous population, who in mid-1493, after suffering exploitation and abuse by the Castilians, revolted and exterminated the first European colony in America, the so-called Fort Navidad.
After this situation, which quickly got out of Colon’s hands, Queen Isabella of Castile decided to suspend the inhumane slave trade and put an end to slavery, although we will see later that she did so not for humanitarian reasons but for mere economic interests, to limit Colon’s absolute power in favour of that of the Castilian-Aragonese crown.
However, this idea of Columbus did not disappear with his expulsion in 1500, but unfortunately passed on to his political successors, such as the government of the cleric Fray Nicolás de Ovando (1502-1509), who organised the Caribbean enclaves administratively, economically and politically, but who continued with his racist measures against the indigenous population, so that he initiated a system of forced labour of the indigenous population used as slave labour throughout the islands. In addition, the conquistadors recovered a sad phenomenon, remnants of the dark medieval past, with the reinstatement of the encomienda system, which was to produce so many conflicts.
This system consisted of the crown assigning or “entrusting” a series of indigenous people to the Spanish conquistadors, in order to use them as slave labour and benefit economically from their work, in a situation of absolute exploitation. Moreover, as if that were not enough, during this period, the conqueror was obliged to transmit Western Christian culture to them so that they would forget their past, as well as the Castilian language, a whole process of conquest and acculturation of the American Indians.
Other systems were also used to control the indigenous population, such as the repartimiento, with forced labour in shifts, where the indigenous people were forcibly recruited in the towns or villages, and from which the caciques and high indigenous noble families were exempt, showing an evident classism, or also the yanaconaje, in a situation of semi-slavery (as it was not legally recognised as such) or directly slavery, The alternative solution was the massacre of the indigenous American population, which was adopted by different sectors of Castilian society and indirectly accepted by the famous defender of the indigenous people, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.
Thus, with the passage of time, and as a result of the Castilian conquest, an unequal, classist and racist society was initiated and formed, which laid the foundations of the future American society from then on and whose canons, sadly, are still maintained today in these countries. This is the so-called concept of “pigmentocracy” that was so aptly described by the explorer Alexander von Humboldt in the 18th century, when he said: “In America, more or less white skin decides a man’s rank in society”.
In this way, social relations in America from the 16th century onwards were based on purely ethnic factors, with the majority of society being socially discriminated against.
For their part, the indigenous people, despite the proclamation of the Laws of Burgos (1512) and the New Laws (1542), had ceased to be legally slaves, did not change their unequal situation; they were exploited by the conquistadors, paid excessive tribute for the mere fact of being indigenous (mita, coatequitl), They were socially discriminated against by the Western and Creole elites (children of Westerners born in America) and were totally despised and rejected by the ruling political leaders, who isolated them from the rest of the population in what were then called “reductions” (initiated by Viceroy Toledo, the famous murderer and repressor of indigenous people) and which today we would call ghettos, with a real hierarchy and social stratification.
For their part, the situation of the black slaves was even more dire, as they were legally considered slaves, deported and literally “hunted” like animals in Africa, arriving in America to do the hardest and most unbearable jobs, with terrible sanitation, hygiene and food, and used in extreme working conditions, their freedom was taken away and they were treated as pieces, merchandise and objects, but never as human beings. The conquistadors themselves rejoiced in this assertion (as the American general George A. Custer would later justify the slaughter of North American Indians on the grounds that they were not considered people because they had no souls and were not Christians). This was a widely used moral recourse at the time.
This whole process led, not surprisingly, to a veritable demographic catastrophe of the American Indian population: 90% of them were exterminated in the first century and a half of the invasion alone (90 million people). The most widely accepted theory regarding this fact is the so-called homicidal thesis, pronounced by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in his distinguished book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, which considers as the main cause of the demographic fall, the continuous tortures, abuses, murders, forced labour, and hygienic and food shortages suffered by the Indians since the arrival of the Westerners. In this sense, the accounts of the atrocities committed by the Castilians in America, narrated in detail in his book, are quite explicit, where one can find testimonies such as these:
“The captain ordered all the lords, who were more than a hundred and who were tied up, to be burnt alive on sticks driven into the ground”.
“He went and while they were immersed and secure in their dances, Santiago said to them, and they began with their naked swords to cut open those naked bodies, to spill that generous blood, and they did not leave a single one alive”.
“The Spaniards made it a law that all the Indians of every kind and age that they took alive should be thrown into the holes, and so they threw pregnant women, children and old people into the holes until they were filled with blood, pierced by the stakes”.
These are just a few fragments of the many detailed killings and tortures that Bartolomé de las Casas saw and heard about the actions of the Spaniards.
Likewise, the documents and testimonies offered by the Castilian sources, such as the so-called “requerimiento” of 1513, which states:
“And if you do not submit, and if you maliciously delay in doing so, I will enter powerfully against you and make war against you and subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and the crown, and I will take your wives and children, make them slaves, sell them, take your goods and do you all the damage and harm that I can, all being your fault”.
In The Open Veins of Latin America, Galeano points out that the looting of the Potosí mine alone brought Europe enormous profits, the volume of silver that would have been enough to build a silver bridge between America and Europe. Another bridge could have been built with the corpses of the Indians enslaved in the mine: 8 million Indians were exploited by the Spaniards in the first stage of the plundering of Potosi. An enslaved indigenous person in Potosí had an average life expectancy of two months (after this period of enslavement, he died, and the invaders replaced him with another enslaved indigenous person). Likewise, the Ouro Preto mine in Brazil swallowed the lives of millions of Africans and brought the invaders capital that would be decisive for European capitalism. As the Iberian Peninsula was indebted because of its holy wars, European bankers reaped all this wealth soaked in human blood and pain.
October 12 also marks the beginning of the mass deportation of human beings by Europeans from Africa to America: at least 33 million Africans were deported, two thirds of them died on the abominable journeys, and the surviving third were enslaved on the American continent, as well as their descendants for centuries. The European aristocracy and bourgeoisie achieved the greatest accumulation of wealth ever seen, on the basis of the plunder of the American continent, on the basis of the deportation and enslavement of millions of human beings, on the basis of genocide and torture. It was this unprecedented accumulation of wealth that allowed European imperialism to cement its supremacy on a planetary level, to drive the industrial revolution, and to establish itself to this day as the metropolis of capitalism. The United States, a former British colony, also established itself as a capitalist power on the basis of slave labour. The descendants of slaveholders and bankers who amassed wealth through genocide and slavery are still among the biggest fortunes in Europe and the United States today.