It is impossible to read today the accounts of the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans without a profound sense of sadness. In every case the newcomers were greeted with the hospitality that was a sacred obligation for the people the haughty strangers regarded as “savages”. Columbus wrote: “Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no.” His journal is full of examples of the generosity of the unsuspecting natives, who were about to be enslaved and exterminated as a reward. “They ought to be good servants and of good skill,” Columbus concluded.
The European colonization of the Americas had a devastating effect on the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were decimated, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with and enslavement by European settlers. The latter liked to portray their treatment of the Native Americans as the result of an admirable civilizing and humanitarian mission (just as the imperialists of our own period describe their missions in Iraq and elsewhere). They were bringing Christianity and Civilization to a bunch of ignorant savages and naked heathens. In practice, however, their motives were simple greed and insatiable lust for gold and land.
A contemporary account describes the response of the most Christian Spaniards when the Aztec emperor distributed presents of gold among them:
“The Spanish burstinto smiles; their eyes shone with pleasure… They picked up the gold and fingered it like monkeys; they seemed to be transported by joy, as if their hearts were illumined and made new.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 40.)
The first Native American group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were enslaved and brutally treated. By the year 1550 only 500 were still alive and the entire people was totally extinct before 1650. This set the tone for the treatment of the First Americans for the next 400 years. When the Native Americans realized they were being expropriated and robbed, they reacted with predictable violence. A long and bloody conflict was born.
Here is a typical report of a Captain John Mason, who came across a Native American fort earlyone morning while the inhabitants were still asleep. Having blocked the exits, he then ordered his men to set fire to the wigwams:
“The captain also said: ‘We must burn them’, … (and immediately stepping into the Wigwam where he had been before,) brought out a Fire-Brand and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on fire … and when it was thoroughly kindled, the Indians ran as Men most dreadfully Amazed. And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and into the very Flames, where many of them perished. And when the Fort was thoroughly Fired, Command was given, that all should fall off and surround the Fort; which was readily attended by all; … The Fire was kindled on the North East Side to windward; which did swiftly over-run the Fort, to the extreme Amazement of the Enemy, and great Rejoycing of ourselves. Some of them climbing to the Top of the Palizado; others of them running into the very Flames; many of them gathering to windward, lay pelting at us with their Arrows; and we repayed them with our small Shot; Others of the Stoutest issued forth as we did guess, to the Number of Forty, who perished by the Sword. …
“And thus in little more than one Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly destroyed, to the Number of Six or Seven Hundred, as some of them selves confessed. There were only Seven taken Captive and about Seven escaped. …
“Of the English, there were two Slain outright, and about twenty wounded.” (Quoted in Leo Huberman, We the People, pp. 26-7.)
This amounted to outright genocide. Although there were honourable exceptions, most Europeans felt free to rob and kill the “primitive” people they found in their path. Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Usually it was unintentional, but sometimes they intentionally spread disease among the native tribes. This is probably the earliest example of germ warfare in history
Illnesses like chicken pox and measles, though rarely a cause of death among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans. More deadly diseases such as smallpox caused the most terrible devastation in Native American populations. Nobody knows the exact percentage of the total Native American population killed in this way, but it is known that waves of disease often destroyed entire villages. Some historians believe that up to 80 per cent of some Indian populations may have died as a result of European-derived diseases:
“Sir Jeffrey Amherst – for whom Amherst College is named – had a plan for exterminating the Indians. He was commander in chief of the British forces in America in the 1760s, while the French and Indian War was going on. With all deference to historical perspective, the viewpoint of the age, and so on, his plan makes one more or less ashamed of the human race. His idea was to kill the Indians by spreading smallpox among them – and to spread it he proposed giving them blankets inoculated with the disease. The blankets were to be given as presents, accompanied by smiles and expressions of goodwill.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 106.)
In other words, the advent of “civilization” (read: capitalism) was disastrous for the Native Americans. Their tribal lands were plundered. They were killed like animals or herded into so-called reservations where they suffered a slow death from hunger, disease, alcohol abuse or simple despair. Proud and ancient cultures were annihilated as the alien culture of Christianity was foisted on a defeated people. Having robbed them of their lands, the conquerors now proceeded to rob them of their soul.
The treatment of the Native peoples, along with the enslavement of the black Africans, constitutes a blot on the history of the U.S.A. But the Europeans have no reason to feel in any way morally superior in comparison to Americans. This bloody barbarism constitutes a definite stage in capitalism, which Marx called the Primitive Accumulation of capital. In every country it bore the same hallmarks. In England we had the Enclosure Acts that robbed the peasants of their land and reduced them to beggary and starvation in their own country.
Marx pointed out that capitalism first came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore. The genesis of the capitalist system is the systematic expropriation of the property of the peasants, the Native Americans, the Scottish clans and the peoples of the enslaved colonies, and, in Marx’s words, this history “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire”:
“The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcelof capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a ‘free’ and outlawed proletariat.”
Capitalism always destroys every older social system with which it enters into contact. This destructive task has always been accomplished with the utmost barbarity and ruthlessness. In Scotland we had the so-called Highland Clearances, which deprived the free peasants of the Highlands of their ancestral lands and broke up the ancient clan system. Starving men, women and children were driven off their land like beasts and the estates turned into hunting preserves for the English aristocrats. To this day the North of Scotland is a wilderness. Many of the expropriated Scottish peasants were forced to emigrate to the United States and Canada.
The difference in the United States lies in the racial component. The First Americans were seen as inferior beings, not fully human, who could be conquered, enslaved, plundered or killed without any qualms of conscience. In the early days a bounty was paid for the scalp of every Native American man, woman or child handed in to the authorities. The first reported case of whitemen scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725. In spite of the movies, the Native Americans probably learned scalping from the Europeans and not vice-versa.