Chapter 6

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS VIEWED himself as a man of divine destiny in an age of apocalyptic promise. He was unequivocally sure of himself. And one thing of which he was especially certain was that the world was going to end in 150 years. He had made the calculations himself, but they were based on his careful reading of a work entitled Imago Mundi, by the Catholic Cardinal and late Chancellor of the University of Paris—and high priest at the Inquisition and execution of John Huss for heresy—Pierre d’Ailly. Written in 1410, though Columbus’s copy was printed in Louvain around 1480, Imago Mundi was an encyclopedia of sorts for the instruction of lay people in the fields of Christianity-infused geography and cosmology.1

It was from this same book of compiled knowledge and ancient wisdom that Columbus had derived a potpouri of information (based on Aristotle, Seneca, Pliny, and others) allowing him to calculate that the distance across the Atlantic Ocean—known then as the Ocean Sea—was much shorter than it actually turned out to be. Long before he left on his famous voyage, more sophisticated navigators knew full well and told Columbus that his estimate was too short. That is a principal reason why the Portuguese Crown turned down his request for assistance in 1484. But Columbus pressed on. His stubborn unwillingness to be persuaded by superior evidence and logic ironically resulted in his beating the Portuguese to the islands of the Caribbean. That only deepened his conviction, of course, and to the end of his life he continued to believe the illusion that his original calculations had been correct.2

The Imago Mundi contained a wealth of equally dubious information on other matters that Columbus, like many in that era, readily took to heart. For what Columbus saw in the Cardinal’s work, and what was intended by its author to be seen, was an outline of the history of the world—past, present, and future. By combining and folding together the ideas of such writers as Roger Bacon, the ninth-century Arabian astronomer Albumasar, and others, Pierre d’Ailly had laid out for his readers, writes Pauline Moffitt Watts, “the ‘horoscopes’ of the great religions and empires in much the same way that one would cast a personal horoscope.” Once one has learned the proper techniques, believed all these writers and Columbus as well, one could “predict the future, for all events are imprinted on the present.”3

Columbus read Ailly with the burning intensity of an autodidact who discovered in the Cardinal’s writings nothing less than the divine path to truth. The margins of the Admiral’s copy of Imago Mundi, which survives today in Seville’s Biblioteca Colombina, are covered with almost 900 separate annotations by Columbus on matters of theology, geography, and history. Africa, he notes, is half the size of Europe—and south of the equator the days are only 12 hours long. Chinese people in small boats have drifted across the Atlantic to Europe, including a man and a woman who have turned up in Ireland. “Aristotle [says] between the end of Spain and the beginning of India is a small sea navigable in a few days.” Other ancient authors are called upon who allegedly say the same or similar things, all of which indicate to Columbus that the earth is small and that India and China can be reached rather easily by sailing west. Alongside these temporal if fanciful observations are comments on Scripture, along with calculations for determining when the Muslims finally will be destroyed and when to expect the arrival of Antichrist.4

It was through the exploration of sources such as this, apparently in addition to lengthy conversations with Franciscan monks who were convinced that the end was near, that Columbus figured out to his satisfaction precisely when the Second Coming would occur. He did this through a kind of simplistic biblical numerology he had worked out, but he also knew it from the historical signs that were all around him.5 Failure as well as success always has been absorbed easily into the all-embracing chiliastic logic of those convinced that the millennium is at hand; even contradictory evidence is interpreted so that it leads to the same desired conclusion. Thus, the obstinate resistance of the Jews to conversion, like the alarming successes of the Muslims in Turkey, were only part of God’s great plan, his testing of the Christians—the inevitable dark before the dawn—Columbus thought. Conversely, the even more recent expulsion of the Jews from Spain (along with the baptism of those who repented), like the fall of the Muslims at Granada, were equally clear indications that a new and glorious day was arising.

What was present in Columbus’s mind and marginal jottings before his departure in 1492 became a fully elaborated (if wildly confused and undisciplined) theory following the end of his third voyage in 1500, when he began compiling what he called his Libro de las Profecías—his Book of Prophecy: a scrapbook of hundreds of quotations from Scripture, from early Christian writers, and from classical authors, all purporting to demonstrate that the end of time was but a century and a half away, that the Jews and infidels and heathens throughout the entire world soon would be either destroyed or converted to Christ, and that before long the Holy Land would be recaptured. By the beginning of the sixteenth century Columbus had become certain that his voyages and discoveries had confirmed all this. Moreover, not only would each of these miraculous events soon be initiated, so the prophecies said, by the Messiah-Emperor from Spain, but the final conquests and the liberation of Jerusalem would be funded by vast quantities of gold that Columbus expected to discover either in those densely populated islands he had found lying off the coast of what he continued to think was Asia, or on the mainland of the continent itself. Indeed, for a time he thought he had discovered—with the Lord’s guidance, of course—King Solomon’s mines, and it was this gold that would launch the crusade that would bring on the end of the world. “Never was the popular image of the gold of the Indies more mystically spiritualized than on this occasion,” writes John Leddy Phelan, adding: “The discovery and the conquest of America, among many other things, was the last crusade. If Columbus had had his way, this would have been literally so.”6

But Columbus had read more than Ailly’s Imago Mundi before embarking on his famous voyages. He also had read Plutarch and Marco Polo and several other works—including Pliny’s Natural History, the earliest catalogue of the monstrous races that were said to live in distant realms, and John Mandeville’s Travels, a largely plagiarized volume of supposed reports on the Holy Land and on the monstrous races of the East, a book that also happened to be the most popular prose work of the Middle Ages.7 Columbus believed in and expected to encounter in his travels representatives of the monstrous races, just as he expected to find—and never stopped searching for—the fabled terrestrial paradise. Again, Columbus was far from alone in these assumptions. As he wrote in his letter to the king and queen while returning from his first voyage: “In these islands I have so far found no human monstrosities, as many expected,” but elsewhere he wrote that within a few weeks of his first sighting of land he had been told by some Indians that on other islands “there were men with one eye, and others with dogs’ heads who ate men and that in killing one they beheaded him and drank his blood and cut off his genitals.”8

In fact, there was no real evidence of cannibalism (to say nothing of dog-headed people) anywhere in the Indies, despite widespread popular belief to the contrary that continues to exist today, belief largely based on the fact that Columbus said the alleged man-eaters were called Caribs. Through Spanish and English linguistic corruption that name evolved into “cannibal,” and although both the more level-headed of Columbus’s contemporaries and the consensus of modern scholarship have strenuously contradicted the charge, it has stuck as a truism in the Western imagination.9 The important point here, however, is not the spuriousness of the claim that some of the natives ate human flesh, but only that Columbus and those who heard his report readily believed, indeed, neededto believe, that the charge was true. If no dog-headed people had yet actually been seen, or races without heads and with faces in their chests, or one-legged folk, or cyclopes, or other bizarre semi-human beasts, that did not mean they were not there. But for the time being rumors of some cannibals would do.

As for the terrestrial paradise Columbus knew to exist, he found it. At least he thought he did. It took awhile—six years and three long voyages—but in the autumn of 1498, while sailing along the coasts of Venezuela and Colombia and then on north to Honduras, the Admiral noticed (or so he wrote to his king and queen) that the people he observed were not as “dark” or “extremely black” as he claimed they were in other regions, “but are of very handsome build and whiter than any others I have seen in the Indies. . . . [and] are more intelligent and have more ability.” At the same time he observed that he was in the vicinity of towering mountains and fabulously powerful rivers, including the one that we now know as the Orinoco, that rushed from the mountains in powerful currents down into the Gulf of Paria. Recalling no doubt that in some traditional accounts the earthly paradise had been located atop a high mountain, which allowed it to survive the great biblical flood, and noting that “Holy Scripture testifies that Our Lord created the Terrestrial Paradise and planted it in the tree of life, and that a fountain sprang up there, from which flow the four principal rivers of the world,” the logical conclusion could not be ignored: “I say that if this river [the Orinoco] does not originate in the Terrestrial Paradise, it comes and flows from a land of infinite size to the south, of which we have no knowledge as yet. But I am completely persuaded in my own mind that the Terrestrial Paradise is in the place I have described.”10

Indeed, so extraordinary was this insight that it caused Columbus to revise his entire vision of the shape of the earth. “I am compelled,” he wrote to his royal patrons, “to come to this view of the world”:

I have found that it does not have the kind of sphericity described by the authorities, but that it has the shape of a pear, which is all very round, except at the stem, which is rather prominent, or that it is as if one had a very round ball, on one part of which something like a woman’s teat were placed, this part with the stem being the uppermost and nearest to the sky. . . . So neither Ptolemy nor the others who wrote about the world had any information about this half, for it was altogether unknown. They merely based their opinion on the hemisphere in which they lived, which is round, as I have said above.11

At this point, some modern observers have claimed, Columbus was demented, or at least had been at sea too long. Others have said that obviously he was looking at the island now known as Marguerite, lying at the mouth of the Orinoco, and that indeed there is on that island what German Arciniegas calls “the extraordinary mount that anyone today may see. . . . They call it María Guevara’s Teats.”12 In any case, Columbus was convinced that he had seen paradise, at least from a distance, bulging out like a woman’s breast and nipple at the top of the world. It was soon after this that he began compiling his Book of Prophecies. And when he died, just six years later, this man whose life has so aptly been described as “a curious combination of the celestial and the crass,” was laid out in the garb of a Franciscan monk and was buried in a Carthusian monastery. As it turns out, he had been deeply involved with the Franciscans for years—as the Franciscans had been deeply involved with the Inquisition for years—perhaps even was a lay member of the order, and in 1497 and 1498, “while preparing for his third voyage,” writes Leonard I. Sweet, “Columbus wore the habit of a Minorite friar, and was indistinguishable in the streets of Cadiz and Seville from his Franciscan friends.”13

Apart from his navigational skills, what most set Columbus apart from other Europeans of his day were not the things that he believed, but the intensity with which he believed in them and the determination with which he acted upon those beliefs. If most Christians at that time did not walk around wearing the robes of Franciscan monks, as Columbus did, few would have denied that the conversion of the world to Christianity (and the destruction of those who resisted) was a necessary prerequisite to Christ’s Second Coming—or that there were then present unmistakable signs that such mass conversions and mass destructions were imminent. Similarly, if most people did not cross the ocean in search of the terrestrial paradise or King Solomon’s mines, as Columbus did, few would have denied that such places probably existed in some distant, hidden realm. And if most people did not take part in slaving voyages to the coast of Africa “many times,” as Columbus acknowledged that he had done, few would have found anything morally improper in such activities.14

Columbus was, in most respects, merely an especially active and dramatic embodiment of the European—and especially the Mediterranean—mind and soul of his time: a religious fanatic obsessed with the conversion, conquest, or liquidation of all non-Christians; a latter-day Crusader in search of personal wealth and fame, who expected the enormous and mysterious world he had found to be filled with monstrous races inhabiting wild forests, and with golden people living in Eden. He was also a man with sufficient intolerance and contempt for all who did not look or behave or believe as he did, that he thought nothing of enslaving or killing such people simply because they were not like him. He was, to repeat, a secular personification of what more than a thousand years of Christian culture had wrought. As such, the fact that he launched a campaign of horrific violence against the natives of Hispaniola is not something that should surprise anyone. Indeed, it would be surprising if he had not inaugurated such carnage.

But why did the firestorm of violence turn openly genocidal, and why did it continue for so long? Why did it take the grotesque forms that it did? Why was it morally justified in the terms that it was? And why, and in what ways, were the later British and American genocide campaigns different from those of the Spanish—if at least equally destructive in the long run? The answers to all these questions must be sought in the constant interplay of Western ideologies and material realities, beginning with the initial Spanish quest for gold and for glory, proceeding from there to evolving concepts of race along with traditional notions of divine providence and sin, and then back again to the hunger and thirst for wealth and for power, sought down different paths by different European peoples on the different American continents of the north and of the south.


