Passage of the day - Of Columbus, Conquistadors and Cruelty
2 minute read
So I'm a few days late, but Monday was Columbus Day for our friends over States' side. I know this because Aguanomics mentioned it at the time, offering the following aphorism:
The Europeans brought technology and used resources for population growth. The locals would have preferred to use the technology for themselves, but they didn't have the guns.
Anyway, the above reminded me of a great passage I read a while ago in David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:
The scarcity of gold was a disappointment, but [Columbus] made the best of things and assured that these islands could be an abundant source of slaves[...] Caribbean history after the coming of the white man was in large part the replacement of people by cattle, followed by a repeopling with black slaves to work the sugar plantations.
The process of depopulation was hastened by massacre, barbarous cruelty, deep despair. The natives committed suicide , abstained from sex, aborted their fetuses, killed their babies. They also fell by the tens and hundreds and thousands to Old World pathogens (smallpox, influenza). The Spanish debated whether the savages they encountered had a soul and were human; but the record makes clear where the savagery lay. When Columbus met his first Indians, he could not get over their friendliness; to this the Spaniards, frustrated for gold, returned bestialities unworthy of beasts. (p. 71)
You can read the whole chapter here. (The most graphic bit actually follows directly from the quoted section. Among other acts of savagery, there is a particularly gruesome sentence involving the treatment of pregnant women...)
On the subject of brutal Spanish incursions into the Americas, it would be rude not to include the following Neil Young classic:
Young does, of course, rather play down the violence that was endemic in some parts of South America prior to the Europeans arriving. Landes actually has a very good line on this issue in a later chapter when discussing a question posed by another eminent scholar, Jared Diamond: Why did the Incas behave so naively (stupidly?) in their dealings with the Spanish, when the latter were so consistently treacherous? Diamond suggested that it was a matter of innocence: The Spanish were well versed in the devious history of man and empires, while the Incas had "no personal experience of any other invaders from overseas... had not even heard (or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime previously in history". However, having listed some of the stark cruelties which had characterised the pre-European Inca Empire, Landes reasonably counters: "But the Incas should have known themselves." (p. 108)
PS - If you're into covers... well, I am. The Dave Matthews Band and Warren Hayes do a very respectable version of "Cortez the Killer" live in Central Park here.