Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

We have come to honour you with the gift of Civilisation

by Christopher Carrico

When Europeans came to the Americas, they came with clearly defined ideas about what was civilised and what was not.  The classical European notion of civilisation was first developed in ancient Greece, where ‘civilised’ meant to be a male citizen of a Greek city-state.  The Greek word for ‘barbarian’ applied to nearly all non-Greeks.

Greeks did recognize some groups as being more civilised than others, so while they believed that they were superior to all other peoples, they did recognize that other state-based and class-stratified societies had more in common with Greeks than they did with ‘barbarians’.   For example, the societies of the Nile River Valley (see the argument in Frank Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity, 1970), the Near East, and Mesopotamia were relatively civilised when compared to the Germanic, Celtic, and other peoples of Northern Europe who were not yet state-based societies.

The Romans inherited many of the prejudices of the Greeks, and also saw Egyptians, Ethiopians, Mesopotamians, etc. as civilised like the Greeks and Romans, while they had little respect for the culture and way of life of the tribes of Northern Europe.  By sending conquering armies to the north, and enslaving and subjugating the peoples there, the Romans thought that they were bringing the benefits of a civilised life to the wild tribes that lived at the northern frontiers of their empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the business of ‘civilising’ Europe was taken over by the Church, and knights and warriors who had sworn allegiance to kings and queens loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.  A good indication in the medieval European mind as to whether an area had become civilised was whether there was a bishop who oversaw the region.  See The Making of Europe (Barlett 1994).

The feudal states that developed in medieval Europe in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire were class-stratified tributary states.  Slaves, serfs, and peasants were the common agricultural labourers, while both the aristocracy and the clergy largely lived off of the tribute and the tithes which were paid to them by working people.  Most Medieval scholars believed this unequal division of labour was God-ordained, and part of the natural order.  Peoples who did not live in class-stratified, state-based societies like those of feudal Europe were considered to have an inferior way of life, and to subjugate these peoples was justified because it brought them the gift of civilisation and of Christianity.

Even by 1492, the Spaniards who sponsored Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas were fully immersed in this ideology of the feudal world.  Catholic Spaniards had been involved in a centuries’ long struggle against the Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula, a period known in Spanish history as the Reconquista – the ‘reconquest’ of Spain from Islamic infidels.  Immediately following Reconquista was the Inquisition, where the Church used torture to get confessions from suspected infidels.  The Inquisition was aimed at hunting down those who still practiced the Islamic faith, European pagan traditions, or Judaism.  Converting non-Christians to the faith through violence and persecution was not a new idea to the Spanish when they brought this same pattern to the Americas.


Slavery was a fundamental part of the way of life of many of the earliest class-stratified and state-based societies.  The labour that built Egypt, Greece, and Rome as Classical civilizations was largely slave labour.  The idea that democracy was founded in ancient Athens, for instance, needs to be understood alongside the fact that the society was only democratic for male, property owning citizens whose wealth and free time were made possible by slave labour.

Greco-Roman civilisation was founded on slave labour, and slavery was a legal practice in most of Europe until the nineteenth century.  As the main form of labour, slavery dwindled in importance after the fall of the Roman Empire, being largely replaced by serfdom. Like slavery, serfdom was an unfree form of labour.  Serfs belonged to the land that they were born on, and to the feudal lords who were the owners of that land.  Still, serfs had managed to maintain some rights and privileges which had been stripped away from slaves.

While slavery had dwindled in importance during the European Middle Ages, it never completely disappeared.  Slave raiding and trading continued to be a common practice in the areas around the Mediterranean, with Christians and Muslim raiding each other’s territories for the taking of slaves, and each raiding ‘pagan’ groups that had not converted to either religion.  The area where the greatest amount of slave raiding took place was in the Black Sea area, as raiders from the Italian city-states, and from the Ottoman Empire, for instance, took slaves from the southern Slavic areas.  In northern Europe, the main slave raiders were Scandinavians, who raided Russia to take slaves.  Because of how common slave raiding was in Slavic countries, the English words for slave and Slav have the same etymological root.

Columbus came from Genoa, one of the major players in the Mediterranean slave trade.  While it is often emphasized that Columbus came to the Americas in search of gold and other riches, it is clear that he also came with the goal of capturing slaves.

The Amerindians who Columbus first made contact with were the Tainos of the Greater Antilles.  The Tainos were an Arawakan-speaking people who had developed a settled, agricultural way of life, a deeper division of labour than most horticultural peoples, and a system of hierarchy wherein there were commoners, and persons of chiefly status.

Because of the fact that the Tainos were a hierarchical society, with a settled agricultural way of life,  Europeans recognized them as being somewhat more civilised than groups that were more egalitarian, and/or semi-nomadic.

The Spanish along the ‘Wild Coast’

The Lesser Antilles, and the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts of the South American mainland, were of relatively little concern to the Spanish during the early years of their colonisation when compared to their interest in the areas in and around the Aztec and Inca Empires (Mexico, Central America, and the Andes).  However, what are today Venezuela, Trinidad, and islands off of the Venezuelan Coast did become areas for economic exploitation by the Spanish by the first few decades of the 16th century.

Regionally, the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church had decreed that it was illegal to enslave the relatively more civilised Arawakan speakers of the Caribbean and Northern South America, while it was legal to enslave the ‘savage’ Cariban speakers of the area.  It has long been assumed that these distinctions were based on real cultural differences between the two language families, but what has become clear in recent scholarship is that the categories of Arawak and Carib often shifted in European definitions based on European strategic interests in the area. Let’s look a couple of examples.

The peoples of the Lesser Antilles were mainly speakers of Arawakan languages, but they violently resisted Spanish colonialism throughout the early colonial period.   Therefore, merchants, slave raiders, and prospective colonists wrote letters to the Church and the Spanish Crown convincing Europeans that these peoples were Caribs and therefore fair game for enslavement and violent conquest.

Similarly, all of the peoples of northern Venezuela, Trinidad, and the Guyana coast were initially categorized as Caribs and could be legally raided for slaves.  However, once lucrative pearl fisheries were discovered off of the islands to the north of the Venezuelan coast, the Spanish realised that they needed the assistance of local people for labour and provisions.  The Spanish enlisted the help of the Lokono Arawaks of Trinidad and of Guyana’s Essequibo coast to supply the provisions that fed the labourers in the pearl fisheries of Cubagua, Isla de Margarita, etc.  Peoples living deeper in the interior were still considered to be ‘wild’ Caribs and could be taken as slaves, with some of the most violent and dramatic raids taking place along the Orinoco during the 1530s and the 1560s.

During the 16th century, the Spanish developed a special relationship with the Lokono Arawak of Trinidad, the Orinoco Delta and the Essequibo Coast.  The Arawak provided provisions, mainly the in the form of cassava in exchange for a privileged access to European trade goods.  Ojer and Boomert propose that the Arawak of Aruacy, Trinidad had regional political dominance, but Anna Benjamin (1987) suggests that privileged trading access was not accompanied by political authority, and that political authority did not extend beyond the level of the village or the settlement.  However, the privileged access of some Arawaks to trade might have meant that already existing rank and lineage distinctions were reinforced within Lokono Arawak settlements.  The Spanish also introduced a pattern of awarding slaves to the Arawaks who then subsequently sometimes used slave labour to produce provisions for European colonists.

As we can see, the idea that empires are civilising the victims of their conquest is one that has deep roots in the Western tradition.  It was perpetuated in the past in the name of bringing inferior peoples the gift of Christianity or the gift of Civilisation.  It is often perpetuated today in the name of bringing them the gift of Democracy and Human Rights.


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