God’s Masterpiece or the
Devil’s Bad Joke?
Barbarians and Apes -- from the Opium Wars to the
Origin of the Species
By Eduardo Galeano
- Opium was outlawed in China.
British merchants smuggled it in
from India. Their diligent efforts led to a surge in
the number of Chinese dependent on the mother of
heroin and morphine, who charmed them with false
happiness and ruined their lives.
The smugglers were fed up with the
hindrances they faced at the hands of Chinese
authorities. Developing the market required free
trade, and free trade demanded war.
William Jardine, a generous sort,
was the most powerful of the drug traffickers and
vice president of the Medical Missionary Society,
which offered treatment to the victims of the opium
In London, Jardine hired a few
influential writers and journalists, including
best-selling author Samuel Warren, to create a
favorable environment for war. These communications
professionals ran the cause of freedom high up the
flagpole. Freedom of expression at the service of
free trade: pamphlets and articles rained down upon
British public opinion, exalting the sacrifice of
the honest citizens who challenged Chinese
despotism, risking jail, torture, and death in that
kingdom of cruelty.
The proper climate established,
the storm was unleashed. The Opium War lasted, with
a few interruptions, from 1839 to 1860.
Our Lady of the Seas,
The sale of people had been the
juiciest enterprise in the British Empire. But
happiness, as everyone knows, does not last. After
three prosperous centuries, the Crown had to pull
out of the slave trade, and selling drugs came to be
the most lucrative source of imperial glory.
Queen Victoria was obliged to
break down China’s closed doors. On board the ships
of the Royal Navy, Christ’s missionaries joined the
warriors of free trade. Behind them came the
merchant fleet, boats that once carried black
Africans, now filled with poison.
In the first stage of the Opium
War, the British Empire took over the island of Hong
Kong. The colorful governor, Sir John Bowring,
“Free trade is Jesus Christ, and
Jesus Christ is free trade.”
Here Lay China
Outside its borders the Chinese
traded little and were not in the habit of waging
Merchants and warriors were looked
down upon. “Barbarians” was what they called the
English and the few Europeans they met.
And so it was foretold. China had
to fall, defeated by the deadliest fleet of warships
in the world, and by mortars that perforated a dozen
enemy soldiers in formation with a single shell.
In 1860, after razing ports and
cities, the British, accompanied by the French,
entered Beijing, sacked the Summer Palace, and told
their colonial troops recruited in India and Senegal
they could help themselves to the leftovers.
The palace, center of the Manchu
Dynasty’s power, was in reality many palaces, more
than 200 residences and pagodas set among lakes and
gardens, not unlike paradise. The victors stole
everything, absolutely everything: furniture and
drapes, jade sculptures, silk dresses, pearl
necklaces, gold clocks, diamond bracelets... All
that survived was the library, plus a telescope and
a rifle that the king of England had given China 70
Then they burned the looted
buildings. Flames reddened the earth and sky for
many days and nights, and all that had been became
Lord Elgin, who ordered the
burning of the imperial palace, arrived in Beijing
on a litter carried by eight scarlet-liveried
porters and escorted by 400 horsemen. This Lord
Elgin, son of the Lord Elgin who sold the sculptures
of the Parthenon to the British Museum, donated to
that same museum the entire palace library, which
had been saved from the looting and fire for that
very reason. And soon in another palace, Buckingham,
Queen Victoria was presented with the gold and jade
scepter of the vanquished king, as well as the first
Pekinese in Europe. The little dog was also part of
the booty. They named it “Lootie.”
China was obliged to pay an
immense sum in reparations to its executioners,
since incorporating it into the community of
civilized nations had turned out to be so expensive.
Quickly, China became the principal market for opium
and the largest customer for Lancashire cloth.
At the beginning of the nineteenth
century, Chinese workshops produced one-third of all
the world’s manufactures. At the end of the
nineteenth century, they produced 6%.
Then China was invaded by Japan.
