“The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria and laid siege to it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.”
--2 Kings 17:5-6
On October 12, 1492, Cristoforo Colombo, a Genoese mercenary in service to the King of Spain, arrived with his small task force of three ships at the island of Guanahani in the Caribbean. In the mistaken belief that he had reached China, Colombo named the island San Salvador and took prisoner several of the native Arawak or Taino people, shipping them back to Spain with the notation that they would make “good servants.” Of course, he had actually reached the Western Hemisphere, soon to be called “the New World.” On that fateful day, North and South America had been continuously inhabited, by some estimates, for 30,000 years; there were likely more human beings living there than in Europe; and the cities of Tenochtitlán (capital of the Triple Alliance, also referred to as the Aztec Empire) and Qosqo (capital of the largest empire on Earth at that time, Tawantinsuyu or the Inkan Empire) were larger than any comparable cities on the continent of Colombo’s birth. In search of spices and gold, Colombo brought with him smallpox. When he arrived at Quisqueya (Hispaniola), its total population was perhaps as high as eight million people. Through disease, not to mention Colombo’s policy of forced slave labor, nearly the entire population was wiped out within a few years. As more Europeans arrived and invaded the mainland, the plague spread, depopulating large areas of North and South America. The total population of Earth in 1500 was approximately 500 million, with between 90 and 112 million living in the Western Hemisphere. Within a century and a half of Colombo’s arrival, 80 to 100 million Native Americans had been claimed by disease, roughly one out of every five human beings on the planet. An excellent recent work on this subject, and the re-revisionism of Native American history, is 1491, by Charles C. Mann. Whereas contemporaries of Colombo, like Bartolomé de las Casas, described a land that was a “beehive of people,” the next generation of explorers found emptiness, leading to the enduring myth that North America was virgin unclaimed territory. De las Casas first came to the Americas as a conquistador himself, but was sickened by the brutality he witnessed and, repenting, entered the priesthood. His posthumous work, Apologética Historia Sumaria, was the first attempt by Europeans to write truthfully about Native American culture. In fact, the “discovery” of the “New World” had led to a crisis in Christianity, since these lands and people were not to be found in Holy Scripture. De las Casas’ famous debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 was over the blunt issue of whether or not Native Americans were human beings. De las Casas had a somewhat romantic view, arguing that Indians were naturally innocent, living in paradise; a patronizing and offensive position, to be sure, but certainly better than de Sepúlveda’s contention that Indians were essentially animals who only looked like men, natural slaves created to serve white men and incapable of self-governance. King Charles V (grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella) was persuaded to de las Casas’ point of view; one can only imagine how things could have been worse for Indians had he gone with de Sepúlveda instead.
Once white American society began to care about the opinions of Indians, several rationalizations have sprung up to defend Colombo and his holiday, Columbus Day. One holds that Colombo and Europeans weren’t morally culpable for the Smallpox Holocaust because it was a disease, and they had no control over it. This overstates European ignorance; while they were not aware of germ theory (and neither were the Indians) they did know about diseases and de las Casas wrote of the incredible destruction smallpox inflicted on Indian societies. And, of course, centuries later, smallpox would be used as a weapon of mass destruction, with first the British then the Americans deliberately passing along infected blankets. Another excuse is that the Indians “weren’t using” the land and therefore it was morally right for whites to take it. The breathtaking ignorance displayed by this “argument” almost defies explanation. It is true, as Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote, that no Indian ever conceived of the notion of dumping so many chemicals into a river that it would catch fire, but it is a condescending myth that Indians did not shape their environment. In North America, various tribes used controlled burnings to alter forests and the Great Plains to support wild game, since they did not domesticate food animals. In South America, Indians turned large areas of the Amazon Basin into orchards to support large populations with fruit and nut-bearing trees. Indians only failed “to use” the land by the white standard, sadly still prevailing, that nature exists only to be consumed. One justification popular when I was in school was the “inevitable conflict” theory, the idea that yes, it was really sad what happened to the Indians, but it couldn’t be helped; both groups of people couldn’t live on the same land. But why not? Not all Indians were nomadic hunters like the great Plains tribes; many Southeastern tribes were farmers. Some, like the Cherokee, were landowners, and even slaveowners, just like their white neighbors. No, the conflict was not “inevitable,” because there was never an attempt made in American history by whites to live alongside Native Americans for any longer than was necessary to assemble the power to shove the tribes further and further west. The only inevitability was in the greed, racism and brutality of the majority of white settlers. So, as Columbus Day comes, it would be more fitting to take at least a brief moment to reflect on the results of that landing in 1492: a mass loss of life virtually unequalled in human history; the theft of two continents; the near-destruction and marginalization of whole cultures in the name of greed. While it is true that these tragedies occurred centuries ago, we continue to live with their consequences today and we perpetuate them by continuing to teach our children a white-washed, fictionalized history that glosses over brutality and mythologizes cruel and vicious men.