Bryan Caplan  

New World Apocalypse

Why aren't there more investme... Baker vs. Reynolds...

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.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (23 to date)
andres writes:

In Latin America, the spanish killed most of the indian men and then bedded (or raped) the indian women (thus, the large mestizo population in that part of the world, and all the social stratification according to degree of skin color that still pervades the region). In North America, there were no such admixture between europeans and indians and therefore, until very recently, it's population was overwhelmingly of european origin. A number of reasons might account for this: it could be that the english were just more racist than the spanish and couldn't bear the idea of conceiving with indian women. On the other hand, there is a climate explanation: temperate North America were more amenable to live for european women than tropical central and south america, so english families emigrated to north america, whereas the spanish who came and settle originally in Latin America were mostly male. In any case, as you correctly point out, the fate of indians north of the Rio Grande was even worse than south of it.

asg writes:

Modernity? The Inca hadn't invented the wheel! I don't think you can argue that Chichen Itza was more modern than a place like London or Rome.

asg writes:

Lest the previous post was unclear, I do know Chichen Itza was Mayan, not Incan. I was making a general point.

Omer K writes:

Firstly a disclaimer - I dont know all that much about this sphere of history.

But frankly, to divide the line into good guys vs bad guys is unrealistic.

The europeans had better technology and perhaps even better war strategy. Many Indian civilization didnt even have a written language that would facilitate them adding to the knowledge of their progeny of technological sophistication or even spreading it among their currently living. How were they to compete with people with weapons light-years ahead of their own?

The Indian tribes werent a serene happy peaceful people, they were just as interested in wiping out the neighbouring tribe as any other ethnicity/race in other parts of the world. The only difference is this time their opponents were way more advanced than them.

It was a story of bad guys vs bad guys, and the bad guys with the bigger guns won. I dont have any beef with the idea that the Americans who came here were savage barbarians, my concern is the human moral failing, the non-sequiter, that that would mean their opponents were oppressed and deserving of pity.

Martin writes:


The calculus of this matter is quite straightforward.

We gave them measles, they gave us syphilis.

We gave them Jesus and Plato, they gave us a working knowledge of human sacrifice.

Case closed.

Omer K writes:

For eg of my point..
I just finished reading Thomas Sowell's "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" a while back.

He relates a case in the invasion of Teotihaucan. Cortex lead an army of 500 spaniards and tens of thousands of Indians. (note these details are probably off, it was probably another city in the americas, but get the book and verify the deed if you wish)

Where did those tens of thousands of Indians come from except from a competing group?

Tim writes:

The wikipedia entry on the population history of South America provides an even handed treatment of the issue (see here.

It would seem to me that this idea of "virgin soil epidemic" needs to be looked at closely.

There may have been a genetic factor that amplified this. Some researcher have found the Amerindians of South America were probably the most genetically homogeneous population on Earth. One hypothesis to explain this was that they may be the offspring of two "genetic bottlenecks". The first being the Siberian immigration (only a genetic subset of North Asians moved across) followed by a second bottleneck in the migration down through central America. Genetic homogenity may have contributed to the devastating impact of the conquest.

It's commonly found that "monocultures" in modern farming are more prone to devastating disease or pest destruction once a matching vector emerges. A similar process may be behind the virgin soil epidemics.

Indeed, if this is so, simple "contact" may have been more devastating than the "conquest" that historically accompanied it. Had all the Europeans been perfect pacifists, content merely on peaceful commercial contact, there still would have been devastation.

The comparatively high levels of devastation in the Americas compared to European and Old World wars of the period, including the relative inability of the European imperialism to penetrate nearby Africa, would seem to strengthen the hypothesis that virgin soil epidemics were the "whodunnit". Similarly recent works, like the ones you cite, that revise "upwards" our understanding of the cultural and economic level of indigenous Amerindian civilisation also strengthen the case. The spaniards just were not that militarily superior.

TGGP writes:

"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."

I think there is a difference. The Nazis thought it was necessary to wipe out the jews, including assimilated ones who were living in Germany and had even fought for them in the first World War. The Nazis tried to hide their "final solution" so that many of the jews herded off to ghettoes, or on trains to camps did not know what would happen. What Jefferson is talking about is part of the conduct of war. He is not advocating going after tribes to eliminate them, but stating what the policy will be should war break out. I suppose that might sound no better, like Germany subjecting all of Poland and France to the Holocaust, but one of the reasons the Holocaust stands out is that there was no real rationale behind it other than an insane hatred of certain groups of people that posed no real threat to Germany. I doubt the native tribes that european colonizers encountered universally exempted civilian populations from war (it was certainly the perception among colonists that they were less prone to recognizing the distinction than regular armies), the difference between the sides is that fortune was stacked in favor of one and against the other.

