31 December 2007

Mexica Human Sacrifice 1487

Four-Day Slaughter: 80,400 Killed

After enlarging the Great Temple with shrines to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc in 1487, Mexica priests slaughtered an unprecedented number of victims over four days at the behest of Ahuitzotl, the Aztec king. Reports to the Spanish after their conquest of Tenochtitlán and passed along in letters to Emperor Charles V place the number of dead during this ceremony as high as 80,400. Victor Davis Hanson observes in Carnage and Culture (2001) that the “killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour bloodbath far exceeded the daily murder record at either Auschwitz or Dachau” (195).

In A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen pass along this 80,400 figure without a note of skepticism.

[I]t was sacrifice, not science, that defined Aztec society, whose pyramids, after all, were execution sites. A four-day sacrifice in 1487 by the Aztec king Ahuitzotl involved the butchery of 80,400 prisoners by shifts of priests working four at a time at convex killing tables who kicked lifeless, heartless bodies down the side of the pyramid temple. This worked out to a “killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour bloodbath.”
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 5.

They document this quote of the killing rate as reported by Hanson with the first of several references to Carnage and Culture in A Patriot’s History. Indeed, over the next several pages, Hanson’s book appears as the principal source for their central argument regarding the reasons for the success of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. Although the authors of A Patriot’s History pronounce this estimate of the number of sacrificial victims without qualification, Hanson exhibits some reservation through use of the adverb “purportedly”:

Ahuitzotl purportedly organized the butchery of 80,400 prisoners during a four-day blood sacrifice at the 1487 inauguration of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán—an enormous challenge in industrialized murder in its own right.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 194-195.

Schweikart and Allen’s uncritical acceptance of this 80,400 figure in Hanson is noteworthy in light of other numbers in his book that they reject. In particular, A Patriot’s History gives 100,000 as the number of Aztec dead during the 1521 victory of Cortés in the conquest of Tenochtitlán, “many from disease resulting from Cortés’s cutting the city’s water supply” (6). In the depopulation sidebar that interrupts their narrative of the conquest of Mesoamerica, they suggest that in North America there were “800,000 Indians who died from disease and firearms” (8). They do not offer an estimate of the dead in Mesoamerica beyond the 100,000. Such figures seem to offer a striking contrast to the tally in Hanson’s Carnage and Culture. Hanson mentions the 100,000 as an estimate in Tenochtitlán itself during the summer of 1521, and continues:

But that was a small percentage of the actual losses in the two-year struggle for Mexico City. Disease, hunger, and constant fighting had essentially wiped out the population of Tenochtitlán. The final tally of the dead would eventually reach more than 1 million of the people surrounding Lake Texcoco.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 193.

Estimating the Dead in 1487

One of several principal sources informing Hanson’s chapter on Tenochtitlán in Carnage and Culture is Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993). Thomas buries the 80,400 figure in a discursive footnote, where it is attributed to Motolinía, also called Friar Toribio de Benavente. In addition according to Thomas, Fr. Diego Durán, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España (1867 and 1880) “has much the same number, on what he implies was the authority of what is now called the Crónica X” (646). Drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources, Thomas presents several other figures for this one ceremony and for the annual totals, including Sherburne Cook’s estimate of 11,520 based on two minutes per victim over four days. The text of Conquest is cautious:

The innumerable prisoners who died on fourteen pyramids over four days, with long lines of victims stretching from the site of the temple in four directions, as far as the eye could see, at a festival in 1487 to mark the inauguration of the new temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán, had no precedent. No evidence exists which enables anything more than a good guess.
Thomas, Conquest, 25.

Between 11,520 and 80,400, Schweikart and Allen might have suggested that estimates of the dead during one four-day ceremony in 1487 reveal a plus or minus reliability factor of nearly 700 per cent. They argue against “overestimates of millions” based on the 400 per cent variation in estimates for the population of the Inka (Inca) in Peru ranging from 4 to 15 million. It seems odd that their skepticism regarding the extent of aboriginal depopulation due to disease does not extend to skepticism regarding Spanish reports of the brutality of Aztec sacrifices four decades before they arrived.

Another View of Aztec Sacrifices

Charles C. Mann does not mention this event in 1487. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, he does observe, “[h]uman sacrifice is such a charged subject that its practice by the Triple Alliance [the Aztec Empire] has inevitably become shrouded in myths” (133). One myth he identifies is that “post-conquest accounts of public death-spectacles are all racist lies” (133), noting that Mexica art depicts such sacrifices enough that there should be no doubt. Mann identifies a contrasting myth, “that in its appetite for death as spectacle the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe” (133). Seizing upon Cortés’s own estimate that the Aztecs sacrificed three to four thousand per year, on the one hand, and scholarly estimates of seventy-five thousand public executions in England between 1530 and 1630, on the other, he offers a comparison.

At the time, [England’s] population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to [Fernand] Braudel.
Mann, 1491, 134.

Mann’s assertion deserves scrutiny for his assumption that a larger population would have an equivalent proportion of candidates for execution. Moreover, his arithmetic relies on a rough estimate of Mesoamerica’s population twenty percent greater than the twenty-five million estimate of Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Wilson Borah (see citation at "Population and Demography"). But even a much larger margin of error does not negate his point that the spectacle of killing in Mesoamerica was not foreign to European conquistadors and colonists. Indeed, Mann’s statement is not altogether inconsistent with Hanson’s assertion early in his book.

I am not interested here in whether European military culture is morally superior to, or far more wretched than, that of the non-West. The conquistadors, who put an end to human sacrifice and torture on the Great Pyramid in Mexico City, sailed from a society reeling from the Grand Inquisition and the ferocious Reconquista, and left a diseased and nearly ruined New World in their wake.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 6.

27 December 2007

“America was not a disease-free paradise”

Ecological Indians

In the chapter “Eden” in his meticulously documented The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), Shepard Krech III takes issue with the indigenous population figures of Henry Dobyns and those that rely upon his work, especially Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane. He assesses work on demography in the effort to reconcile modern knowledge and colonial observations.

Krech observes the tendency through several centuries of “European and European-Americans discover[ing] the Garden of Eden somewhere in North America” (75). The first Europeans found a bountiful land. Krech cites several descriptions among which George Percy’s first view of Virginia in 1607 easily could find a home:
[W]ee could find nothing worth the speaking of, but faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such Fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.
Percy, “Observations gathered” In Purchas his Pilgrims, 1686
On the other hand, Native American Indians often had to relocate their villages because they had depleted basic resources—trees, soils, and animals. Descriptions of pristine land “are not easily reconciled” (76), Krech argues, with knowledge produced by archaeologists regarding the frequency with which American Indians were forced to relocate. Citing scholarly monographs and articles in such journals as Ethnohistory, he notes the ecology of slash and burn agricultural practices, depletion of soils and fuel wood, and patterns of village relocation—every ten to twelve years for the Iroquois, for example. In addition, deforestation may hold the key to the disappearance of the Anasazi, on the one hand, and of the residents of Cahokia, on the other. These densely settled urban centers generated needs that outstripped supply.