Columbus drove a hard bargain with his royal patrons. Not only did he demand a substantial share of whatever treasure he might bring back from his journey across the Atlantic horizon, he also required of them, as he noted in the prologue to the journal of his first voyage, “that henceforth I might call myself Don and be Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Perpetual Governor of all the islands and mainland that I should discover and win.”15 Since he thought he was sailing to China and India, these were not meager titles, were he to succeed in gaining them. For Columbus, like the conquistadors to follow, was driven by various forces in his quest to discover and conquer, but during this era when individualism was sharply ascendant in European culture, few if any motives were more important than what in Spanish is called el afán de honra—“an anxiety, a hunger for glory and for recognition,” is the way one historian puts it.16

To Columbus, the Genoese ex-slave trader and would-be holy Crusader, returning to Spain with slaves and with gold and with tales of innumerable heathens waiting to be converted was the surest way to achieve such fame. Thus, within hours of landfall on the first inhabited island he encountered in the Caribbean, Columbus seized and carried off six native people who, he said, “ought to be good servants. . . . [and] would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion.” Bereft of religion though he thought these “very handsome and . . . very well proportioned” people to be, the Admiral was certain that they possessed gold: “I was attentive and worked hard to know if there was any gold,” he wrote during the second day of his visit, “and saw that some of them wore a little piece hanging from a thing like a needle case, which they have in the nose; and by signs I could understand that, going to the S, or doubling the island to the S, there was a king there who had great vessels of it and possessed a lot.” This was likely the island of Cipango—or Japan—Columbus thought, the fabulous place Marco Polo had written about, and he set out the next day to find it.17

And so the man who now could call himself Don moved from island to island, snaring more natives for eventual servitude, and grilling them—incoherently—as to the whereabouts of the great deposits of gold. He thought he understood them to say that on one island the people “wore very big bracelets of gold on their legs and arms.” They didn’t, and Columbus bitterly but probably correctly noted later “that all they said was humbug in order to escape.” But he pressed on, always believing that magnificent riches in gold and jewels lay just beyond the next landfall. Columbus continued to think he was quite close to the Asian mainland and that the people of “all these islands are at war with the Grand Khan” who presumably wanted from them what Columbus wanted: their precious metals and the wealth of their forced labor. Hearing what he wanted to hear in the words of a people whose language he did not understand, the Admiral “was the victim of the same psychological illusions,” one writer has observed, “that lead us to hear sweet melodies in the chime of church-bells, or to discover in the clouds familiar features or impressive images of phantastic shapes.”18

It is clear that Columbus had several purposes, none especially complex, for lusting after the gold of the Indies. Personal wealth and fame and power, of course; that is evident in everything he wrote. But there is no reason to believe he was not also sincere in his expressed desire to bring gold back to Spain in order to finance the last great crusade that would liberate the souls of all the world’s infidels and heathens ‘who were willing to convert, while at the same time crushing the bodies of those unwilling to cooperate. And, of course, there was the matter of financing the next transatlantic excursions. As Leonardo Olschki rightly puts it: “Gold represented the only profit immediately realizable of such costly enterprises, and provided the most direct means of financing an oceanic expedition in this critical epoch of Spain’s economic life.”19

There was little doubt in Columbus’s mind that with sufficient manpower, both military and ecclesiastical, he would reap with ease a vast fortune in gold and souls. Both of these godly gifts to the Admiral and to his Spanish supporters were simply there for the taking. In a letter to the king and queen dated April 9, 1493, Columbus outlined his plans for the second voyage. Instead of the fewer than 100 men he had brought on the initial expedition, he recommended that he be allowed to transport twenty times that number “so that the country may be made more secure and so that it may be more expeditiously won and managed.” So great was the supply of gold that awaited them, and so effortless would be its collection, he believed, that he urged the sovereigns to establish on the islands magistrates and notaries to oversee what he repeatedly referred to as the “gathering” of this fabulous wealth, all of which was to be “immediately melted and marked . . . and weighed” and placed in carefully guarded chests. He also proposed that “of all the gold which may be found, one percent be reserved for the erection of churches and their furniture and for the support of the priests or friars attached to them.”20 One percent may not appear to be much, but if the Admiral’s estimate of how much gold awaited them had been even close to the truth, one percent could have paid for cathedrals.

Following the deduction for the Church’s one percent of all the gold that was gathered, and a little something for the magistrates and notaries, Columbus recommended that during the first year of Hispaniola’s colonization those who did the gathering be allowed to keep one-half of what they personally collected, the other half going to the Crown. After the first year this proportional division was to be reassessed, in light of the amount of treasure actually found. Considering the immensity of riches that awaited them, however, and “since, owing to the greed for gold, everyone will prefer to seek it rather than engage in other necessary occupations,” Columbus suggested that “during a part of the year hunting for gold should be prohibited, so that there may be on the said island an opportunity for performing other tasks of importance to it.”21

Between the time of his return from the first voyage and the date of embarkation for the second journey, word had spread everywhere in Spain of the gold and souls that Columbus had found. No longer would there be any need to enlist the services of wanted criminals or other lowlife to staff the ships of the enterprise to the Indies. The Admiral’s enthusiasm was infectious, as was his avarice. The others aboard the ships that sailed with Columbus on this second voyage—and those who were to follow in years and decades to come—rarely were possessed by the array of motives that drove his quest for discovery and conquest. Some just wanted to save heathens. Far more just wanted to get rich. But operating in tandem, these two simple goals spelled disaster for the indigenous peoples who welcomed the shiploads—in time the floodtide—of Europeans who came as reapers of souls and of gold. That is because, initially at least, there were few souls wishing to be converted and very little gold to be had. Nor was either pursuit much helped by the furious epidemics that were unleashed by the Europeans soon after they came into contact with their native hosts.

The men aboard the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María almost certainly spread strange, new diseases among the people of the islands they visited during the first Spanish excursion through the Caribbean from October of 1492 through January of 1493. But, as we saw in an earlier chapter, it was with the landing of the ships of the second voyage, on the northern coast of Hispaniola in January of 1494, that the first known explosion of European epidemic disease occurred. Ferdinand and Isabella had instructed Columbus not to mistreat the Indians he encountered on this second voyage. That was their word. With their deed, however, they loaded his ships with hundreds of heavily armed and armored infantry and cavalrymen, many of them battle-hardened and fresh from victory over the hated Moors in Granada. As Hispaniola’s natives retreated inland from the deadly epidemics that followed immediately upon the landing of the Spanish troops, they were pursued by these soldiers of fortune who had no time to waste.

Consulting his classical sources, Columbus determined that “according to Ptolemy there must be plenty of gold in the rivers” of this huge island. When one of the military parties he sent out returned with three pieces of gold that had been taken from an Indian settlement, Columbus “and all of us made merry,” recalled one of the participants in the revelry, “not caring any longer about any sort of spicery but only of this blessed gold. Because of this,” he continued, “the Lord Admiral wrote to the King that he was hoping to be able shortly to give him as much gold as the iron mines of Biscay gave him iron.”22 In this excited mood Columbus sent a number of ships back to Spain—and 500 troops inland to find the gold. Although “not too well fitted out with clothes,” wrote Michele de Cuneo, they set out on their trek:

[B]etween going, staying, and returning, we spent 29 days with terrible weather, bad food and worse drink; nevertheless, out of covetousness of that gold, we all kept strong and lusty. We crossed going and coming two very rapid rivers, as I have mentioned above, swimming; and those who did not know how to swim had two Indians who carried them swimming; the same, out of friendship and for a few trifles that we gave them, carried across on top of their heads our clothes, arms and everything else there was to be carried.23

The trip was a painful ordeal covering many miles through difficult country. And when they reached the place they were seeking they “built a fort of wood in the name of St. Thomas.” There these hundreds of Spanish troops and adventurers frantically fished in the rivers that Ptolemy had said would be filled with treasure, “but,” wrote Cuneo, “never was found by anyone a single grain of gold.” He then added portentously: “For this reason we were very displeased with the local Indians.”24

For months to follow, this pattern was repeated. Although there was gold on the island, and although the conquistadors ultimately found whatever was there—and forced the natives to mine it for them—never did the holdings of the Indians or the products of the island’s mines and rivers produce riches of the sort the soldiers had been led to expect. Unable to believe what was apparent, that this was no King Solomon’s mine, the troops convinced themselves that the Indians cared as much as the Spanish did for the precious metal and that they were hoarding it in secret caches. To these men whose profession was violence, only violence could be counted on to wrest from the natives what God and the Lord Admiral had promised them.

When the crossbow was invented centuries earlier the Church had decreed it to be such a terrifying weapon that it could be used only on infidels.25 On Hispaniola, and then on Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean it was used routinely—along with the lance and the sword and the armored and hungry dog—to terrorize and subdue those natives who somehow were surviving the lethal pathogens that the invaders carried in their blood and their breath. Within a matter of months 50,000 Indians were dead, the proportional equivalent of 1,500,000 American deaths today. Europe at this time was still excited over the mysteriousness of these new-found lands and their handsome and innocent people, but the men on the front lines of the endeavor to strip the Indies of its gold had long since overcome their sense of wonder with their greed and their furious sadism.

Even the most educated and cultured and high-minded among the voyagers on this second expedition wasted no time in expressing their contempt for the native people. Cuneo, for example, the Italian nobleman and apparent boyhood friend of Columbus, repeatedly referred to the natives as “beasts” because he could not discern that they had any religion, because they slept on mats on the ground rather than in beds, because “they eat when they are hungry,” and because they made love “openly whenever they feel like it.”26 This judgment comes, it will be recalled, from a man who took a fancy to a beautiful young native woman during this trip and, when she rebuffed his advances, thrashed her with a rope, raped her, and then boasted of what he had done.

Cuneo’s opinion of the natives was echoed by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician on the voyage who later was singled out by the Crown for a special award in recognition of his humanitarianism. For various reasons, including his disapproval of the Indians’ method of laying out their towns and the fact that they ate cooked iguana (which the Spanish themselves later came to regard as a delicacy), Dr. Chanca declared that the natives were barbarous and unintelligent creatures whose “degradation is greater than that of any beast in the world.”27 Cuneo and Chanca and other island visitors who recorded their thoughts for posterity probably had little influence on the lance- and sword- and crossbow-wielding conquistadors who accompanied them, but that is only because the conquistadors did not need the encouragement of their superiors to carry out what Las Casas called their “massacres and strange cruelties” against the native people.

Back in Europe, on the other hand, these reports were read with avidity. And before long a consistent picture began to emerge. The lands of the Indies were indeed as wondrous as Columbus originally had described them. Thus, Andrés Bernáldez—chaplain to the Archbishop of Seville, member of the Royal Council, and Grand Inquisitor—described for his faithful readers the delightful islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, “the most lovely that eyes have seen,” whose “fields were such that they appeared to be the loveliest gardens in the world.” The people of the islands, however—said this holy man who once had rejoiced in the burning of Jews and Moors “in living flames until they be no more”—were but “a brutish race . . . [who] take no pleasure in anything save eating and women.”28

Even before his first voyage was complete, Columbus had written to Ferdinand and Isabella promising to bring back from subsequent expeditions “slaves, as many as [the Crown] shall order”—while assuring his king and queen that such Indian bondsmen “will be idolators,” that is, non-Christians, which would make their trade legitimate in the supervisory view of the Church.29 In the eyes of Hispaniola’s Spanish invaders, however, hardly had the second voyage completed its minimal tasks ashore when the native “idolators” were turning into full-fledged beasts. To some, that helped explain why the natives were dying so quickly and in such huge numbers; but in any case, die though they might, there were millions of them who could still be enslaved, and there was work to be done—much gold remained to be seized.

