The Open Veins of the Gaidhealtachd
Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America* (Las Venas Abiertas de América Latin) is a landmark book which has been described as the bible of the Latin American Left. Published in 1971, it was quickly banned by the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, and saw Galeano, who died last year, forced into exile.
This incendiary book, which Hugh Chavez gave to President Obama on their first meeting, charts the colonization, plundering and ruthless exploitation of Latin America from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 up to Pinochet’s CIA sponsored coup in Chile in 1973. It reveals how, over centuries, a systematic policy of under-development was imposed at gunpoint on Latin America by Western powers – mainly Britain and the USA –in a classical colonial pattern which sees raw materials extracted at the cheapest price possible – first by slavery, later by wage slavery – before being shipped on for manufacture elsewhere and sold on for vast profits, leading directly to the accumulation of capital which propelled the West into modernity. Lloyd’s of London, Galeano (pictured) reminds us, accrued its vast fortune underwriting slaves, slave-ships and plantations.
Galeano describes the history of Latin America as “mutilation disguised as development”; for anyone familiar with the history of the Scottish Highlands since 1746, and notwithstanding the vast differences in scale, the parallels between the Latin American experience and the Gaidhealtachd are all too clear, albeit in Scotland development went by a different name: improvement.
If the conquistadores settled Latin America for Spain and Portugal, it was Britain, and later the USA from the 20th Century onwards, which benefited most from a sub-continent rich like no other in natural resources. The gold and silver Spain extracted from the Americas was squandered on maintaining a vast empire, and effectively destroyed the national economy of Spain, crippling local productivity. British traders, backed by the prowess of the Royal Navy, stepped in to take over the trading routes and make most from the plunder. Most often, this domination was achieved without the need for military occupation, controlling the destiny of Latin America through the manipulation of corrupt local elites, imposing free trade at gunpoint, undermining and overthrowing any government which sought to impose protective measures or redistribute land, or do anything to break the culture of dependency.
The result was the economic colonization of Latin America by the Anglo-American Empire. By the end of the 19th Century, for example, “Chile destined three quarters of its exports to Britain, and from Britain it received almost half of its imports, a trade dependency even greater than India”.
Galeano’s assertion that it was the vast accumulation of capital plundered from Latin America which led to the industrial revolution and propelled the West into modernity would obviously include the Scottish merchant class which benefitted from the Union of 1707: indeed, that was exactly the point of the Union for those Scots: access to the English empire and its trade routes. Galeano even cites one of the great feats of the Scottish Enlightenment to explicitly make the point: “The capital accumulated in the business triangle of manufactures- slaves- sugar made possible the invention of the steam engine; James Watt was subsidized by merchants who had made their fortune in this way”.
Acknowledging the role of Scottish merchants in the rise of the British Empire is nothing new; but few seem to acknowledge that the fate of Gaelic Scotland from 1745 has everything in keeping with the colonized experience of Latin America, right up to the present day, as seen in some of the following ways.
Conquest: The native Indians of the Americas were conquered, to a great extent, by astonishment. Hernán Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, captured Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec Empire, a city bigger than Madrid, with just over five hundred men. The Indians were so completely bewildered by the arrival of the Spanish, on horses, an animal they had never seen before, that their capacity for resistance was severely affected. Likewise, so much of the literature on the Highland Clearances makes reference to the sheer bewilderment of the clansmen, the disbelief that they could be expelled from the ancestral lands by the Clan Chief. Famous for their warrior spirit, the clansmen offered almost no resistance when they were cleared from the glens in their thousands, or forced onto ships sailing for America. Astonishment conquered them too.
Mutilation Disguised as Development: The conquest of Latin America saw rich, fertile lands which had sustained local communities for millennia with food in abundance transformed into vast monocultural estates worked by starving labourers to produce cotton, sugar, coffee, or rubber for exportation. Cuba was famous for its forests before the British razed them to the ground to make way for sugar plantations after the invasion of 1762. “Cuba died of diabetes as a result”, says Galeano. Brazil was no more known for its coffee than the Highlands for wool until the advent of the latifundistas, the criollo land owners of massive slave plantations, and in Scotland, the rich southern landowner, the dreaded factor, and the Cheviot sheep in that Bliadhna nan Caorach of 1792, the year of our very own Celtic nakba.
