Lately I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. On some level I had always known that the conquest of the Americas had been brutal in the extreme, but passages like the following tend to numb one:
General Cardenas, however, claimed to know nothing of the peace and adhered to his orders to take no prisoners. He ordered stakes driven into the ground at which to burn the Indians. Seeing the fate in store for them, the Indians fought desperately to escape. Spanish infantry drove them off, and Spanish cavalry rode them down. Castaneda said there were two hundred prisoners; other sources suggest the figure was closer to eighty. At any rate, “none escaped alive except a few who had remained concealed in the pueblo and who fled that night.” (p. 139)
The conquistadors retaliated with brutality: at a pueblo called Puaray Espejo had thirty Indians burned alive when the villagers refused to feed his troops. (p. 144)
Males over age twenty-five… were sentenced to twenty-five years in slavery and were to have their right foot amputated… Two Hopis, visitors to Acoma at the time of the assault, had their right hands amputated and were sent home as living examples of the punishment meted out to those who resisted Spanish power. Such “theater of terror” was familiar to Spaniards and Moors but new and shocking to Pueblos. (p. 149)
In 1655 Fray Salvador de Guerra caught a Hopi named Juan Cuna in “an act of idolatry.” The priest whipped him until he was “bathed in blood,” then drenched him in burning turpentine. (p. 170)
Whatever hold the Franciscans had over the Pueblos, their authority eroded in bickering with Spanish civil authorities… Governors accused friars of abusing their positions, whipping Indians who refused to attend mass and raping Indian girls even as they insisted that Indians follow strict new codes of sexual behavior. (p. 171)
The French and English weren’t much better (see also “pitchcapping“).
Hopelessly outnumbered…, the Foxes offered to surrender. They dropped more than three hundred children over the palisades in an effort to touch the hearts of the Indians in the besieging force, “calling out to them that since they hungered after their own flesh that all they had to do was eat of it and quench their thirst with the blood of their close relatives, although they were innocent of the offenses that their fathers had committed.” The besieging Indians received the children “with open arms,” and the Sauks provided safe refuge for them, but the French ended further communications by keeping up a continuous fire on the fort… The French were determined to exterminate the Foxes.
A week later…, the Foxes attempted a desperate breakout under cover of darkness during a violent thunderstorm. The cries of their children alerted French sentries, and the French and their Indian allies easily caught up with them the next day… Two hundred Fox warriors and three hundred women and children died in the slaughter. Captured warriors were tortured and burned at the stake. (pp. 323-4)
The English-American colonists used similar tactics to exterminate their enemies (see Pequot War).
We have come a long way. The U.S. government does torture people, but burning people alive is truly of a different order than waterboarding. Nor do most European governments today use genocidal strategies such as exterminating whole tribes and mass rape (but see Bosnian War).
What the history of the American conquest reveals is that ideas of liberalism and toleration are more endogenous to institutions and development than the latter are endogenous to ideas. Western ideas remained barbaric and inhuman, at least relative to those of the Indian “savages,” up until quite recently. (I am not giving any quarter to romantic “noble savage” myths either; Indians were quite capable of bloody warfare both against Europeans and among themselves.) The rapid economic development of western Europe and the neo-Europes had more to do with the fact that Europe was politically divided, both among several polities, and internally between church and state, than with any pre-existing ideas of liberalism. Liberalism came about because of the openings created by regime incoherence and competition, as well as the smoothing effects of trade. Materialist explanations of civilizational change seem to have much more going for them than idealist explanations.