“Perhaps demography is an important key to solving the paradox of paradisaical plenitude despite human exploitation” (77), Krech offers, noting the ideological stakes: “estimating numbers has become sharply politicized” (83-84). With a few notable exceptions, he suggests, the “few numbers [of indigenous Americans] trod so lightly as to leave bounty for European eyes everywhere” (78).

Impact of Epidemic Disease

Krech finds “no debate over what must have been the sheer terror of each major epidemic” (80). He cites Yanktonai winter counts for descriptions of the effects of smallpox that devastated the upper Missouri River beginning in the summer of 1837. The disease was carried upriver by a deckhand on the St. Peters, an American Fur Company steamer that left St. Louis in April 1837. By the time the symptoms were clear enough for diagnosis, others had been infected and the disease was spreading. Many died from the disease, others from starvation. Mató-Tópe, a Mandan warrior painted four years earlier by Karl Bodmer, became crazy with grief after his entire family died.
On the greater Plains, the tragedy was beyond description. The Mandan practically disappeared. Three-quarters of the Blackfeet, one-half of the Assiniboine and Arikara, and one-quarter of the Pawnee died. In all, perhaps seventeen thousand people perished.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 82.
Krech notes how “desires for trade and beliefs about illness” (83) rendered the Indians prone toward activities that aided the spread of this devastating smallpox outbreak. It seems reasonable to imagine “that the population of North America must have been very large prior to the arrival of virgin-soil epidemics” (83).

Inasmuch as estimates of the North American population have ranged from one-half million to eighteen million, Krech focuses attention on the highest estimates. In 1966, Henry Dobyns estimated that ten to twelve million Indians lived in North America before Columbus arrived, then revised his estimate upwards to eighteen million. He reviews the central points from Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987); David Stannard, American Holocaust (1992); and Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane, “The Demography of Native North America: A Question of American Indian Survival,” in The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (1992). The endnotes mention all of the standard studies that I listed in “Depopulation and Demography,” plus a few more not included there.

Questioning Dobyns

The core of Krech’s “Eden” details pertinent data from three regions of North America—Northeast, Southwest, and Canadian Subarctic. This data, he argues, contests the highest estimates, which assume:
…that diseases arrived early, spread widely, and were invariably fatal; that populations did not recover between epidemics; and that diseases can actually be identified, a necessary step in order to say anything with confidence about their behavior.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 85.
Krech’s own “The Influence of Disease and the Fur Trade on Arctic Lowlands Dene, 1800-1850,” Journal of Anthropological Research (1983) serves as a principal source for this section of the essay. A table lists thirty-one outbreaks of one or more diseases through a period of sixty years, each affecting one to eight indigenous groups. Some, such as “the pox” and “stomach complaint” are difficult to diagnose from the historical sources, and not all proved equally deadly to subarctic peoples. Some, such as whooping cough—“typically mild and confined to children today”—produced hunger among peoples dependant upon hunters that relied on stealth in hunting (89-90). Measles was one of the most common, and it killed plenty, but the survivors were immune from the next outbreak. Despite abundant reasons to believe that the nearly annual run of illnesses could have plunged “the population in the Mackenzie River region into a free fall” (91), Krech notes that both the first available census (1829) and the second (1858) show the population “virtually unchanged at between two thousand and three thousand people” (91).

Having rejected the highest estimates of Henry Dobyns, Krech suggests that four to seven million are the “most sensible figures” (93). Europe was far more densely populated.
The Old World environment compared to the New World one was also obviously far more heavily changed and depleted of resources, and it was Europe’s transformed landscapes that formed (with attendant demographic pressures) a comparative backdrop for the North American paradise. From the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, powered by demands, designs, and technology, Europeans profoundly altered their landscapes. They transformed entire sections of the countryside. Woodcutters in search of fuel and farmers after arable land assaulted forests on a broad front.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 95.
The immigrant population from overcrowded Europe where lands had been dramatically transformed, Krech tells us, “occupied widowed—not virgin—lands” (99) that they altered to meet their needs as they had done in Europe through the preceding centuries. The term “widowed,” as he acknowledges, was popularized in Francis Jennings’ seminal The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975).

Using The Ecological Indian

Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian appears to offer a convenient citation for scholars that find the somewhat popular population estimates of Henry Dobyns incredulous. The book is careful and conservative, and it challenges the assumptions of overly pro-Indian apologetics masquerading as serious scholarship. Hence, it come as no surprise that no less than three citations to Krech appear in Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004).

Their first citation is thematic: “Virginia was hardly a ‘disease-free paradise’ before the arrival of the Jamestown English” (17). This two word quotation, and the only footnote reference in the paragraph in which it appears, refer to a sentence in Krech’s essay, “Eden”: “America was not a disease-free paradise before Europeans landed on its shores” (79).

Preceding this phrase from Krech, Schweikart and Allen emphasize the severe decimation of the original Jamestown colonists by malnutrition and malaria: they “were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance” (17). A minority survived. The authors had emphasized earlier in A Patriot’s History, “not all diseases came from the Old World to the New” (6), mentioning syphilis there and then again in the sidebar about which I’ve written on several occasions already (8). Now, they mention malaria as a New World disease, offer the quote from Krech, and follow with the almost tardy acknowledgment that “microbes transported by the Europeans generated a much higher level of infection than previously experienced by the Indians” (17). This paragraph concludes with the assertion, “warring Indian tribes spread the diseases among one another when they attacked enemy tribes and carried off infected prisoners” (17).

A Patriot’s History versus its Sources

No doubt warfare spread disease in the manner described in A Patriot’s History, but Krech’s The Ecological Indian emphasizes trade rather than war as a primary avenue of transmission from one tribe to another. Indian commerce is an infrequent visitor in the narrative put forth in A Patriot’s History, although the French found “an indigenous population eager to trade” (13). Warring Indians appear more often.

As for the malaria that struck down the helpless Europeans lacking immunities, Krech mentions this disease twice in his essay “Eden”. Malaria appears in a list detailing “a virtual viral, bacterial, and protozoal assault” that “killed not dozens but hundreds and thousands of [Indian] people” (80). Then, in disputing Dobyns’s allegation regarding the extent of the spread of illness that spread outward from the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “far to the south, measles and perhaps dysentary, typhoid, malaria, and typhus ravaged Nayarit and Sinaloa on the Pacific Coast in the 1530s to 1540s” (86). If malaria originated in the New World, Krech does not see fit to mention it.