It is by no means surprising, then, that in only the second printed chronicle from the New World (the first being Columbus’s report to the Crown on his initial voyage), the Spanish nobleman Guillermo Coma of Aragon dwelt at great length and in minute detail on the allegedly “very dark and grim-visaged” cannibals of the Indies. “They customarily castrate their infant captives and boy slaves and fatten them like capons,” was but one of his numerous imaginings. And with equal vividness and equal falsity he described the great quantities of gold that awaited the adventurous, who could gather nuggets almost like fruit from a tree. “In that region,” he told his readers, there are “a large number of rivers and more than 24 streams,—a country of such bountifulness that it is marvellous to describe and unbelievable to hear about.” He continued:

Gold is collected by cutting away the river banks. First the water rushes in, frothing and somewhat muddy; then it becomes clear again and the heavy grains of gold which lie at the bottom are plainly revealed. They weigh a drachma [about 60 grains] more or less. . . . There is a very lovely tale, which I should have been ashamed to relate if I had not got it from a credible witness, that a rock close to the mountain, when struck with a club, poured out a great quantity of gold and that gold splinters flashed all over with indescribable brightness.30

The story continues, reporting on other discoveries, such as that of a native goldsmith who supposedly crafted solid gold plates so large that no one man could lift them, and of rivers that flowed over beds that were thick with gold-bearing sand. And then Coma put all the pieces together, in homage to Columbus and the king and queen of Spain, linking the recent “memorable victory” over the infidel Moors in Granada, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and now the exploration of “the shores of the Orient,” all events destined and intended “for the enhancement of the religion of Christ.”31

Thus, the Indies: the most beautiful lands on earth, filled with more wealth than anyone could imagine, but also inhabited by “very dark and grim-visaged” cannibals and other uncivilized brutes who hoarded and hid the gold that the Spanish needed to fulfill the prophecies of the faith—the prophecies ordering them to convert or destroy the ungodly, be they Moors, Jews, or the beastly denizens of “the shores of the Orient,” and to bring God’s kingdom home. Such was the rationale, at least, for the carnage that already was well under way, and no doubt there were those who believed it. Others were less starry-eyed, such as the famed conquistador (and official historian of the Conquest) Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who advised would-be adventurers to mouth all the right words when applying for passage to the Indies, but who added that he knew as well as they “that the truth is just the opposite; you are going solely because you want to have a larger fortune than your father and your neighbors.” It was this same sort of cynicism (later repeated by Cortés, Pizarro, and others) that allowed Oviedo elsewhere to write sardonically of the sanctity he felt when killing Indians: “Who can deny that the use of gunpowder against pagans is the burning of incense to Our Lord?”32

This is not to say that belief in the earthly paradise and its golden race of people disappeared. After all, Columbus sincerely continued to look for it—and thought he had found it when he encountered, as we saw earlier, people “whiter than any others I have seen in the Indies,” and who, not incidentally, were “more intelligent and have more ability.” But as time wore on the dominant European image of the New World’s indigenous peoples was one that fit well with other very ancient Old World traditions: Columbus’s story of “men with one eye, and others with dogs’ noses,” who ate men after decapitating them, castrating them, and finally drinking their blood soon became an article of faith among many Europeans; moreover, elsewhere in the Caribbean, it was said, there existed islands inhabited only by Amazons and others with people whose skin color was blue and whose heads were square.33 And everywhere, whatever their physical appearance, the sins of the natives were the same—lust, gluttony, carnality, and all the other untamed and un-Christian pleasures of the flesh that long had been the distinguishing characteristics of wild men and the monstrous, beastly races.

Some of this had been heard before, of course, during the long centuries of holy war with the Muslims and the equally holy persecution of the Jews. But in associating the Indians with wild men and the monstrous races described in the works of Pliny and John Mandeville something new was being added—the question of race, the question of the native peoples’ very humanity. For while those like Señor Coma of Aragon were drawing a parallel between darkness of flesh and commitment to cannibalism—while Columbus and others were expounding on an opposite relationship (but one with identical consequences) involving light skin, intelligence, and closeness to God—still more Spaniards were locating evidence for the Indians’ alleged inferiority within their very biology, in what was said to be the “size and thickness of their skulls,” writes J.H. Elliott, “which indicated a deformation in that part of the body which provided an index of a man’s rational powers,” and which could be used to support the increasingly popular idea that the Indians were made by God to be the “natural slaves” of the Spanish and, indeed, of all Europeans.34

In the preceding chapter we noted that race is an ancient Western concept and that skin color has long been one of the many characteristics with which it has been associated. (“It is significant,” writes David Brion Davis, for example, that during the thirteenth-century slave trade “Sicilian officials qualified the general designation for ‘Moor’ or ‘Saracen’ with the Latin terms for ‘white,’ ‘sallow,’ and ‘black.’” Adds Elena Lourie, also writing of the thirteenth century: “Only with great difficulty, after he had already been sold as a Muslim slave, did a ‘very black man,’ ‘with thick features,’ prove to the authorities that he was in fact a good Catholic.”)35 For most of the duration of this idea’s existence, however, race was not seen as an immutable phenomenon. Skin color, for instance, commonly was viewed as environmentally changeable and, as we have seen, even semihuman monstrosities—such as the dog-headed beast who became St. Christopher—were susceptible to favorable transformation. Such permutability of human essence was thoroughly compatible during Christianity’s reign in Europe with the Church’s fervent crusade to bring all the world’s people under its heavenly wing. However, a little more than a century before Columbus put to sea on his journey that would shake the world, cracks began to appear in the edifice of Christianity’s racial ecumenism. The cause of the problem was slavery.

The booming slave trade in the fourteenth-century Mediterranean was at least a two-way operation. That is, while Christian Europeans were buying shiploads of captured infidels, Muslims were doing the same thing—except that many of their purchased slaves were Christians. This greatly upset the Church and led to various methods of discouraging trade in Christian captives, including efforts to cut off all trade of any sort with Muslim countries and the excommunication of Christians caught buying or selling their religious brethren as bondsmen. (At that time it generally was agreed that free Christians could not be enslaved by other Christians except as punishment for certain crimes.) However, since the Church remained devoted to its evangelical mission and to supporting the slave trade in general, a difficulty of potentially major proportions soon developed: what to do with the legally enslaved infidel who saw the light and converted to Catholicism? To order the manumission of such a person might rapidly undermine the lucrative trade in captive infidels, but to fail to free him or her would be to condone the enslavement of Christians. It was on the horns of this dilemma, writes David Brion Davis, that the Church made an ominous decision:

In 1366 the Priors of Florence, who had previously given their sanction to the import and sale of infidel slaves, explained that by “infidel” they had meant “all slaves of infidel origin, even if at the time of their arrival they belong to the Catholic faith”; and “infidel origin” meant simply “from the land and race of the infidels.” With this subtle change in definition the Priors of Florence by-passed the dilemma of baptism by shifting the basis of slavery from religious difference to ethnic origin.36

It may have been a subtle change in definition, but the larger meaning of this declaration would signal an alteration in consciousness containing enormous and far-reaching implications. From this point forward the “race of the infidels” would be sufficient to justify their enslavement, and no transformations of any sort—including conversion to the faith of Christ—would have any bearing on their worldly condition. Less than a century later a functionally similar declaration was imposed upon Spain’s Jews. In the wake of the anti-Jewish riots of 1449 in Toledo, Jews were barred from holding public office in the city; only those citizens who could demonstrate Christian “purity of blood,” said the first decree of limpieza de sangre, were eligible for such positions. Conversion to Catholicism would no longer suffice, for oneself or even for one’s descendants. Blood—in effect, race—was now the fundamental criterion.

The conceptual underpinnings for this ominous shift in consciousness had been building for a very long time. As early as the ninth century in Aragon and Castile the general term for nobility, caballero hidalgo, was reserved for those of specified “blood” and lineage; achieved economic or other influence was insufficient to overcome the genetic exclusivity of the institution. At issue was the nobleman’s allegedly unique possession of verguenza—the sense of honor—that was bestowed solely through genealogical inheritance. As Alfonso X of Castile explained:

In ancient times, in order to create knights, men chose hunters in the mountains who were men of great endurance, and carpenters and smiths and masons because they were accustomed to giving blows and their hands are strong. Also butchers, because they were used to killing live things and shedding their blood. Such men are well formed, strong and lithe. The Ancients chose knights in this manner for a very long time. But when they saw that in many cases their proteges, lacking verguenza, forgot the reasons for their elevation and instead of defeating their enemies were defeated themselves, men knowledgeable in these matters looked for knights who, by their nature, possessed verguenza. . . . For they held a weak man with the will to endure far preferable to a strong one who easily fled. Because of this the authorities saw to it that knights should be men of good lineage.37

The limpieza de sangre was, in effect, a particularly crude and malignant revision of this long-held exclusionary principle, and during the late fifteenth century and for all of the sixteenth it became a mania throughout Spain. Specialists in genealogy known as linajudo checked and scrutinized bloodlines and pedigrees. Neither fame nor even death provided escape for those accused of being tainted. Thus, the remains of the celebrated pioneer in medicine, Garcia d’Orta, were exhumed in 1580 “and solemnly burned in an auto-da-fé held at Goa, in accordance with the posthumous punishment inflicted on crypto-Jews who had escaped the stake in their lifetime.” Catholic Spaniards with distant Jewish ancestors changed their names and falsified their genealogies to avoid the ruination of their reputations or the loss of their access to professions and education. For even the most humble peasant of “pure” Christian ancestry now could proudly regard himself as superior to the wealthiest marrano. It was all just a matter of blood.38

Historically, then, it was within this evolving context of ethnic and racial discrimination that there emerged in Europe the idea that the people of the Indies might be a separate, distinct, and naturally subordinate race. By 1520 the popular Swiss physician and philosopher Paracelsus, whose eventual burial place became a Catholic shrine, was arguing that Africans, Indians, and other non-Christian peoples of color were not even descended from Adam and Eve, but from separate and inferior progenitors.39 Paracelsus advanced this thesis less than thirty years after Columbus’s first contact with the people of the Caribbean, although in that short time the Indies’ many millions of native peoples—whose ancestry in those islands long predated even that of the Vandals and Visigoths in Spain—had effectively been exterminated. But the assault on Mexico and the rest of Mesoand South America was at that moment only beginning.

Paracelsus’s notion of separate and unequal human creations was an early version of what in time would become known as “polygenesis,” one of the staples of nineteenth-century pseudoscientific racism. Even before the Swiss writer committed this idea to print, however, there was in circulation a complementary suggestion, put forward in 1512 by Spaniards Bernardo de Mesa (later Bishop of Cuba) and Gil Gregorio, and in 1519 by a Scotsman named John Mair (Johannes Major), that the Indians might be a special race created by God to fulfill a destiny of enslavement to Christian Europeans. Drawing on both Aristotle and Aquinas, the Spaniards—who were meeting at the king’s behest—placed the matter in the context of “natural law,” with Gregorio contending that since it was apparent that these creatures were “idle, vicious, and without charity,” it was a violation of the natural order to permit them to remain free. Mair, at the time a member of the Collège de Montaigu in Paris, first pointed out what by then was commonly accepted by most Europeans—that the recently discovered people of the New World “live like beasts” and indeed, in some locales, are truly “wild men.” Neither these facts, nor the late success of the Europeans in conquering these creatures, should be cause for surprise, Mair thought, since “as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says in the third and fourth chapters of the first book of the Politics, it is clear that some men are by nature slaves, others by nature free. . . . On this account the Philosopher says in the first chapter of the aforementioned book that this is the reason why the Greeks should be masters over the barbarians because, by nature, the barbarians and slaves are the same.”40

Few notions could have been sweeter to the minds of early sixteenth-century Spanish thinkers, and they lost no time in adopting it. From the time of that first royal junta in 1512, at which Mesa and Gregorio had used natural law to justify enslavement of the Indians, throughout the 1520s and 1530s and 1540s—while the indigenous peoples of Middle and South America were being consumed by the millions in the same inferno of disease and fiery carnage that had turned the Caribbean’s natives to ash—Spain’s philosophers and theologians debated among themselves whether the Indians were men or monkeys, whether they were mere brutes or were capable of rational thought, and whether or not God intended them to be permanent slaves of their European overlords. By the time these discussions reached their famous apogee in the confrontation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda at Valladolid, in the summer of 1550, more native people of the Americas had been consumed in the combined conflagrations of pestilence and genocide than the mind can comprehend.

