Western Civilization: It’s Nice to Finally Have Some

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.


9 thoughts on “Western Civilization: It’s Nice to Finally Have Some

  1. Truly wretched stuff.

    I’m wondering, though, about representativeness. Horrors can be found in any society. But how much do the horrors reflect the norms?

  2. That is a good question – and it’s worth bearing in mind Acton’s axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The conquistadors enjoyed near-absolute powers on the frontier. In everyday life in western Europe, I doubt people behaved in this way with regularity. However, there is evidence that in general violent death was much more common the further back in time you go:

  3. I just finished a chapter in “Lies My Teacher Told Me” about the European conquest of North America. I was struck by the realization that while warfare was not unknown to the indigenous Americans, this kind of total war of extermination was. Native Americans saw warfare as more of a pastime, a common, low-grade affair that generally maintained the balance of power between neighboring groups. It was only after introduction of European concepts and technology that Native Americans began to emulate the invaders, thus engendering some of the more enduring myths about their character. Indeed, it was Europeans who turned out to be the savages.

  4. Yes, that’s what I gathered from this book as well. Especially before firearms and horses, and without modern supply chains, war tended to be a seasonal, low-casualty affair. During De Soto’s invasion of the southeast, tribal warriors often left their villages and fled into the woods, apparently having no conception that the invaders might kill or capture their women and children. They soon learned better.

  5. Thank you for this measure of perspective, Jason. Do you have a prediction about what will happen as the institutions that created and sustained “Western civilization” are becoming increasingly weak?

  6. Well, it would certainly imply that a reversal might be in the cards. However, I’m not a pessimist yet. There are many positive trends in terms of ongoing globalization of production and trade and better treatment for minority groups. But all it takes is another crisis to cause a relapse, like the Great Depression, World War 2, and 9/11.

  7. I’m sure the practice was limited among Native Americans but some total warfare did take place in the Americas when European presence was minimal. I remember in college (mid-90s) reading of examples concerning the Natchez people in the southeast. We delved into an early French missionary’s journal which detailed a Natchez conflict with another village.

    A spokesman was sent to the neighboring people to detail the consequences of not meeting the Natchez’s demands. The village rejected the offer. The Natchez warriors then got hopped up on tobacco juice and paraded through their own village to strike the war post – an action which apparently symbolized something similar to the Spartans’ come home carrying your shield or lying on it. The war party then attacked the other village and killed every man, woman, child, dog, etc. and razed the village to the ground. They then left a marker so that any other people happening upon the scene would know not to cross the Natchez.

    All peoples are capable of carrying out horrific actions.

  8. I’m trying to find specific references to the practice of “striking the war post.” I’ve checked James Mooney’s Historical Sketch of the Cherokee, James Adair’s early History of the American Indians, Hoig’s The Cherokees and Their Chiefs, Steele’s Warpaths, and other books to no avail. RickC mentions the term in regard to the Natchez. I’m beginning to think it’s something whites concocted as in Daniel’s 19th century poem about the Choctaw captive Cateechee and the Cherokee attack at Ninety-Six in South Carolina. Any suggestions would be appreciated.


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