John S Bolton writes:

The new left has made complete fiction of the population estimates for the Americas in pre-columbian times.
Regardless of what happened in the 19th century and earlier, we still owe loyalty to fellow citizens over against the foreign aggressors.
We owe loyalty to the net taxpayer, and no foreigner can say they have the right to come here on net public subsidy, on account of our territories having once been held by Indians.
The left, and their not-so-well-camouflaged
servitors, with anarcholibertarian impulses
mention myths of the past, in order to break down the loyalty to fellow citizens which is the necessary first community of values, which allows for the continuity of advancing civilization.
This continuity is an obstacle in front of their power-greed, so they give us the black legend with ever-worse lies added on to it.

Flix writes:

Big cities and pyramids don't make civilisation more advanced, specially if those big cities are full of short-lived slaves necessary for building those pyramids...

The reason Europeans had no trouble taking over the Incas, Mayans and aztecs is the same reason the Roman republic had no trouble taking over Egypt or that Alexander had no trouble taking over the Persian Empire.
Think about it.

flix writes:

I specially like Omer K's commetn:

bad vs. bad, and the bad guys with the bigger guns won.

pj writes:

The founding father's were men of their time, a time of unbelievable bigotry, cruelty, and barbarity. In my estimation, that makes their accomplishments in the realm of human freedom all that much more remarkable. They planted the seeds of liberty that have blessed the human race ever since. That was no mean feat in the age that it was accomplished. You dismiss them too quickly for their crimes, which weren't judged crimes at the time.

Dennis Mangan writes:

.And to go on honoring the names of war criminals because they crossed the Atlantic or wrote the Declaration of Independence is just wrong.
Like George Mason?

dearieme writes:

"The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and yes, the English did not come to bring civilization. I suspect that their motives were mixed." The Pilgrim Fathers, for instance, had lost a battle for control of the Church of England and so went in search of somewhere else where they could impose their views.

Jake Shannon writes:

I think it is important to not throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, by many accounts the Founding Fathers did some horrible things but they also did some stellar things. Dicto simpliciter...

Chuckles writes:

This is certainly a level headed opinion. Caplan is certainly right that the Europeans probably came to destroy. The myth of a civilizing mission dearly held by many on the right is even worse and more of a fiction than the many fables of the far left. We search in vain for the good Jesus and Plato have done in South America. We do not need to look too far to find the harm rendered by small pox. We witness the evil, brutal and savage statements of individuals now held in high esteem in the West and marvel at contemporary hypocrisy. If Libertarianism demands anything: It demands at the very least a radical individualism that informs a consistency of judgment. Conquistadores, Founding Fathers, etc ought to be condemned along barbarity they encountered: Bad guys vs bad guys? It is immoral to support either side. There *is* a too often excluded middle.

secret asian man writes:

Advanced societies? You must be joking.

They lacked:

Printing presses
Advanced metallurgy
Blue-water ships
Complex mechanical devices

We're talking about large, well-fed, and entirely primitive societies here.

Matt writes:

What do you think of murdering cultures and ways of life? Globalization is doing that right now to traditional cultures around the world. The jihadists, for one, are fighting about it. The colonists did send missionaries and did try to Save the natives. How is that different from Bush in Iraq? I only see a difference of degrees, that is, we are putting a few steps in between the killing to assuage our guilt. What will be the result, however, if most of the Muslim world refuses to accept it?

If you net out the disease factor, and look at it, it really has great similarity to what is happening now. It was the first wave of modern globalization.

Mike Lutz writes:
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...

And the settlers in western Pennsylvania and New York were glad he did. The Iroquois (with the notable exception of the Oneidas) allied with the British, in part because of the strong relationship built up previously between the Mohawks and Sir William Johnson. As a consequence, settlers on the frontier were murdered in numerous Indian raids (see, for instance, "The Cherry Valley Massacre"), and militia forces under Nicholas Herkimer suffered devastating losses at the Battle of Oriskany.

Washington's orders to Sullivan reflected the strategic necessity of neutralizing the Iroquois threat, both to secure the western approaches through the colonies/states, and to improve morale on the frontier. He was concerned that:

the Iroquois would "amuse" them with insincere peace proposals to spare their homelands.

which would, of course, negate the strategic mission.

There is no doubt that Sullivan's approach - destroying most of the crops that the tribes depended on just before harvest - inflicted great misery on the Iroquois. It also destroyed the Iroquois will be fight, thus achieving the primary objective; I would argue that in doing so, Sullivan acted within the generally accepted interpretation of "proportional response."