Called before the so-called Council of Fourteen by Charles V—the Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful man in Europe—to argue whether the natives of the Americas should be considered natural slaves because, as Sepulveda claimed, they were mere “homunculi [contemptible little people] in whom you will scarcely find even vestiges of humanity,” Las Casas and Sepúlveda publicly argued back and forth for about a month. Even Las Casas—the most passionate and humane European advocate for the Indians of his own time and for many years to come—felt forced to acknowledge that the Indians “may be completely barbaric.” However, he contended, they were not so low in the order of things that they were totally “irrational or natural slaves or unfit for government.” To Sepúlveda and others, on the contrary, as Las Casas rightly said, the native peoples of the Americas were indeed so barbarically inhuman “that the wise may hunt [them] down . . . in the same way as they would wild animals.”41 As if to anticipate and underscore this point, only a few months earlier the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia proudly announced to Charles V that he and his men had just concluded a massacre against a large community of Indians in Chile: “some 1500 or 2000 were killed and many others lanced,” he wrote; among the survivors whom he had taken prisoner, Valdivia saw to it that “two hundred had their hands and noses cut off for their contumacy”—that is, for not heeding the conquistadors’ demands that they behave in a sufficiently obsequious way, consistent with that of the natural slave.42

After the debate ended, the members of the Council of Fourteen, selected by Charles as the best minds in Spain, fell to arguing among themselves and never rendered a collective verdict—although Sepúlveda later claimed, and there is some reason to believe him, that in the end all but one of the Council supported his position that the Indians were indeed divinely created beasts of burden for their conquerors.43 In any case, if the men considered by the Holy Roman Emperor to be the most learned in the realm could not agree on this matter among themselves, the same could not be said for the Spanish masses. As Bernardino de Minaya wrote, a decade and a half before the great debate at Valladolid, “the common people” had long “regarded as wise men” those who were convinced that “the American Indians were not true men, but a third species of animal between man and monkey created by God for the better service of man.”44 Or, as Oviedo had written, with widespread popular approval:

[The Indians are] naturally lazy and vicious, melancholic, cowardly, and in general a lying, shiftless, people. Their marriages are not a sacrament but a sacrilege. They are idolatrous, libidinous, and commit sodomy. Their chief desire is to eat, drink, worship heathen idols, and commit bestial obscenities. What could one expect from a people whose skulls are so thick and hard that the Spaniards had to take care in fighting not to strike on the head lest their swords be blunted?45

If that was popular opinion early in the sixteenth century, it doubtless was even more widespread after the Valladolid debate was over. For on at least one topic virtually all historians of this subject agree: as the sixteenth century wore on Spanish opinion regarding the Indians was marked by a decided “decline of sympathy and . . . narrowing of vision,” in J.H. Elliott’s words.46 Elliott uses as an illustrative example a series of meetings held by the Spanish clergy stationed in Mexico between 1532 and 1585, during which verbal depictions of the region’s native people drastically deteriorated. An even more vivid example of this transformation involved the fabled Tupinamba people of Brazil.

When first contacted by Europeans in the early years of exploration the Tupinamba were described as the most handsome and best-proportioned people in the world, virtually creatures of perfection. They were, said Pedro Vaz de Caminha in 1500, people of “fine bodies and good faces as to good men,” and a kind and generous people of “innocence” and “pure simplicity” to boot. An imaginative Portuguese painting of the Adoration of the Magi from this time even replaced one of the traditional wise men with a young and handsome representative of these Brazilian natives, replete with distinctive feather headdress and gold earrings, bracelets, and anklets. At almost this same time, however, woodcut illustrations began appearing in other parts of Europe depicting the Brazilians as cannibals and sexual libertines. And by the 1550s, when Brazil was in the process of being denuded of its native people by European slavery, violence, and imported diseases, those very same gold and feather Tupinamba decorations could be found adorning the head and body of Satan in another Portuguese painting, a grotesque and horrific portrait of the Devil’s Inferno. Meanwhile, in concert with the change in visual representation, European writers had now taken to calling these lately dubbed Brazilian paragons of pure virtue and simplicity “beasts in human form,” to quote Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon.47

Such ideological transformation did not occur, of course, without a social context or without serving a larger political function. The same was true of the earlier intellectual innovations we have noted. The Priors of Florence had declared as acceptable the traffic in Christian slaves who were “of infidel origin” because to fail to do so might have undermined the slave trade, with which the Church was so profitably involved. And the limpieza de sangre, although initially inspired by religious hatred, soon became a valuable weapon of class struggle with which low-born Spanish Catholics could push their way into positions of authority that might otherwise be held by high-born persons of Jewish ancestry. As Elliott demonstrates in his discussion of the limpieza, the doctrine functioned as a “compensating code” for commoners “which might effectively challenge the code of the aristocracy.” After all, they would argue, “was it not preferable to be born of humble, but pure Christian parentage, than to be a caballero of suspicious racial antecedents?”48

In neither of these cases, certainly, was the social or political or economic function of the race discrimination in question the sole and sufficient motivation for its being institutionalized. Each one drew for its authorization on a deep well of centuries-old and symbolically embedded antipathy for its targeted victims. Once in operation, however, the racially oppressive institution justified, reinforced, and thus exacerbated the negative racial stereotypes that had made the institution permissible in the first place—which, in turn, further sanctified the institution itself.

In late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Spain and Spanish America, the primary economic context within which anti-Indian racial ideologies were cultivated and institutionalized was the feverish hunt for gold. Then later, as the sixteenth century wore on, the context changed to the mining of silver, which was available in much greater volume. Spain at this time, as noted earlier, was a nation with effectively no manufactured items to export. It was an exporter of raw materials and an importer of finished goods. Even within its own borders Spain was plagued by a stagnating economy, with most local production intended for local consumption. With its broad and mountainous terrain, whatever goods were moved around were carried by pack mules. And despite the presence of perhaps 400,000 such primitive beasts of burden, as an exchange economy the nation was dormant.49 One consequence of this was both very small productive volume and a great deal of duplication, along with a steady outflow of capital to those other European countries on which Spain was economically dependent.

In contrast with its state of commercial impoverishment, however, fifteenth-century advances in ship design, primarily of Portuguese inspiration, along with developments in pilotage, navigation, and cartography—and the persistence of Christopher Columbus—allowed Spain, with its ideal geographic location, to lead the way in exploration of the Indies. Thus, it came about that one of the European nations that could least afford to finance colonization abroad—and that had a sudden over-abundance of experienced military men within its midst, due to the recent defeat ofthe Moors in Granada—was given first entry into the New World.

The stories of indescribable wealth available in the Indies to those who could seize it—of riverbeds filled with nuggets and of boulders that shattered and poured forth gold when struck with a club—fired the imaginations of individual adventurers, of course, but it did the same for religious and financial collectivities as well. The Church now envisioned the wealth of the Indies, both in gold and in souls to harvest, as the means for launching the final Crusades, while wealthy nobles and merchants knew that the Crown was in no position to direct the conquest and exploitation of the islands without deriving virtually all its financial backing from private sources.

For about a dozen years, from the launching of Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 to the eve of the conquests of Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico after 1506, the capital behind the provisioning of ships and stores and mercenary soldiers was raised by merchant and noble partnerships within Spain. From 1506 forward, however, the conquest of the rest of the Caribbean was financed by the gold that was taken from Hispaniola. (In 1499—after the great majority of the island’s millions of people had been destroyed—the long dreamed-of gold mine was discovered on Hispaniola, producing for a time between three and six tons of gold per year.)50 “Similarly,” writes Ralph Davis, “while the first attempts to settle the mainland coast were organized from Spain, the series of expeditions after 1516 which culminated in Cortés’s conquest of Mexico were backed by Cuban resources; and the wealth of Mexico paid for the northward and southward extension of exploration and gave some backing to the colonization of the Panama isthmus and, a decade later, to the conquest of Peru.” Thus, one after another, Caribbean and American locales were raided and drained of their wealth, a portion of which was divided among the Crown, the conquistadors, and those who provided the conquistadors’ financial support, while the rest was used to mount further depredations. By and large the Spanish were uninterested in building New World colonial societies, but rather in draining the New World of its wealth. “Indeed,” notes Davis, “by the 1570s the investment movement had been reversed and returning colonists were investing capital accumulated in America in entirely Spanish financial and industrial enterprises.”51

The first waves of Spanish violence denuded the Caribbean of its wealth in gold and, as we saw earlier, of its wealth in people as well. Once the islands were thus made barren, the Spanish found goals to pursue elsewhere, and moved on. There were about 8000 Spaniards living on Hispaniola in 1509, for instance, forcing the few surviving Indians to produce the remaining dregs of gold that the white men hungered for, but within a decade only a few hundred Spaniards remained to begin slowly building sugar plantations on the backs of growing numbers of imported African slaves. Not only had the island’s gold supply been depleted and its millions of native people effectively exterminated by then, but most of those who had done the exterminating had left for richer fields of exploitation. Davis describes well the pattern that was repeated for decades still to come:

Many of the early conquerors shared in the gold finds, from the small ones in the islands to the hoard in the treasure house of Atahualpa that astounded Pizarro’s followers in 1533. Yet these hoards were quickly distributed and when the king’s share and the leaders’ big portions had been taken out few rank-and-file soldiers secured enough to take them home to the longed-for life of luxurious idleness in Castile. . . . The followers and hangers-on of the conquerors, restless, unreliable material for permanent colonial settlements, were therefore constantly on the move to seek fresh opportunities of fortune. The opening of Cuba rapidly drained Española of most of its Spanish population after 1513; news of the entry to the mainland accelerated this exodus after 1517 and it turned into a stampede from all the island settlements when Cortés secured a firm grip on the Aztec Empire in 1521. But the palace and temple hoards of Tenochtitlán were not adequate to satisfy the cravings of all the Spaniards who followed Cortés. Large numbers of them pushed on, under other leaders; into the jungles that separated Mexico from the little colony on the Panama isthmus, over vast desert plateaus towards California, south to Colombia where gold mines were found by Quesada in 1537, and above all, after 1532, to the new bonanza in Peru. Every township established by the Spaniards in Mexico, with the exception of Mexico City and perhaps Vera Cruz, lost most of its Spanish population within a few years of its foundation. 52

During these years—and especially after the Incas’ fabulous “silver mountain” of Potosí was discovered by the Spanish and converted, through the importation of forced Indian mine labor, into the most populous “city” in the entire Spanish empire—vast sums of wealth flowed back to Spain from the Americas. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, between 1503 and 1505, Spain imported 445,266 ducats’ worth of treasure from the New World; by 1536–40 that amount had increased more than tenfold to 4,725,470 ducats; by 1571–75 it had more than tripled again to 14,287,931 ducats; and by the end of the century, between 1596 and 1600, it had almost tripled again to 41,314,201 ducats—nearly 100 times what it had been a century earlier.53 But as quickly as those riches flowed back to Spain they also flowed out of Spain’s primitive and dependent economy into the pockets of the country’s European creditors. As the century wore on this bad situation steadily deteriorated, exacerbated in large measure by the imperial vision—and the pauper’s purse, once all the debts were paid—of Charles V and his successor, Philip II.

Within Spain, during the sixteenth century, tax increase followed upon tax increase—at one point the tax load tripled in just two decades—in an effort to sustain the empire’s overextended growth, but still when Philip took the Crown at mid-century he inherited a debt of 70,000,000 ducats. By the time his reign was ending two-thirds of the Crown’s revenues were earmarked for interest payments alone, and on a number of occasions Philip was forced to convert short-term indebtedness to long-term debt because he simply was unable to pay his obligations.54 Immanuel Wallerstein has put it simply and well: “Spain was an empire,” he writes, “when what was needed in the sixteenth century was a medium-size state.”55

Much historiographical debate has taken place regarding the ultimate centrality of New World gold and silver to Spain’s economy in the sixteenth century, some scholars declaring it to have been much more important than others. What is beyond debate, however, is that Spain at the time perceived the wealth of the Indies and the Americas as absolutely essential to its economic health and pursued it with the cupidity of the crudest and greediest conquistador.

