Neo-colonialism or whitewashing history?

When the Western press indulges in “China-bashing”, the term “neo-colonialism” is often used. The term insinuates that China is using its money in lesser developed countries – usually in Africa – in a new form of colonialism. I find the term “neo-colonialism” offensive; not to the Chinese, but to all of us who lived in former colonies.

I’m not talking about the post-WW2 period of colonialism, especially throughout the British Empire. In that period, we kind of have fond memories of the white man – you know, FA Cup, rugby, cricket, tea and crumpets, “mad dogs and Englishmen”, etc. I’m talking about what happened earlier, about the evils that they committed – which make the current criticisms of China, based on human rights and democracy, rather hollow.

European expansionism started in 1492, when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. It made Spain rich, and the Hapsburg Dynasty that ruled it, the premier European power of its day. Yet, colonization basically meant genocide on a scale never seen before, and for those who survived, a living hell.

The first natives that Columbus encountered were the Tainos. What makes this piece of history especially gruesome was the fact that Columbus himself described the Tainos as people who “were full of love”. Instead of using this as a basis to form a positive relationship, he saw this as a weakness which he could exploit. If you look at his journal – and those of his men – they boasted about repeatedly raping the native women. In fact, this was a tactic that he employed to make them into slaves; after being repeatedly raped, a woman’s will to fight is broken. So, slavery became his first commercial venture in the Americas.

Many of the slaves, of course, didn’t make it on the long voyage to Europe. Needless to say, this high mortality rate did not make for a profitable enterprise. So, Columbus turned to a tribute system. He forced every Taino,14 or older, to fill a hawk’s bell with gold every three months. If successful, they were safe for another three months. If not, Columbus ordered the Tainos to be “punished” – by having their hands chopped off, or they were chased down by attack dogs. Oh yeah, I’ve left out one detail. Those who had their hands chopped off were also forced to wear them (the chopped off hand) around their necks – as a kind of barbaric reminder of what failing to meet the quota meant.

It gets worse. Although generally unprofitable, one part of the slave trade was lucrative – providing girls for sexual slavery. Especially girls between the ages of NINE and TEN. Remember, this is according to Columbus’ own personal journal (“a girl is worth a hundred castellanos”). On his second trip to the “New World”, Columbus brought cannons and more attack dogs. If a native resisted slavery, he would cut off a nose or an ear. If slaves tried to escape, Columbus would have them burned alive. Other times, he sent attack dogs to hunt them down. When found, the dogs would tear off the arms and legs of the screaming natives while they were still alive.

And to prove what absolute monsters they were, when the Spaniards ran out of meat to feed the dogs, the native babies were killed for dog food. As you can imagine, the Taino people are now extinct as a distinct population. One of Columbus’ men, Bartolo de las Casas, was so mortified by the atrocities that he quit working for him, returned to Spain, and became a Catholic priest. Between Columbus’ personal journals and de la Casas’ eyewitness accounts, we know these atrocities to be real.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated situation. In the period 1885 to 1908, a number of well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo). At the time, it was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. Called the “Congo Horrors” by European contemporaries, they were particularly associated with the labor policies used to collect natural rubber for export. Like Columbus, King Leopold set up a tribute system.

Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. The administration of the colony, the Force Publique, was required to provide the hands of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone. This was because it was believed that otherwise, the bullets – imported from Europe at considerable cost – would be used for hunting. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid off in chopped-off hands. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique. Other times, small wars would erupt among villages to gather hands, as the rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

In 1908, after popular uproar throughout Europe and the US, the Belgian government stepped in and confiscated Congo from King Leopold, and made it a colony of Belgium…after the population was reduced by half (around 10 million people).

We could also talk about the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples in German South West Africa (1904 – 1908). Think the British were any better? Read Shashi Tharoor’s book, “An Era of Darkness” to find out what the British did to India. Oxford-educated, Tharoor is a former Indian Foreign Minister, and in it, he describes how British soldiers went into every village they could to destroy cotton looms. This destruction of the native textile industry is what allowed the British to invest in the factories of Manchester that heralded the Industrial Revolution. Basically, as every businessman knows, you don’t build a factory until you’re sure that you have a market for its output. They left that bit out of our history books, didn’t they? And, of course, the Opium Wars in China…

I know what you’re thinking – that was then, this is now. Surely attitudes in the West have changed? I beg to differ. By now, everyone throughout the world agrees that the famous WMDs in Saddam’s arsenal did not exist – and thus, the main reason for the Iraq invasion. Yet, many thousands of innocent Iraqis died, and many more are suffering till this day. So, why aren’t the chief architects of the invasion – George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (and their most fervent cheerleader, Tony Blair) – not on trial for war crimes?

Look, this isn’t an attempt to vilify white people. There are good, and there are bad – just like everywhere else. Reading about what has already been done, however, I hardly think it fair to call what China is doing now “neo-colonialism”. Let’s not be naïve – China isn’t altruistic. But it sure as hell isn’t sending gunboats and troops, or chopping people’s hands off. When the white man uses the term “neo-colonialism”, he’s just trying to whitewash his own history.