When Europeans began imagining Africa beyond the Sahara, the continent they pictured was a dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk who mapped the world about 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their head. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg, three faces, and the heads of lions. In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro, declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant through the air.
– pg. 6, KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin, 1998
I want to dedicate today’s column to Philip Lewis, an extraordinarily talented Belizean whom I have not seen in decades. The last I heard of him some years ago, he was living in Geneva, Switzerland, which is in Europe.
Philip was an employee of the Lands and Survey Department when he was in Belize in the 1960s and 1970s, and he was an artist/photographer who organized the classy group called “Soul to Art.” Not only that, Philip was a Top Ten Cross Country cyclist in the middle/late sixties.
When I published the booklet called Feelings in 1975, I included a few of Philip’s photographs to add spice and flavor to the work. In my senior years, I have grown to consider one of these photos to be absolutely classic. In the upper half of page 57, there is a Lewis photograph of an old man and a young boy, presumably his grandson or great grandson, paddling a dory containing some articles or provisions. My surmise is that they were travelling from village to village, from Isabella Bank to Double Head, say. I can’t see this as a trip from Gales Point Manatee or Freetown Sibun all the way to Belize City. That would be too long a journey for the elder and the child. Some other time, I will analyze this photograph in my column.
For now, the matter of dedicating this column to Philip has to do with Europe, to a certain extent — Europe being a continent I know nothing of except through reading, but the continent which overpowered planet earth by force of arms during the second millennium.
Today, we hear of the European Union, and the sense we have is of a staid, diplomatic, Caucasian people. A few years ago we began hearing about Brexit, a process wherein the United Kingdom decided to come out of the European Union and re-establish their individuality, even though there was some dissent in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. And recently, there was a dispute between France and a British island possession called Jersey over fishing rights.
As the dispute between France and Jersey became more bitter, I thought of all the wars between England and France which were fought basically in the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries A.D. The two countries are separated by twenty-six miles of ocean known as the English Channel. England and France fought for hegemony in Europe during the centuries to which I have referred.
Great Britain includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but the English were historically the dominant entity in the so-called British Isles.
In the sixteenth century, it was Roman Catholic Spain, which was acquiring, seizing actually, the riches of the Americas after the exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailor whom they had financed, which became the most hated enemies of the British, who sent out pirates to rob the treasure galleons of the Spanish. But, by the end of the eighteenth century, after the French Revolution of 1789, which after some years resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte becoming French First Consul and later Emperor, it was again the French who became the no. 1 antagonists of the British.
The Germans did not really come into play until the nineteenth century, when a man called Otto von Bismarck united their warring, barbarian tribes, but Germany quickly became such a European powerhouse that the British and the French had to unite to fight them in World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-45). It was the destruction caused by these two “world wars” in Europe which facilitated the superpower rise of the United States of America. (Switzerland experienced minimal damage in the twentieth century world wars, compared to the other European countries, because Switzerland is surrounded, protected, by huge mountains.)
Until the religious rebellion of Martin Luther, a German monk, started the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the whole of Europe was Roman Catholic and gave allegiance to the Pope in Rome in Italy. After Luther’s rebellion, many religious wars broke out in Europe.
The Romans (Italians) were the kingpins of Europe and North Africa at the time of Christ. They even ruled Britain. They destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and over a period of centuries the people of Judea were scattered throughout Europe, where they lived in parts of European cities which were called “ghettos.”
To the northwest of Germany, there are the Netherlands. Their citizens are known as the “Dutch.” They were active in the later wars between the English and the French, and very active in the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation, when they rejected Catholicism. They were also prominent pirates on the Atlantic Ocean, targeting the Spanish. The Dutch, great seamen, also became powerful in some areas of Asia.
To the south of France is a region that is sometimes called the Iberian Peninsula, and it is comprised of the larger Spain, and to Spain’s west on the Atlantic Ocean seacoast, the smaller Portugal.