The conquistadors, meanwhile, were plying their lethal trade not only in the Americas. No doubt, that was where most Spanish soldiers would have liked to be spending their time—especially after stories began circulating in Spain of people like Gaspar de Espinosa, who was said to have returned home in 1522, after eight years in Panama, with the huge fortune of a million gold pesos—but there was fighting to be done within Europe as well. Indeed, during most of the sixteenth century the Old World was awash in what military historian Robert L. O’Connell calls a “harvest of blood,” as European killed European with an extraordinary unleashing of passion. And, of course, Spain was in the thick of it.56

In 1568, to cite but one example among many, Philip ordered the duke of Alva—“probably the finest soldier of his day,” says O’Connell, “and certainly the crudest”—to the Netherlands, where Philip was using the Inquisition to root out and persecute Protestants. The duke promptly passed a death sentence upon the entire population of the Netherlands: “he would have utter submission or genocide,” O’Connell writes, “and the veterans of Spain stood ready to enforce his will.” Massacre followed upon massacre, on one occasion leading to the mass drowning of 6000 to 7000 Netherlanders, “a disaster which the burghers of Emden first realized when several thousand broad-brimmed Dutch hats floated by.”57

As with most of his other debts, Philip did not pay his soldiers on time, if at all, which created ruptures in discipline and converted the Spanish troops into angry marauders who compensated themselves with whatever they could take. As O’Connell notes:

Gradually, it came to be understood that should the Spanish succeed in taking a town, the population and its possessions would constitute, in essence, the rewards. So it was that, as the [Netherlands] revolt dragged on, predatory behavior reinforced by economic self-interest came to assume a very pure form. Thus, in addition to plunder, not only did the slaughter of adult males and ritual rape of females increasingly become routine, but other more esoteric acts began to crop up. Repeatedly, according to John Motley, Spanish troops took to drinking the blood of their victims . . . .58

If this was the sort of thing that became routine within Europe—as a consequence of “predatory behavior reinforced by economic self-interest” on the part of the Spanish troops—little other than unremitting genocide could be expected from those very same troops when they were loosed upon native peoples in the Caribbean and Meso- and South America—peoples considered by the soldiers, as by most of their priestly and secular betters, to be racially inferior, un-Christian, carnal beasts, or, at best, in Bernardino de Minaya’s words quoted earlier, “a third species of animal between man and monkey” that was created by God specifically to provide slave labor for Christian caballeros and their designated representatives. Indeed, ferocious and savage though Spanish violence in Europe was during the sixteenth century, European contemporaries of the conquistadors well recognized that by “serving as an outlet for the energies of the unruly,” in J.H. Elliott’s words, the New World saved Europe, and Spain itself, from even worse carnage. “It is an established fact,” the sixteenth-century Frenchman Henri de la Popeliniére wrote with dry understatement, “that if the Spaniard had not sent to the Indies discovered by Columbus all the rogues in his realm, and especially those who refused to return to their ordinary employment after the wars of Granada against the Moors, these would have stirred up the country or given rise to certain novelties in Spain.”59

To the front-line Spanish troops, then, once they had conquered and stolen from the Indians all the treasure the natives had accumulated for themselves, the remaining indigenous population represented only an immense and bestial labor force to be used by the Christians to pry gold and silver from the earth. Moreover, so enormous was the native population—at least during the early years of each successive stage in the overall conquest—that the terrorism of torture, mutilation, and mass murder was the simplest means for motivating the Indians to work; and for the same reason—the seemingly endless supply of otherwise superfluous population—the cheapest way of maximizing their profits was for the conquistadors to work their Indian slaves until they dropped. Replacing the dead with new captives, who themselves could be worked to death, was far cheaper than feeding and caring for a long-term resident slave population.

To be sure, there were those who protested this monstrous treatment of the native people. Las Casas was the most outspoken, the most vigorous, and the most famous, although he was not alone in his efforts. However, he and his supporters were far from a majority, even within the religious fellowship. Here, for example, is what the pious Dominican Tomas Ortiz wrote to the Council of the Indies early in the sixteenth century regarding the New World’s peoples:

On the mainland they eat human flesh. They are more given to sodomy than any other nation. There is no justice among them. They go naked. They have no respect either for love or for virginity. They are stupid and silly. They have no respect for truth, save when it is to their advantage. They are unstable. They have no knowledge of what foresight means. They are ungrateful and changeable. . . . They are brutal. They delight in exaggerating their defects. There is no obedience among them, or deference on the part of the young for the old, nor of the son for the father. They are incapable of learning. Punishments have no effect on them. . . . They eat fleas, spiders, and worms raw, whenever they find them. They exercise none of the human arts or industries. When taught the mysteries of our religion, they say that these things may suit Castilians, but not them, and they do not wish to change their customs. . . . I may therefore affirm that God has never created a race more full of vice and composed without the least mixture of kindness or culture. . . . The Indians are more stupid than asses, and refuse to improve in anything.60

The only thing demonstrably true in this litany of Christian hate was that the Indians often were understandably reluctant to give up the faiths of their forefathers and adopt the foreign religious beliefs of the people who had come to kill and torture and enslave them. In addition, many of those who appeared to have undergone conversion turned out to be backsliders, or false conversions in the first place. The Spanish, of course, had a tried and true answer to problems of this sort: the Inquisition. So they instituted among the natives Inquisitorial proceedings to locate and punish those Indians who had given false witness or who had returned to “idolatry” after claiming to have seen the light. Thus, the friars joined the conquistadors in burning Indians at the stake.61

If the assertions of Ortiz and others regarding the habits of the Indians were fabrications, they were not fabrications without design. From the Spaniards’ enumerations of what they claimed were the disgusting food customs of the Indians (including cannibalism, but also the consumption of insects and other items regarded as unfit for human diets) to the Indians’ supposed nakedness and absence of agriculture, their sexual deviance and licentiousness, their brutish ignorance, their lack of advanced weaponry and iron, and their irremediable idolatry, the conquering Europeans were purposefully and systematically dehumanizing the people they were exterminating. For the specific categories of behavior chosen for these accusations were openly derived from traditional Christian and earlier Roman and Greek ideas regarding the characteristics of fundamentally evil and non-rational creatures, from Hesiod’s Bronze race to the medieval era’s wild men and witches. Thus, time and again, the enslavement and terroristic mass slaughter of Indians by the Spanish was justified by pointing to the natives’ supposed ignorance or their allegedly despicable and animalistic behavior—as, for example, when Balboa’s troops murdered hundreds of native people in one locale, hacking them to death and feeding them to the dogs, because Balboa claimed that some of their chiefs were addicted to the “nefarious and dirty sin [of] sodomy.”62

All this, of course—from the miraculous discovery of the Indies to the destruction of the heathenish Incas—was part of God’s master plan. Indeed, the very priest who had persuaded Las Casas to become a friar, Father Domingo de Betanzos, had widely and influentially proclaimed a prophecy during the early years of the conquest that “the Indians were beasts and that God had condemned the whole race to perish for the horrible sins that they had committed in their paganism.” Although Betanzos eventually repudiated the prophecy just before dying while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—several decades after pronouncing it, and apparently under pressure from some of his gentler Dominican brothers—by then it was commonly accepted truth by those of both high and low station, within the sacred as well as the secular communities. In fact, no sooner was Betanzos dead than his repudiated prophecy quickly was edited, revised, and recirculated by the Dominican chronicler Dávila Padilla.63

Some explanation, after all, had to be given for the apparent ease with which the Indians went to their graves, whether from the storms of European epidemic disease (from which, said one Spaniard, the Indians “died in heaps, like bedbugs”) or from the blades of Spanish rapiers.64 Since, to the minds of Europeans at that time, such extraordinary events did not occur except by divine intent, what could God’s purpose be in permitting—or directing—the mass destruction of the native peoples?

The Spanish friars were divided on this question. Some of them argued, in line with Fathers Betanzos and Ortiz, that the Indians had such a terrible history of ungodliness—and especially of indulgence in sins of the flesh—that God was punishing them by exterminating them, and the Spanish were merely the means of carrying out his holy will. (As noted above, such ideas were rooted not only in early Christian thought but in Western classical tradition as well: it was about 800 years before the rise of Christianity, for instance, that Greek wisdom had described famine, plague, and infertility—the crushing burdens now being imposed on the Indians—as the divinely ordered and inevitable just due of those societies that behaved “wickedly.”)65 Others, such as the distinguished Franciscan monk and historian Gerónimo de Mendieta, contended that, on the contrary, the massive Indian die-off was God’s punishment to the Spanish for their horrendous mistreatment of the natives. Because of their great evil in oppressing the Indians, Mendieta concluded, God had decided to deprive the Spanish of their seemingly inexhaustible supply of slaves and forced labor. “Once the Indians are exterminated,” he wrote in his Historia eclesiástica Indiana from Mexico in the later sixteenth century, “I do not know what is going to happen in this land except that the Spaniards will then rob and kill each other.” He continued: “And concerning the plagues that we see among [the Indians] I cannot help but feel that God is telling us: ‘You [the Spaniards] are hastening to exterminate this race. I shall help you to wipe them out more quickly. You shall soon find yourselves without them, a prospect that you desire so ardently.’”66

In sum, whether God was punishing the Indians for their sins or the Spanish for their cruelties, both sides in this ecclesiastical debate were agreed that God wanted the Indians dead. The conquistadors were only too happy to oblige their Lord and be his holy instrument. If the divinely ordered immolation of these creatures—whom the wisest men in Spain, after all, had long since declared to be mere beasts and natural slaves—was in the end intended to be a punishment for the conquistadors’ brutality, they could worry about that in the future, while counting their gold and silver. But the Crown and the merchants who were funding the New World enterprise wanted their share of the treasure now. Moreover, apart from the diseases that God was using to kill off the native people, should anyone express concern over the massive killings that took place in the mines that were supplying all that treasure, the appeal to Aristotle—now enhanced with an insidious element of outright racism—was readily available, and ever more widely employed with every passing year.

The Spanish magistrate Juan de Matienzo provides just one example among many. Writing of the native people of the Andes in his 1567 Government of Peru, following six years of service in the viceroyalty there, Matienzo declared that “men of this type or complexion are, according to Aristotle, very fearful, weak, and stupid. . . . It is clear that this is their complexion from the colour of their faces, which is the same in all of them.” In addition to the color of their skin, the distinguished jurist wrote, there was the evidence from the strength and shape of their bodies: “It can be known that they were born for this [forced labor in the service of the Spanish] because, as Aristotle says, such types were created by nature with strong bodies and were given less intelligence, while free men have less physical strength and more intelligence.” In sum, the Spanish were justified in working the Indians to death, and in killing outright those who were reluctant to serve their natural masters, because these brute creatures were nothing more than “animals who do not even feel reason, but are ruled by their passions.”67 Within a few years after Matienzo’s words appeared in print, the huge tide of silver pouring into Europe from the death-camp mines of Peru—silver now worth at least 8,000,000 ducats each year—reached its enormous all-time high. Meanwhile, upwards of 8,000,000 Peruvian natives had been turned into corpses by the Spanish, with barely 1,000,000 remaining alive. And before long, most of those survivors would be destroyed as well.68

Some years ago a debate took place among historians of early America concerning the priority of racism or slavery in what both sides agreed was the ultimately racist enslavement of African Americans. Some contended that, of the two, racism was the primary phenomenon, since without it racial slavery of the sort that emerged in the Americas could not have come into being. Others claimed that true racism actually followed on the heels of black slavery in the Americas, forming into a system of thought in large part as rationalization for an otherwise morally indefensible institution. Although the first of these assertions clearly is correct, so too, in a more limited sense, is the second: while sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Western thought was thick with anti-African racist stereotypes, as black slavery as an economic institution took hold and grew so also did elaborate racist justifications for its moral propriety—justifications which then further encouraged the continuing expansion of the institution itself.69

This dialectic of ongoing mutual reinforcement between ideology and institution is what historian Winthrop Jordan has called the “cycle of degradation” that continually fueled the “engine of oppression” that wearied and broke the bodies of captive African Americans for two and a half long centuries.70 And that ideological-institutional cycle of degradation is precisely the dynamic that also emerged early on among the Spanish regarding the native peoples of the Indies and Meso- and South America.