Conquest was not difficult. The country was drugged
and humiliated and ruined.
An empty desert of footsteps and
voices, nothing but dust stirred by the wind.
Many Chinese hang themselves,
rather than killing to kill their hunger or waiting
for hunger to kill them.
In London, the British merchants
who triumphed in the Opium War establish the China
Famine Relief Fund.
This charitable institution
promises to evangelize the pagan nation via the
stomach: food sent by Jesus will rain from heaven.
In 1879, after three years without
rain, the Chinese number 15 million fewer.
Other Natural Disasters
In 1879, after three years without
rain, the Indians number nine million fewer.
It is the fault of nature:
“These are natural disasters,” say
those who know.
But in India during these
atrocious years, the market is more punishing than
Under the law of the market,
freedom oppresses. Free trade, which obliges you to
sell, forbids you to eat.
India is a not a poorhouse, but a
colonial plantation. The market rules. Wise is the
invisible hand, which makes and unmakes, and no one
should dare correct it.
The British government confines
itself to helping a few of the moribund die in work
camps it calls “relief camps,” and to demanding the
taxes that the peasants cannot pay. The peasants
lose their lands, sold for a pittance, and for a
pittance they sell the hands that work it, while
shortages send the price of grain hoarded by
Exporters do a booming trade.
Mountains of wheat and rice pile up on the wharves
of London and Liverpool. India, starving colony,
does not eat, but it feeds. The British eat the
On the market this merchandise
called hunger is highly valued, since it broadens
investment opportunities, reduces the cost of
production, and raises the price of goods.
Queen Victoria was the most
enthusiastic admirer and the only reader of the
verses of Lord Lytton, her viceroy in India.
Moved by literary gratitude or
patriotic fervor, the viceregal poet held an
enormous banquet in Victoria’s honor when she was
proclaimed empress. Lord Lytton invited 70,000
guests to his palace in Delhi for seven days and
According to the Times,
this was “the most colossal and expensive meal in
At the height of the drought, when
fields baked by day and froze by night, the viceroy
arose at the banquet to read out an upbeat message
from Queen Victoria, who predicted for her Indian
subjects “happiness, prosperity, and welfare.”
English journalist William Digby,
who happened to be present, calculated that about
100,000 Indians died of hunger during the seven days
and seven nights of the great feast.
In a slow and complicated ceremony
marked by the back and forth of speeches,
presentation of insignia, and exchange of offerings,
India’s princes became English gentlemen and swore
loyalty to Queen Victoria. For these vassal princes,
the bartering of gifts was, according to
well-informed sources, a trading of bribes for
The numerous princes lived at the
summit of the caste pyramid, a system reproduced and
perfected by British imperial power.
The empire did not need to divide
to rule. Long-sacred social, racial, and cultural
divisions were history’s bequest.
From 1872 on, the British census
classified the population of India according to
caste. Imperial rule thus not only reaffirmed the
legitimacy of this national tradition, but also used
it to organize an even more stratified and rigid
society. No policeman could have dreamed up a better
way to control the function and destiny of each
person. The empire codified hierarchies and
servitudes, and forbade any and all from stepping
out of place.
The princes who served the British
Crown lived in perpetual despair over the scarcity
of tigers in the jungle and the abundance of
jealousy in the harem.
In the twentieth century, they
still consoled themselves as best they could:
the maharaja of Bharatpur bought
all the Rolls-Royces on the market in London and
used them for garbage collection;
the one from Junagadh had many
dogs, each with his own room, servant, and
the one from Alwar set fire to the
racetrack when his pony lost a race;
the one from Kapurthala built an
exact replica of the Palace of Versailles;
the one from Mysore built an exact
replica of Windsor Palace;
the one from Gwalior bought a
miniature gold and silver train that ran about the
palace dining room carrying salt and spices to his
the cannons of the maharaja of
Baroda were made of solid gold;
and for a paperweight the one from
Hyderabad used a 184-carat diamond.
