By Eduardo Galeano on May 4, 2009
Paradoxes and Misnomers
History is an errant paradox. It is the contradictions that keep its legs moving.
When they were evicted from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve moved to Africa, not Paris.
Some time later, when their children had embarked on their ways in the world, writing was invented. In Iraq, not Texas.
Algebra was invented in Iraq too, by Mohammed al-Khwarizmi, 1,200 years ago, and the word “algorithm” was derived from his name.
Names don’t usually coincide with what they describe. In the British Museum, to give one example, the sculptures of the Parthenon are called the Elgin Marbles, though they are really the marbles of Fidias. Elgin is the name of the Englishman who sold them to the museum.
The three novelties that made the European Renaissance possible—the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press—were invented by the Chinese, who also invented almost everything that Europe reinvented.
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In 1493, the Vatican gave America to Spain and black Africa to Portugal “so that the barbaric nations can be reduced to the Catholic faith.” At the time, America had fifteen times more inhabitants than Spain, and black Africa 100 times the population of Portugal.
Just as the Pope had ordered, the barbaric nations were reduced, to say the least.
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Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec empire, was all water. Hernán Cortés demolished the city, stone by stone, and used the rubble to block the canals through which 200,000 canoes used to move. This was the first water war in America. Today, Tenochtitlan is called Mexico City. And where water once flowed, now automobiles throng.
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The tallest monument of Argentina was erected in honor of General Roca, who exterminated the Indians of Patagonia in the nineteenth century.
The largest avenue in Uruguay bears the name of General Rivera, who exterminated the last Charrua Indians in the nineteenth century.
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John Locke, renowned philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which bought and sold slaves.
At the dawn of the eighteenth century, the first of the Bourbons of Spain, Philip V, inaugurated his new throne by signing a contract with his cousin the king of France that allowed the Guinea Company to sell blacks in America. Each king would receive a 25 percent cut of the profits. The names of some of the ships that carried this cargo: Voltaire, Rousseau, Jesus, Hope, Equality, and Friendship.
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In the name of freedom, equality, and fraternity, the French Revolution proclaimed in 1793 the Declaration of the Rights of Men and the Citizen.
Shortly after, the militant woman revolutionary Olympe de Gouges proposed the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. She was executed by guillotine.
Half a century later another revolutionary government, during the First Commune of Paris, proclaimed universal suffrage. At the same time, it denied women the right to vote by a near unanimous 899-to-1 vote.
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The Christian Emperor Theodora never said she was a revolutionary or anything of the sort. But 1,500 years ago, thanks to her, the Byzantine Empire became the first place in the world where women had the right to abortion and divorce.
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Lootie was the first Pekinese dog to reach Europe. He traveled to London in 1860. The English baptized him thus because he was part of the loot taken from China after the two prolonged opium wars.
Victoria, the drug-trafficker queen, imposed opium at the barrel of a cannon. China was transformed into a nation of drug addicts, in the name of freedom, freedom of trade.
In the name of freedom, freedom of trade, Paraguay was annihilated in 1870.
At the end of a five-year war, this country, the only country of the Americas that didn’t owe anyone a cent, inaugurated its foreign debt. Its very first loan reached it in smoking ruins. It was destined to pay gigantic reparations to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Thus the assassinated country paid its assassins for their service.
Haiti also paid giant reparations. Since it won its independence in 1804, the new, razed nation had to pay France a fortune to expiate the sin of its independence. It paid for a century.
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Mark Twain, leader of the Anti-Imperialist League, proposed a new national flag with little skulls instead of stars. Another writer, Ambrose Bierce, observed: War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.
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The concentration camp was born in Africa. The English pioneered the experiment and the Germans developed it further.
Afterward, in Germany, Hermann Goering applied the model that his father had tried out in Namibia in 1904. The masters of Joseph Mengele had studied the anatomy of the inferior races in the concentration camp in Namibia. The guinea pigs were all black.
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In 1936, the International Olympic Committee did not tolerate insolence. In the games of that year, organized by Hitler, the Peruvian football team defeated the team from Austria, the Fuhrer’s birthplace, 4-2. The Olympic Committee annulled the game.
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Hitler did not lack for friends. Coca-Cola invented Fanta at the height of the war for the German market. IBM made possible the identification and classification of the Jews, which was the first large-scale use of the punch card.
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In 1953, a labor protest erupted in communist Germany. The workers flooded the streets and Soviet tanks were deployed to shut their mouths. Bertolt Brecht had this suggestion: “Wouldn’t it be easier if the government simply dissolves the people and elects another?”
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Thousands of years before the U.S. invasion brought civilization to Iraq, this barbaric land bequeathed the world the first love poem of world history.
Inscribed in the Sumerian language in clay, the poem tells of the encounter of a goddess and a shepherd. For that night Inanna, the goddess, loved as if she had been mortal. Dumuzi, the shepherd, was for that night immortal.
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Errant paradoxes, stimulating paradoxes.
Aleijadinho, the ugliest man in Brazil, created the most beautiful sculptures of the American colonial era.
Marco Polo’s book of his travels, an exercise in freedom, was written in a prison in Genoa.
Don Quixote of La Mancha, another exercise in freedom, was born in a prison in Seville.
The blacks who gave birth to jazz, the freest of all types of music, were the grandchildren of slaves.
One of the greatest jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt, had only three fully working fingers on his left hand.
The great master of French cuisine Grimod de la Reynière had no hands. He wrote and cooked and ate with hooks.
Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer and journalist, is the author of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent