Eduardo Galeano: God’s Masterpiece or the Devil’s Bad Joke?


[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Origin of Freedom of Oppression

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 he sold.

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, Narco Queen

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, declared:

“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 war.

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 years before.

Then they burned the looted buildings. Flames reddened the earth and sky for many days and nights, and all that had been became nothing.


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.

Natural Disasters

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 the drought.

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 merchants sky-high.

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 Indians’ hunger.

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.

Natural Glories

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 seven nights.

According to the Times, this was “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.”

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.

Upstairs, Downstairs

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 tribute.

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.

Calloused Hands

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 telephone;

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 guests;

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.

Darwin’s Voyage

Young Charles Darwin did not know what to do with his life. His father encouraged him thus:

“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 quite altered!”

He brought back more than tortoises. He brought questions. His head was teeming with questions.

Darwin’s 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 the foxes?

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 nectar?

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 of cinnamon,

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.

Only Human

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 machines,

the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,

the only ones who devour their own home,

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 fellow humans,

the only ones who kill for fun,

the only ones who torture,

the only ones who rape.

And also

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 rubbish,

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 mute.

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 Mark Fried.

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.