In the paragraph from which Schweikart and Allen get their phrase from Krech, he mentions two New World illnesses, treponematosis (the source of syphilis) and tuberculosis. Treponematosis “affected many who lived in densely settled farming communities along the mid-Atlantic seaboard and in the south,” while tuberculosis was present “in Peru and perhaps elsewhere” (79). Schweikart and Allen mention syphilis and tuberculosis in their depopulation sidebar:
Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentary.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 8.
Thus, we see that the story in A Patriot’s History differs in quite a few particulars from the story in The Ecological Indian, despite their judicious use of Krech’s observation that America was not a “disease-free paradise”. Krech’s text seems to adorn their narrative, rather than informing their facts and analysis.

Indeed, the two other references to The Ecological Indian are little else. Describing common life among eighteenth century Euro-Americans, they write,
British-Americans cleared heavily forested land by girdling trees, then slashing and burning the dead timber—practices picked up from the Indians, despite the myth of the ecologically friendly natives.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 41.
The back cover of The Ecological Indian offers sufficient evidence for that insight, but Krech’s essay “Eden” has more to say regarding the practices of deforestation in Europe before the colonists sailed west.

I fail to comprehend the remaining citation to Krech at the end of the sentence, “[t]heir [Puritans] moral codes in many ways were not far from modern standards” (29). The page there referenced contains Krech’s listing of several Edenic observations of Europeans through the centuries, including one by sixteenth century immigrant Thomas Morton.

Morton was an Anglican in New England that in 1628 suffered an attack from troops led by Myles Standish when he engaged too much in celebrations of the earth’s cycles with the local Indians, as Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836) depicts it. However, Alan Heimart and Andrew Delbanco, editors of The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (1985), assert that the actual provocation was his selling of firewater and firearms to the Indians, disrupting the valued fur trade (48). In any case, this fascinating story of New England’s notorious Wannabe is present neither in Krech nor A Patriot’s History. The footnote hints at ideological underpinnings that are made explicit elsewhere, but it fails to inform readers of the source of the assertion.

21 December 2007

Depopulation and Demography: A Patriot’s History Bibliography

My reading this morning has been limited to a few pages in Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). He recounts the history of the Inka (Inca), their conquest by Francisco Pizarro, and how a young scholar’s career took a new direction during field work in Peru in the early 1960s. The young scholar in question was Henry F. Dobyns, who “was the first to put [90% mortality rate estimates] together,” Mann asserts, “with the fact that smallpox visited before anyone in South America had even seen Europeans” (102).

Mann continues:
Then Dobyns went further. When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, he argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled the virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in places that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.
Mann, 1491, 103.

Dobyns repeated and argued a depopulation figure of 90-95% that had been put forth by others, such as Borah and Cook.

A Patriot's History

For their part, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen mention Dobyns’s 1966 article in Current Anthropology, but omit it from their sources list. They note that his work is “admittedly controversial,” and emphasize the conclusion of some of his critics that “smallpox … did not seem to spread as a pandemic” (8).

I have previously noted my skepticism regarding the research underlying these contentions in A Patriot’s History (2004). It may take me several months or even years to wade through all the texts they cite, as well as those they should have cited, but I am struck by the observation that their source list appears terribly thin in its presentation of the scholarly views they dispute. They list two articles by journalists, and one by scholar Alfred Crosby “among those that cite higher numbers” (9). Their references to Henry Dobyns, on the other hand, might leave readers confused regarding the progression of his ideas from 1966 to 1976 to 1983, let alone what he thinks today. On the other side, they cite historians, but only one journalist. Of those seminal works that probably should be in any bibliography regarding aboriginal depopulation and demography in the Americas, but are missing from their list of sources, I can identify one that appears to support their contentions, David Henige, Numbers From Nowhere (1998).

It appears that the sidebar and footnote regarding the population of Native American Indians in 1492 either represents shoddy scholarship, or reflects a carefully constructed deception. This observation, then, becomes my working hypothesis as I work through the bibliography constructed below (and other such texts as come into my view along the way, such as those referenced in Kevin's comment).

Larry Schweikart trumpets his work on these matters in A Patriot’s History:
The "Columbian Exchange." We review extensive recent scholarship that disputes the numbers of "Native Americans" here when Europeans arrived, and note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be "transmitted" from Europe likely were already here. Moreover, we dispute throughout the book the "Noble Savage" interpretation of most texts, wherein Indians are portrayed as dedicated environmentalists who lived in peace with nature and each other prior to whites arriving.
Schweikart, “Why It's Time for ‘A Patriot's History of the United States’”

Sources Listed in A Patriot’s History

Black, Francis L. “Why Did They Die?” Science (December 11, 1992): 139-140.

“among those who cite higher numbers”

Cook, Noble David. Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

“reveals [that] weaknesses in the data remain”

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

“among those who cite higher numbers”

Daniels, John D. “The Indian Population of North America in 1492.” William and Mary Quarterly (April 1999): 298-320.

“The best single review of all the literature on Indian population numbers”
See my assessment

Dobyns, Henry F. American Historical Demography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

“calculated the number somewhere in the middle . . .”

Dobyns, Henry F., with William R. Swagerty. Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

“. . . then subsequently revisited the argument”

Haines, Michael R., and Richard H. Steckel. A Population History of North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

“a recent synthesis of several studies”

MacLeish, William H. The Day Before America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

“Lower estimates come from”

Meggers, Betty. “Prehistoric Population Density in the Amazon Basin.” In John W. Verano, and Douglas H. Ubelaker, eds., 197-206. Disease and Demography in the Americas. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

“offers a lower-bound 3 million estimate for Amazonia (far lower than the higher-bound 10 million estimates)”

Meltzer, David. “How Columbus Sickened the New World.” The New Scientist (October 10, 1992): 38-41.

“among those who cite higher numbers”

Reff, Daniel T. Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.

“an excellent historiography of the debate”
“He argues for a reconsideration of disease as the primary source of depopulation (instead of European cruelty or slavery), but does not support inflated numbers.”

Steckel, Richard H., and Jerome C. Rose, eds. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“also see” after Haines and Steckel
I discuss this text in "Footnote to Larry Schweikart's Claim" and "Origins of Malaria"

Ubelaker, Douglas. “North American Indian Population Size, A.D. 1500-1985.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77 (1988): 289-294.

“Lower estimates come from”
See my assessment

Wilford, John. “Don’t Blame Columbus for All the Indians’ Ills.” New York Times (October 29, 2002).

Seminal Works Absent from A Patriot’s History

Borah, Woodrow W., and Sherburne F. Cook. The Aboriginal Population of Central Mexico on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Chaplin, Joyce E. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly 33 (April 1976): 289-299.

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972.

Denevan, William, M., ed. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Dobyns, Henry F. “Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate.” Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 395-416.

Henige, David. Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. “The Tip of an Iceburg: Pre-Columbian Indian Demography and Some Implications for Revisionism.” William and Mary Quarterly 31 (1974): 123-132.

Kroeber, Alfred L. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley: University of Californa Press, 1939.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1976.

Mooney, James. The Aboriginal Population of America North of Mexico. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1928.

