Blame Columbus

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After all, his coming to the New World was just the great-granddaddy of yesterday’s attack on Afghanistan. Darn Westerners imposing their values on everybody else, as some are putting it.

It’s become the vogue lately to trash Western civilization in general and the United States in particular, and poor Chris (who never saw the United States) has become the lightning rod for it. Some of them are even true.

But when I see such people give their versions of history, it’s sort of like watching a horse with a bad case of the blinks wearing blinders.

What I see is the historical equivalent of relying on a single benchmark number. You clump different facts together, and they hide the truth.

Everybody Was Rotten Back Then (and some of them still are)

A lot of our ancestors get lambasted nowadays for not being politically correct.

I suppose they’re as guilty of not being PC as they are of not having had PCs, but it’s sort of hard holding people to standards they had no idea existed.

It would be one thing if they were rotten at the same time others were being good, but that’s just not so. By PC standards, everybody was rotten.

Outside of a relative handful, they were all racist and intolerant and warlike and bloodthirsty. If they weren’t beating the hell out of their neighbors, it was because their neighbors were beating the hell out of them.

None of that wasn’t invented in the West. What was first invented in the West was a better stick with which to do the beatings. Later on, the West invented the notion that maybe there was better things to do than perpetually beat on each other.

If you look upon any particular societal evil, I think you’ll find the West never really invented any new ones (though they certainly inherited all the old ones and enthusiastically pursued them), but they’ve generally taken the lead in getting rid of them.

Dear old Chris and Company gets blamed for two particular Western evils: beating up on Native Americans and slavery.

Now Chris himself didn’t have the highest opinion of native Americans, and enslaved a few of them himself, so he and his successors hardly have a clean slate.

However, those with an agenda haven’t found the truth (which is bad enough) good enough for their purposes. Why settle for mere slaughter when “genocide” is in the dictionary.

So on this historic day, let’s look at a little history, and see just how guilty these folks really were.

Native Americans: Is It Genocide When You Don’t Even Know It’s Happening?

The Native Americans in what is now known as Central and South America (along with the Caribbean) certainly did have a rough time of it after Chris showed up. Guesstimates are that the population dropped about 90% in the two centuries after he made it on the scene, from roughly 20 million to 2 million.

(This is where most Native Americans lived by the way, not in what is now the U.S., which only had a couple million people pre-Columbus Day.)

That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

However, the vast majority of these people didn’t die because of blood-drenched conquistadors; they died due to these new-fangled diseases these guys brought along with them against which they had no immunity .

These diseases got around even faster than the white man; we’re finding out now that Native Americans the white man didn’t even existed were getting wiped out by diseases such as smallpox. (For the most part, Native Americans living in the U.S. were unaffected by this; they met Western diseases from the English and French starting in the seventeenth century).

This was just as much a mystery to the Europeans as the Native Americans; this was well before Europe had any idea of contagion beyond that it happened. No deliberate biological warfare here; that was only tried here and there centuries later.

This doesn’t mean the Spanish and Portuguese were all sweetness and light to the natives; they certainly weren’t. Those they did enslave had such a bad habit of dying that the Spanish and Portuguese looked towards Africa for a better work force.

But even if they had been the nicest guys in the world, most of those Native Americans would have died anyway.

To me, accidental genocide is an oxymoron.

The record of the United States and its own Native Americans (while the U.S. wasn’t quite as deliberately bad and Native Americans not quite as good as PC would have you believe, it’s not too far off); is bad enough without having to fabricate mass genocides.

Slavery: How Much Work Can A Dead Slave Do?

This is another area where we hear about great evil, and that favorite term “genocide” gets used often.

The truth is a good deal more complicated. Again, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the truth is bad enough. It’s just not as bad as some would have you believe.

The West didn’t invent slavery. It had been around for thousands and thousands of years. If you lost a war, and didn’t get killed in the process, odds are you became a slave. There’s been plenty of British and Irish and French and German slaves over the course of history. Around the time the West joined in on the African slave trade, what would now be called Russians and Ukrainians were the popular item.

Nor did the West invent black slavery. That had been around a real long time, too. The Spanish and Portuguese probably got the idea from the Arabs, who had been running a flourishing black slave trade for centuries (and had a not-so-flourishing one after the West gave it up. Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in . . . 1962. It still is in existence in Mauretania and Sudan.)

It’s fairly well known that the West took about 10-11 million blacks as slaves. What is nowhere near as well-known is that the guesstimates on the Arab slave trade is about 14 million.

And if you thought crossing the Atlantic shackled was pretty terrible, walking shackled across the Sahara Desert is no fun, either.

With rare exceptions, Westerners didn’t capture slaves themselves; they bought them from African rulers who were more than happy to do business. Indeed, a few of them became absolutely outraged when the anti-slave trade movement gathered steam.

These slaves were gathered pretty much two ways: through local wars and through do-it-yourself abductions. You’re working by yourself out in the fields one day, you get bopped in the head, and soon you’ve been sold to the friendly slave trader passing by.

So this was nothing new to the African societies. You could even argue that slavery reduced the amount of killing in the local wars since a captured enemy was more valuable than a dead one.

On the other hand, though, a ready, steady market of buyers sure did encourage a lot more wars and abductions, so the West is far from innocent.

The Middle Passage has been described as a cruel sea voyage, and it often was. About 15% of those who got on board didn’t make it to the other side. The only people who fared worse were the ones running the slave ships; Mr. African Malaria and Sleeping Sickness got a higher percentage of them.