Spain was invaded by North African Moors (Muslims) in 711 A.D., and it was not until 1492, the year Columbus “discovered” the New World, that they expelled the Moors.
Meanwhile, in the earlier part of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese had begun sailing down the western coast of Africa and exploring further and further south until they circled the southern tip of the African continent, known as the Cape of Good Hope, sailed up the eastern coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, and established colonies like Goa and Macau in Asia.
The Portuguese began coming out of Europe about a half century before Columbus sailed west. Columbus was trying to reach India and Asia, but ran into America. (It was a Portuguese by the name of Vasco da Gama who reached India and Asia in 1498 after sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.)
And so it was, that the Pope of Rome divided the New World into two. He drew a line which gave Brazil to Portugal and the rest of the Americas to Spain. This was the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Because they wanted a piece of the action, the English, French and Dutch became pirates on the high seas.
I’m trying to tell you that the Europeans waged constant warfare in the second millennium and developed their military and naval skills to the point where they were able to conquer the native peoples of Africa and the Americas when they encountered them on their voyages and journeys of discovery. It was not religion that “Christianized” Africans and Native Americans: it was swords and guns and artillery and horses and cannons and other instruments of war. This is real.
In our third millennium world today, many of the wars are financial, and now cyber and biological wars have entered the picture. Some of us do a lot of praying, which is good. The Europeans, no matter how peaceful and calm their missionaries may appear, have histories which featured warfare. They gave us the Scriptures, and they took our land. This is why we people of color should always respect Robert Mugabe: he tried to get back his people’s land.
Wedged between France, the Netherlands, and Germany was a relative nonentity of a European country we know today as Belgium. In his epic work, King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochshild writes, “In Europe, the thirst for African land had become nearly palpable.” On November 15, 1884, representatives of the European powers met in Berlin, Germany, before a large map of Africa, and got to work dividing our ancestors’ lands.
Belgium was a nobody compared to Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and other colonial powers. King Leopold II, even though he had experienced a terrible setback when his younger sister, Carlota, became Empress of Mexico more than two decades before and then became mad, was determined to join the big boys. He grabbed the Belgian Congo, now known as Zaire. This may be the most valuable piece of real estate in the world.
Leopold’s sister had become Empress of Mexico when French banks installed her husband, an Austro-Hungarian prince called Maximilian of Hapsburg, as Emperor of Mexico in 1862. It is an incredible story, and a frightening one when you consider Belize’s current financial situation. Here is what Enrique Krauze wrote on pages 173 and 174 of his superb work, Mexico: Biography of Power. “The moratorium of public debts decreed by the Juarez government in June of 1861 began the cycle. In October, England, France and Spain signed a Tripartite Convention in London designed to force Mexico into paying its debts and meeting other demands, not entirely unjustified in the case of the English and the Spaniards. Then, at the beginning of 1862, expeditionary forces from the three countries disembarked in Veracruz. Shortly afterwards, their demands satisfied through diplomatic channels, Spain and England withdrew, leaving France in a position to carry out its true design – not the collection of exaggerated debts but the invasion of the country and the execution of a multiple project of reconquest. To Eugenia it meant revenge for Spain; to Napoleon III, a chance for France to return to North America, capitalizing on the Civil War in the United States.”
The Mexicans fought violently against the French. That is why May 5 is such an honored holiday in the republic, because young Mexican military cadets fought so heroically to defeat the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862.
If you do any studying of the history of Mexico since 1810, you will begin to understand that we Belizeans have been playing a lot of games with our national reality. Mexicans shed a lot of blood to reach the status they have achieved today.
When Mexico fought France at Puebla in 1862, the big settlers and merchants in Belize were grabbing at British colonialism in order to fight the Icaiche Maya. Our oligarchy never went to the Belizean people to build our nation. That is why we are seeing what we are seeing on the Southside today.
If you play with Europeans, you will end up in serious debt crisis. That is the lesson of history. But, our Belizean leaders and preachers have ignored the lessons of history. This is why Lord Michael has become our Emperor. This deal is real.