Friday, November 13, 2009

Book 7: American Holocaust

American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard

This book was incredibly powerful, but it's also very depressing. After reading this book, especially the first two sections, I almost lost whatever hope and faith I had in human society and wondered if there was really any reason for humanity to exist. It's not like we're a very nice species.

Originally published in 1992, or the quincentennial of Columbus's landing in America, Stannard uses this book to address some of ideas that continue to prevail in schools, most of society and even among many historians. The first two chapters in the section entitled "Before Columbus" appropriately discuss what North and South America looked like before Columbus "discovered" America. Naturally, he can only generalize about a few different areas and societies since there was such a large variety, but he definitely refutes the idea of the empty, unused land that has become rather prevalent in the nation's imagination. Yes, North America wasn't nearly as highly populated as Central and South America (he estimates that Hispaniola alone had a population of 8 million before disease and mass murder basically killed off everyone), but it still had a significant amount of people. And they did cultivate the land and many were rather settled - they didn't become the nomads as seen in the movies until the colonials and Americans drove them off their lands. After all, they were the ones that had to show the Pilgrims and early settlers how to produce food before being thanked by being killed off.

His portrayal of Europe at this time is rather dark as well - while many places in America seemed to have a much more egalatarian society, Europe was definitely a very strict hierarchy of haves vs. have nots. The life expectancy was in the 30s. Most were poor and starving. They were unclean (and then thought the fact that the people in America bathed often) and greedy.

The second section, "Pestilence and Genocide," explore the aftermath of Columbus's voyage. It's one thing to hear about the conquistadors in class and quite another to go through the statistics and numbers as this book does. Millions dead to random killings, diseases and slavery within only a short period of time. Only shortly after talking about the riches and the beauty of this country, the same people then went and destroyed everything just for the phone of it. The utter disregard for human life is absolutely disheartening. And this was just the Spanish, who didn't even intend to commit genocide, it just kind of happened while they were trying to enrich themselves.

In comparison, in North America, genocide was the goal. The Spanish just wanted to get rich and exploited the native people for that reason (the description of the Spanish attrocities still seem worse in a way, possibly due to the documentation or just because much of it happened within a shorter period of time; after all, the expansion in North America lasted over a century); the English and then Americans wanted the land, and the best way to get them off the land was to annihilate them and get them out of the way. Now, Stannard doesn't discuss things such as the Battle of Tippicanoe or other resistance but when it comes down to it, these things didn't justify the American reaction one bit (also, there was quite a bit of propaganda involved in blowing things out of proportion). Wow, the American Indians went on a warpath and killed a few hundred people? Maybe a few women and children, too? Yep, that totally justifies wiping out their entire culture, especially since they didn't kill anyone until they were already on the defensive and being chased from their lands.

It seemed like in history class we always got this idea of the brave settlers that left everything behind to go to a hostile land of uncertainty where they would never see their families or their old country again; however, they were the ones that were hostile and violent and saw it as their duty to kill off the people that originally helped them.

In the final section, "Sex, Race and Holy War," Stannard discusses the religious influences on the thoughts of the Spanish, English and Americans to include their views of sex. He also draws comparisons to other genocides, including the Holocaust since they had their roots in the same historical background and religious cultures. Also here is where it's obvious that this wasn't an abnomaly at all - humans are incredibly violent and intolerant. Between the Crusades, the wars between the Lutherans and the Catholics, blood baths repeat themselves over and over again due to intolerance and ignorance. When looking at those parts of history, it gives a rather bleak view of humanity in general.

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