The settlement of the Americas still brings up images of brave conquistadors or tough-as-nails frontiersmen taming a savage wilderness. Our history, as told through the popular narratives propagated by the Canadian education system, seems one of white colonists from England, France, and Spain bringing civilization to a New World. The national history of Canada begins with Jacques Cartier, that of the United States, with Christopher Columbus, that of central and South America, with Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. We have built a myth of an empty land to justify the presence of our settler states; we are made aware that that people dwelt in “the New World”, but that their histories aren’t worthy of attention. We hold up as heroes the same men who so gleefully displaced and exterminated local populations, and trace our cultural routes across the sea. History, it seems, belongs to Europe, and settlers brought history to the Americas.
The settler myths providing the foundations for westward expansion have outlived their usefulness–the west was won a long time ago. And yet we still reproduce them, and still leave the original Americans out of western historical narratives. Like popular conceptions of Africa, native Americans are often painted as a people without history, or (in the case of the Aztecs and the Inca) peoples for whom their own history has ended, replaced by another.
Ever since I read A Short History of Progress, I’ve meant to seek out Ronald Wright’s previous volume, Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas (1992). Wright’s goal, in part, is to challenge the narratives mentioned above by presenting the voices of the indigenous peoples of America in the face of European settlement. Similar in intent to Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1984), Stolen Continents forms a depressing account of the exploitation, destruction and genocide leading to the creation of settler states that, unlike those in Africa and Asia, could never be decolonized. It challenges commonly held preconceptions by which the settler population attempts to assert superiority and ultimately demonstrates how our “modern” world was built on the backs of oppressed populations.
This is a huge project, and Wright wisely narrows his focus on five indigenous civilizations: the Aztec, the Inca, the Maya, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois. We follow these peoples through three periods: Conquest, Resistance, and Rebirth. While Wright does go into some detail about pre-Columbian America, the focus rests on the interaction between colonizers and colonized, and about the myths settlers built and the native narratives they covered in the process.
It is important to note, at this point, that the image of an uncivilized North America is a self-serving one, and wholly false. There were cities here, and polities, and hierarchal governments derived independently from Sumer. Some 80 to 100 million people inhabited the Americas in 1492, with 250,000 living in the Aztec capital—one of the largest cities in the world. The consolidated states in central and South America were more than capable of defending themselves against the incursions of the Spaniards even with their obsidian weapons by organization and strength of numbers. In fact, the Aztecs defeated Cortes in his first expedition among the Mexica. The real facilitator for early colonial expansion was the disease the conquistadors brought with them, small pox being the deadliest. Over the next century, plague decimated nearly nine tenths of the native population. As Wright puts it:
The “tribes” the English would find, though still considerable, were remnants of once-powerful states. […] America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found America was not a virgin, she was a widow. (91)
The early establishment of colonies lay mainly in opportunism, not in the perceived superiority of Europeans. “Western” technological superiority was often not enough until the Industrial Revolution; Cortes would have left the Aztec Empire in shame if not for the spread of disease. Smallpox toppled the last great Inca king, and Pizarro happened upon a civil war between his sons. So much of the early European foothold in the Americas rested on sheer luck.
Wright, strangely enough, echoes the sentiments of Robert E. Howard in his estimation of the “civilization” settlers of European descent supposedly brought over the sea and so often used in their rhetoric to justify oppression of the “savage”:
“Civilization,” like “freedom” and “democracy,” is a word that kills. I use it in its literal sense, as a shorthand for settled life in towns and cities. If the word means anything at all it is only this. The moral values commonly attached to it are nonsense. Civilized people have practiced the Roman circus, the Aztec sacrifice, the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of witches, the gassing of Jews. Uncivilized ones have behaved no worst. (100)
What followed was the wholesale denial and destruction of pre-colonial history. Spanish priests burned the Mayan codices, Spaniards smashed the Aztec and Inca temples, British and French quashed the religion, language, and oral traditions of the Iroquois. It was not enough to appropriate the land, colonizers needed to erase its history as well, and write a new one.
This is nothing new in the annals of colonization. The Teutonic Knights wrote the Book of Maccabees over the Baltic, and Wright rightly ties the Iberian conquest of South and Central America to the Reconquista. The parallels to crusading ideology are strong: many European settlers saw the Americas as a new “Holy Land” as Israel had been for the Jews, and the Amerindians, by extension, as the wicked Canaanites that God ordered destroyed. This type of language was even stronger among Protestants than Catholics. The conceptions of the New World came to rest in religious narratives originating in the Levant. Thus, settlers and their descendants subsumed the land itself as the domain of the old world’s traditions, in an attempt to write out the people who occupied the land before.
Euro-Americans do not like to be reminded that their presence in America was essentially parasitic until they grew strong enough to do without the host. If you visit Iroquoia today, you find that an alien historical landscape has been laid down like a rug beneath with the real history has been swept. Iroquois places have been renamed Syracuse, Rome, Ithaca, Homer, Ovid, as if the past could be transferred by logomancy from one world to another. (121)
I have encountered a major error far too often from so-called “progressives” on the left: that the era of colonialism is over, that Canada and the United States were never empires. In fact, colonialism is ongoing, the white population now vastly outnumbers the native one, but they are still here. Reservations often lack clean drinking water and other basic amenities. The Westward expansion of Canada and the United States too often rested on policies of ethnic cleansing, such as the Cherokee removal, while the Latin populations in many South and Central American countries continue to oppress the larger indigenous populations in the name of (Western-influenced) progress. As you might expect, the “fairness” of democracy has worked against much-shrunk first nations peoples who were once the only inhabitants of the Americas; “Time and again in the history of race relations, self-interested majorities have used ‘democracy’ to tyrannize minorities” (373).
The irony is that the industrial revolution that allowed for rapid expansion was, in part, the result of those early forays into the Americas:
Neither Indian nor invader could have known how quickly the rules and pace of the game were about to change. Western civilization, primed by the immense transfer of bullion and food crops from the New World, was beginning to industrialize. To an extent that is only now being examined, native America’s stolen assets—gold, maize, and potatoes—bankrolled her own destruction. (240)
To this, I would add African slaves, who provided the labour necessary to exploit the resources of the New World. Our modern economic system began with forced removal and slavery, without them, the west may never have gained the influence it has now.
My only real complaint with Stolen Continents is Wright’s penchant to soften the cruelty often displayed by the indigenous populations in the Americas against each other, particularly among the Aztecs. A Short History of Progress and What is America? rectify the softening present here somewhat. The Aztec state was essentially parasitic, and the other component in Cortes’s victory besides disease was the willingness of subject states to march against Montezuma. As for the cruelty displayed by native populations during the conquest and afterwards, Wright notes that the settler side of the story has been told often enough.
There is also the sticky problem of the written texts Wright relies upon, either speeches recorded by settlers or accounts written by Amerindians in the tongue of the conquerors. That problem, however, is unavoidable: the attempts by colonizers to eradicate native languages and oral traditions were mostly successful. As with the history of Africa, the historian’s bias towards written texts proves a detriment when working in areas without writing systems, or where texts were wholly destroyed.
Stolen Continents is not a balanced account, but it is, I believe, a required one. Whereas previous postcolonial work on the topic has generally been the territory of academics, Wright’s work is easily accessible, and well worth the read.