Just as social thought does not bloom in a political vacuum, however, neither do institutions come into being and sustain themselves without the inspiration of economic or political necessity. In sixteenth-century Spain, as we have seen, that necessity was created by an impoverished and financially dependent small nation that made itself into an empire, an empire that engaged in ambitious wars of expansion (and vicious Inquisitorial repression of suspected non-believers within), but an empire with a huge and gaping hole in its treasury: no sooner were gold or silver deposited than they drained away to creditors. The only remedy for this, since control of expenditures did not fit with imperial visions, was to accelerate the appropriation of wealth. And this demanded the theft and mining of more and more New World gold and silver.

The Spanish possessed neither the manpower nor the inclination for mining America’s vast store of precious metals themselves. But, along with all those riches, God had provided more laborers than could be imagined—tens upon tens of millions—so many, in fact, that the first Portuguese governor of Brazil claimed it would be impossible to exhaust the supply even if the Europeans were to cut the natives up in slaughterhouses. There was, however, nothing to be gained from the wholesale butchery of Indians for mere entertainment—although that commonly did occur at the hands of enthusiastic conquistadors—while a great deal was to be achieved from working them until they collapsed. So enormous was the reservoir of native muscle and flesh that no rational slave driver would spend good money on caring for these beasts (and beasts they were, and natural slaves, so the wisest of wise men had come to agree); it was more efficient simply to use them up and then replace them.

Mass murder and torture and mutilation had their place, of course, as instruments of terror to recruit reluctant natives and to be sure they stayed in line. But the extermination of entire communities and cultures, though commonplace, was rarely the Spaniards’ declared end goal, since to do so meant a large expenditure of energy with no financial return. As with Hispaniola, Tenochtitlán, Cuzco, and elsewhere, the Spaniards’ mammoth destruction of whole societies generally was a by-product of conquest and native enslavement, a genocidal means to an economic end, not an end in itself. And therein lies the central difference between the genocide committed by the Spanish and that of the Anglo-Americans: in British America extermination was the primary goal, and it was so precisely because it made economic sense.


By the close of the sixteenth century bullion, primarily silver, made up more than 95 percent of all exports leaving Spanish America for Europe. Nearly that same percentage of the indigenous population had been destroyed in the process of seizing those riches. In its insatiable hunger, Spain was devouring all that was of most value in its conquered New World territories—the fabulous wealth in people, culture, and precious metals that had so excited the European imagination in the heady era that immediately followed Columbus’s return from his first voyage. The number of indigenous people in the Caribbean and Meso- and South America in 1492 probably had been at least equal to that of all Europe, including Russia, at the time. Not much more than a century later it was barely equal to that of England. Entire rich and elaborate and ancient cultures had been erased from the face of the earth. And by 1650 the amount of silver coming out of the Americas was down to far less than half of what it was only fifty years earlier, while gold output had fallen below 10 percent of what it had been.71 For a century and more the Spanish presence in the Americas had been the equivalent of a horde of ravenous locusts, leaving little but barrenness behind them.

And still, despite so many years of such incredible plunder, Spain itself remained an economic disaster. The treasure it had imported from the Indies, Mexico, and Peru only paid brief visits to the Iberian peninsula before ending up in the coffers of Spain’s northerly European creditors. In retrospect, the foundations thus were laid for the “underdevelopment” of Latin America as a modern Third World region. The pattern was the same in other places: wherever the path of Western conquest led, if there were vast available natural and human resources that easily could be taken and used, they were—but the end result was, at best, short-term economic growth in the area of colonization, as opposed to long-term economic development.72

The story of British conquest and colonization in North America is, in economic terms, almost precisely the opposite of Spain’s experience to the south. In the north, without a cornucopia of treasure to devour and people to exploit, the English were forced to engage in endeavors that led to long-term development rather than short-term growth, particularly in New England. Far fewer native people greeted the British explorers and colonists than had welcomed the Spanish, in part because the population of the continent north of Mexico had always been smaller and less densely settled, and in part because by the time British colonists arrived European diseases had had more time to spread and destroy large numbers of Indians in Virginia, New England, and beyond. These regions also contained nothing even remotely comparable to the exportable mineral wealth the Spanish had found in the areas they invaded. The most the northern climes had to offer in this regard was fish. To be sure, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the English imported huge amounts of cod from America’s North Atlantic waters, and later tobacco and furs were brought in.73But fish, tobacco, and furs were not the same as gold or silver.

Nevertheless, despite the very dissimilar economic and native demographic situations they found, the British wasted little time in exterminating the indigenous people. The English and later the Americans, in fact, destroyed at least as high a percentage of the Indians they encountered as earlier had the Spanish, probably higher; it was only their means and motivation that contrasted with those of the conquistadors. To understand both the savagery of the Anglo-American genocide against the North American natives, and the characteristics that made it different from the earlier Spanish genocide, requires a brief glance at the political economy of Britaiń when its first New World explorations and settlements were being launched, then a look at Anglo-American religious and racial attitudes, and finally a return to the economic realities not of England, but of the colonies themselves.

While Spain in the sixteenth century was overextending its primitive economy with expensive imperial adventures, thereby driving itself to financial ruin, England was developing into one of what Immanuel Wallerstein has called “the strong core states” of northwest Europe that in time would become “the economic heartland of the European world-economy.” Unlike Spain, England during this time had a strong export trade in manufactured goods, and although it ran a net deficit in its economic relationship with France, this was more than made up for by a favorable balance of trade elsewhere.74 It was a time of relative political stability and low taxation, including no personal taxes at all. One historian has made clear the contrast between late sixteenth-century Spain and England with a single telling statistic: “While in Spain Philip II may have absorbed 10 percent of Castile’s national income to pay for his wars in the 1580s and 1590s,” Ralph Davis writes, “it is doubtful whether in the same years Elizabeth I, at her wits’ end to meet war expenses, took more than 3 percent of the national income for them.”75

For better or for worse—and it was both—England’s population was growing rapidly at this time as well. From approximately 2,500,000 at the time of Columbus’s birth in the mid-1400s, it had doubled to about 5,000,000 by 1620, when the first permanent British colony was being founded in New England. Although the overall economy was comparatively healthy, the nation contained large masses of desperately poor and potentially dangerous people. The government’s response included the passage of poor laws—which drove the poor out of the towns and cities and into marginal rural areas—and the encouragement of migration out of the country altogether. Private individuals, like the famous advocate of exploration Richard Hakluyt, joined in the call to settle England’s poor and criminal classes outside the realm, where their conditions and habits might find “hope of amendement.”76

The first significant move of imperial expansion by the British at this time was into Ireland. Here, the intent of the English was in some ways similar—if on a far smaller scale—to that of the Spanish in the Indies: to convert and “civilize” the natives, while stripping the land bare of its wealth. In the case of Ireland that wealth was not in gold or silver, but in timber, and in just one century the English despoliation reduced the amount of Ireland’s rich timberland from an area covering about 12 percent of its territory to practically zero.77 As we saw in a previous chapter, the English also imitated the Spanish in one other way during their invasion of Ireland—they tortured and killed huge numbers of Irish people.

The English treatment of Ireland’s native people provides important insight into understanding the way the British later would treat the indigenous people of North America—not only because it reveals the extent to which the English would go in defining non-Englishmen as savages and destroying them in the process of seizing their land, but also because it shows how far they would not go when the native people in question were white. For while it is true that the English demolished large portions of the Irish population in the sixteenth century—massacring the people of Ireland in the same way their forebears had mass-murdered Muslims—the example of the Irish does not equate with that of American Indians. On the contrary, it actually serves to demonstrate how differently the British treated people they regarded as lesser than themselves—but lesser in varying degrees, and different precisely because of the rapidly evolving European ideology of race.

First, in their depredations and colonizing campaigns in Ireland, the English clearly distinguished between those natives who were Gaelic Irish and those—though certainly Irish—who were known as “Old English” because they were descendants of earlier Anglo-Norman conquerors. Although both groups were regarded as barbaric by the English, even those British who most vociferously denounced all things Irish tended to make favorable exceptions for the Old English since they were believed to have falleninto barbarism as a result of their long-term association with the Gaelic Irish. In contrast, as genealogically non-Anglo-Norman, the Gaelic Irish (like the American Indians) were considered always to have been barbaric. Further, in what might seem a paradox only to those innocent of the workings of the racist mind, the British sustained this invidious distinction even when they were arguing that the Old English could be more dangerous and treacherous opponents than were the more barbarous Gaelic Irish. As the Irish historian Nicholas Canny has shown, the British considered the Old English to be more formidable in these ways because they combined “the perverse obstinacy of the authentic barbarian” (i.e., the Gaelic Irish) with “the knowledge and expertise of civil people.”78

“Authentic” barbarians though they may have been in English eyes, nevertheless, the Gaelic Irish still were not so savage as the darker-skinned people the British at that same time were encountering on the huge continents of Africa and the Americas. As a result, whether living among the Gaelic Irish or the Old English populations, the British never set up segregated enclaves—as those Englishmen who moved to North America did—and, despite the terrible levels of violence perpetrated by the English against the Irish, the English were always determined that in time they would assimilate all the Irish within English culture and society. “Thus,” writes Canny, “while the establishment of British authority in Ireland was closely identified with war, brutality, and the confiscation of property, those on both sides who survived that ordeal learned how to live and associate with each other on the same territory.”79 This did not prevent enormous violence, not only in the sixteenth century, but during the Irish rising of 1641–42 and long after, when tens of thousands of Irish died. However, the English all the while persisted in their efforts to meld the Irish into the British world. As Canny writes:

More thought was given by Englishmen to this effort at the assimilation of a foreign population into an English-style polity than to any other overseas venture upon which they were then engaged. . . . It will become immediately apparent that whatever the analogies drawn between the Irish and the American Indians, the reality was that English and Scots settlers of the seventeenth century encountered little difficulty in living in close proximity to the Irish and that it seemed, for a time, that the different elements of the population would come together to constitute a single people.80

Without minimizing, then, the carnage the English were willing to call down upon their Irish neighbors, such devastation—like that wrought by Europeans upon other Europeans during the Thirty Years War—was of the sort that Frantz Fanon once described as, in the long run, a “family quarrel.”81 For even when such quarrels culminated in multiple and often horrendous instances of mass fratricide, rarely did the rhetoric or action lead to all-out efforts of extermination—as they did in America, repeatedly, when the struggle was an actual race war.