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

20 December 2007

Holiday Fun

Evidently this blog discusses torture a bit too often for some children.

online dating

18 December 2007

Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq

Washington is an echo chamber. One pundit, one senator, one reporter proclaim a snazzy “truth” and almost immediately it reverberates as gospel. Conventional wisdom about Iraq is rarely questioned. A notion seems to find validity not on its logic or through empirical evidence, but simply by the degree to which it is repeated and felt to resonate.
Victor Davis Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant: The same old simplicities about Iraq,” National Review Online

Thanks to Spinning Clio for highlighting Victor Hanson’s article. He takes issue with the predictions, analyses, and pre-historical assessments of spinsters whose perceptions change from day to day. It would be difficult to counter the truth of his opening shot above, or in the final paragraph:

In conclusion, we do know of one assertion about Iraq that really is true. The conventional wisdom of pundits, reporters, and politicians is predicated on their own daily perceptions of whether we are winning or losing the war—and thus what they say is true today they may well say is not tomorrow.
Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant”

However, Hanson also echoes a common element proclaimed by supporters of President Bush’s policies. He begins his article with a caution against “snazzy truths,” but ends in the penultimate paragraph putting forth a snazzy line written by the spinsters in the White House public relations mill.

That we haven’t had another September 11th, while bin Laden’s popularity has plummeted in the Islamic Middle East—if both trends continue—will factor positively in any analysis.
Victor Davis Hanson, “Conventionally Ignorant”

September 11, 2001 was a momentous event with no precedent. There should be no reasonable expectation that it would happen again in the near future. The point that it has not been repeated clarifies the nature of the event rather than the success or failure of the actions it catalyzed.

Among the few events akin to the significance of 9/11, we might include the unprecedented use of nuclear weapons by the United States in August 1945. The Bomb was a new weapon, and it has not been employed since. But the deployment of nuclear devices came to dominate international relations through the next forty-five years, and remains a vital aspect of issues today. Do we assess the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the basis that cities have not again been laid waste in the same manner? (Apologies to the sailors on the Lucky Dragon, residents of Paiute villages in Nevada, Karen Silkwood, ...)

A Note on Method

Yesterday, I gave my money to Victor Davis Hanson and a big box retailer. While doing some holiday shopping at the mall, I bought Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001) for myself. Hanson’s book has earned mixed reviews, but rose to the top of my reading list due to its centrality in an argument put forth by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen in A Patriot’s History (2004). I noted several days ago:

Schweikart and Allen offer an explanation of the success of Cortés, and by extension all Europeans, that emphasizes mobility (horses and ships), the economic power of Europe ("wealth made possible the shipping and equipping of large, trained, well-armed forces" [7]), and social organization. This third factor, "the glue that held it all together" (7), they argue is novel and interesting, and of central importance to their conservative ideology. It merits a separate post.
Stripes, “Practicing Objectivity,” Patriots and Peoples

Schweikart and Allen explain the factor that I summed as “social organization” thus:

But these two factors were magnified by a third element—the glue that held it all together—which was a western way of combat that emphasized group cohesion of free citizens. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Cortés’s Castilians fought from a long tradition of tactical adaptation based on individual freedom, civic rights, and a “preference for shock battle of heavy infantry” that “grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes,” and other distinctly Western traits that gave nemerically inferior European armies a decisive edge.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 7.

The quotations in this extract, as well as the argument itself, originate in Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture. At the very least, my assessment of A Patriot’s History requires me to study Hanson’s first chapter, wherein he lays out his thesis in detail; chapter six, which explains the success of Cortés in Tenochtitlán; and the epilogue.

Reading Footnotes

I cannot read a book straight through except on the first reading, which is really skimming even when I read every word—something I tell my students is rarely needed with the history texts that I assign. Merely getting through the story an author puts forth is not reading except in the most general sense of the term. Rather, reading is rereading. Rereading requires probing, questioning, digging, and the piggybacking of additional texts. Every book or article opens more texts that must be tasted, chewed, savored, and swallowed or spat out (see Francis Bacon, “Of Studies”).

In terms of my reading practice, this distinction between the first reading (skimming) and the perusal called rereading is an artificial one. In the aisles of the bookstore, I start with the footnotes.

17 December 2007

Firearms and Bows 1607: The Jamestown Test

The colonists at Jamestown set up a test to compare their weapons to those of the Indians. Less than a month after the colonists arrived in Virginia, and only a few days after they began constructing the defensive fortifications to give them security in a potentially hostile land, they became the recipients of food brought by forty men from the Native village headed by Paspiha. George Percy, who was there, mentions that the British thought the generosity was part of a ruse to disarm them. A weapons test was conducted during this visit of the Powhatans to the English village.

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus mentions this episode:
Even for a crack shot, a seventeenth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be supposed. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep, “which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not piece it.” To regain the upper hand, the English set up a target made of steel. This time the archer “burst his arrow all to pieces.” The Indian was “in a great rage”: he realized, one assumes, that the foreigners had cheated. When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, [Joyce] Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”
Mann, 1491, 64.
I mentioned in “Superior European Technology” Mann’s suggestion that the terms superior and inferior do not readily apply to the differences in the technology of the immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the land that was coming to be called Virginia.

George Percy’s Account

Some of the primary sources that aid historians in reconstructing the founding of Virginia are found in an early anthology of travel narratives collected and published by Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others , 4 vols (1625). This anthology contains an account of the first months of the Virginia colony, George Percy, “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606,” in Purchas his Pilgrims, vol. 4 (1625), 1685-1690.

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Percy relates the episode that Mann draws upon for evidence supporting his generalizations regarding technology.
The twentieth day [20 May 1607] the Werowance of Paspiha sent fortie of his men with a Deere, to our quarter: but they came more in villanie than any love they bare us: they faine would have layne in our Fort all night, but wee would not suffer them for feare of their treachery. One of our Gentlemen having a Target which hee trusted in, thinking it would beare out a slight shot, he set it up against a tree, willing one of the Savages to shoot; who took from his backe an Arrow of an elle long, drew it strongly in his Bowe, shoots the Target a foote thorow, or better: which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it. Wee seeing the force of his Bowe, afterwards set him up a steel Target; he shot again, and burst his arrow all to pieces, he presently pulled out another Arrow, and bit it in his teeth, and seemed to be in great rage, so he went away in great anger. Their Bowes are made of tough Hasell, their strings of Leather, their Arrowes of Canes or Hasell, headed with very sharpe stones, and are made artificially like a broad Arrow: other some of their Arrowes are headed with the ends of Deeres hornes, and are feathered very artificially. Pasphia was as good as his word; for he sent Venison, but the Sawse came within a few dayes after.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1688-1689.

First Battle between Jamestown Colonists and Natives

In late April, before the colonists had selected the location for their fort, their first encounter with the Natives of Virginia was hostile.

