What should the Europeans have done with the New World?
The narrative of the ‘stolen country’ or ‘Native American genocide’ does not stand up to scrutiny by any honest and clear-sighted historian. It is a dangerously myopic and one-sided interpretation of history. It has only gained currency because most practicing historians and history teachers are either susceptible to groupthink, or else have been cowed into silence by fear of losing their jobs. Reduced to its puerile form of ‘statement of guilt’, this myth puts 100 percent of the burden on Europeans who are held responsible for all historical evil, while the First Nations people are mere victims; martyrs even, whose saintlike innocence presumes that their civilization and society were practically perfect in every way. This is no way to honor or respect the realities of First Nation lives and their agency. And it helps perpetuate the idea that the US and Canada are fundamentally illegitimate societies, and that by implication, every other country on Earth is legitimate. If we were to be honest, there is not a single country on Earth which did not displace natives, or which did not engage in nasty wars or ethnic cleansings at many points during its history. The current fad for holding up the US and Canada to special scrutiny and particular opprobrium is therefore distorting at best.
Was the land stolen?
As an economic historian, allow me to point out some of the most obvious structural problems with the ‘stolen country’ paradigm.
First, no matter who ‘discovered’ the New World, it is inevitable that a large proportion of New World inhabitants would have died within the first few decades after first contact. This is universally acknowledged by specialists in the field. The New World population was smaller and more homogenous than the Old World population. Thus, its people had less immunity to disease than the people of the Old World, where disease communities from Africa, Asia and Europe had been intermingling for millennia. Even though some European captains did try and spread smallpox around a few forts and villages from time to time, the effect of their efforts was almost negligible compared with the natural spread of disease. So the claims of genocide by disease have almost nothing to do with European actions, apart from their simply reaching the New World. And of course, Europeans of the time had no way of envisioning the continent-wide epidemic repercussions of their actions. Verdict: not guilty.
Let us also acknowledge that Native American society was just as warlike as any other in human history. The anthropologists’ vision of Native Americans as peace-pipe-smoking environmentalists which gained purchase in the 1970s has long since given way to a more Hobbesian portrait of pre-Columbian reality. In North America, most Natives were primitive farmers. This means that (with some exceptions) they had no permanent settlements: they farmed in an area for a few decades until the soil got tired, before moving on to greener pastures where the hunting was better and the lands more fertile. This meant that tribes were in constant conflict with other tribes. It also meant that chiefs were continually vying for power, creating confederations under themselves, and that the question of who owned the land was in a more or less constant state of flux. In most of North America, the idea that any one piece of land belonged to any one tribe, for more than 50 or 100 years, is therefore highly questionable. In short, if you looked at a map of Native Canada 200 years before Europeans arrived, it would have been entirely different. In the meantime, some groups of natives would have slaughtered, bullied or enslaved others. Should we not be grieving for those Native Canadians whose land was stolen by other Native Canadians? Or is that somehow OK? I don’t suppose there is an app for that.
The idea that the Europeans stole some land which had belonged in perpetuity to any one tribe is therefore ludicrous. The situation in most of North America was similar to northern Europe on the eve of the Germanic migrations, or western Europe as the Celts were moving across the landscape. Precisely to whom the land belonged in any given century at these periods in history was anyone’s guess. The very notion of property is a Greco-Roman invention which most cultures found foreign until quite recently. But Europeans of the time had little chance of grasping this difference. What the Europeans did in the New World was insert themselves into a fluid power struggle which had been ongoing for millennia. Many Native American chiefs were ready to pledge allegiance to the Great ‘Chief of the English’, as a political expedient, just as various English colonies sided with this or that Native American ‘Great Chief’. Despite a few sensational cases of duplicity, most of the time, Europeans tried to buy land from Indians, just like they would buy an acre of land in England. If the local chief assented to this and liked the price, where then was the crime? Many individual Europeans believed that according to the norms of both parties, they had legal usufruct to the land they were working. To judge this as theft is therefore anachronistic. As Europeans set up farming communities, and introduced guns to North America, Native American communities were forced to move further away from European lands as game retreated. The areas around white settlements were often empty for this reason, making the land seem all the more abandoned. Musket use by natives probably depleted animal stocks at a higher rate than previously, meaning that the very introduction of firearms might have spelled the doom of hunting and gathering in North America in the long run, even if the Europeans had otherwise left the country alone.
Another major structural issue is this: what precisely would our pious anthropology professors have had Europeans do with the New World once they found it?
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