PBS series on "Guns, Germs and Steel", part three (conclusion)


Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 29, 2005


The concluding episode of the PBS production of “Guns, Germs and Steel” focuses on the colonization of the African continent, expanding on a number of the themes introduced in episode 2, which dealt with the Spanish conquest of Latin America.


It focuses on the efforts of the Dutch settlers to expand from their base at the southern tip of the continent northwards into more tropical areas, where the colonization efforts fall victim to climate and disease.


Diamond believes that the settlers underestimated the difficulties facing them since the southern tip of South Africa was far more like native Europe than what would face them later on. As they moved closer to the equator, they discovered that both they and their herd animals would fall sick to diseases they had no resistance to. In other words, the tables were being turned on the colonizers. In Latin America, disease felled the native peoples while in Africa it was the invaders who succumbed to disease--malaria specifically.


Diamond makes the case that indigenous peoples and their animals had developed a resistance to malaria over generations, just as Europeans had strengthened their immune systems against smallpox, measles, etc. African cattle had adapted as well. Both native people and their domesticated animals had also benefited from geography. They had learned to live in higher elevations where mosquitoes were less prevalent. Also, in the absence of intense agriculture as practiced in Eurasia, settlements were smaller and tended to be located away from rivers and lakes. The Europeans, by contrast, settled around rivers and lakes since this is traditionally how towns and cities get established in order to take advantage of water supplies and for trade. But this is exactly where the mosquito was prevalent.


The other major threat to the colonizers was the fierce Zulus who ruled over an extensive kingdom like the Incas. Unlike in Peru, the Zulus were able to mount a significant resistance to outside incursion. This is dramatized in the PBS show as something akin to old cowboy and Indian movies. The Dutch settlers are sitting around a campfire and out of nowhere come these howling savages bent on destruction.


This is not the first time that Diamond, the pious anti-racist, has succumbed to stereotyping. If he had taken the trouble to look a little further into the Zulu history, he would have discovered that the violence was completely understandable since the nation had been driven from their former homes by Portuguese slave traders.


Recent scholarship, discussed by John Reader in “Africa: a Biography of the Continent” reveals that Shaka, king of the Zulus, and his people fled Delagoa Bay­on the Southern coast of Mozambique--in the 1820s after more than 60,000 natives had been kidnapped and sent to pick cotton, tobacco or sugar in the Americas. A missionary by the name of Stephen Kay noted in his August 1828 journal:


“He [Shaka] was originally established near Delagoa Bay, from whence he was driven about twelve years ago, by some great convulsion there. The impetus he received appears to have gradually forced him westwards [sic] as far as Natal, where he at length seated himself with a very powerful body of adherents.”


Other peoples fleeing the slavers naturally became part of the Zulu kingdom, which was organized around Spartan military discipline for good reasons obviously. When Dutch and British settlers began to make their presence felt in South Africa, the Zulu naturally felt squeezed between two hostile forces.


Shaka, who had the reputation of being ruthlessly hostile toward other black Africans, was actually blamed for slave-raids carried out by whites. In one such incident, white businessmen and a missionary, whose daughter would marry colonizer David Livingstone, presented a false picture of fending off a supposedly fierce group of Mantatees. Traditionally, white accounts represent the Mantatees as a menacing force of 100,000 but more recent scholarship puts their numbers at around 2000. In reality, the whites had organized a massacre of the Mantatees and sold the survivors as slaves for the export trade or as indentured servants for the local economy. In the 1820s, labor was as in short supply in white-controlled Africa as it was in the American South. Reader reports that local settlers complained that it was “utterly impossible to procure men or boys or even Hottentots to herd.” This dimension is utterly lacking in Diamond’s account.


The show ends with about as much of a political prescription from Diamond as can be found anywhere. Until the publication of “Collapse,” he has studiously stayed above the fray when it comes to the question of how the victims of colonialism can finally enjoy equality with those who colonized them.


This would appear to revolve around the question of overcoming malaria, which is diminishing Africa’s pool of able-bodied working people. Diamond explains that with the final victory of the colonizers, new cities were established at rivers and lakes, which enabled malaria to ravage the native population formerly protected in the traditional highland habitats. The question of how their once reliable immune system would now fail them is not dealt with by Diamond, nor does he deal with the question of AIDS, a disease that seems far more devastating economically than malaria.


He interviews an obviously concerned female physician in the children’s ward of a Lusaka, Zambia hospital, who assures him that Zambia needs to wipe out this scourge for real progress to be made. Then, in a totally improbable leap of logic, the show draws upon old footage from Malaysia and Singapore earlier in the 20th century, when ambitious anti-malaria campaigns were mounted. This is followed immediately by shots of downtown skyscrapers, bustling street traffic and late-model cars. So Diamond’s solution for poverty is to eradicate disease. With all due respect to Diamond, whose heart is probably in the right place, this is ridiculous.


In reality, poverty is the cause and disease is the effect­not the other way around. This is especially the case with malaria. Fortunately, we didn’t get a lecture from Diamond about the need to bombard Africa with DDT, the current fad among bourgeois development economists, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how this illness is connected to one’s economic situation. Fundamentally, eliminating malaria means eliminating the conditions that breed the mosquitoes that carry it. This means getting rid of standing water in swamps, dirt roads, garbage dumps, etc. Anybody who has visited Zambia, as I have, can tell you that the country can barely pay off its debts to the IMF, let alone embark on an ambitious mosquito eradication program.


For an analysis rooted in economics, one must turn to Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who maintains an AIDS clinic in Haiti and who has written extensively about the ties between poverty and disease. In his “Infections and Inequalities,” he writes:


When we think of "tropical diseases," for instance, malaria comes quickly to mind. But not too long ago, malaria was a significant problem far from the tropics. Although there is imperfect overlap between malaria as currently defined and the malaria of the mid-nineteenth century, some medical historians agree with contemporary assessments that this illness "was the most important disease in the United States at that time." In the Ohio River Valley, according to Daniel Drake's 1850 study, thousands died in seasonal epidemics. A million-odd soldiers were afflicted with malaria during the U.S. Civil War. During the second decade of the twentieth century, when the population of twelve southern states was about twenty-five million, the region saw an estimated one million cases of malaria per year. Malaria's decline in this country was "due only in small part to measures aimed directly against it, but more to agricultural development and to other factors some of which are still not clear."


One responsible factor that is clear enough, if little discussed in the literature, is the reduction of poverty, including the development of improved housing, land drainage, mosquito repellents, nets, and electric fans--­all of which have been (and remain) beyond the reach of those most at risk for malaria. In fact, many "tropical" diseases predominantly afflict the poor; the groups at risk for these diseases are often bounded more by socioeconomic status than by latitude. In Haiti, for example, my patients with malaria are almost exclusively those living in poverty. None have electricity; none take prophylaxis; many have lost kin to malaria. This aspect of disease emergence is thus obscured by an uncritical use of the term "tropical medicine," which implies a geographic rather than a social topography.