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At night, when wee were going aboard, there came the Savages creeping upon all foure, from the Hills like Beares, with their Bowes in their mouthes, charged us very desperately in the faces, hurt Captaine Gabrill Archer in both his hands, and a sayler in two places of the body very dangerous. After they had spent their Arrows, and felt the sharpness of our shot, they retired into the Woods with a great noise, and so left us.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1686.
After this skirmish, the English resumed their exploration of the terrain. Percy presents lists of the flora and fauna observed; he describes the shores and rivers, the meadows and forests, and other brief experiences with the Natives. They found an area where the Natives of Virginia had been burning the grass, as well as gathering and roasting oysters. Helping themselves to the warm oysters in the recently abandoned camp, the English found the shellfish “large and delicate in taste” (1686). They also found “a Cannow, which was made out of the whole tree, which was five and fortie foot long by the Rule” (1686).

Peaceful Contact

The English set up a cross to claim Chesapeake Bay for the Crown and named a piece of land Cape Henry. On the last day of April they were drawn into a Native village, where they were welcomed with songs, given a meal and smoke, and then entertained with songs and dances. They learned something of the manners of their hosts. In the narrative of the experiences, George Percy (sometimes spelled Percie) reveals quite a bit about the ideological baggage that colored English perceptions of Native American Indians.

When we came over to the other side, there was a many of the Savages which directed us to their Towne, where we were entertained by them very kindly. When we came first a Land they made a dolefull noise, laying their faces to the ground, scatching the earth wth their nailes. We did thinke that they had beene at their Idolatry. When they had ended their Ceremonies, they went into their houses and brought out mats and laid upon the the ground, the chiefest of the sate all in a rank: the meanest sort brought us such dainties as they had, & of their bread which they make of their Maiz or Gennea wheat, they would not suffer us to eat unlesse we sate down, which we did on a Mat right against them. After we were well satisfied they gave us of their Tabacco, which they tooke in a pipe made artificially of earth as ours are, but far bigger, with the bowle fashioned together with a piece of fine copper. After they had feasted us, they shewed us in welcome, their manner of dancing, which was in this fashion: one of the Savages standing in the midst singing, beat one hand against another, all the rest dancing about him, shouting, howling, and stamping against the ground, with many Anticke tricks and faces, making noise like so many Wolves or Devils. One thing of them I observed; when they were in their dance they kept stroke with their feet just one with another, but with their hands, heads, faces, and bodies, every one of them had a severall gesture: so they continued for the space of halfe an houre. When they had ended their dance, the Captaine gave them Beades and other trifling Jewells. They hand through their eares Fowles legs: they shave the right side of their heads with a shell, the left side they weare of an ell long tied up with an artificiall knot, with a many of Foules feathers sticking in it. They goe altogether naked, but their privates are covered with Beasts skinnes beset commonly with little bones, or beasts teeth: some paint their bodies blacke, some red, with artificiall knots of sundry lively colours, very beautiful and pleasing to the eye, in a braver fashion then they in the West Indies.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1687

The entire text of Purchas his Pilgrimes is available online as part of the Library of Congress website, where it is part of the Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake. Each page of the four volumes has been photographed, including black pages, and is viewable as an image.

16 December 2007

Teaching Controversy: History of Science and Faith

A local (Spokane) law professor has an editorial in an east coast newspaper.
...there is increasing skepticism among thoughtful scientists of a central claim of neo-Darwinism, namely that complex living systems can be generated from mindless processes like random mutation and natural selection.
David K. DeWolf, "Evolution and Dissent," The Boston Globe

He continues:
At the next presidential debate, I'd like to hear the following question: "Do you think public school students should be permitted to hear both sides of the debate about Darwinian evolution?" American voters want to know their answers.
Do you think the federal government should dictate curriculum to local public schools?

See "Confessions of an Ex-Creationist," a paper I wrote for Anthropology 510 in the early 1990s wherein I confess to having embraced the Creationist delusion in the 1980s, writing a Political Science paper advocating "equal treatment" of Creationism and science, and arguing with my professors throughout my undergraduate years. Ultimately, I turned back towards reality after losing too many arguments concerning science with certain friends and concerning Bible interpretation with other friends.

14 December 2007

Jamestown Matchlock

Jamestown 1607-1610

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project sheds light on aspects of the lives of the Jamestown colonists. Part of the Dale House Exhibit of 1999 was digitized and placed online. This exhibit includes an informative drawing showing how a soldier might have been armed--weapons and armor. Portions of the image can be clicked to bring up an image of an excavated artifact.

The matchlock lockplate is a case in point. The text accompanying the image highlights some of the weaknesses of this aspect of European technology, offering additional support for points I made in the post "Superior European Technology"--an ironic title.

11 December 2007

History News Network

I've just discovered that the History News Network has added this site to their extensive blogroll of history weblogs. Their extensive list is well worth a glance through for anyone interested in the past and its influence over the present and future.

My thanks also go out to Jon Swift, the first to blogroll me; Doghouse Riley, who offered a nice recommendation; D. Cupples at Buck Naked Politics; and the blogger of Dancing with Myself. Thanks to all.

Superior European Technology

Colonial Firearms

Assertions of European technological superiority appeal to our common sense. We know that guns are better than bows and arrows, and when we read some of the primary sources from the colonial era we encounter numerous references to the enthusiasm of American indigenes for firearms. Indians wanted guns, Europeans needed gold or furs or food—exchanges were made.

As he became the first European to sail around the island on the west coast of North America that now bears his name, Captain George Vancouver found several groups of Native that had acquired firearms before they had seen a European. Certainly his observations support the notion that guns were valued by North American Indians.
In the afternoon [17 July 1792] we were visited by two canoes, having a musket, with all necessary appurtenances in each. … it would appear that the inhabitants of this particular part are amply provided with these formidable weapons.”
George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery, vol. 2 (1801), 264
The guns Vancouver saw, as well as those he had available for trade were far superior to those available in the sixteenth century, but not yet as good as those about which Ulysses S. Grant would complain more than seventy years later. Writing in his memoirs about the capture of Vicksburg, Grant wrote:
The small-arms of the enemy were far superior to the bulk of ours. Up to this time our troops at the West had been limited to the old United States flint-lock muskets changed into percussion, or the Belgian musket imported early in the war—almost as dangerous to the person firing it as to the one aimed at—and a few new and imported arms.
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Library of America, 1990), 384

Virginia 1607

Our common sense understanding of the superiority of European firearms runs so deep that most of us experience no cognitive dissonance when we watch scenes such as my favorite from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). John Smith is under a waterfall when he first encounters the voluptuous Indian maiden. As she sneaks up on him as a panther might, he slowly turns and points his matchlock. The tension is broken before he fires the weapon, and this resolution benefits him because the open flame required by his gun would have been extinguished as quickly as it was lit.

Smith lacked Diamond matches that he could strike on his denim, and also lacked the denim. Nor was Smith in possession of a Zippo with its patented protection from the elements. Even if he managed to light the wick which the serpentine (the lock) delivers to the flash pan, it would not continue burning under such moist conditions. If Smith’s protection had depended upon his firearm, and Pocahontas had been hostile, he would have died a long time before he could write and repeatedly revise his Generall Historie of Virginia (1630) that spawned the misreadings and fabrications which in turn facilitated the myths propagated by the Disney cartoon.

