The BBC Does Colonialism

The History of the World Part 5 – Age of Plunder

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This episode concerns the role of  plunder (ie colonialism) in the founding of the capitalist economic system. The major weakness of the fifth episode is its promotion of two notorious myths about Columbus that historians debunked several decades ago. The first maintains that most of Europe regarded the Earth as flat prior to Columbus. Untrue. Europeans sailors had known for centuries that the Earth was round from the way a ship disappears over the horizon (hull first and sails last). The other myth is that Columbus died believing he had reached India. This myth, traced to an 1828 biography by Washington Irving, is debunked by the explorer’s own writings.*

The primary outcome of Columbus’s voyage to the new world was the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans and the pilfering of 45,000 tons of gold and silver (valued at £10 trillion in modern currency). The precious metals would be used to decorate churches and noble palaces and to fund religious wars during the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church obtained their share of these riches (used to build St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican) by selling “indulgences,” paper certificates that guaranteed Catholics entry to eternal life. It was mainly opposition to this corrupt practice that led Martin Luther to break with the Church in 1517.

In 1580 Ivan the Terrible hired Cossack warriors to invade Siberia, which was still ruled by a descendant of Genghis Khan. His goal: plundering 5,000 Siberian pelts from traders. With the start of the 300 year Little Ice Age in 1530, there was a thriving market for furs in Western Europe.

In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company captured and enslaved the Banda spice islands in South East Asia for their nutmeg crop. Believed to be a cure for plague, it was the most valuable commodity in the world. As the British East Indian Company also claimed the spice islands, this would lead to four Anglo-Dutch wars beginning in 1652. In 1667, the wars ended when the Dutch agreed to trade Manhattan Island for the main nutmeg islands.

The fifth episode ends with the creation of the world’s first stock exchange in Holland in 1608 and the resulting speculation in tulip bulbs. The world’s first recorded speculative bubble burst in 1637, ruining thousands of Dutch investors.


*Both myths are debunked in James Loewen’s 1995 Lies My Teacher Told Me

 

History of Capitalism: The Tragic and Shameful Roots of the African Slave Trade

Slavery Routes – Part 1 For All the Gold in the World

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

This three part documentary explores the ugly, tragic and above all profitable history of the African slave trade. The profound grief, anger and shame I experienced on watching it was compounded by having to wait until age 70 to learn this stuff. This is a history all American and European children should learn by heart in primary and secondary school.

Part 1 focuses around the 15th century European slave market, which was mainly run by the Portuguese. Prior to the fall of Constantinople (to the Turks) in 1453, Europeans sourced their slaves (derived from the word “slav”) from the Balkans.

Following the collapse of the Slavic slave trade, during the 15-17th century the Portuguese kidnapped more than one million Africans were kidnapped for sale in Spain, Italy and Southern France. They were put to work in agriculture, iron works, sailing, fishing and pottery production. Most archeological traces of Lisbon slave trade were destroyed in the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755.

In Europe, African slaves were assimilated into European families and communities and many Mediterranean families carry African DNA.

Starting in 1434, the Portuguese established small settlements in the Muslim colonies along the coast of West African that were their initial source of slaves. In 1455, the Portuguese were joined by slave traders from many other European countries. Their despicable activities were supported by a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V (allegedly to assist the Crusades in ending Muslim occupation of the holy lands). The latter provided a legal framework for Europeans to “conquer all pagans for perpetual slavery in the name of God.”

The Portuguese also established a profitable trading relationship with the powerful King of Konga, who converted to Christianity and traded African gold for modern European goods for his nobles.

In addition to transporting the slaves they captured to Europe, the Portuguese put them to work in the Elmina gold mines in modern day Ghana and on the first sugar plantations on Sao Tomean Island in the Gulf of Guinea. A series of successful slave uprisings caused the collapse of the Sao Tomean plantations. At this point, the Portuguese began transporting their African slaves to new sugar plantations in Brazil.

I’m unable to embed the video, but you can watch it free at this link:

Slavery Routes: For All the Gold in the World

 

 

Urban Mining: Reclaiming Gold from Dead Cellphones

Urban Mining: Gold in Our Trash

VPRO (2015)

Film Review

Urban Mining is about a program in Belgium that collects dead cellphones from Africa and ships them to Umicore, a Belgian mining company. At present, the price of gold is so high that it’s cheaper to retrieve it from old cellphones than from new mines. At present a gold mine yields 2-3 grams per metric ton on average – on average cellphones yield 300 grams per metric ton.

Umicore also recovers other metals and rare earth minerals from cellphones, including silver, palladium, copper, lead nickel, thulium and europiam. The company separates the metals in a special smelter heated by burning the plastic in the phones.

The Belgian NGO responsible for collecting the phones is called Close the Loop. They pay Africans 0.25 euro for their phones and sell them to Umicore for 1 euro. They also recycle secondhand European cellphones to Africa (the average European cellphone user keeps their phone for 18 months).

The filmmakers also visit a German gasplasma plant that re-mines landfills to recycle discarded computers. The plant melts down the plastic to produce plasma rock, an environmentally friendly alternative to cement and lightweight insulating tiles. The gasplasma plant also produces energy as heat, biogas and hydrogen.

In 2010 Swindon England opened a gasplasma plant that produces enough electricity to power 15,000 homes. Germany is also providing technical guidance to China, India, Croatia and Greece in building their own gasplasma plants.

 

 

Hidden History: The Prehistoric American Civilizations Destroyed by European Settlers

America Before Columbus

Directed by Cristina Trebbi (2009)

Film Review

Although this documentary acknowledges the arrival of Europeans diminished the Native American population by 90%, it omits any mention of the massacres, enslavement or land expropriation that were the primary cause of their demise. For some odd reason, it makes it appear as if they died out due to accidental exposure to small pox, measles and influenza and European pigs that destroyed their crops.

That being said, the film gives a reasonable depiction of the great civilizations along the Mississippi River and in Central and South America that were destroyed by Europeans. It also accurately portrays how the introduction of corn and potatoes to Europe was far more important than New World gold and silver in the rise of capitalism and the flowering of European civilization.

How Arrogance Blinds the West to Their Historic Decline

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

Directed by Justin Hardy (2017)

Film Review

This documentary, based on historian Peter Frankopan’s best selling book Silk Roads, explores the Western trait of putting their own interests at the center of their world and possessing no interest or capacity to understand other cultures.

Typically both Europeans and Americans believe they have a monopoly on “goodness” – that only they can save the world from darkness and suffering. Their ruling elite uses these beliefs to justify invading and occupying third world countries and are surprised when other cultures regard us as smug and arrogant.

According to Frankopan, Europe and the US presently find themselves at the wrong end of global trade routes. Asian countries, especially China, that used to be poor are rich now. Asia provides the vast majority of Western consumer goods and owns most Western debt. Over the last 40 years, there has been a vast transfer of wealth from the West to Asia. These new centers of wealth (especially China) have become the hub of scientific, technological and intellectual progress. However owing to their self-centered navel gazing, most Westerners are totally unaware this is happening.

Frankopan also maintains Europe has never had much to offer in the way of natural resources or intellectual innovation (Christianity has always suppressed knowledge and progress). In 800 AD, Mesopotamia was the wealthiest region in the world, with Baghdad viewed as the global center of trade and learning. During this period, Europe’s most important resource was slaves, with Dublin, Mainz, Utrecht and Venice serving as major trafficking centers for kidnapped women and children.

All this changed with the conquest of the New World, the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans, and the flow of silver and gold back to Europe. This illicit capture of mineral wealth and human beings enabled Europe to developed highly specialized skills in violence and conquest. They no longer needed to produce their own wealth because they could use their military prowess to steal it from other regions.

