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Home / Poetry R. M. Rilke / Poetry / Essay on the discovery of America




History as we know it has multiple uses and functions. Least significant of which, perhaps, is its use as a chronicle of true events. Throughout the ages historians have manipulated the record, primarily by omitting relevant facts, sometimes by inventing them, a phenomenon attributable to literary enthusiasm, poetic license (se non è vero è molto ben trovato!), to human nature (feel good stories), to political correctness and even to greed. Let's face it, most historians -- like lawyers -- write what is expected of them, or what will pay handsomely. This is why historical accounts that raise uncomfortable questions, upset the established order, i.e. are not black and white, neatly separating good and bad, heroes and villains, are seldom written, and if written, are often marginalized. Let us now revisit a major historical event that is mostly perceived as a success story, a romantic adventure, the winning of the golden West, i.e. the classical caricature known as the "discovery" of America.

Now, did the Europeans "discover" an empty continent, which they then settled and developed, or were our ancestors more like "migrants" to new frontiers? Throughout history, migration has been a natural behaviour of the human species, hardly "deviant conduct". Yet, one of the many differences between 21st century migrants and 16th-20th century migrants is that 21st century migrants do not come to destroy our crops, slaughter our buffalo or wipe us out. Basically, all that modern migrants (we often call them "illegal aliens") want is a better chance for themselves and their families. Anything wrong with that?

Well, let's look at Europe in the "age of discovery". Our European ancestors were pretty poor, our cities were squalid, overcrowded, unemployment and disease were rife. The 16th, 17th, 18th. 19th century migrants -- the Spanish, the Portuguese, the British, the French. the Germans, the Irish and other "colonizers" -- were adventurers, mavericks bent on getting rich fast, and simple folk hoping for a new start. The historical fact is that what we know today as North Armerica (the Western hemisphere north of the Rio Grande) was a rich land, ecologically-balanced, populated by some 10 million human beings, minding their own business and posing no threat to Europeans, when in 1492 the Genovese Christopher Columbus made his first appearance, thinking he had found a western route to India.

Our Anglo-Saxon forebears had little use for the native population, whom they referred to as "devils" and "wolves". The Massachusetts Puritans, who also burned witches, killed the native "Indians" who taught them how to survive, while the Reverend John Cotton of the first Church of Boston, and the Reverend Cotton Mather of the Second Church of Boston held their racist, rabble-rousing sermons worthy of a Julius Streicher. In the course of three centuries 98% of the native North American population was not only displaced pursuant to the official policy of "manifest destiny" -- it was deliberately exterminated. The founding fathers of the "land of the free and the home of the brave", Benjamin Franklin ("the design of Providence to extirpate these savages"), George Washington ("beasts of prey") , John Adams ("blood hounds"), Thomas Jefferson ("merciless Indian savages"), James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson ("the wolf be struck in his den")-- all called for the extinction of the American "Indian". All these dreadful historical facts lie sleeping in the archives, if anyone cares to consult them. But History only wants to remember "Thanksgiving Day" and the story of Pocahontas.

What we know as Meso-and South America, was also a rich land, densely populated with some 70 million human beings, with magnificent cities like Tenochtitlán (today Mexico City), capital of the Aztec kingdom, with towns, villages, impressive architecture, acqueducts, sports facilities, science, astronomy, art, and vast agricultural lands producing such wonderful foods as avocado, beans, cacao, cassava, cayenne pepper, jalapeños, maize (mahiz in Arawak language, commonly known as corn), passion fruit, peanuts, pineapple, sweet pimentos, potatoes (papa or patata in Inca language), pumpkin, squash, tapioca, tomatoes (tomatl in Nahuatl language), topinanbour etc., not to mention tobacco (from the Arawakan or Taino word referred to by Las Casas), hitherto unknown in Europe (until introduced in Spain in 1558 by Francisco Fernandez).

As we can read in the writings of the Dominican friar (later Bishop) Bartolomé de las Casas, our Spanish ancestors brutally aggressed the indigenous population, murdered and enslaved millions of the men, raped their women, and eventually mixed with the suvivors to create the "mestizo" society we know in Latin America today. If you travel to Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, you will see the descendants of the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas. Presidents Toledo of Peru, Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia have Spanish surnames, but they certainly also have as many indigenous forefathers (a mucha honra!). So much for the "discovery" of the Americas and for the legal fiction of "terra nullius".

It is worth remembering that, far from being xenophobic, the first nations of the Americans received Cristobal Colon with remarkable hospitality. -- The European newcomers, however, were migrants with the sword. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said for Spanish colonization is that the human rights activities of Friar Antonio de Montesinos ("are these not also men"?) and Bartolome de las Casas before Emperor Charles V led to the adoption of the "New Laws" of 1540 which recognized the human nature of the indigenous population and forbade their ill-treatment and enslavement. The great disputations of Valladolid and Salamanca have gone down in history as a milestone in the development of the concept of human rights. Admittedly, Charles' laws were violated with impunity, which only illustrates the truism that norms and their enforcement are not identical. Yet, if we had no norms, we would be totally subject to the law of the jungle, otherwise known as "might is right". (Bartolome de las Casas, Brief History of the Devastation of the Indies, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; David Stannard, American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 1992; Richard Drinnon, Facing West, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997; Frederick Hoxie (ed.) Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, in particular the entry "Population: Precontact to Present", pp. 500-502 by Russell Thornton, UCLA), Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America, Chappel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Nicholas Guyatt, Providence and the Invention of the United States, Cambridge 2007. R. W. van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire, Oxford 2010, Reginald Harsman, Expansion and American Indian Policy 1983-1812, East Lansing Michigan State University Press, 1967. Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, Penguin 2010, pp. 16-24.

I cannot help wondering how our world would look if instead of the Europeans "discovering" America, the Iroquois, the Cree, the Dakotas, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Arawacs had crossed the Ocean to "discover" Europe. Would they have slaughtered the Europeans, as our ancestors slaughtered them?

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