This is what the histories of Latin America and the Highlands share: the means of exploiting the land may change – the Highlands have been used at various times for sheep, kelp, and blood sports, and more recently tax relief for the rich, the nuclear industry and oil – but what has stayed the same for centuries is a highly concentrated pattern of land ownership, absentee landlordism, and monocultural use of the land which completely fails to take into account the needs of the local community, leading to a state of chronic dependency.
Death, disease and depopulation. The native communities of the Americas were decimated by the arrival of the Europeans. Something like 80% of the American population died, and in places like Argentina, were wiped out completely either by disease or deliberate policy. Used as slave labour or subsisting on starvation diets, the hellish lives of the, displaced Gael gathering kelp on the Scottish coast and the enslaved Brazilian rubber worker tell a similar tale.
Today, Gaelic Scotland barely exists at all. The same land which was once supported 25% of the nation has one of the lowest population densities in the world, comparable to Bolivia or Russia. The Gaelic language, cynically betrayed by the SNP at the 2014 referendum – and for what? – exists on a life-support machine.
The Gaidhealtachd has been colonized, the land held by a few hundred latifundistas in foreign capitals, the people displaced, the local culture systematically smashed over centuries, its people brow-beaten into anglicizing or changing their surnames on leaving the glens, supressing their own history and culture.
Culture wars: The Europeans unleashed a full-scale culture war against native America, as did the British State and the Anglo-Scot against the Gael. The native Indians were written off as subhuman: “Bacon, De Maistre, Montesquieu, Hume… refused to recognize as fellow human beings the “debased men” of the New World” notes Galeano, while in mid -19th Century Scotland, at the height of the Clearances, the notorious Charles Treveylan, one of the masterminds of the potato famine which killed over one million Irish, called for “a national effort to rid the land of the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts” to be replaced by settlers of Teutonic stock, “an orderly, moral and industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt”.
To this day, Scotland lives in the aftermath of a cultural war lasting hundreds of years. The legacy of three hundred years of British imperial anti-Gaelic, anti-Celtic racial policy can be seen in the antics of the small minority of fanatical anti Irish Catholics which Scotland continues to produce, or the much more common monoglot bigots who denounce even token investment in Gaelic.
Culture war parallels extend even as far as the national dress. The kilt, a creation of the Anglo-Scottish aristocracy, is no more than an “improved” form of the Highland plaid outlawed in 1746, while the traditional dress of the South American was in fact imported from Spain, in direct emulation of the peasants of Extremadura.
Towards a Celtic Utopia: If Gaelic Scotland has been colonized and exploited since 1746 in a way comparable to South America, and colonization was one of the specific aims of the Union of 1707, it therefore follows that any drive for Scottish independence which fails to put Gaelic Scotland at the forefront of its thinking is condemned to failure. Politics, much less policy, alone cannot and will not win independence for a country. The independence of any country is always an act of imagination, a faculty politicians are rarely noted for: or as Hugh MacDiarmid wrote, “where there is no vision, the people perish”.
The landscape, the backdrop, the setting which is indispensable to the Scottish imagination or vision are the Highlands and Islands. Reconnect Scotland to its Celtic past and independence would fall into our hands like ripe fruit from a tree: to engage with Gaelic culture, or better still, learn even a little Gaelic, is a transformative political act of far greater weight than attending the next demo against austerity.
Otherwise said, the fate of Scotland as an independent nation is deeply entwined with land redistribution and the repopulation of the Highlands, the restoration of the Gaelic language, and some form of remembrance and recognition for the cultural genocide carried out in the past by the State.
If that sounds like utopia, than Galeano, a writer who shows us just what words can do, points the way again: “Utopia is on the horizon. I walk two steps on and it walks two steps away. I walk ten steps forward, and it moves ten steps back. No matter how much I walk, I know I will never reach it. So what, then, is utopia for? For just that: to keep on walking”
Walking towards that elusive Highland Utopia, towards the end of the nightmare of three hundred years of British imperialism in the Gaidhealtachd, is also a way of walking towards an independent Scotland, for they are, in essence, one and the same cause or at least ought to be: and so even with just small steps, we must keep on walking.
- Quotes taken from Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina de Eduardo Galeano, free online here in English translation.