Colonialism and Our American Legacy

Acknowledging America’s colonialist past is the first step to making right our past wrongs.

A fascinating article in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of The Atlantic really got me thinking about colonialism and our own American legacy of colonialism. The article, “The Fight to Decolonize the Museum,” by Adam Hochschild, discusses how difficult it can be to change a museum that “memorializes an ugly past.”

And the museum highlighted in this piece really needed, and still needs, to be changed, because the past that it memorialized is truly ugly: Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, a monument to the colonization and exploitation of the Congo by Belgian King Leopold II, which began in 1885 and continued until 1960 when the region was finally granted independence and became the Republic of Congo.

Many people of a certain age probably remember maps like this one from world history class in high school or college; I do:

This is a map of Africa in 1914, on the eve of WWI, showing how European powers had carved up Africa into colonies — the sole purpose of which was to strip these regions of anything of value and send that wealth back to the colonizer nation. Belgium’s African colony, the Belgian Congo, is right there in the center of Africa. The interesting thing about Belgian Congo is that it started out not as a colony of a nation-state, but rather as a private enterprise of the Belgian King Leopold II. From the article, “Exasperated by the declining power of European monarchs, Leopold wanted a place where he could reign supreme, unencumbered by voters or a parliament, and in the Congo he got it. He made a fortune from his privately owned colony — well over $1.1 billion in today’s dollars — chiefly by enslaving much of its male population as laborers to tap wild rubber vines. The king’s soldiers would march into village after village and hold the women hostage, in order to force the men to go deep into the rainforest for weeks at a time to gather wild rubber. Hunting, fishing, and the cultivation of crops were all disrupted, and the army seized much of what food was left. The birth rate plummeted and, weakened by hunger, people succumbed to diseases they might otherwise have survived. Demographers estimate that the Congo’s population may have been slashed by as much as half, or some 10 million people.”

The wealth generated by stripping the Congo region of rubber and other valuable commodities, including copper, diamonds, uranium, and more, was immense. Besides the billion-plus netted to Leopold II, “Congolese profits helped fund, for instance, the giant archway of the Arcades du Cinquantenaire, a Brussels landmark. And how many of the mansions that visitors pass on their trolley ride to the museum were built with such wealth? A 2007 survey showed that the fortunes of nine of the 23 richest families in Belgium had roots in the colonial Congo.” The cost of colonialism to the people of the Congo region was also immense: millions dead from being “worked to death gathering rubber; shot down in rebellions; starved in the rainforest, where they fled to escape the slave-labor system; or felled by the famines that took place when men were turned into slave laborers and their wives and daughters into hostages.”

It wasn’t just Africa that was carved up into colonies by European nations. The map below shows colonial holdings in Asia, this time on the eve of WWII.

What this relatively high-level map does not show are the various trading colonies along the Chinese coast, such as Hong Kong (British), Macao (Portugal), and other trading concessions effectively ceded by China to the Japanese, French, and Germans. Imperialism was the carving up of regions into colonies to benefit the colonizer.

An interesting point in the above “Asia in 1932” graphic: We see the emergence of the United States as a participant in overseas imperialism, having taken possession of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Besides the Philippines, the US also seized control of Guam (in the above map, one of the little dots directly east of the Philippines) as well as the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. The main reason the American empire was so small compared to that of the European powers is that for the first century of our national existence, our imperial efforts focused on conquering the North American continent, as part of our “Manifest Destiny” to be a nation spanning North America.

I’m sure many people have seen a map like the one below in their high school history classes, depicting the growth of territory controlled by the United States, starting with the original 13 British colonies, through the final acquisitions that completed the “Continental” United States, or the “Lower 48” (excepting Alaska and Hawaii). Lines on the map, these areas appear to have been acquired by the United States legally, through purchase, treaty, and annexation.

However, not nearly as many Americans saw the map shown below in their primary education (link to larger image).

US map with Native American tribal regions overlaid.
US map with Native American tribal regions overlaid.

This is a map showing the Native American groups who populated the areas on the neat map shown previously. King Leopold II may have decimated the people of the Congo region to loot the region’s wealth, but Americans wiped out or relocated entire populations of indigenous people who were living in North America and were in the way of expansion across the continent. European colonists had fought with local Indian tribes from nearly the beginning of European colonization of North America. But from the start of US independence from Britain to 1924, when the last battles between American settlers and Native Americans ended in the Utah Territory, American history includes nearly constant warfare with Native Americans.

