A Heroic Historian on Heroes

The European invasion of North America began in earnest when Columbus, searching for Asia, blundered into the Caribbean. The newcomers, mostly Spanish, English, and French, found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people whose primitive technology was hopelessly inferior to the Europeans’. In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants. They lived mostly in small tribal units often quite hostile to one another even when living close together, and they spoke an astonishing number of languages, perhaps as many as 375. Nowhere did they constitute anything like the European nation-state that was about to fall upon them in murderous excesses of Christian love and ancient greed.

I have all this and much more from Professor Edmund Morgan’s American Heroes, a fine collection of sixteen essays that carry us swiftly through three hundred years of history about which few of us know as much as we should. It is a relatively small book to cover such a great span of time, and it is a pleasure, and often a delight, to read. Most of the essays are selected from previous publications that make up Morgan’s voluminous body of work. The earliest piece here first appeared in 1937, three others in the 1940s, and three more in the 1950s. Morgan’s curiosity about our ancestors obviously goes far back, yet it still seems as lively as ever in the articles that were written quite recently. The essay that opens American Heroes, published here for the first time, is perhaps the most powerful in the book.

It concerns Columbus’s early encounter on Hispaniola (now Haiti) with the seemingly idyllic Arawak Indians— “the best people in the world,” Columbus said, “and beyond all the mildest”—and tells how the Spanish destroyed them in order to save them. When Columbus first saw them, they seemed “like relics of the golden age.” They cultivated a little cassava for bread and made a bit of cloth, but spent most of the day idling the time away “seemingly without a care in the world.”

The Europeans were charmed, but as believers in the Christian work ethic and the civilizing effect of maximized profit they felt obliged to improve the Arawaks by putting them to work for the improvement of their souls and the enrichment of Europeans afflicted with a lust for gold. Moreover, as Columbus told his royal Spanish patrons, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three.” In short, good candidates for slavery: “fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary.”

Columbus was wrong. The Indians were not made for forced labor. They did everything to escape it and when they tried fleeing into the wild the Spaniards hunted them down …

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Letters

Clarification October 8, 2009