1491

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 25 15:50:20 MST 2002


(This is an excerpt from an extraordinary article titled "1491" by
Charles C. Mann that appears in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly,
which is unfortunately not online. For anybody who has even the
slightest interest in the sort of questions that Jim Blaut raised in
his books and that I have raised online should seek this article
out.)

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of
the world's largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan dazzled
Hernan Cortes in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest
metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets,
ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from
hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with
botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in
Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that
kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren't ankle-deep
in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.)
Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of
miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in
1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land
was "so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited
with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people ... [that] I would
rather live here than any where."

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate.
But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European
life. France-"by any standards a privileged country" according to its
great historian, Fernand Braudel-experienced seven nationwide famines
in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was
hunger's constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were
heaped onto carts "like common dung" (the simile is Daniel Defoe's)
and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London
orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent.
Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking
up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed,
"merely a realistic detail."

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson's history of Indian America, puts
the comparison bluntly: "the western hemisphere was larger, richer,
and more populous than Europe." Much of it was freer, too. Europeans,
accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea,
were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for
human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North
America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were
absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams
wrote, "they will not conclude of ought ... unto which the people are
averse."

Pre-1492 America wasn't a disease-free paradise, Dobyns says,
although in his "exuberance as a writer," he told me recently, he
once made that claim. Indians had ailments of their own, notably
parasites, tuberculosis, and anemia. The daily grind was wearing;
life-spans in America were only as long as or a little longer than
those in Europe, if the evidence of indigenous graveyards is to be
believed. Nor was it a political Utopia-the Inca, for instance,
invented refinements to totalitarian rule that would have intrigued
Stalin. Inveterate practitioners of what the historian Francis
Jennings described as "state terrorism practiced horrifically on a
huge scale," the Inca ruled so cruelly that one can speculate that
their surviving subjects might actually have been better off under
Spanish rule.

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they
would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in
1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging
the past by the standards of today-a fallacy disparaged as
"presentism" by social scientists. But every one chose to be an
Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the
leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live
with the Indians. My ancestor shared dieir desire, which is what led
to the trumped-up murder charges against him- or that's what my
grandfather told me, anyway.

As for the Indians, evidence suggests that they often viewed
Europeans with disdain. The Hurons, a chagrined missionary reported,
thought the French possessed "little intelligence in comparison to
themselves." Europeans, Indians said, were physically weak, sexually
untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain dirty. (Spaniards,
who seldom if ever bathed, were amazed by die Aztec desire for
personal cleanliness.) A Jesuit reported that the "Savages" were
disgusted by handkerchiefs: "They say, we place what is unclean in a
fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as
something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground." The
Micmac scoffed at the notion of French superiority. If Christian
civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants leaving?

--
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 02/25/2002

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