Nothing rankles the right wing like challenging the official history glorifying colonialism and the superiority of Anglo/European culture. Such history is usually self-serving mythology that minimizes or ignores the atrocities committed by the victors. Witness the furor over removing statues of John A. Macdonald or exposing genocidal policies toward Indigenous peoples.
But one of the first monuments to white supremacy is one that predates the US Civil War and the creation of Canada: the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas.
The mythology surrounding the battle at the Alamo, central to the founding of the Texas Republic in 1836, depicts it as a fight for political liberty and personal freedom. People who died at the Alamo – Davy Crockett, William Travis, James Bowie and others – have achieved almost the status of deities in Texas and beyond.
Popular culture is full of depictions of the dastardly Mexican “dictator” Santa Ana, noble nation builders like Stephen Austin and freedom fighters like Crockett and Sam Houston. “Remember the Alamo” has been repeatedly used in service of US imperialism. Lyndon Johnson invoked it to justify the Vietnam War. George W Bush was fond of expounding William Travis’s defiant last letter, even reading it to motivate the US golf team to beat Europe in the 1999 Ryder Cup. And Trump often rhapsodized about the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo”.
Nonsense. The main reason for the separation of Texas from Mexico was the right to own slaves, pure and simple.
Of course the territory now known as Texas was part of the great Comanche nation to begin with. The fact that Mexico allowed mass immigration of “Yankees” into its Texas province was to create a bulwark against Indigenous sovereignty and self-defence. The Anglos were anxious to colonize Texas to exploit the rich cotton growing land in the eastern part of the territory. Cotton, not cattle, was the economic prize and cotton plantations meant slave labour.
Austin was one of the earliest arrivals and promoted Anglo immigration on behalf of the Mexican government. He was a slave owner himself and advertised land grants to new families – slave owners were granted an additional 80 acres per slave brought.
While the demographics of the Texas province changed (there were more Black slaves than white Anglos) the Mexican central government was undergoing a transformation, a push toward greater democracy and the abolition of slavery in all its territories.
López de Santa Ana was never a spotless liberator, but neither was he the “dictator” of US myth. He rose to prominence leading a Mexican army to defeat Spanish rule. He was elected Mexico’s president 5 or 6 times (historians differ), a defender of Mexico’s interests against its rapidly growing northern neighbour and a staunch abolitionist. He championed a new constitution in 1835 that would outlaw slavery, designed in part to rein in the political power of the Texas Anglo plantation owners.
That year Austin wrote of his plan to play off his US neighbours against the central government in Mexico City to achieve Texas independence, and then to use that independence to leverage a place of power in the growing US continental empire: “Texas should be effectively, and fully, Americanized— that is—settled by a population that will harmonize with their neighbors on the East, in language, political principles, common origin, sympathy, and even interest. Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt [emphasis in the original]. The interest of Louisiana requires that it should be, a population of fanatical abolitionists in Texas [anti-slavery Mexicans] would have a very pernicious and dangerous influence on the overgrown slave population of that state.”
Santa Anna marched north with an army to put an end to the plotting and defend Mexico’s own imperial interests. He fully expected the large Black slave population to rise up and join his cause. At the outset he wrote: “There is a considerable number of slaves in Texas also, who have been introduced by their masters under cover of certain questionable contracts, who according to our laws should be free. Shall we permit those wretches to moan in chains any longer in a country whose kind laws protect the liberty of man without distinction of cast or color?”
As Northern forces in the US Civil War were to discover, many slaves did rebel and join the real liberators, but certainly not all. The Anglo slaver army under Houston, with the surreptitious material support of the US, retreated before Santa Ana, ruthlessly sacrificing a number of outposts and communities, including San Antonio and the Alamo. Houston wanted Santa Ana to overextend his supply lines and the Mexican general took the bait. Santa Ana was defeated, captured and held for ransom to win Texas independence.
The enshrinement of slavery is given a place of prominence in the constitution of the new republic: “Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slave holder be allowed to emancipate his or her slaves without the consent of congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slaves without the limits of the republic. No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the republic, without the consent of congress….”
Some slaves who joined the liberating army managed to escape to Mexico, to become free citizens. Those who didn’t were punished and returned to their “owners”. The annexation of Texas into US statehood a decade later was the lynchpin in a plan to conquer all of Mexico’s former territories in the American continent.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1870s that the great Comanche nation, after generations of defensive wars against French, Spanish, Mexican, Texan and finally US invaders, was forced onto reservations. The genocidal role of the Texas Rangers reveals another pernicious myth that needs exploding.
Texas’s reactionary origins go a long way to explaining todays politics; Texas was one of the first states to pass a bill banning the teaching of “critical race theory”.
Learning Black history necessitates learning the history of white supremacy that, overt or hidden, is essential to colonization in the US, Canada and elsewhere. It means casting aside mythology and overturning false hero-worship, an uncomfortable process. Remember all that when you “remember the Alamo”.