New World Apocalypse
By Bryan Caplan
The most straightforward – if not the best – way to interpret the end of Apocalypto is that Christian Europeans finally arrived in the New World to put an end to monstrous pagan barbarism. Whether or not that was Gibson’s intention, I bet a lot of viewers will see the movie in this light. The more I read about the conquest of the New World, however, the more convinced I become that the far left has the facts on its side. The Europeans came not to bring civilization, but to destroy civilizations.
Pre-Columbian American contained many societies which were extremely impressive by any standard. (Think what it took to build Chichen Itza, Tikal, or Machu Picchu). As Gregory Mann’s 1491 persuasively argues, there were probably more people in the Americas in 1491 than in Europe. Its greatest cities dwarfed any in Europe in population and modernity. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and yes, the English did not come to bring civilization. They came to loot, enslave, steal land, and murder anyone who got in their way. The reason they succeeded was not that Europeans were more advanced, but that European disease quickly killed a large majority of the population of the New World – with contagion often emptying lands where no European had ever set foot.
You can get the basic facts from a high-quality survey like 1491. But once you bear these basic facts in mind, books that might otherwise seem like hysterical political correctness start to look like completely justified outrage. Take David Stannard’s American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. This book is practically a non-stop history of European crimes in the New World. But once you understand how quickly Indian populations fell by 90%, 95%, 99%, or 100%, historical balance requires nothing less.
In one passage, Stannard compares the high estimates of 20,000 Aztec human sacrifices per year to Cortes’ sack of Tenochtitlan:
[I]n the seige of Tenochtitlan the invading Spanish killed twice that many people in a single day – including (unlike Aztec sacrifice) enormous numbers of innocent women, children, and the aged. And they did it day after day, capping off the enterprise, once Tenochtitlan had been razed, by strip-searching their victims for any treasure they may have concealed before killing them… Lastly, they burned the precious books salvaged by surviving Aztec priests, and then fed the priests to Spanish dogs of war.
The survivors faced one of the deadliest slave regimes in history. Even after the devastation, the ratio of Europeans to natives was so low that slaves were dirt cheap:
For as long as there appeared to be an unending supply of brute labor it was cheaper to work an Indian to death, and then replace him or her with another native, than it was to feed and care for either of them properly. It is probable, in fact, that the life expectancy of an Indian engaged in forced labor in a mine or on a plantation during these early years of Spanish terror in Peru was not much more than three or four months – about the same as that of someone working in the synthetic rubber manufacturing plant at Auschwitz in the 1940’s.
The Spanish and Portuguese killed the most because they colonized the areas with the most people. But the English – and later the Americans – were even more explicitly genocidal. Stannard provides damning testimony from a number of American “Founding Fathers,” which will hopefully forever remove them from the pantheon of libertarian heroes:
George Washington, in 1779, instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack the Iroquois and “lay waste all the settlements around… that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed,” urging the general not to “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.” Sullivan did as instructed…
Jefferson was even worse. In 1807, he…
instructed his Secretary of War that any Indians who resisted American expansion into their lands must be met with “the hatchet.” “And… if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe,” he wrote, “we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi,” continuing: “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” […] Indeed, Jefferson’s writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice – to be “extirpate[d] from the earth” or to remove themselves out of the Americans’ way.
It is fashionable to decry the “moral relativism” of “multicultural” historians, but the shoe does not fit. How’s this for a moral objectivist judgment of Jefferson?
Had these same words been enunciated by a German leader in 1939, and directed at European Jews, they would be engraved in modern memory. Since they were uttered by one of America’s founding fathers, however, the most widely admired of the South’s slaveholding philosophers of freedom [ouch! -B.C.], they conveniently have become lost to most historians in their insistent celebration of Jefferson’s wisdom and humanity.
It’s true, of course, that in there’s a correlation between pointing out these harsh historical truths and opposition to free-market policies for Latin America. But that’s no reason to apologize for the atrocities of the past, or pretend they weren’t horrific. And to go on honoring the names of war criminals because they crossed the Atlantic or wrote the Declaration of Independence is just wrong.