The Dawning Of The Apocalypse: The Roots Of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, And Capitalism In The Long Sixteenth Century

Author: Gerald Horne
Publisher: New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020. 243p.
Reviewer: David Lyons | September 2020

The “long sixteenth century” refers to the period from 1492 to 1607, when the first permanent English settlement on the mainland of North America was established. Why does Professor Horne regard the apocalypse as only “dawning” prior to Jamestown’s founding? European disease and genocidal practices had already caused a precipitous, devastating population loss for indigenous Americans. Specific reference in the book’s title to “the roots of slavery” (etc.) suggests that the apocalypse he has in mind emerged much more fully after 1607, which was when the trans-Atlantic slave trade became most intense, white supremacy was institutionalized, many of the surviving Native Americans were displaced from their homes, and slave-based agriculture became the driving force behind the most rapidly developing, super-exploitative economies that employed capital and free labor. Although Horne does not comment much upon connections between the long sixteenth century and the conditions he lists, it is clear that he has an eye on what happened next, beyond the temporal limit of his narrative; additional evidence is his referring, time and again, to the U.S. and the empire that gave it birth almost as if they brought about crucial aspects of the long sixteenth century.

Horne’s narrative reveals that the European world of that era was vastly more complex and unstable than students of European history who are not sixteenth century specialists might have imagined. It features not only European entities such as Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Holland, and England but also the oncoming Ottoman Turks, Morocco, Songhay, Kongo, and other African kingdoms. We are led to witness, in great detail, innumerable, ever-shifting alliances and hostilities, with often unpredictable consequences.

For a good part of the long sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire threatened to swallow much of Europe and North Africa. By mid-century, however, it had been set back, while Spain was extracting enormous wealth from territories in America and beyond. In recounting Spain’s portion of the story, Horne stresses the difficulties it experienced in seeking to consolidate some segments of its vast empire. He observes (in his characteristic style), that Spain’s “appetite exceeded its digestive ability” (210). Thus Horne focuses on Spain’s struggles in the northernmost reaches of its holdings in America, today’s Florida and New Mexico, and they seem to receive this attention because (as Horne notes) they would eventually be incorporated into the United States. Spain’s Caribbean colonies receive less attention, despite their much greater economic and strategic importance, and Spain’s substantial holdings in South America receive hardly any notice at all. Instead, Horne frequently alludes to the fact that imperial Spain would soon be overshadowed by imperial England (after 1707, imperial Great Britain) and its “progeny” (194).

During the long sixteenth century, however, England did not always fare well. Its effective colonizing was limited to the British Isles, and other European powers did their worst to undermine its tenuous control of Ireland and Scotland. By mid-century England was nearly bankrupt. The funds it needed were secured, however, by plundering Catholic institutions, participating in the slave trade, and receiving valuable services from privateers such as Francis Drake (at the expense, especially, of Spain).

Horne’s recounting of the era’s political and military developments is exceedingly detailed – too detailed to summarize here. This brief review will note a few points of interest that a reader may draw from the narrative and suggest some issues it raises.

One point is that there was an ever-increasing demand for slaves within Europe during the long sixteenth century — not so much for exploitation of the Americas, however, as for service within Europe itself. Slaves were mainly drawn from peoples of the region, including prisoners taken during the many intra-regional wars or in the course of local colonizing, such as by England in Ireland and Scotland.

As trans-Atlantic colonizing progressed, however, European powers sought greatly increasing numbers of enslaved Africans for labor in America, and sought also to encourage their prior acquisition within Africa so that the supply would meet the demand. The perceived need for slaves no doubt reflected both population loss among indigenous Americans and the expansion of colonial territory and exploitation of the Americas.

Horne emphasizes the resistance to such enslavement within Africa and, especially, by the enslaved within colonies across the Atlantic. He also reports that there was unremitting resistance by indigenous Americans to the European invaders. Neither point is usually stressed. Interestingly, there’s no suggestion by Horne of initial indigenous hospitality towards Europeans arriving in North America, such as other historians report – not even hospitality that is motivated by indigenous hopes of acquiring allies against competing indigenous nations, which seems to have characterized the English colonizers’ arrival in what would become Virginia and Massachusetts (events just beyond the temporal limit of Horne’s narrative).

Horne’s commentary sometimes suggests that the Spanish empire’s ultimate decline was foreshadowed by a series of sixteenth century errors, such as its failing to commit adequate personnel when and where they were most needed, e.g., to defend St. Augustine. He concludes, however, “that Spain’s population was too small and much of it could not be allocated overseas given European challenges” (210). I believe that these points should be taken together with what Horne clearly sees as the principal weakness of Spanish policy: its religious exclusiveness, which led it to reject assistance in empire-building from non-Catholics. Given that rigid restriction, Spain’s need exceeded the supply.

Anticipating the era that followed the long sixteenth century, Horne contrasts Spanish policy with that soon to be adopted by England, which would accept the colonizing assistance of Europeans regardless of their religious commitments, despite England’s deeply entrenched anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. That required, of course, that the tolerated non-Protestants fully embrace England’s methods, which emphasized the expulsion or extermination of the indigenous population from territories to be settled by Europeans. (We may note that the suppressed anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism did not fade away but have since infected culture and politics in what we now call America.)

Horne also compares Spanish policy with England’s commitment to a “‘whiteness’ project” (e.g., 21), which joins “racist solidarity” (e.g., 96) with “class collaboration” (e.g., 163). Horne does not scrutinize the latter or explicitly note its superficiality or exploitation of poor whites, but observes that a collateral benefit of those policies was England’s acquiring and America’s later enjoying the aura of a commitment to republican “liberty” (96) – an illusion, he seems to say, because it was for whites only.

The contrast presented by Horne might suggest to his reader that the Spanish empire fell apart soon after the long sixteenth century while its English successor prevailed much longer. Later, yes, but not longer. Spain retained its New World colonies until the nineteenth century and kept the Philippines as well as its principal Caribbean possessions until the very end of that century, when America seized both. Great Britain had lost its most valuable colonies in America before the nineteenth century, when it began its incursions into India, which it effectively ruled as a whole for less than a century.

Another contrast might be drawn between the two European-based empires, suggested by Horne’s frequent references to “settler colonialism.” It may be helpful to take two of England’s (or Great Britain’s) practices as benchmarks. In the thirteen colonies as well as the republic that succeeded them, Europeans and their descendants displaced indigenous residents “by means mostly repugnant” (187) whenever their holdings were desired. When Great Britain colonized South Asia, however, it did not displace the indigenous inhabitants (in other words, it did not engage in settler colonialism) but gained control of India’s economy and government by securing the cooperation of South Asians, who principally staffed the colony’s administrative structure. (Which is why Gandhi’s first national campaign against British control focused on “non-cooperation.”)

Horne does not relate Spain’s colonizing to those two differing models. In North America, at any rate, Spain’s pattern seems to have fallen somewhere in between. The Spanish invaders seized indigenous land, to be sure, but instead of displacing or exterminating its residents it required the local population to labor within the demanding encomienda system, in which Catholic missions played a major role.

Horne is silent on other matters that are relevant to his narrative. Although capitalism is referred to in the book’s title, it receives vanishingly little attention. Even less is said about the contagions that were conveyed to the Americas by Europeans. Although a chapter is devoted to the threat that was presented to England by the Spanish Armada, an explanation of its failure is, surprisingly, not noted.

Despite these gaps, this volume is an interesting and useful addition to the literature. It brings a superabundance of facts and conveys a sense of the somewhat chaotic long sixteenth century from a European perspective.

David Lyons, Professor emeritus of Law and of Philosophy, Boston University and Cornell University

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