Monday, March 30, 2015

Columbus, greed, slavery, and genocide: what really happened to the American Indians4

Another marvel was the exuberant artwork they found everywhere. Theconquistador Hernan Cortés brought some of it home to Europe, where the great Albrecht Dürer’s reaction was rapture. He said he had:
… never seen in all my days what so rejoiced my heart, as these things. For I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marveled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands. Indeed, I cannot say enough about the things that were brought before me.
The culture of the Indians throughout the Americas varied enormously, as would be expected for such a vast area. But the Spanish were nevertheless amazed to discover that many of the tribes were peaceful, harmonious, and egalitarian, with little sense of greed, crime, or warfare. This was naturally not true of all, but the passivity, hospitality, and community demonstrated by tribe after tribe fills the eyewitness Spanish accounts, which also note their frequently calm and respectful manner of exercising authority, and even unheard of social systems like the cultural, spiritual, and economic matriarchy within the Iroquois.
As the Spanish seized ever more land, Columbus implemented therepartimiento (or encomienda), which gave each of the conquerors a number of Indians to enslave, turning the natives’ previously peaceful way of life into a nightmare of unending brutality and violence as they were forced to mine precious metals and work plantations in sub-human conditions.
This subjugation was repeated throughout the Caribbean, before theconquistadores turned to the mainland, and wreaked the same carnage on the Aztecs of Mexico, the Maya of Central America, the Incas of Peru and Chile, and the other Indians they found.
Unlike the Caribbean Indians, the Aztecs in Mexico were familiar with warfare, although they had formal rules. A declaration of intention to declare war was required, along with the opportunity for the other side to make reparations to avert the conflict. The attacker might also supply the defender with weapons and food, as there was no honour in defeating the unarmed or weak.
However, Hernan Cortés, the conquistador who led the advance into Mexico, had no intention of observing these formalities. Having been welcomed by Montezuma into the great city of Tenochtitlán (now ruins within Mexico City), Cortés set about starving and slaughtering its people, before eventually levelling the city, burning all books, and feeding its priests to his war dogs.
This same pattern of annihilation and conquest was repeated throughout Central and South America. Tens of millions of Indians were rounded up and used as slaves on the coca plantations, or as labour down the GOLD and silver mines, where they worked and slept without ever seeing the light of day, constantly exposed to highly toxic cinnabar, arsenic, and mercury. Life expectancy was brutally low. Theconquistadores calculated that with such an abundant slave workforce, it was cheaper to let them die of starvation and exhaustion than waste time and money providing food or survivable conditions. Oneconquistador recalled, “If twenty healthy Indians enter [a mine] on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday”.
As the conquerors moved south, the strongest resistance came from the Maya, whose empire extended across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and northern El Salvador. But even they were ultimately no match for the fanatical invaders, and the same fate befell them as everyone else.
In shockingly few generations, European greed, savagery, and disease had exterminated all but a handful of the citizens of the millennia-old American Indian civilisations. On average, the tribes’ populations were reduced to around 5 per cent of the size they had been before Columbus arrived.
So much for Central and South America. Further north, in what is now the USA, the Spanish, French, and British pillaged the Atlantic coast for slaves, raiding today’s Florida, Georgia, and Carolina. Finally, in 1607, the British settled permanently, initially at Jamestown, Virginia, where one of the British troops wrote they had found:
a lande that promises more than the Lande of promisse: In steed of mylke we fynde pearl. / & GOLDE INN steede of honye.

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