Pattern of Exploration and Annihilation

Countless battles were to be fought between the invading Europeans and the indigenous tribes of the Americas; yet, as early as the middle of the eighteenth century the struggle for control over the vast continent was largely over. Prolonged contact with the Europeans decimated the tribes, who with only a few exceptions never understood that only a united resistance held out any hope of preserving their civilization and independence.

The earliest to fall victim to the European onslaught were those in the southern hemisphere. The Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral followed Columbus and Vespucci into the Americas in 1500 to claim Brazil for the Portuguese crown. Within the span of just three decades Cortez conquered the Aztecs and Pizarro the Incas, claiming these lands for Spain. Mercantilism and the centralized States of Spain and Portugal were then brought to the Americas. African slaves would quickly become part of this commerce. Those Africans or indigenous people who could not be enslaved were annihilated. As early as 1511, however, a Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesinos boldly raised the doctrines of Christianity as a moral challenge to Spanish conquests. His sermon, delivered to the Spanish citizens of Hispaniola, puts him in good company with more recent Roman Catholic priests whose calls for justice have been labeled liberation theology:

In order to make your sins against the Indians known to you I have come up on this pulpit, I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island ... This voice says that you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? ...Why do you keep them so oppressed and weary, not giving them enough to eat nor taking care of them in their illness? For with the excessive work you demand of them they fall ill and die, or rather you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day.

As in so many other instances recorded in history, the power of the State was utilized by the privileged in an effort to silence any protest. What casts an even darker shadow on the behavior of the Spanish is the fact that the character of the Spanish vanguard in the Americas was comprised of "footloose ex-soldiers, broken noblemen, adventurers, or even convicts." Most of these conquerors were not individuals in whom the true Spanish elite placed much confidence or gave much respect. Nevertheless, the treatment frequently received by indigenous people throughout the Americas attests to the opportunistic nature of European behavior toward others unable to repulse them militarily.

Despite the dutiful practice of rituals associated with the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, the moral sense philosophy integral to the true doctrine of Christianity had little or no influence on the actions of Europeans toward one another or toward non-Christians. This was certainly the case where control over nature was concerned. The English imperialists, for their part, could also invoke the teachings of John Locke to add a moral basis to their conquests; for, had not Locke written that although "God gave the world to men in common ... for their benefit and the greatest convenience of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated."

The colonists in North America accepted instinctively that the land was provided for "the use of the industrious and rational" among themselves, and that "labour was to be [their] title to it"; yet, even the planted fields of the indigenous tribes and the presence of permanent villages established for hundreds of years failed to alter the course of the European-American migration. The pattern of exploitation and annihilation that characterized the settlement of Eurasia was not softened by the immense wilderness they found in the Americas.

Differences between Europeans and indigenous Americans were exaggerated, and similarities reduced in importance in order to justify claims of inherent superiority. A few Europeans would come to recognize that the American tribal societies were going through a pattern of socio-political development similar to that of earlier Eurasian tribes. Unfortunately, their influence over the actions and policies exercised toward the American tribes made almost no impact on events. In other instances, the nature of the tribal societies was misrepresented to support the socio-political objectives of certain Europeans agitators. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, writing from France and without any first-hand knowledge of the northern tribes in the Americas, offered a rather startling comparison between the American tribal societies and the earliest Eurasians:

The first societies governed themselves aristocratically. The heads of families deliberated among themselves about public affairs. Young people demurred without difficulty to the authority of experience. This is the source of the names priests, ancients, senate, elders. The savages of North America still govern themselves in this manner, and are very well governed.

Rousseau's observation suggests that a society governed by priests and elders takes advantage of tradition and accumulated wisdom to maintain order, which he essentially equates to the good. Rousseau had already concluded that European societies had become corrupted by the abandonment of the tribal hierarchy in favor of one established by force and coercion. What he failed to understand is the very natural tendency of societies to evolve in this direction. Communitarian societies exposed to strong external competition and environmental pressures drift into hierarchies dominated by warrior-chieftains. Privilege then yields oppression as certainly as day yields to night.