However, until just about the nineteenth century, it wasn’t a whole lot better for Europeans crossing the Atlantic, either. You had high death rates there, too. You had people crammed in and not fed well, either.

Now conditions on slave ships were always worse, but it wasn’t like Europeans were sailing the QEII.

Also keep in mind that slave traders only made money from live merchandise. I use the term “merchandise” because that’s exactly how the slave traders viewed their slaves. To them, this was like shipping chickens. You don’t want too many chickens to die in shipping because then you don’t make money. On the other hand, forget spending a lot more money to keep a couple more alive. The notion of humanity never crossed anybody’s mind in this business.

To think slave traders wanted genocide is absurd; how much is a dead slave worth? What the slave trader wanted was the maximum amount of live merchandise possible from a voyage. If cramming in another fifty bodies left you an extra thirty live ones at the end, this was considered good management.

You want to call that evil, I’d agree, but it’s not genocide.

Getting across the Atlantic was never a pleasant experience, but how deadly it was had more to do with the weather and sea winds than the onboard accommodations. If the winds went the right way and the journey was fairly swift (keep in mind the typical slave boat cruise covered less distance than a North Atlantic crossing), relatively few slaves died. If the winds
didn’t go your way, lots of slaves died. (This was pretty much the case with free ships, too. Trans-Atlantic travel didn’t become really safe for either until the use of the steamboat.)

Nor were there a lot of slave revolts. That’s what the chains and shackles were for, that and keeping people from jumping overboard while land was still in sight.

Where’d They Go?

As I mentioned, roughly 10-11 million blacks were shipped over. That’s fairly common knowledge.

What’s not so common knowledge is where they went, how many were shipped to the U.S., and what conditions were like in the U.S. as opposed to other places.

About half the slaves went to Brazil. Most of the rest went to the Caribbean. Only about a half-million slaves came to the U.S..

Slavery was also much different in Brazil and the Caribbean than in the United States.

For most of the slavery period, sugar was the big money crop. Especially in the Caribbean, that’s all they grew. Some places didn’t even bother growing regular food but imported it and grew more sugar.

Since the price of a slave was relatively low compared to the profit you could make what you could get out of him over a fairly short period of time, planters in the Caribbean and Brazil found it more profitable to essentially work their slaves to death and buy new replacements. The number of female slaves were kept to a minimum, and there was little attempt to encourage baby slaves.

It was sort of a tropical Gulag Archipelago. If you want to talk about slave genocide, this is where you have it.

The American South was quite different. It was generally too cold for sugar, tobacco wasn’t as popular as sugar, and cotton didn’t really become the South’s killer cash crop until after 1830 (and about ten of those thirty years were bad years for cotton prices).

For most of the slave period, you just couldn’t make enough money from a slave to adopt a “work ’em and bury ’em” approach.

So the American South found it in its best financial interest to keep slaves alive, and imported just as many women slaves as men slaves and encouraged them to make baby slaves (an activity where Master often helped).

Again, this had nothing to do with humanity or Southern slaveowners being especially benevolent. It was simply a business decision.

From roughly a half-million imported slaves (most imported during the later eighteenth century), the slave population of the United States grew to about four million by 1860. Hardly genocidal, and the exact opposite of what happened elsewhere.

From the perspective of odds on sheer physical survival, the South was a much better place to be.

I’m hardly saying it was great to be a slave in the South. While killings were rare, no white folks cared too much about the occasional one unless the owner was flat-out psychotic about it. The same applied to beatings. Literacy was usually against the law. Marriage wasn’t recognized. Religion was usually discouraged.

Forget about family ties. If Master wanted your woman, Master got your woman. If Master wanted to sell your woman and kids, Master sold your woman and kids. That happened a whole lot as places in the Southeast sold excess slaves to new plantations in the Southwest. A few places in the Southeast were practically baby factories.

If you managed not to get worked to death in the Caribbean or Brazil, there was a pretty good chance you’d get freed by your master, and if you managed to get yourself some descendants, they weren’t considered too inferior to the planters.

In the South, the freeing of slaves was rare and got rarer as time went on. Even if you managed to be freed, your life as a free man wasn’t much better than it was as a slave.

No, being a slave in the South wasn’t pleasant, and as King Cotton emerged in the generation prior to the Civil War, conditions were getting worse.

Insulting and degrading? Sure, but it wasn’t genocidal, just its opposite (which wasn’t all too good, either).

Taking Advantage Of Your Ignorance

History has always been used for political purposes. It’s probably a just criticism that mainstream American history sugarcoated or ignored wrong-doings, and largely overlooked everybody but American WASP men.

However, the answer to this is not the exact opposite. The answer to “America never did anything wrong” is not “America never did anything right.” The answer to “only white men did everything” is not “what white men?”

(You laugh. A few weeks ago, I read the entry for the American Revolutionary War in an American history encyclopedia. It did not mention George Washington at all and just mentioned in passing the Declaration of Independence.)

Slavery (and its aftermath) along with Native American treatment are without doubt the two biggest black stains on America’s record.

But they don’t make the whole record black and I think those who want to paint it all black know that. Why else would they strategically omit and forget to mention?

There’s nothing wrong with someone pointing out what America has done or is doing wrong. However, when someone can’t find anything America has done right, and has to make the wrongs even wronger, you have to wonder why.

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