Over time, the economic decline of the West has eroded their military capability to the point they can no longer win wars.

As in Rome, obscene income inequality is one of the main indicators of an empire in decline.

 

Looting Africa

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth

Tom Burgis

Harper Collins (2017)

Book Review

This book centers around something global economists refer to as the “Dutch curse.” In 1959, the discovery of oil in the Netherlands led to massive unemployment outside the oil industry. A big increase in dollars generated by oil exports caused major inflation in the local currency. This made imports cheaper than locally produced goods, shutting down hundreds of Dutch businesses and putting thousands out of work.

It’s typical of mineral and oil/gas mining everywhere (including here in New Plymouth) that these industries require vast capital investment but employ only small numbers of workers. According to Burgis, it was the “Dutch curse” that resulted in Russian’s oil-fueled criminal oligarchy prior to the rise of Putin. As the continent richest in natural resources, Africa, which has been ruthlessly exploited by multinational corporations, has a severe case of the “Dutch curse.”

Although multinationals pay far less than market value for oil, gas and precious minerals, they pay corrupt puppet dictators enough that they don’t need to tax their citizens. Burgis maintains this absence of taxation results in a lack of accountability to their citizenry. Instead of holding leaders to account for their failure to provide basic infrastructure, citizens of “resource states” are far more likely to angle for their share of the loot. Retaining power becomes a simple matter of maintain elaborate patronage (payoff) systems and harsh military/security networks.

Burgis also refutes the myth that Africa’s multiple civil wars stem from tribal and religious conflict. Most African wars are pure resource wars (often triggered by CIA and French and British intelligence), with the conflict used as a cover for resource smuggling and even lower net cost to multinationals.

The US government has attempted to crack down on its own corporations via stricter enforcement (since 2000) of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and a section of the 2010 Dodd Frank Act that prohibits the the purchase of Coltan* from armed rebel groups. The new law, which has done little to reduce Coltan smuggling, has opened the door to a Chinese monopoly on the Coltan market.

The Looting Machine presents a detailed country by country analysis, as well as an examination of the Chinese company responsible for most private investment in Africa (there’s less publicly available information about investment by state-owned Chinese companies). Both engage in far more infrastructure development than Western agents do.

  • Angola – principle export oil, with 70% of oil ventures owned by Hong Kong billionaire Sam Pa, operating as Queensway Group or Chinese International Fund. Half of Angolan residents get by on less than $1.25/day.
  • Congo – second most important produce of Coltan outside of Australia, also gold, tin, tungsten and diamonds. Residents live on less than $1.00/day.
  • Nigeria – oil and gas. Cotton/textile industry that flourished in 1980s shut down (causing mass unemployment) by continuous flood of smuggled Chinese counterfeit textiles. Sam Pa and the French oil company Total have teamed up to challenge Shell’s longstanding monopoly on Nigerian oil.
  • South Africa – rich gold, diamond and platinum exports financed the creation of the apartheid state, in which a tiny white minority controlled the entire economy. Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, this minority has been joined by a handful of Black entrepreneurs.
  • Botswana – diamonds. Somewhat protected from “Dutch curse” by the creation of value added industries that cut and polish their diamonds prior to export.
  • Guinea – among world’s richest reserves of iron and aluminum. Bought out by Sam Pa as a result of Western sanctions.
  • Niger – rich in uranium and the world’s poorest country. France previously held monopoly on Niger’s uranium industry, being replaced by Queensway group based on agreement to invest in infrastructure development and employ local labor. (In most countries, Chinese investors import Chinese labor.)
  • Ghana – gold. Financed by Chinese Investment Fund after IMF tried to impose structural adjustment conditions** to refinance a World Bank Loan.
  • Zimbabwe – diamonds, platinum, nickel, gold. Mugabe used revenues from export industries to finance particularly brutal security force. Diamond industry bought out by Queensway as direct result of Western sanctions.

*Coltan is a rare precious metal in high demand for cellphones and laptops.