From the start, the English explorers’ presuppositions about the human and moral worth of America’s native peoples were little different from those of the Spanish, because in large measure they were based directly on Spanish writings and reports. Throughout the sixteenth century, English publishers of travel literature on the Americas studiously avoided reprintings of or references to Las Casas (with the exception of a single small edition of his Brévissima Relatión in 1583), or to any other Spaniard with even marginally favorable views on the Indians. Rather, they drew almost exclusively on the writings of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Francisco López de Gómara, and other Spanish adventurers and writers who, as Loren E. Pennington puts it, “presented a nearly unrelieved picture of native savagery.”82 Indeed, the very first book on America that was published in the English language appeared in 1511, a decade before Cortés had even laid eyes upon Tenochtitlán; it described the Indians as “lyke bestes without any resonablenes. . . . And they ete also on[e] a nother. The man etethe his wyf his chyldern . . . they hange also the bodyes or persons fleeshe in the smoke as men do with us swynes fleshe.”83 As for how such savages should be treated, notes Pennington, “far from being repelled by Spanish repression of the natives,” the earliest English propagandists writing about the New World “looked upon [such repression] as the model to be followed by their own countrymen.”84

To citizens of Britain and the lands of northern Europe, as with the Spanish and Portuguese to the south, wild men and other creatures of halfhuman pedigree were as real in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they had been in the Middle Ages. As always, such odd and dangerous species were given their place on the outer fringes of humanity within the Great Chain of Being. John Locke believed in the existence of hybrid species that encompassed characteristics of the human and animal—and even the plant and animal—kingdoms, and so did most other intellectuals, such as the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. As Leibniz wrote, in the midst of a long peroration on the subject:

All the orders of natural beings form but a single chain, in which the various classes, like so many rings, are so closely linked one to another that it is impossible for the senses or the imagination to determine precisely the point at which one ends and the next begins—all the species which, so to say, lie near to or upon the borderlands being equivocal, and endowed with characters which might equally well be assigned to either of the neighboring species. Thus there is nothing monstrous in the existence of zoophytes, or plant-animals, as Budaeus calls them; on the contrary, it is wholly in keeping with the order of nature that they should exist.85

Added Locke:

In all the visible corporeal world we see no chasms or gaps. All quite down from us the descent is by easy steps, and a continued series that in each remove differ very little one from the other. There are fishes that have wings and are not strangers to the airy region; and there are some birds that are inhabitants of the water, whose blood is as cold as fishes. . . . There are animals so near of kin both to birds and beasts that they are in the middle between both. Amphibious animals link the terrestrial and aquatic together; . . . not to mention what is confidently reported of mermaids or sea-men. There are some brutes that seem to have as much reason and knowledge as some that are called men; and the animal and vegetable kingdoms are so nearly joined, that if you will take the lowest of one and the highest of the other, there will scarce be perceived any great difference between them.86

Until well into the eighteenth century others of the finest minds in Europe believed in, along with the principle of overlapping species continuity in the Great Chain of Being, the existence of half man/half beast creatures who were the product of cross-species mating. As Keith Thomas has pointed out, even Linnaeus, in his famous eighteenth-century classificatory system, “found room for the wild man (homo ferns), ‘four-footed, mute and hairy,’ and cited ten examples encountered over the previous two centuries.” In the popular mind, as in medieval days, Thomas writes, “the early modern period swarmed with missing links, half-man, half-animal.”87 An example of especial relevance to the present discussion is the illustration of an “Acephal”—a headless creature with his face in his chest—among the depictions of America’s native peoples in the Jesuit Joseph François Lafitau’s highly respected Customs of the American Indians, published in 1724.88

It is, therefore, far from surprising to find sixteenth-century English sea captains, adventurers, and soldiers of fortune—all of whom had heard the most negative Spanish descriptions of the native peoples of the New World—solemnly performing inspections of captured Indians to see (as we noted earlier in the case of Martin Frobisher) if they had cloven feet or other marks of the Devil. To some Englishmen there also remained, for a time, the possibility that the New World natives were of some sort of Golden Age ancestry. Both these expectations can be found in the earliest writings of the British in America. Thus, for example, Arthur Barlowe—after landing in Virginia in 1584 and “tak[ing] possession of [the land] in the right of the queen’s most excellent Majesty . . . under her Highness’ Great Seal”—recalled that upon encountering the Indians,

we were entertained with all love and kindness and with as much bounty, after their manner, as they could possibly devise. We found the people most gentle loving and faithfull, void of all guile and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the Golden Age. . . . a more kind and loving people, there can not be found in the world, as farre as we have hitherto had triall.89

There is probably no more favorable description of the Indians of North America in the annals of the early explorers. This did not, however, prevent these very same Englishmen from attacking these very same Indians at the slightest provocation: “we burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people” (those “gentle loving and faithfull” people) “beeing fledde.”90 For, on the other hand, these same Virginia Indians were soon after described by the likes of Robert Gray as

wild beasts, and unreasonable creatures, or . . . brutish savages, which by reason of their godles ignorance, and blasphemous Idolatrie, are worse than those beasts which are of most wilde and savage nature. . . . [They are] incredibly rude, they worship the divell, offer their young children in sacrifice unto him, wander up and downe like beasts, and in manners and conditions, differ very little from beasts.91

Any number of commentators can be summoned to support either of these contrasting views of the Indians, and still more can be called upon to provide judgments of the Indians ranging variously between these two extremes. As had been the case earlier with the Spanish, however, the more negative views very quickly came to dominate. And they were not infrequently expressed by drawing direct parallels between the experiences of the British in Virginia or New England and the Spanish in Mexico and the Caribbean. Thus, in an early treatise on the Virginia Company’s progress in the New World, the company’s secretary, Edward Waterhouse, discussed at length the Spanish experience with the natives of the Indies and approvingly quoted the Indian-hating and genocide-supporting conquistador Fernández de Oviedo to the effect that those Indians were “by nature sloathful and idle, vicious, melancholy, slovenly, of bad conditions, lyers, of small memory, of no constancy or trust. . . . lesse capable than children of sixe or seaven yeares old, and lesse apt and ingenious.” Oviedo’s description of the Indies’ indigenous inhabitants was offered the reader, Waterhouse said, “that you may compare and see in what, and how farre, it agrees with that of the Natives of Virginia.” Indeed, so closely did it agree, he contended, that the proper response of the British against this “Viperous brood . . . of Pagan Infidels” should be the same as that meted out by the Spanish: extermination.92 This conclusion was reached, it should be noted, at a time when there were barely 2000 Englishmen living in all of North America, and nearly a decade before Britain’s Massachusetts Bay Company would be sending settlers into New England.

There are other ways in which we now can see, retrospectively, how the evolution of British racial thought in North America paralleled what had happened previously among the Spanish and Portuguese. We noted earlier, for instance, how changing Portuguese attitudes toward the Indians of Brazil were illustrated dramatically in an early sixteenth-century painting of the Gift of the Magi that used a depiction of a Brazilian Indian in place of one of the wise men calling on the Christ child, followed by a mid-sixteenth-century painting that used a feather-bedecked Indian of the same region to illustrate a depiction of Satan in his lair of Hell. A similar transformation in the Europeans’ moral perceptions of Virginia’s Indians is traceable in the famous illustrations of Theodor de Bry and his sons, throughout the thirty volumes of pictorial representations they published between 1590 and 1634. From initial imagery suggestive of Virginia as a place inhabited by people, in Barlowe’s words, who “lived after the manner of the Golden Age,” iconographic evolution soon converted that world into a place of monstrously deformed and diseased savages. To the European artists, as to Europeans in general, notes Bernadette Bucher in her structural analysis of the de Brys illustrations, there was from the start a categorical ambiguity surrounding the New World’s native peoples. Citing the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Bucher notes that

beings and things that participate in two or more categories as fixed by a given culture appear ambiguous and monstrous for that reason, and become instantly burdened with interdictions, horror and disgust. . . . At first, the Amerindian, by his very existence on a previously unknown continent and the mystery surrounding his origins, introduced chaos into the order of things such as the Europeans imagined it in their own cosmogony, moral code, and ideas on the origin of man. 93

But before long, as Bucher says, the Europeans became fairly settled in their opinion that while the Indians were likely human, they were not so in an unambiguous sense—for if they were men, they were “men without God, without law, without breeches.” These final two words presumably are an unattributed reference to the closing sentence of Michel de Montaigne’s famous ironic essay, “Of Cannibals,” in which Montaigne—writing in the late 1570s—favorably compares the life and culture and dignity of the American Indian to that of the “real savages” of Europe, only to conclude sarcastically, “but what of it? They don’t wear breeches.”94 If Montaigne and Bucher were being pointedly lighthearted, however, many other Europeans saw nothing amusing in the stories of the Indians’ near-nakedness and what it represented in terms of the allegedly libidinous and bestial nature of these people of the fearsome wilderness. And there is no doubt that that is how Europe was coming to regard the New World peoples. Indeed, as John Higham recently has demonstrated, artistic conventions of the time personified each of the world’s continents as female, but in distinct and individually stereotyped ways:

To differentiate America from Africa and Asia, artists relied chiefly on her partial or complete nudity. Asia was always fully clothed, often sumptuously so. Africa, attired in sometimes revealing but always elegant dress, was supposed to look Moorish, since Europeans were most familiar with the Mediterranean littoral. America alone was a savage.95

In recent years some historians have begun pointing out that the British colonists in Virginia and New England greatly intensified their hostility toward and their barbarous treatment of the Indians as time wore on. One of the principal causes of this change in temperament, according to these scholars, was the Europeans’ realization that the native people were going to persist in their reluctance to adopt English religious and cultural habits, no matter how intense the British efforts to convert them. No doubt they are correct in this interpretation—a notion that is not at all at odds with Bucher’s structural analysis of the de Brys iconography, with the earlier Spanish experience, or with the traditional Christian suspicion, at least since Augustine, that stubborn resistance to conversion by those living beyond the margins of civilization was a sign that they were less than rational and thus less than human—but this increased antipathy and violence was a matter of escalating degree, not (as some of these writers imply) a wholesale change in consciousness.96 For as we have seen at some length in the preceding pages, the Europeans’ predisposition to racist enmity regarding the Indians had long been both deeply embedded in Western thought and was intimately entwined with attitudes toward nature, sensuality, and the body. That there were some Europeans who appreciated and even idealized native cultural values—and some settlers who ran off to live with the Indians because they found their lifeways preferable to their own—is undeniable. But these were rarities, and rarities with little influence, within a steadily rising floodtide of racist opinion to the contrary.97

What in fact was happening in those initial years of contact between the British and America’s native peoples was a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy, though one with genocidal consequences. Beginning with a false prejudgment of the Indians as somehow other than conventionally human in European terms (whether describing them as living “after the manner of the Golden Age” or as “wild beasts and unreasonable creatures”), everything the Indians did that marked them as incorrigibly non-European and non-Christian—and therefore as permanently non-civilized in British eyes—enhanced their definitionally less-than-human status. Treating them according to this false definition naturally brought on a resentful response from the Indians—one which only “proved” (albeit spuriously) that the definition had been valid from the start. In his famous study of this phenomenon Robert K. Merton—after quoting the sociological dictum that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”—pointed out that “the specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.”98 In the early and subsequent years of British-Indian contact, however, it produced and perpetuated a reign of terror because it was bound up with an English lust for power, land, and wealth, and because the specific characteristics that the English found problematic in the Indians were attributes that fit closely with ancient but persistently held ideas about the anti-Christian hallmarks of infidels, witches, and wild men.

