[Marxism] The violent story of Columbus' forgotten colony

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 18 09:23:26 MDT 2011

On 8/18/2011 11:16 AM, Dennis Brasky wrote:
> The violent story of Columbus' forgotten colony His first settlement, La
> Isabela, has been ignored by history -- but its short existence reshaped our
> world

This is an excerpt from "1493", Charles Mann's follow-up to 
"1491", a book that argued that indigenous peoples were more 
prosperous than Europeans in 1491 in other than monetary terms. 
Here's an excerpt from that book:

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 their 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 the 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?

Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting 
their environment. Europeans tended to manage land by breaking it 
into fragments for farmers and herders. Indians often worked on 
such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to 
grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 
million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but 
they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A 
principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create 
the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than 
domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems 
to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white 
settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could 
drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the 
annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy 
was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to 
goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, 
Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, 
much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. 
Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo 
farms. When Indian societies disintegrated, forest invaded 
savannah in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Texas 
Hill Country. Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas 
more than the invading Europeans did? "The answer is probably yes 
for most regions for the next 250 years or so" after Columbus, 
William Denevan wrote, "and for some regions right up to the 
present time."

full: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/2445/

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