**IMF structural adjustment conditions typically require debtor companies to privatize state owned industries, legislate deep cuts in social services and accept extensive foreign investment as a condition of receiving World Bank loans.

 

 

 

 

How the US Uses War to Protect the Dollar

The Gods of Money

William Engdahl (2015)

The first video is a 2015 presentation by William Engdahl about his 2010 book The Gods of Money. It focuses on the use of US economic and military warfare to maintain the supremacy of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.

As his point of departure, he begins with the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, in which the Allied powers agreed to use the gold-backed US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. In 1971 when Nixon was forced to end the gold standard,* the gold-backed US dollar was replaced by the “petrodollar.” According to Engdahl, it was so named because of a secret agreement the US made with Saudi Arabia – in return for a guarantee that OPEC would only trade oil in US dollars, the US guaranteed the Saudis unlimited military hardware.

In this way, oil importing nations (most of the world) were forced to retain substantial US dollar reserves. This was the only way they could provide their economies with a continuous supply of oil.

The petrodollar remained supreme until the mid-1980s, when the collapse of the US Savings and Loan industry (a pre-cursor of the 2007 banking collapse) raised concerns in Europe that the US was failing as a super power. Fearing the US economy was collapsing, they created the euro and the Eurozone, to prevent the Soviet Union or China from filling the power vacuum.

The financial warfare unit of the US treasury responded by feeding hedge fund manager and currency speculator George Soros secret information that enabled him to lead an attack on the British pound. This, in turn, destabilized the British economy to the point the UK no longer qualified to join the euro.

In 1997 the US Treasury and Soros made a a similar attack on economies of Southeast Asia (Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines) that attempted to use currencies other than the dollar as their reserve currencies.

In 2010, after the US government had run three years of $1 trillion deficits, China, Russia and Japan announced their intention of selling US Treasury bonds (which the US government sells to finance its debt) to increase their euro reserves. Concerned this placed the US dollar on the brink of catastrophic collapse, the US Treasury and Soros attacked the Euro directly by collapsing the Greek economy. The mechanism Soros used was to direct his hedge funds to dump the sovereign treasury bonds that financed Greek debt.** When the European Central Bank announced its commitment to a Greek bail-out, the US Treasury and Soros followed up with an attack on Irish, Spanish and Portuguese sovereign bonds.


*A US economic crisis led to massive foreign demand for US dollar redemption that threatened to deplete US gold reserves.

** The immediate effect of bondholders dumping Greek bonds raised interest rates on Greek debt to a level that threatened to bankrupt their government.

 

 

The second clip is a Guns and Butter radio interview with Engdahl. It focuses on a second area the Gods of Money covers, namely the long US battle to abolish their private central bank (aka the Federal Reserve) and end the ability of private banks to create money out of thin air (see How Banks Create Money Out of Thin Air).

After a brief explanation of fractional reserve banking, whereby 97% of our money is created by private banks, Engdahl traces the history of the First Bank of the United States, created by Alexander Hamilton in 1791. The latter was the first US central bank, 80% owned by private (mostly Rothschild-controlled) banks in the City of London and 20% owned by the US government. President James Madison’s refusal to renew the bank’s charter in 1811 would result in Britain and the US going to war in 1812.

When the war ended in 1815, the American war debt was so substantial, the US had no choice but to charter the Second Bank of the United States, which once again was 80% controlled by London banks.

In 1832, Andrew Jackson refused to renew the bank’s charter, and the US had no central bank between 1832 and 1913. In 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson secretly colluded with the global banking establishment to create the Federal Reserve.

Both Lincoln and Kennedy challenged the exclusive role private banks play in creating the US money supply – Lincoln by issuing greenbacks (rather than borrowing money from private banks) to pay for the civil war and Kennedy by issuing silver certificates directly redeemable by the US Treasury. In both cases, Engdahl feels their defiance of the international banking establishment played a role in the decision to assassinate them.