US policy towards Native Americans would today be labeled as ethnic cleansing and genocide. There is really no other way to describe entire populations being reduced through war, forced famine, and deliberate spreading of disease, or forced to relocate hundreds of miles from their former home territory to completely new areas. Our American “Manifest Destiny” required the subjugation and murder of hundreds of thousands of people who were in the way.

With the continent subdued by the 1890s, American imperialists had begun looking abroad for new lands to take for God, glory, and gold. Rebels had begun fighting Spanish rule in Cuba, resulting in violent crackdowns by Spanish colonial authorities. As newspapers and some pro-expansion politicians called for intervention, the explosion and sinking of a US warship in Havana Harbor, the USS Maine, provided pretext for a declaration of war on Spain. A relatively quick war ensued, with a young, up-and-coming United States quickly dispatching Spanish forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. John Hay, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, in a letter to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, declared that it had been “a splendid little war”.

After the war, the US quickly granted Cuba independence, albeit with conditions. The Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, however, were annexed and became territories governed by the US government. The Philippines, in particular, had joined US forces against Spain because they had been promised independence once Spain was defeated. As soon as it became apparent the US had no intention of leaving the Philippines, provisional Philippine government forces attacked US forces, and the Philippine–American War ensued. Officially ending by 1902, fighting in various parts of the Philippines continued until at least 1913. Filipino forces suffered up to 20,000 dead, and from 250,000 to possibly 1,000,000 Filipino civilians died due to the conflict.

Hawaii was another Pacific archipelago acquired around the time of the Spanish-American War. Dominated by American sugar plantation owners for decades, foreign land owners, led by American citizens, staged a coup in 1894 to remove the Hawaiian monarch and installed the Republic of Hawaii, which petitioned the US for annexation, and was annexed as a US territory in 1898. The US territorial government then spent the next 50+ years subjugating native Hawaiians, outlawing the language, and, as with Native Americans on the Mainland, impoverishing them through segregation and poor education. Approximately 300,000 Hawaiians lived in the Islands around the time of contact with Europeans; by the mid-1920s, the Native Hawaiian population had declined to around 24,000.

America’s legacy of colonialism is every bit as bloody as that of the Belgium’s and the other European colonial powers. And, with a few exceptions, Americans have yet to acknowledge the violence and death associated with our imperial past, preferring rather to focus on the glorious “conquering of a continent,” or the “splendid little war” with Spain in 1898.

Like Belgium, we have our museums that reflect that colonial, condescending view of the people America conquered. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in New York, one of the country’s largest and most famous natural history museums, has on permanent exhibit the “Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians,” focusing on “the traditional cultures of the Native American peoples, including the Iroquois, Mohegans, Ojibwas, and Crees.” There is also a “Hall of Plains Indians,” focused on “the life of 19th-century Hidatsa, Dakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, and other Native American peoples of the North American Plains.” The imposing statue of Theodore Roosevelt, progressive Republican and a key figure in our country’s system of National Parks, on horseback at the entrance to the museum is flanked African and Native American figures on foot. It is our American version of Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa.

As Hochschild writes, “for four years now, hundreds of demonstrators have trooped through the museum on an Anti–Columbus Day Tour. They chant, drum, dance, and unfurl banners: rename the day. respect the ancestors. decolonize! reclaim! imagine! They deliver speeches demanding changes, a few of which the museum is slowly making.” Why, asks a leaflet from the group, “do Indigenous, Asian, Latin American, and African cultural artifacts reside in the AMNH, while their Greek and Roman counterparts are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the park?” Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts — European historical artifacts — are considered art, whereas non-European artifacts are considered objects of historical interest.

In 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii, the US government issued an apology and stated “the overthrow (of Queen Liliuokalani) was illegal,” and that “the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi or through a plebiscite or referendum.” More recently, however, the American President, visiting a Puerto Rico devastated by a record-breaking hurricane, mocked San Juan residents, engaged in a feud with the city’s mayor, and actively blocked Federal aid from reaching the island, still a US territory more than a century after its acquisition following the Spanish-American War. And many Native American reservations in the mainland US remain impoverished, and have been severely impacted by the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. America’s imperial subjects, like many African descendents of European colonialism, continue to reflect the legacy of colonialism.

Update: On June 21, 2020, The American Museum and the City of New York, which owns the property where the museum is, announced that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the museum would be removed.

I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could. Air Force veteran. I work in the software industry. I love Hawaii and the Texas Big Bend region.

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