Smith published The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1606-1612) in 1612 and The Generall History of Virginia, the Somer Iles, and New England in 1623. The former lacks his story of the rescue by Pocahontas, which first appears in the latter. Pocahontas died in 1617. There also is good reason to believe that Smith had read an almost identical story of the experience of Juan Ortiz who had come to Florida in 1528 in search of the missing Panfilo de Narváez. His story of rescue by an Indian maiden—Ulele was her name—whose father was prepared to roast him over a fire was published in accounts of the De Soto expedition. See chapter IX of the account of The Gentleman of Elvas.

Smith might have used a more expensive wheelock, which would not require an open flame but would still fail under a waterfall. Wheelocks had been available since the mid-sixteenth century, but never became as popular with soldiers as the matchlock. A good discussion of seventeenth century British weapons is available at the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. The world’s library offers many other sources of reliable information regarding seventeenth century firearms, including the story of a project of replica manufacturing and a newspaper story (PDF) concerned with the film The New World (2005), another Smith-Pocahontas saga.

Correction (14 Dec 2007): My brother phoned to take issue with some inaccuracies in my initial description of the mechanism of Captain Smith's firearm. I have corrected these errors.

Florida 1528

In their failed attempt to conquer the land Juan Ponce de León had named Flowery Easter (Pascua Florida), the men under the command of Panfilo de Narváez were nearly helpless against the arrows of the Indians. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was the highest ranking survivor of this failure. In his La Relación, first published in 1542, he recalled those traumatic days of 1528:
Good armor did no good against arrows in this skirmish. There were men who swore they had seen two red oaks, each the thickness of a man’s calf, pierced from side to side by arrows this day; which is no wonder when you consider the power and skill the Indians can deliver them with. I myself saw an arrow buried half a foot in a poplar trunk.
Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, trans. and ed. by Cyclone Covey (1998), 42
Despite its collapsed chronology, the 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca by Nicolás Echevarría captures this scene well. One moment the Spanish are cutting their way through the flora and the next they are being cut to pieces by a rain of arrows coming in fast and thick. They flee, although a great many are killed.

Mexico 1519-1521

Before his death in the failed effort to conquer Florida, Narváez had failed in another enterprise. With orders reminiscent of those given much later to Charles Marlow (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness) and Captain Willard (Francis Ford Cuppola, Apocalypse Now) to go after the renegade Kurtz, Narváez was ordered to capture or kill Hernando Cortés, who had disobeyed orders. This part of the story of the conquest of Tenochtitlán is obscured in Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History. They tell us that Spanish military technology—guns and tactics—“made any single Spanish soldier the equal of several poorly armed natives” (7). They tell us that Narváez’s “force of 600, including cooks, colonists, and women” was able to “overcome native Mexican armies outnumbering them two, three, and even ten times at any particular time” (7). They do not tell us that Cortés was able to overcome Narváez with a smaller army, nor do they tell us why he did so. In any case, the reinforcements from the captured army of Narváez and their Tlaxcalan allies returned to Tenochtitlán where they suffered astounding defeat on Noche Triste (melancholy night), returned a third time and laid seige , and finally overcame the great Aztec empire.

Mexico was born as Cortés put himself in place of Montezuma and his heirs in the now destroyed city.

Wars of the Iroquois 1648-1652

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois all but destroyed the Huron, their traditional enemies. Many historians that have narrated these events have attributed the Iroquois success to the so-called 400 guns of the Mohawks, which allegedly they had acquired through trade with the Dutch. Brian J. Given investigated these claims, and published his findings in “The Iroquois Wars and Native Firearms,” in Bruce Alden Cox, ed., Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit and Metis (1988).

Given notes, “[t]he premise that the European harquebuses of the seventeenth century were vastly superior to aboriginal projectile weapons is pervasive in the literature” (3). In his examination of these claims he set up field tests firing at a target measuring 2’ x 6,’ finding 50 to 75 yards the maximum range at which it could be hit when stationary “under ideal conditions” (10). In his summary of the bow vs. seventeenth century firearms, he points out the native bow had six times the rate of fire, could be reloaded while crouching (extremely difficult to do with a muzzle loaded firearm), and had an effective range of at least 100 yards. The bow could penetrate armour, and was accurate.
Bows never blow up and seldom misfire; the musket does both. A 20 to 50 percent misfire rate is usual in good weather under field conditions. In the lightest of rains the flint-lock becomes virtually useless, where the performance of the bow is little affected.
Brian J. Given, “The Iroquois Wars and Native Firearms,” 10

A New Thesis

In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann offers a cogent summary of what he had learned from reading various secondary accounts of colonization. Mann states:
It is true that European technology dazzled Native Americans on first encounter. But the relative positions of the two sides were closer than commonly believed. Contemporary research suggests that indigenous peoples in New England were not technologically inferior to the British—or, rather, that terms like “superior” and “inferior” do not readily apply to the relationship between Indian and European technology.
Mann, 1491, 63.
The terms inferior and superior do not apply. Indeed, they cloud our judgment. The exchanges that began on Watling Island in 1492 and continued to be initiated again and again for more than three centuries were complex exchanges. Each side found itself attracted to or repulsed by cultural elements and technologies of the Other; each side was transformed through the encounter.

06 December 2007

Practicing Objectivity

The Truth in History

"Objectivity" and "subjectivity" animate tensions in the dialogue of memory and imagination: they are not poles on a linear spectrum so much as two postures, or masks, in the drama of history.
James Stripes, "Spring Wind Rising" (1994), 210.

Neither Howard Zinn, on the one hand, nor Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, on the other, offer their texts as objective histories. A People's History of the United States has a clear and explicit liberal agenda; A Patriot's History of the United States has a clear and specific conservative agenda. I do not take issue with this aspect of either text because I favor honesty and balance, not objectivity. Neither text intends to offer balance aside from challenging what each of the authors views as the status quo. That is, Zinn sees the writing, teaching, and collective memory of the history of the United States as inherently conservative, and he challenges these standard stories. For their part, Schweikart and Allen believe that liberals have taken over America's schools, colleges, and universities; they intend to rectify that bias.

Most students learn their history from textbooks and lectures (both of which are often horribly dull). Neither A Patriot's History nor A People's History are textbooks in the usual sense of the term, but both are employed as such by students and teachers looking for a general introduction beyond the standard textbooks marketed only for schools and their captive audiences. Both texts are readily available at big box book distributors and independent bookstores all over America. The publishers mean to sell these books.

