13 January 2008

Howard Zinn on Depopulation

War, Slavery, Disease

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers potentially inflated figures of the number of Indians that died. His numbers and the use he makes of them are clear in four short sentences.

For a while the English tried softer tactics. But ultimately, it was back to annihilation. The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would die from diseases introduced by whites.
Zinn, A People’s History, 16.

Zinn prioritizes the intent of white colonists to annihilate Indians. He mentions disease here, but omits it elsewhere in the first chapter. The sequence is telling: European tactics, depopulation, and then disease. Earlier in the first chapter, “Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress,” he criticizes Spanish colonization of Hispaniola without reference to epidemics, stating that from 1494 to 1508 “over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines” (7). Two pages earlier, he credited “murder, mutilation, or suicide” for decimating “half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti” during the first two years of colonization there (5).

Aside from the first chapter of A People’s History, Zinn’s one significant mention of disease afflicting Indians highlights European agency in spreading illness.

Under orders from British General Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of Fort Pitts gave the attacking Indian chiefs, with whom he was negotiating, blankets from the smallpox hospital. It was a pioneering effort at what is now called biological warfare. An epidemic soon spread among the Indians.
Zinn, A People’s History, 87.

This single documented case of deliberate introduction of lethal pathogens generates considerable discussion, as for instance NativeWeb’s “Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets,” with links to images of the critical documents.

Implications of Large Estimates

Citing high population estimates, but deemphasizing the chief cause of depopulation presents a distorted account. All scholars that put forth high estimates, those arguing for moderate numbers, and even several of the low counters agree that disease epidemics were the principle cause of the decline in Indian numbers. Moreover, Zinn’s narrative emphasis contrasts with the discussion of causality in his principle source for some of the population figures he offers, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975) by Francis Jennings. The relationship between war and disease is presented with some artistry in The Invasion of America.

Not even the most brutally depraved of the conquistadors was able purposely to slaughter Indians on the scale that the gentle priest unwittingly accomplished by going from his sickbed ministrations to lay his hands in blessing on his Indian converts. As the invaders were descendants of the toughened survivors of the Middle Ages, so the Indians of today descend from those who could live through the trauma of a European handshake.
Jennings, The Invasion of America, 22.

Handshakes were more lethal than muskets. The population figures that Zinn passes along are not without controversy, as noted elsewhere in Patriots and Peoples. To his credit, he expresses some uncertainty regarding these numbers in his discussion of Bartolomé de las Casas’s criticisms of Spanish conquest. This skepticism, however, is buried within strident criticism of the effects of conquest and of sanitized commemorations.

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas—even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)—in conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure—there is no bloodshed—and Columbus Day is a celebration.
Zinn, A People’s History, 7.

Zinn is correct that conquest of the Americas meant death for immense numbers of Native American Indians, but his emphasis on European intent seems inconsistent with his report of the degree of population loss. Nowhere in A People’s History does Zinn offer a general discussion of the effects of epidemic disease in reducing the indigenous population of the Americas.

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