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Conquest, Slave Trade and Knowledge

Over the past several months, I travelled to regions in Central and South America, visits which reminded me of the conquests that destroyed much of what was indigenous in these regions:
• Italian explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean islands (now Bahamas) in 1492 under sponsorship of the Spanish king.
• Within the next 50 years, Spanish conquest of the Americas began to demolish the Aztec civilisation in Mexico which had thrived over centuries.
• Further attacks in Peru destroyed the Inca civilisation that had developed and utilised advanced technologies.
• The Colombian region’s indigenous civilisation of Chibchan tribes was destroyed and its reserves of tonnes of gold looted.

On the streets of Xalapa and Veracruz in Mexico, and the gold museums of Bogota and Cartagena in Colombia, histories of these conquests are audible and visible today in the churches of settlers from the empires. ‘The natives’ were technologically advanced civilisations; their science had included principles of structured relationships between people, animals, forests and water; their rituals, music, dance and art embodied knowledges evolved through centuries of ‘learning by doing’. The conquests destroyed these civilisations, languages, cultures and knowledge systems, besides taking thousands of tonnes of gold and silver back to Spain (and other parts of Europe).

Then I learnt about the African slave trade:
• Portuguese traders started the trans-Atlantic slave trade of Africans in 1526.
• The slaves were brought in from central and western Africa on ships as cargo, and sold in the Americas to work in mines, plantations and fields.
• Over three centuries, more than 12 million Africans were thus sent as slaves to the ‘new world’; many millions died in the journeys on land and ships.
• Portuguese, British, Spanish and Dutch traders monopolised this slave trade.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population today is around 1 billion. Imagine how severely it has been curtailed due to this slave trade? African tribes and societies in sixteenth century were brutally disrupted due to forced enslavement. African civilisations, culture, music, dance and art was destroyed in the process. Local knowledge systems were devalued, and generations of Africans made to feel ‘inferior’ to their European masters.

The struggle for self-respect and identity of Afro-descendants in the Americas has continued since then. Despite the fact that nearly half of Brazil’s population of 200 million today comprises of such Afro-descendants, economic and political leadership in that country remains firmly in the hands of white Europeans.

Such disruptive colonisation, wars and conquests have occurred elsewhere in the world. How have these marginalised the local knowledge systems? How did centuries of colonial and foreign rule in the Indian sub-continent affect the legitimacy of traditional knowledge systems of agriculture, water, ecology, health care? Mono-cultures of western science and destruction of knowledge diversity is one of the key factors in bringing humanity to the brink of extinction today.

Indigenous knowledge systems have seeds for sustainability relevant in contemporary contexts. Mexico’s indigenous communities are demanding their own systems of learning, education and universities, with mother-tongue scholars. Colombian indigenous communities are setting up their own post-secondary educational institutions to advance their knowledge systems.

Let us be “knowledgiastic” – by reviving traditional knowledge systems and seeking collaboration between multiple knowledge cultures with a focus to finding new solutions for our collective well-being.

Rajesh Tandon, Founder-President, PRIA
July 2017

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