…thousands of years later, they were invaded, enslaved and wiped out from their land. Not really by the forces they could see – the Europeans – whom they far outnumbered; but by the unseen forces – the pathogens. And in ones, tens, hundreds … then millions; families, communities … and generations – the Indians; they perished … helplessly.
The Europeans’ invasion of the Red Indian’s (Native American) nation, preferably referred to by historians as the New World, remains one the most important events in the history of the world. The phrase “New World” is by itself a term that masks the actual act of the European nation’s incursion on the Indians land. There are various angles from which the invasion of the Indian native land by the Europeans (Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Dutch, Russia, Swedish and Courland) can be viewed, however, our major consideration in this discourse would be to revisit and clarify two of those perspectives: (1) the consequences of first European contact on Native Americans and (2) to draw a conclusion on whether those consequences could be described as genocide.
It would be helpful that we get a brief view of the origin of the Native Americans; the Europeans nations that invaded America and why they (the Europeans) invaded America. This background will then lead us into getting a clear picture of the life of the Native Americans before and after European invasion. It is the event that transpires within that gap (before and after) that would lead us to understand and appreciate the consequences of European contact on Native Americans.
BACKGROUND There is still much controversy over how the Native Americans migrated into the Americas. Classic studies on this issue, however, contain one consistency – that America’s first pioneers crossed into North America through the Bering Strait – which now separates Siberia and Alaska. Before the coming of the Europeans, the Indians had their own civilization well established, yet going through the process of refinement. So, as opposed to view of the Europeans that the invasion of the New World was necessary to bring civilization to the Indians, the Indians had already formed their own well established culture, the coming of the Europeans was an intrusion; one with catastrophic consequences.
What then prompted Europeans, in their legion, to invade the New World? The answer is not out of reach. The European invasion and final conquest of America was not unrelated to the economical cum political turmoil ongoing in Europe at the time. Succinctly put, the quest to find a sea route to Asia and the East Indies as a means to “eliminate Islamic middlemen and win control of the lucrative trade for Christian Western Europe“ (Eric Foner, 20) had been the motive for the incursion of European nations to America. And so with Columbus’s Spain sponsored voyage of 1492 and his landing on the Bahamas on October 12, 1942, the first contact between Europeans had been established. Following Columbus’s lead, other European nations, having famous explorers as their forerunners came to the Americas armed with superior firearms. Their intent as earlier mentioned was to further expand their empires and to control trades routes to Asia.
It should be noted however, that unknown to Columbus and the other Europeans that came after him, they had come with an army more fiercer than they could ever muster against the Native Americans; they came with pathogens – the very crude assailants that would wreak massive havoc on the Indian population. This pathogen delivery, explained Robert Constanza “would ultimately devastate the huge human population of the Americas and leave subsequent European explorers and settler’s with the mistaken impression that the entire hemisphere was a lightly populated wilderness” (1).
DECIMATION OF THE INDIANS – GENOCIDE?
It has been estimated that approximately 80 million native Indians died as a result of the various consequences arising from the contact they had with Europeans. The question therefore is “Was this outcome an act of genocide?” The answer lies in the ensuing discussion.
Genocide is defined as the “systematic killing of people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, political opinion, social status, etc.” (Word Web Dictionary). Pathetically, as a result of contact with the Europeans, several indigenous (Native American) generations were either nearly wiped or totally wiped out. For instance, the population on Hispaniola which was estimated between 300,000 and 1 million in 1492 had almost disappeared half a century later and the population of Mexico considerably from 20 million to 2 million – a ninety percent decrease. Another account stated that (as a result of the European diseases) of the several Mississippian groups, “only the Natchez survived into the 1700s long enough to be described by Europeans” (“The First Americans”, The Cultures of Prehistoric America Digital History, 23-June-11). Could it then be interpreted that the catastrophic decline of the native Indian population was an act of genocide perpetrated by the Europeans? The answer is an emphatic NO!
The European diseases, which has been named the most prominent assailants of the Indians was not injected into the Indians skin, sources of food or water; rather as explained by Robert Constanza (2006), it was the Indians weak immune system that actually gave in to the pathogens of the Europeans. The Native Americans for several generations had never been exposed to the types of diseases that plagued the Europeans. Diseases such as syphilis, small pox and flu were totally foreign to the Indians and their immune system. Over several generations, for thousands for years, there was no transmission of genes that could have served as a barricade against the pathogens brought by the Europeans; hence, the Indians’ immune system succumbed to the diseases against which they had no shield or cure. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus(2005)Charles Mann explained “Native Americans have far less diversity than Europeans in their human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), molecules inside human cells that are essential to the body’s main defenses against pathogens”.
Contrariwise, European populations in the 1400 had diverse HLA profiles, and this allowed a large percentage of them to resist most diseases, even the plague. But the Indians having been sealed away in the protective cocoon of the Americas and then suddenly intruded upon by the pathogens living on the Europeans had no defenses, neither cure for the ailments which was strange to them, consequently, they died in large numbers. Though the population decline of the Native Americans favored the Europeans, the resulting death could not be totally attributed to the Europeans callousness. Therefore the mass deaths cannot be described genocide – it was not systematic like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocides. The Europeans could not have controlled how the Indians reacted to the unseen pathogens they carried. In fact, during the War preceding Independence, it is reported that even the Europeans were a casualty of their own diseases. Even George Washington was reported to be scarred for life as a result of having contracted small pox. Also, an account during the war noted that “Washington obtained approval from the Continental Congress for this program after observing the effect of smallpox on General Horatio Gates’ American Northern Army. Of Gates’ 10,000 troops, 5500 had to be hospitalized, and the campaign had to be suspended for five weeks” (Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensible Man pg 8). This instances help to clarify that the European diseases (largely responsible for the death of native Indians en masse) was not unique to the Native Americans.
There were also instances of wars and hard labor, under which the Indians could bear no weight, hence, their considerable decimation. A notable skirmish, described as the bloodiest, between the New Englanders and the Indians, was in 1675, when an Indian alliance attacked New Englanders encroaching on Indian lands; an Indian Wampanoag leader, Metacom was described as the leader of the militia. Eventually, 52000 and 4,000 Europeans lay dead at the end. Several other showdowns resulted between Europeans and the Indians, but the Native Americans were subdued due to military prowess and superior firearms possessed by the Europeans. On several instances, the English (now Americans) were considerate of the Native Americans and showed respect for treaties they had earlier made with them. In The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor, George Washington was noted to have addressed the senate stating in reference to the Cherokees that “the treaties which have been entered into with the other tribes in that quarter must be faithfully performed on our parts”. An event that depicts the respect of some Europeans for the native Americans.
The Europeans had come to the Americas to gain land and to facilitate trade routes to Asia, and to achieve this, it became unavoidable that they engage in acts that would lead to the massive decimation of the Indians’ population. It was an exemplified instance of superior warfare. Notwithstanding their selfishness, their acts could not be construe as genocide.
Eric Foner – Give Me Liberty! An American History, Second Edition
R. Constanza, LJ Graumlich, W Steffen eds. 2006.. Sustainability or Collapse, An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth.. Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, Dahlem Workshop Report 96.
Digital History – www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
Henry J. Sage, Native American Cultures, 2006
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensible Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. ISBN 0-316-28616-8 @ Amazon [a] p. 8
The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor