Monday, March 30, 2015

Columbus, greed, slavery, and genocide: what really happened to the American Indians6

Penalties for this type of racial disloyalty were harsh. In 1612, Thomas Dayle, Marshall of Virginia, captured some young English settlers who had run away to live with the Indians. His retribution was swift and brutal:
Some he apointed to be hanged Some burned Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to deathe.
So far the focus of the story has been the settlers’ violence. But the biggest killer of the American Indians was undoubtedly the arsenal of diseases brought by the Europeans. The role of disease in this context remains a hotly debated issue. However, it is wholly misleading to think — as many now do — that the Indian deaths caused by these invisible microbial killers were unforeseeable, accidental, inadvertent, or otherwise an unintended consequence of peaceful contact between the Europeans and the Indians. The volumes filled with eyewitness accounts of settler savagery leave no one in any doubt that the conquerors of the New World wanted land, and were pleased by all opportunities to take it. The British Puritans viewed the decimation of tribe after tribe from disease as being an integral part of God’s active support for their new colonies. For instance, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony noted after an epidemic of smallpox in 1634 that the British settlers had been largely unharmed, but:
… for the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.
The human devastation wrought by the diseases carried by Columbus’s men and everyone who followed was cataclysmic: a rolling cocktail of diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, typhus, scarlet fever, smallpox, syphilis — the list is endless. Not only did these pathogens cull whole native populations, but they kept on killing, even once individual outbreaks had abated, because there was no one left strong enough to bury the dead or gather food.
It is wholly misleading to think that the deaths caused by disease were unforeseeable or an unintended consequence of peaceful contact

In 1793, once the American War of Independence had concluded with the Treaty of Paris, the “Indian Question” became a domestic matter for the new American administration.
Alongside growth in the African slave trade, the slavery of Indians continued undiminished right up to the general abolition of slavery in 1865. For instance, in 1861, in Colusa County, California, Indian boys and girls of three and four years old were still being sold for small sums. Such child slaves were often kidnapped and sold by traders, secure in the knowledge that the parents could do nothing, as Indians could not give testimony in court against whites.
As the settlers pushed across the Plains and the West, tales of whooping, tomahawk-wielding, Indians slaughtering whites became ever more widespread. But it is noteworthy that, pre-colonisation, many of the Indians in the area did not have violent cultures. Among some tribes, sneaking up on an enemy and touching him with a weapon, stick, or even a hand was traditionally deemed the highest form of bravery. However, in the face of continual attacks, the Indians learned to respond with violence.
As alien as it may seem now, by the late 1700s, many American leaders were openly advocating the destruction and extermination of the encampments and tribes. For instance, in 1779, a decade before he became first president of the U.S., General George Washington told the military commander attacking the Iroquois to:
… lay waste all the settlements around … that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed
and not to:
… listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.
He insisted upon the military need to fill the Indians with a:
… terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Other presidents were more explicit still. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson told his Secretary of State for War to use “the hatchet” and that:
… we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi … in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.
It was a theme Jefferson was to return to several times, freely using words like “exterminate” and “extirpate”.

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