The conquest of the Americas

"Landing of Columbus" - Christopher ...

“Landing of Columbus” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, I came across an essay by Howard Zinn, the famous historian and activist (now deceased), on the real historical Christopher Columbus.  I suspect Zinn’s portrayal of events was a bit one sided (I doubt the Native Americans were quite the lambs that he portrayed), but he probably overcompensated to some extent for the version we learned in grade school being far too one sided in the other direction, for it essentially being whitewashed.

Reading the essay reminded me of the brief and infrequent mentions of Native Americans in my historical education.  I remember learning that the Pilgrims, early English immigrants on the east coast of America, were aided by Native Americans during their time of crisis with training on how to grow local crops like corn, and how surprised I was by the idea that there were “Indians” that far east.

I recall them being mentioned again in relation to the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Years War), but the first hint that I got that maybe things weren’t going well historically for Native Americans was in a brief side bar, in the chapter on Andrew Jackson, about the Trail of Tears.  And finally getting to the (brief) narrative of the American Indian Wars in the late 19th century.

It wasn’t until I was in college and started reading history more broadly that I realized that the entire history of the progress of westerners moving across the North American continent, was in fact a period of relentless conquest, with Native Americans consistently being pushed off of their lands, or in many cases eradicated.  The utter failure of K-12 history textbooks to discuss this glaring fact of history was an eye opener for me, one of the indications that the view of the world I had received growing up was pretty slanted.

Many Americans resist hearing about this conquest history, asserting that what actually happened was that Native Americans were wiped out by smallpox.  While there is some truth to this, Native American populations were indeed ravaged by smallpox and other communicable diseases brought in by Europeans, it doesn’t explain the large scale disappearances of Native American societies.  What does explain it is large scale conquest by westerners.

Of course, similar events were happening during these centuries in South America, Africa, India, and Australia, so this is far from being an issue unique to the US.  And I’m not even sure it makes sense to single out Europeans for doing this, since there can be little doubt that many other societies (such as the Mongols or the Ottomans) would have done the same thing if they’d had the chance.  Europe just happened to reach the right level of technological development at the right point in history.

So then what’s the point?  I think it’s important to understand real history, to understand the real relationship that the west has had with much of the rest of the world.  Undoubtedly the west has brought modernization and many benefits, but we should remember that before those benefits, came conquest, and understand how much this complicates our current relationship with the rest of the world.

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