Depopulation Synthesis

The long sidebar and footnote on depopulation in A Patriot's History merits detailed examination on several counts. First, it calls attention to itself because there are relatively few such asides through this long text. A quick glance through the text turned up another: "Did Roosevelt Have Advance Knowledge About the Pearl Harbor Attack?" It has a much shorter sources list. Second, the question heading the depopulation sidebar is a red herring. Not even Ward Churchill suggests that Columbus killed most of the Indians, and little that Churchill says is taken any more seriously by liberals than are the rantings of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter by conservatives. These polemicists have value when they are on our side, or when we gain points attacking their dispatches from the other side, but believing that their statements represent serious analysis is a mark of ignorance. Third, as noted already in this blog, Schweikart and Allen offer a synthesis significantly at odds with other scholars that have examined the literature.

Schweikart and Allen cite Alfred W. Crosby "[a]mong those who cite higher numbers" (9). They reference his Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986). This book is an important contribution to a broader field of inquiry of which pre-Columbian demography is a part, but it offers little more than one dozen pages concerned with disease in North America. Crosby's earlier The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972) contains far more detailed discussion of the effects of European introduced diseases upon aboriginal depopulation of the Americas. Ecological Imperialism is global rather than hemispheric in focus, and emphasizes animals and plants more than pathogens. Citing The Columbian Exchange would send diligent readers toward a better representation of Crosby's point of view on the matter before us. Moreover, the indispensable citation in any depopulation bibliography is Crosby's "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly (April 1976). This article is mentioned in many of the texts they cite, but not in their own footnote. In contrast, even William Bennett offers an oblique reference to the thesis of Crosby's seminal article:
The Indians ... contracted smallpox and measles from the Spaniards; these diseases devastated populations with no previous exposure and built-up immunity.
William Bennett, America: The Last Best Hope, vol I (2006), 6.

Virgin soil epidemics are those in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless. The importance of virgin soil epidemics in American history is strongly indicated by evidence that a number of dangerous maladies-smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, and undoubtedly several more-were unknown in the pre-Columbian New World. In theory, the initial appearance of these diseases is as certain to have set off deadly epidemics as dropping lighted matches into tinder is certain to cause fires.
Alfred W. Crosby, "Virgin Soil Epidemics" (1976), 289.
Crosby explains the importance of epidemics in The Columbian Exchange: not only did many succumb to disease, "but it also affected their power structures, striking down the leaders and disrupting the processes by which they were normally replaced" (54). My effort to synthesize scholarship on this topic was published in an Encyclopedia a few years ago:
Epidemic disease was the decisive factor in the European conquest. Epidemics not only eliminated entire communities, but the resulting sociocultural disruption created conditions that made Native peoples more receptive to European trade items and religious ideas.
James Stripes, "Native Americans: An Overview," Encyclopedia of American Studies, vol. 3 (2001), 198.
Crosby offers his assessment of the significance of disease against the leading prior explanations for the success of Europeans in the New World: 1) technology, 2) mobility and psychological advantages of mounted soldiers, 3) lack of Indian unity, and 4) Indian prophesies concerning white gods. Schweikart and Allen offer an explanation of the success of Cortés, and by extension all Europeans, that emphasizes mobility (horses and ships), the economic power of Europe ("wealth made possible the shipping and equipping of large, trained, well-armed forces" [7]), and social organization. This third factor, "the glue that held it all together" (7), they argue is novel and interesting, and of central importance to their conservative ideology. It merits a separate post.

03 December 2007

Depopulation: Ubelaker’s Low Estimate

The Writers’ Source

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of A Patriot’s History of the United States, offer a long aside entitled “Did Columbus Kill Most of the Indians?” followed by a lengthy footnote (7-10). Reading this portion of the text in the aisle of Borders, I observed that the authors:

* mention several sources with which I was unfamiliar,
* omit certain texts that are central to the field of Native American Indian demography, and
* put forth a perspective regarding disease and depopulation far out of step with the norm.

These three observations provoked my interest in close reading and critical examination of A Patriot's History, and thus contributed to my decision to purchase the book. That decision spawned this blog.

Schweikart and Allen claim, “several studies put the native population of North America alone within a range of 8.5 million (the highest) to a low estimate of 1.8 million” in 1500. Their low figure likely comes from Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size, A.D. 1500 to 1985,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77 (1988), 289-294, which they cite. Ubelaker based this article on the work of hundreds of reputable scholars. He constructed a tribe-by-tribe estimate, the first since that done by James Mooney (1910), based largely on the work of scholars contributing to the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians (1978-1986)—several more volumes have been published since 1986.

Ubelaker states that his “estimated total figure is 1,894,350 with a minimum-maximum range from 1,213,475 to 2,638,900” (291). It seems to me that 1.9 million is a better reflection of Ubelaker’s estimate than rounding down his figure the lowest round number as must have been done to arrive at 1.8.

Ubelaker explains variances built into his estimates due to the uneven progress of European colonization of the continent—initial contact ranged from just after 1500 in the east to 1740 in Alaska. His estimates assumes that population at the time of “initial contact was maintained as far back as A.D. 1500”; he notes that such “stability is unlikely but must be assumed in the absence of specific data to the contrary” (291).

Methods of Scholarship
There are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived or at any other time in history. Does this sound like a record of genocide?
Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (1994)
Ubelaker identifies efforts to estimate the aboriginal population at time of contact as rooted in either ethnohistorical or in archeological methodologies. Ethnohistorical approaches rely upon primary sources: “direct observations by Europeans in early contact” (289). Archeological approaches draw upon settlement patterns, including housing and refuse, and analysis of skeletal remains. Bias, limitations of an etic perspective and unreliable counting procedures affect the reliability of ethnohistorical sources, while sampling challenges affect archeological data. Ubelaker notes also that “ecological resource potential [estimated] from environmental and cultural data” can establish upper limits of population. Henry Dobyns, who is cited in the next paragraph, employs such methodologies for Their Numbers Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (1983).

Seizing upon the low estimate, Schweikart and Allen report “800,000 Indians … died from disease and firearms,” which “still represented a destruction of half the native population” (8). Ubelaker’s figures differ: “numbers at nadir for all areas total 515,757, or a reduction of 73%;” due to variability in “average dates of nadir” he finds a probable “reduction of 1,364,350 from [his] estimate for 1500 of 1,894,350 or about 72%” (291). If Schweikart and Allen arrived at their figure of 1.8 million through improper rounding of Ubelaker’s figures, they nevertheless ignored his other figures.

Ubelaker’s article offers superficial support for Rush Limbaugh’s contention (1985’s 2.5 million is greater than 1.9), but not for the strange figures reported by Schweikart and Allen. His work, however, neither supports the contention of polemicist Limbaugh nor of historians Schweikart and Allen that aboriginal depopulation was insignificant, or greatly exaggerated. He states, “the end result was devastating” and the “remarkable demographic recovery has occurred in spite of the extensive cultural disruption, morbidity, and populations losses sustained in the centuries immediately following initial European contact” (293-294).

I am indebted to Erik Carter for bringing me a copy of Ubelaker's article. Some of Dr. Carter's scholarship is referenced in the post "Library Acquisitions".

Library Acquisitions

Works by Dr. Erik T. Carter

Check these out:

Comparative Racial Formations

Removal and Dispossession

02 December 2007

From Chiasmus to Columbus

Chiasmus to Columbus
Lewis and Clark did not bring the West into U.S. history, they brought the United States into western history.
Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark, 2003

We did not come to the United States at all. The United States came to us.
Luis Valdez, Aztlan, 1972
Where does American history begin? The term American history more often than not refers to the history of the United States, rather than to all of North America, let alone the Americas—something about which my teenage son was ranting last night: “What about Canada, Mexico, and South America? Isn't Canada part of America?” Even when writers are concerned with this sort of semantic precision, they do not produce a national story of American history that begins with the Declaration of Independence. Rather, the beginning gets pushed back in time, nearly always creating a long story of colonization that culminates in revolution. Nation building begins after the revolution.

The story often begins with Columbus and Indians. It might begin with Columbus setting sail, or with Indians greeting him when he lands. American history sometimes begins with the precursors to Columbus, such as the Norse and their lost colony of Vineland or Prince Henry the Navigator’s orchestration of discoveries along the coast of Africa. It also could begin with the origins of human life in America, as in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Morison concluded that people began crossing into America from Asia “prior to 10,000 B.C.” (8) on the basis of archeology. Scientists since Morison’s day have pushed back the dates of this migration, some as far back as 50,000 years. Morison expressed skepticism regarding whether the first migrants were indeed the ancestors of modern American Indians, or whether their ancestors displaced earlier peoples. These questions have gained new currency since 1996 when a couple of young men tripped over a skull on the banks of the Columbia River while trying to sneak into the hydroplane races; their discovery of bones led to the arrival of forensic archaeologist James Chatters on the scene. Chatters’s Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (2001) is one among many texts reassessing human life in early America, and the controversies generated by such study. Chatters is one among those now offering the view that so-called Kennewick Man is more closely related to the Ainu than to American Indians.

The Bering land-bridge hypothesis did not originate in archeology, as that science was still far in the future when José de Acosta wrote Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590). Acosta concerned himself with universal history as a theologian. His work “accorded with the 1537 declaration of Pope Paul III that Indians were human, hence descendants of Noah,” as I wrote in “Native Americans: An Overview,” Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001).

American history could begin with speculative accounts of migrations through a land-bridge, and with alternate theories of water routes. Such narratives would need to delve into the science of archeology and related disciplines, such as methods of garnering evidence of human migrations from comparative linguistics. On the other hand, American history could begin with Native stories of origins as Vine Deloria, Jr. recommends in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1995). As Colin Calloway points out in the epigraph above, there was a long history of peoples in America before European-American settlers arrived. History as we have come to know it finds its structure and plot in European metanarratives—the rise of civilization,—but an accurate account of the American past need not conform always to these imported structures.

The very remote history of all nations is disfigured with fable, and gives but little encouragement to distant enquiry, and laborious researches. … From the most exact observations I could make in the long time I traded among the Indian Americans, I was forced to believe them lineally descended from the Israelites, either while they were a maritime power, or soon after the general captivity; the latter however is the most probable.
James Adair, The History of the American Indians, 1775

Many writers past and present have stressed American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States is a light to the world, the world’s best hope. Despite such quasi-religious assumptions, or even explicitly religious arguments, these writers do not write their stories with the sort of language found in the B'reshit or Bərêšîth, the first of the books of the Torah. Even if they started in such a manner, we are unlikely to find such sentences as these:
In the beginning of American history, the land was occupied. As Europeans began to arrive, lands and peoples were transformed; nations vanished and new nations were born.

We do find frequent efforts to draw upon Hebrew scriptures in order to frame the American story of the past. James Adair’s view that American Indians were descended from Israel neither found adherents in his day nor in ours unless we consider the impact of Joseph Smith imbibing the idea, and then promoting it through his sacred text. On the other hand, Cotton Mather’s expression of the Puritan colony as a “New English Israel” has produced many proselytes. In Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Mather expressed his sense of the purpose of the colony of New England: a sense of mission akin to that uttered in 1630 by John Winthrop as he drew upon Matthew 5:14 for his sermon to the recently arrived Puritans that soon would overwhelm the Separatists whom had arrived on the Mayflower. Mather wrote:
This at last is the Spot of Earth, which the God of Heaven Spied out for the Seat of such Evangelical, and Ecclesiastical, and very remarkable Transactions, as require to be made an History; here ‘twas that our Blessed Jesus intended a Resting-place, must I say? Or only an Hiding-place for those Reformed CHURCHES, which have given him a little Accomplishment of his Eternal Father’s Promise unto him; to be; we hope, yet further accomplished, of having the utmost Parts of the Earth for his Possession?
Mather, Magnalia, 122-123, emphasis in original

The Sense of Mission

Rush Limbaugh interviewed Larry Schweikart, author of A Patriot’s History and published the interview in The Limbaugh Letter (March 2005). This interview is reprinted in the updated version of A Patriot’s History. Limbaugh asked Schweikart about his view of American exceptionalism. Speaking for himself and for co-author Michael Allen, Schweikart was clear: “We believe that America was a city set on a hill” (xv). He continues by asserting that all of the English colonies, except Jamestown, were religious colonies. His central point is that the U.S. has “a Judeo-Christian basis. We [the U.S.] embrace private property rights, and we are a democratic republic” (xvi). We are to understand that God did the setting.
The first sentence of the narrative in A Patriot’s History reflects this bias. “God, glory, and gold—not necessarily in that order—took post-Renaissance Europeans to parts of the globe that they had never before seen” (1). From there the first two pages of narrative give an account of the influence of Marco Polo, ancient trade routes to Cathay, and developments in technology: the Arabs’ astrolabe, Viking hull construction, and sternpost rudders from the Baltic coast. They note also the growth of European monarchies, mercantilism, and the rift between Protestants and Catholics “that reinforced national concerns” (2). After a brief timeline of twenty-one events from the four voyages of Columbus to the Salem witch hunts, they resume the narrative with three paragraphs concerning Prince Henry of Portugal.
In contrast to A Patriot’s History, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History opens with a description of the actions of Natives: “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat” (1). Zinn goes on to emphasize Native hospitality and “belief in sharing,” suggesting “[t]hese traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance” (1). He also mentions Marco Polo and the silks and spices of Asia, as well as political developments of monarchies. He offers less preliminary context to the voyage of Columbus, but does mention the relative distribution of wealth in Spain, “2 percent of the population … owned 95 percent of the land” (2).
Both books begin with the voyages of Columbus, and each constructs this story in a manner consistent with the authors’ overall purpose. Schweikart and Allen labor to promote a Judeo-Christian based sense of national mission; Zinn aims to highlight racial and class inequalities, as well as “fugitive moments of compassion” (11) from which we might craft our future.


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