Although the official holiday commemorating the event was celebrated this past Monday, Christopher Columbus in fact landed in the Americas today, October 12th. Each year the usual leftist memes and narratives about evil white people inflicting genocide on peaceful natives are wheeled out, and this year was no exception. Very typical is this article on Salon, for example, where we read:
The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world,” Stannard wrote in his book “American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.
There is far too much misinformation in the article to refute point-by-point, so let’s just focus on the overall inaccuracy and dishonesty of the genocide narrative, which is nothing but a simplistic and a thinly-veiled political propaganda.
Any competent speaker of the English language knows that, just like the term “suicide”, the term “genocide” describes a particular intentional act by a responsible agent. If an obese person’s eating causes his own death from diabetes, we do not say he committed suicide. Similarly, if a skier inadvertently causes an avalanche that buries a town below, we do not call him a mass murderer. The fact that an agent’s act initiates a causal chain ending in a death is insufficient to make that act an act of killing. (For philosophers: think about Donald Davidson’s climber and jiggling the rope) Of course, none of this hinges on any philosophical doctrine, but much philosophical ink has been spilled in order to elucidate this distinction between causing an event of a certain kind (say, a death) and an act-type, like murder, which everyone grasps before ever signing up for Philosophy 101.
It is beyond question that Columbus’s arrival ultimately led to the widespread death of millions of American Indians. I cannot blame any American Indian for looking at that event as precipitating an unmitigated disaster. But a disaster is one thing; genocide is quite another. Those who use the term “genocide” to describe the disaster are either historically ignorant or dishonest. The reason is simple: the vast majority of American Indians who died because of European contact died of smallpox. One study, Guns, Germs, and Steel, estimated that the Native American population declined by 90% in the 16th century because of the epidemic. But contrary to absurd narratives peddled by some leftists, the pre-Columbian population of the New World could not have been significantly more than about 25 or 30 million people. Estimates of 100 million are unscientific exaggerations meant to magnify the genocide narrative.
It is true that reports by the European explorers in the 1500s tended to describe the New World as teeming with people. This is not simply in Central America but in North America too. Yet, by the time England makes a serious effort to send colonizers, it becomes much more common to describe the land as largely uninhabited.
Now, was the introduction of smallpox an act of genocide? Hardly. The entire world was suffering from outbreaks of smallpox between the 1500s-1600s. Africa, Asia, and Europe all experienced massive depopulations. We have census and tax data (See Parker’s massive 2013 monograph Global Crisis) from all over Europe and China showing that many areas in Europe and Asia were effectively depopulated due to war, disease, and starvation. Some regions of Poland saw a 50% reduction in taxable households. In Tangcheng, 60% of the population died in the 1630s. Wurttemberg declined from 450,000 people in 1618 to 100,000 in 1639. There are also indications that many regions of Africa experienced up to 50% losses of life from outbreaks. The inspiration behind Parker’s book, suggested by the title, is the fact that the 17th century was truly a global crisis. No doubt, the Americas felt the global crisis more than any other region, but they also had less previous exposure to smallpox due to lack of livestock (as argued in Guns, Germs, and Steel).
But if the American Indian deaths, due to disease, resulting from European contact constitutes genocide, would the 40% or 60% reductions in population in European towns and districts represent cultural suicide by Europeans? There might be an interesting point about the European wars that such a metaphor expresses, but no one could seriously think that these outbreaks were an act of intentional self-destruction. So it is no more plausible to call the same outbreaks in the Americas an act of genocide. To attribute these deaths to Europeans and call it a genocide, with no mention of concurrent worldwide epidemics and depopulation is, as I say, either ignorant or dishonest.
One of the more academically worrisome aspects of the genocide narrative is that it condescendingly reduces the history of all Indians, from Iroquois in the Northeastern United States to the Caribs in the West Indies, to the various warring states of Mexico such as the Aztecs, Tarascans, and Tlaxcallans to the simplistic narrative of European contact, where Europeans are the sole active agents with the Natives as passive victims. Anyone who has spent any time reading world history or any history knows that such overly simplistic narratives are almost always false.
Let us begin with Mesoamerica. Most people know that the Aztecs were conquered by Cortez. But how many people know that the Aztecs were an aggressive empire that was at war with other Mesoamerican states? The story of Aztec expansion and the resistance of states like the Tlaxcallans and Totonacs could have been written by Thucydides. Cortez only conquered the far superior Aztec numbers because Tlaxcala and the Totonacs considered the Spanish useful allies to curb the great threat of the Aztecs coming from Tenochtitlan. It is not my point here to defend the enserfment of the defeated Aztecs, but it should be noted that Tlaxacala had a very different experience. They were never conquered but accepted Spanish sovereignty while retaining considerable local power. Their self-government as four adjoining polities within the Spanish empire continued through the transition from New Spain to Mexico in the 19th century (see Gibson’s Tlaxacala in the Sixteenth Century).
Although not allies like the Tlaxacallans, the Tarascans also accepted Spanish sovereignty and likewise were exempt from the brutal suppression that the Spaniard inflicted upon the Mesoamerican states they defeated in war. The diverse histories of the Aztecs, Tarascans, and Tlaxacallans make the imposition of a single narrative in Mesoamerica inaccurate or misleading. And certainly the treatment of the latter two cannot be understood as a genocide. They were treated the same way conquering powers in Europe treated new additions to their empire. It may be profoundly immoral, but the term “genocide” does not help us to understand what happened.
There is much more to be said here. Spain does not represent all colonial powers. English and French models were quite different in their approach to the Americas. The French got along famously with the Indians they encountered. The British treated the Indians as sovereign polities and negotiated and made trade agreements and alliances with them. The British actually angered American colonials by attempting to enforce a treaty with Indian tribes stipulating that no British settlements past the crest of the Appalachians would be made. And contrary to the simplistic “White Man versus Red Man” theme inherent to the genocide narrative, Indian tribes found themselves in conflict with one another before and during the French and Indian War. The roots of the intra-Indian conflicts were pre-European, and continued after strategic alliances with the European powers. The fact is that everyone was killing everyone—a fact gruesomely, though accurately, depicted in the movie The Revenant.
There just is no responsible way to interpret the hundreds of negotiations, treaties, and alliances that took place between Iroquois, Algonquin, French, and British leaders as a European genocide; an act perpetrated by Europeans to wipe out the natives. It is undeniably true that the ultimate sequence of events led to the destruction of indigenous polities. But reducing those complex events to the silly genocide narrative is ignorant or dishonest. History is far, far more complicated.