North Africa, West Asia

A history of violence: slavery, colonialism and coups d’etat

Only through an understanding of the historical impact of colonialism can we begin to heal the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, violence, and oppression.

Maged Mandour
18 June 2020, 12.01am
Pro-Mosaddegh protests in Tehran, 16 August 1953
Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

In August 1619, a ship called the White Lion arrives in Virginia, a year before the Mayflower, the ship that was transporting the first English Puritans. It carries with it the first load of African slaves, captured in West Africa, starting the enslavement of Africans in the North American colonies. On 23 December 1865, the Ku Klux Klan is founded by six former officers in the Confederate army, unleashing a reign of terror across the south against the newly freed African slaves.

On 1 February 1893, an African American man, named Henry Smith is handed over to an angry mob to be lynched. He confessed, under duress, to the murder of a three-year-old white girl. Smith is tortured for 50 minutes, before being murdered by the mob. On 28 August 1955, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was visiting family in Mississippi from Chicago is lynched. He was accused of making advances towards a white woman. He is abducted from his relatives’ home, tortured, beaten, and shot. His body was found floating in the river. The men responsible for his death were never indicted. On 22 May 2020, an African American man, called George Floyd is arrested in Minnesota under suspicion of using a counterfeit bill for buying cigarettes. During his arrest, a police officer has his knee on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Floyd pleads for his life and at one-point calls for his mother. He dies from asphyxiation, and his death sparks widespread protests against police brutality.

The holy mission

Berlin, 1895, the conference for the partition of Africa concludes. At the conclusion of the conference, King Leopold of Belgium convinces the European powers to grant him personal control over a large chunk of land in the Congo Basin. He would rule over it as his personal estate, with no control or oversight from the Belgian state, where he reigns as a constitutional monarch with ceremonial powers.

His personal rule over the Congo would last until 1908, when the territory would be officially annexed by the Belgian State. He is able to garner the support of the European powers by proclaiming that his mission is to spread “civilization” in the Congo basin. The rule of the king is absolute and brutal, as he turns the Congo into a rubber plantation, where private interests can operate with no oversight. The Force Publique is created, which would act to enforce the will of the monarch. It is staffed by African soldiers, but led by Belgian officers.

The use of torture, forced labour, and murder is widespread. The most notorious of which is the practice of amputations, if an enslaved worker does not meet the required quota. The soldiers in the Force Publique, are instructed to return with a severed limb for every bullet they shoot, promoting the practice of limb amputation from living persons. In June 1961, the Congo becomes independent, and Patrice Lumumba becomes the first, democratically, elected Prime Minister. Lumumba policies aim to unify the Congo and to rid it of foreign influence. He is removed from power and assassinated seven month later, with Belgian and American support.

Belgian officers were present throughout the torture and murder of Lumumba. The Congo has seen bloody civil strife ever since. On 11 June 2020, the decision is taken to remove the statues of King Leopold the Second from the streets of Belgium, in response to widespread, global anti-racism protests. The Belgian Prince, Laurent, the brother of the current King defends his ancestor, stating that he could not have caused the atrocities that he is accused of, since he never visited the Congo.

The old man and the British

28 April 1951, Mohamed Mosaddegh, the liberal head of the national front is elected as the Prime Minister of Iran. His popularity is growing, as he runs on a platform of anti-imperialism, and nationalization of Iranian Oil, which was under the control of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, later known as British Petroleum. On the first of May of that year, the oil industry is nationalized. Mosaddegh is portrayed in the western press as a fanatic, unstable, and eccentric. In 1953, Mosaddegh is removed in a coup sponsored by the CIA, and the British government. He is arrested, placed in solitary confinement, then held under house arrest until his death. This allowed the Shah to consolidate his rule, building a formidable apparatus of repression and torture, headed by the SAVAK, the domestic security agency.

Freedom is not for you

In 1830, the conquest of Algeria by the French begins; the occupation of the country would last until 1962. The pacification of the country would last until 1902, due to the proliferation of local resistance to the occupation. The French army would follow a scorched earth policy, leading to the death of thousands. Tocqueville writes that "we make war much more barbaric than the Arabs themselves, it is for their part that civilization is situated." On 8 May 1945, popular protests against the French occupation breakout in the town of Seif. There are pro-independence elements in the protests.

After five days of protests, the French army and settlers initiate a killing spree, including the aerial bombardment of entire villages. This leads to the death of the 45,000 Algerians. In July 1999, France becomes the first country to be indicted by the European Court of human rights for the torture of Ahmed Selmouni, a French citizen of North African origin. In July 2016, Adama Traore, a twenty four year old Malian French citizen dies in police custody. He was pinned down with the combined weight of three officers during his arrest.

Neither a savage nor a clown

In 1965, the African American author James Baldwin gave a speech at the University of Cambridge Union Hall. In his speech, Baldwin said,

“What white people in the world, what we call white supremacy – I hate to say it here – comes from Europe. It’s how it got to America. Beneath then, whatever one’s reaction to this proposition is, has to be the question of whether or not civilizations can be considered, as such, equal, or whether one’s civilization has the right to overtake and subjugate, and, in fact, to destroy another. Now, what happens when that happens. Leaving aside all the physical facts that one can quote. Leaving aside, rape or murder. Leaving aside the bloody catalog of oppression, which we are in one way too familiar with already, what this does to the subjugated, the most private, the most serious thing this does to the subjugated, is to destroy his sense of reality.”

It is only through the reconstruction of this reality and identity, as well as, an understanding of the historical impact of colonialism on the old colonies and the metropole, that we can begin to heal the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, violence, and oppression.

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