None of this is meant to excuse the many terrible things done to nor tragedies suffered by the various Indian tribes. However, I hope it serves to provide some context to a snippet quote that, on the surface, indicts Washington (and Sullivan) for unprovoked genocidal hatred. The facts of the case are much more ambiguous - as is usually the case in times of war.

AJ writes:

This is the stupidest post on this blog since I've been reading it. If the introduction of germs from Europe killed 90, 95, 99, or 100% of various native populations, then that is not genocide or a holocaust. Bryan, get a dictionary and read the definition of genocide or holocaust. This is just one more example of the zeitgest of our time -- to take an event where something bad happened to some people and put blame for all ills upon European white males and their greedy capitalist ideology -- all in order to make some point about present day politics or ideology.

AJ writes:


An old Indian chief sat in his tee-pee on the reservation, smoking a ceremonial
pipe and eyeing two U.S. Government officials sent to interview him.

"Chief Two Eagles" asked one official, "You have observed the white man for
90 years. You've seen his wars and his technological advances. You've seen
his progress, and the damage he's done."

The Chief nodded in agreement. The official continued, "Considering all
these events, in your opinion, where did the white man go wrong?"

The Chief stared at the government officials for over a minute and then
calmly replied ....

"When white man found this land, Indians were running it.
No taxes,
No debt,
Plenty buffalo,
Plenty beaver,
Women did all the work,
Medicine man free,
Indian man spent all day hunting and fishing,
All night drinking and having sex."

Then the chief leaned back and smiled . . .

"Only white man dumb enough to
think he could improve system like that."

Nathan writes:

I have to agree, the more advanced people beat the less advanced. The fact that the Indians died because of European diseases does not make genocide anymore than then we can blame the Chinese for the Black Plague, and call that genocide. And a previous commenter had a good point, the Indians were not friends of the early Americans, if you remember the war fought prior to that was the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), which featured the French and the Indians fighting the colonial Brits. The Indians, then turned around and allied with the Brits against the Americans. Washington's advice was rather necessary for the American cause. It is war, and as Gen. Sherman remarked, "War is hell."

Niccolo Caldararo writes:

Andres' view is a common misconception. Dr. Caplan's view is more within the data we have for survival of New World populations. There has been a constant shifting over the past 200 years over the idea that Mestizos exist in huge numbers, and if any "pure Native Americans" survived. The possibility of large numbers of offspring resulting from Spanish and Portuguese coupling with Native Americans is remote. The die off in the first decade was tremendous as the archaeology today has shown and reports to the Spanish court by Pietro Matire indicate. The genetic data also show that the penetrance of Native Americans is very low in today's Central and Southern populations. Disease was the main factor, but slaughter was part of the process. European women did come over in large numbers as did African women. Many Iberian Marranos and Moors were forced to the New World as Native Americans died of disease, violence and suicide. For more on this see Jim Quesada and my new article in Anthropological Quarterly on the concept of "Latino."
On a related note, the nature of violence in the world today is addressed Fred Ikle’s new book, Annihilation From Within, the author predicts that nations will fall victim to internal enemies who use new technology to undermine democracy by the use of terror. In a recent Financial Times issue Douglas Hurd finds we need a United Nations that is more proactive. Ikle fears most “anarchists or revolutionary groups,” but believes some tyrant will use nuclear or WMD to seize power. This is a strange position for someone who is celebrated for his vision and grasp of military history. While Hitler came to power using democratic means to destroy democracy and Lenin came to power with the support of Germany, the only time anarchists have come into military power they did so in support of a legally elected government in Spain in 1936.
Ikle dismisses Islamic and religious fundamentalists as likely actors in his scenario, but we can see from history, both recent and ancient, that seizure of power and civil unrest are often means used by them. Adam Smith warned of the disorders of religious fanatics, and Herbert Spencer of ideological fanatics. Fanaticism is the confusion that commerce most dreads in whatever form it takes. Douglas Hurd’s comments on the UN leave us with a dilemma, for it is not in the realm of civil disorders that the UN most often has failed in recent years, but in that of religious conflict. When Pope Alexander IV dethroned Savonarola and ended the religious terror in Florence, he was able to do so because the Papacy still possessed recognized authority in the Christian West. Today there is no world religious authority that can act to suppress religious terror. The spectacle of Pope John Paul’s vain efforts to stop the Catholic/Orthodox Christian massacres in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s war, should have been viewed with alarm by world religious leaders. It presaged today’s uncontrolled religious militias and terrorists.
Would a world religious body that can speak with one voice and with authority be able to suppress religious violence? Or are we headed for a new 30 Years religious war?

Niccolo Caldararo, Ph.D.
Dept. of Anthropology
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Ave.
S.F., Ca. 94132

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