Young Charles Darwin did not know
what to do with his life. His father encouraged him
“You will be a disgrace to
yourself and all your family.”
At the end of 1831, he left.
After five years navigating South
America, the Galapagos, and other far-flung realms,
he returned to London. He brought with him three
giant tortoises, one of which died in the year 2007
in a zoo in Australia.
He came back a different man. Even
his father noticed:
“Why the shape of his head is
He brought back more than
tortoises. He brought questions. His head was
teeming with questions.
Why does the wooly mammoth have a
thick coat? Could the mammoth be an elephant that
found a way to stay warm when the ice age set in?
Why is the giraffe’s neck so long?
Could it be because over time it got stretched in
order to reach fruit high in the treetops?
Were the rabbits that run in the
snow always white, or did they become white to fool
Why does the finch have a
different beak depending on where it lives? Could it
be that their beaks adapted bit by bit to the
environment through a long evolutionary process, so
they could crack open fruits, catch larvae, drink
Does the incredibly long pistil of
the orchid indicate that there are butterflies
nearby whose remarkably long tongues are as long as
the pistil that awaits them?
No doubt it was a thousand and one
questions like these which, with the passage of
years and doubts and contradictions, became the
pages of his explosive book on the origin of the
species and the evolution of life in the world.
Blasphemous notion, intolerable
lesson in humility: Darwin revealed that God did not
create the world in seven days, nor did He model us
in His image and likeness.
Such horrible news was not well
received. Who did this fellow think he was to
correct the Bible?
Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of
Oxford, asked Darwin’s readers:
“Are you descended from the apes
on your grandfather’s side or your grandmother’s?”
I’ll Show You the World
Darwin liked to cite James
Coleman’s travel notes.
No one better described the fauna
of the Indian Ocean,
the sky above flaming Vesuvius,
the glow of Arabian nights,
the color of the heat in Zanzibar,
the air in Ceylon, which is made
the winter shadows of Edinburgh,
and the grayness of Russian jails.
Preceded by his white cane,
Coleman went around the world, from tip to toe.
This traveler, who did so much to
help us see, was blind.
“I see with my feet,” he said.
Darwin told us we are cousins of
the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we
emerged from Africa’s jungle and that no stork ever
carried us from Paris. And not long ago we
discovered that our genes are almost identical to
those of mice.
Now we can’t tell if we are God’s
masterpiece or the devil’s bad joke. We puny humans:
exterminators of everything,
hunters of our own,
creators of the atom bomb, the
hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the
healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people
and leaves objects intact,
we, the only animals who invent
the only ones who live at the
service of the machines they invent,
the only ones who devour their own
the only ones who poison the water
they drink and the earth that feeds them,
the only ones capable of renting
or selling themselves, or renting or selling their
the only ones who kill for fun,
the only ones who torture,
the only ones who rape.
the only ones who laugh,
the only ones who daydream,
the ones who make silk from the
spit of a worm,
the ones who find beauty in
the ones who discover colors
beyond the rainbow,
the ones who furnish the voices of
the world with new music,
and who create words so that
neither reality nor memory will be
Eduardo Galeano was one of
Latin America’s most distinguished writers, the
author of a three-volume history of the Americas, Memory
of Fire, and most recently,
Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History.
He was the recipient of many international prizes,
including the first Lannan Prize for Cultural
Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the
First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the
countries of Mercosur. He died on
April 13, 2015. These excerpts are
taken from his history of humanity,
Mirrors, translated by
This post is excerpted from
Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone Copyright
© 2009 by Eduardo Galeano; translation copyright ©
2009 by Mark Fried. Published by Nation Books, a
member of the Perseus Group, New York,
N.Y. Originally published in the Spanish language in
2008 by Siglo XXI Editores (Spain and Mexico) and
Ediciones del Chanchito (Uruguay). By permission of
Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City,
and Lamy, N.M. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2015 Eduardo Galeano