It was only to be expected, therefore, that when the witchcraft crisis at Salem broke out as the seventeenth century was ending, it would be blamed by New England’s foremost clergyman on “the Indians, whose chief Sagamores are well known unto some our Captives, to have been horrid Sorcerers, and hellish Conjurers, and such as Conversed with Daemons.”99 Indeed, as Richard Slotkin has shown, the fusion of the satanic and the native in the minds of the English settlers by this time had become so self-evident as to require no argument. Thus, when a young woman named Mercy Short became possessed by the Devil, she described the beast who had visited her as “a wretch no taller than an ordinary Walking-Staff; hee was not of a Negro, but of a Tawney, or an Indian colour; he wore a high-crowned Hat, with straight Hair; and had one Cloven-foot.” Observes Slotkin: “He was, in fact, a figure out of the American Puritan nightmare . . . Indian-colored, dressed in a Christian’s hat, with a beast’s foot—a kind of Indian-Puritan, man-animal half-breed.”100

In the preceding chapter we explored at some length Catholic doctrines of asceticism, purity, and religious self-righteousness and intolerance—as well as the Church’s murderous treatment of those it regarded as unchaste and impure non-believers. But Protestantism deserves some scrutiny in its own right. For even though most of England’s Protestants had shunted aside asceticism of the specifically contemptus mundi variety (the anti-Roman elements of the faith condemned monastic withdrawal from the world and insisted that Saints partake—albeit in moderation—of the earthly gifts that God had provided for men and women), asceticism in the larger sense remained alive and well for centuries. Indeed, probably never before in Christian history had the idea that humankind was naturally corrupt and debased reached and influenced the daily lives of a larger proportion of the lay community than during New England’s seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. New England Congregationalist Susanna Anthony was only one among many thousands of Protestant divines who as late as the 1760s delighted in examining her soul and—in phrases reminiscent of her saintly Catholic sisters from four and five centuries earlier—discovering

the sinfulness of my nature, the corrupt fountain from whence proceeded every sinful act. . . . My heart has looked like a sink of sin, more loathsome than the most offensive carrion that swarms with hateful vermin! My understanding dark and ignorant; my will stubborn; my affections carnal, corrupt and disordered; every faculty depraved and vitiated; my whole soul deformed and polluted, filled with pride, enmity, carnality, hypocrisy, self-confidence, and all manner of sins. . . . Woe is me, because of the leprosy of sin, by which I am so defiled, that I pollute all I touch! . . . Good God, what a leprous soul is this! How polluted, how defiled! What a running sore, that pollutes all I touch!”101

Unlike her medieval Catholic forebears, Miss Anthony did not (as far as we know) accompany this torrent of self-hatred with self-inflicted physical abuse. But like them before her, the more she expressed her loathing for the rottenness of her heart and will and all her sensual affections, the more admirable and godly a person she was in her own eyes and in those of others. Such sanctification of what one commentator has described as the “furtive gratifications of an ascetic sadism” was, after all, the evangelical way. And as Philip Greven clearly has shown, in the fanatical and obsessive efforts of people like Miss Anthony and her spiritual kin “to placate implacable consciences and in their systematic efforts to mortify and subdue the body and the self,” along with their consequently heightened perception of the world “as a dangerous and seductive place,” the early New England settlers of evangelical Puritan character “often saw evidence of anger and hostility in other people which they denied within themselves.” And in no people did they see such things so clearly as in the indigenous people of the territory they were invading who became the unwilling victims of the Protestants’ “unending . . . warfare with the unregenerate world in which they lived.”102

This also is why what David Brion Davis once said about the belated emergence of the antislavery movement was equally true regarding the unlikelihood of any semblance of humanitarian concern for the Indians gaining serious support during this time: it could not and would not happen so long as Christians “continued to believe that natural man was totally corrupt, that suffering and subordination were necessary parts of life, and that the only true freedom lay in salvation from the world.”103 For a core principle of the saintly Puritan’s belief system was that the “natural” condition of the hearts of all humans prior to their conversion to Christ—even the hearts of the holiest and most innocent of Christian infants—was, in the esteemed New England minister Benjamin Wadsworth’s words, “a meer nest, root, fountain of Sin, and wickedness.”104 By defining the Indians as bestial and as hopelessly beyond conversion, then, the colonists were declaring flatly that these very same words aptly described the natives’ permanentracial condition. And to tolerate known sin and wickedness in their midst would be to commit sin and wickedness themselves.

Moreover—and ominously—from the earliest days of settlement the British colonists repeatedly expressed a haunting fear that they would be “contaminated” by the presence of the Indians, a contamination that must be avoided lest it become the beginning of a terrifying downward slide toward their own bestial degeneration. Thus, unlike the Spanish before them, British men in the colonies from the Carolinas to New England rarely engaged in sexual relations with the Indians, even during those times when there were few if any English women available. Legislation was passed that “banished forever” such mixed race couples, referring to their offspring in animalistic terms as “abominable mixture and spurious issue,” though even without formal prohibitions such intimate encounters were commonly “reckoned a horrid crime with us,” in the words of one colonial Pennsyl-vanian.105 It is little wonder, then, that Mercy Short described the creature that possessed her as both a demon and, in Slotkin’s words, “a kind of Indian-Puritan, man-animal half-breed,” for this was the ultimate and fated consequence of racial contamination.

Again, however, such theological, psychological, and legislative preoccupations did not proceed to the rationalization of genocide without a social foundation and impetus. And if a possessive and tightly constricted attitude toward sex, an abhorrence of racial intermixture, and a belief in humankind’s innate depravity had for centuries been hallmarks of Christianity, and therefore of the West’s definition of civilization, by the time the British exploration and settlement of America had begun, the very essence of humanity also was coming to be associated in European thought with a similarly possessive, exclusive, and constricted attitude toward property. For it is precisely of this time that R.H. Tawney was writing when he observed the movement away from the earlier medieval belief that “private property is a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world . . . but it is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as desirable in itself,” to the notion that “the individual is absolute master of his own, and, within the limits set by positive law, may exploit it with a single eye to his pecuniary advantage, unrestrained by any obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbors, or to give account of his actions to a higher authority.”106

The concept of private property as a positive good and even an insignia of civilization took hold among both Catholics and Protestants during the sixteenth century. Thus, for example, in Spain, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that the absence of private property was one of the characteristics of people lacking “even vestiges of humanity,” and in Germany at the same time Martin Luther was contending “that the possession of private property was an essential difference between men and beasts.”107 In England, meanwhile, Sir Thomas More was proclaiming that land justifiably could be taken from “any people [who] holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant to no good or profitable use,” an idea that also was being independently advanced in other countries by Calvin, Melanchthon, and others. Typically, though, none was as churlish as Luther, who pointed out that the Catholic St. Francis had urged his followers to get rid of their property and give it to the poor: “I do not maintain that St. Francis was simply wicked,” wrote Luther, “but his works show that he was a weakminded and freakish man, or to say the truth, a fool.”108

The idea that failure to put property to “good or profitable use” was grounds for seizing it became especially popular with Protestants, who thereby advocated confiscating the lands owned by Catholic monks. As Richard Schlatter explains:

The monks were condemned, not for owning property, but because they did not use that property in an economically productive fashion. At best they used it to produce prayers. Luther and the other Reformation leaders insisted that it should be used, not to relieve men from the necessity of working, but as a tool for making more goods. The attitude of the Reformation was practically, “not prayers, but production.” And production, not for consumption, but for more production.109

The idea of production for the sake of production, of course, was one of the central components of what Max Weber was to call the Protestant Ethic. But it also was essential to what C.B. Macpherson has termed the ideology of “possessive individualism.” And at the heart of that ideology was a political theory of appropriation that was given its fullest elaboration in the second of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. In addition to the property of his own person, Locke argued, all men have a right to their own labor and to the fruits of that labor. When a person’s private labor is put to the task of gathering provisions from the common realm, the provisions thus gathered become the private property of the one who labored to gather them, so long as there are more goods left in the common realm for others to gather with their labor. But beyond the right to the goods of the land, Locke argued, was the right to “the Earth it self.” It is, he says, “plain” that the same logic holds with the land itself as with the products of the land: “As much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property. He by his Labour does, as it were, inclose it from the Common.”110

Only through the ability to exercise such individual acquisitiveness, thought Locke, does a man become fully and truly human. However, notes Macpherson, concealed within this celebration of grasping and exclusive individualism was the equally essential notion that “full individuality for some was produced by consuming the individuality of others.” Thus, “the greatness of seventeenth-century liberalism was its assertion of the free rational individual as the criterion of the good society; its tragedy was that this very assertion was necessarily a denial of individualism to half the nation.”111 Indeed, more than a denial of individualism, Locke’s proposals for how to treat the landless poor of his own country—whom he considered a morally depraved lot—were draconian: they were to be placed into workhouses and forced to perform hard labor, as were all their children above the age of three. As Edmund S. Morgan observes, this proposal “stopped a little short of enslavement, though it may require a certain refinement of mind to discern the difference.”112

Locke’s work, of course, post-dates the era of early British colonization in North America, but the kernels of at least these aspects of his thought were present and articulated prior to the founding of the English colonies in the work of Luther, Calvin, More, Melanchthon, and other British and Continental thinkers.113 An obvious conclusion derivable from such an ideology was that those without a Western sense of private property were, by definition, not putting their land to “good or profitable use,” as More phrased it, and that therefore they deserved to be dispossessed of it. Thus, in More’s Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516 and in English in 1551, he envisions the founding of a colony “wherever the natives have much unoccupied and uncultivated land”; should the natives object to this taking of their property or should they “refuse to live according to their [the settlers’] laws,” the settlers are justified in driving the natives “from the territory which they carve out for themselves. If they resist, they wage war against them.”114 In practice this became known as the principle of vacuum domicilium, and the British colonists in New England appealed to it enthusiastically as they seized the shared common lands of the Indians.115

One of the first formal expressions of this justification for expropriation by a British colonist was published in London in 1622 as part of a work entitled Mourt’s Relation, or a Journal of the Plantation of Plymouth. The author of this piece describes “the lawfulness of removing out of England into parts of America” as deriving, first, from the singular fact that “our land is full . . . [and] their land is empty.” He then continues:

This then is a sufficient reason to prove our going thither to live lawful: their land is spacious and void, and they are few and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have [they] art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc. As the ancient patriarchs therefore removed from straiter places into more roomy [ones], where the land lay idle and wasted and none used it, though there dwelt inhabitants by them . . . so is it lawful now to take a land which none useth and make use of it.116

The most well known and more sophisticated statement on the matter, however, came from the pen of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. While still in England, on the eve of joining what became known as the Great Migration to Massachusetts in the 1630s, Winthrop compiled a manuscript “justifieinge the undertakeres of the intended Plantation in New England,” and answering specific questions that might be raised against the enterprise. The first justification, as with Columbus nearly a century and a half earlier, was spiritual: “to carry the Gospell into those parts of the world, to helpe on the comminge of the fullnesse of the Gentiles, and to raise a Bulworke against the kingdome of Ante-Christ,” an understandable reason for a people who believed the world was likely to come to an end during their lifetime.117 Very quickly, however, Winthrop got to the possible charge that “we have noe warrant to enter upon that Land which hath beene soe longe possessed by others.” He answered:

That which lies common, and hath never beene replenished or subdued is free to any that possesse and improve it: For God hath given to the sonnes of men a double right to the earth; theire is a naturall right, and a Civill Right. The first right was naturall when men held the earth in common every man sowing and feeding where he pleased: then as men and theire Cattell encreased they appropriated certaine parcells of Grownde by inclosing and peculiar manuerance, and this in time gatte them a Civill right. . . . As for the Natives in New England, they inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattell to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries, soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest, there being more than enough for them and us. 118

In point of fact, the Indians had thoroughly “improved” the land—that is, cultivated it—for centuries. They also possessed carefully structured and elaborated concepts of land use and of the limits of political dominion, and they were, as Roger Williams observed in 1643, “very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their Land, belonging to this or that Prince or People.”119 This was, however, not private “ownership” as the English defined the term, and it is true that probably no native people anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would have countenanced a land use system that, to return to Tawney’s language, allowed a private individual to “exploit [the land] with a single eye to his pecuniary advantage, unrestrained by any obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbors.” And thus, in the view of the English, were the Indian nations “savage.”

For unlike the majority of the Spanish before them—who, in Las Casas’s words, “kill[ed] and destroy[ed] such an infinite number of souls” only “to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits”—all that the English wanted was the land. To that end, the Indians were merely an impediment. Unlike the situation in New Spain, the natives living in what were to become the English colonies had, in effect, no “use value.” With the exception of the earliest British explorers in the sixteenth century, England’s adventurers and colonists in the New World had few illusions of finding gold or of capturing Indians for large-scale enslavement. Nor did they have an impoverished European homeland, like Spain, that was desperate for precious goods that might be found or stolen or wrenched from American soil (with forced native labor) in order to sustain its imperial expansion. They did, however, have a homeland that seemed to be bursting at the seams with Englishmen, and they felt they needed what in another language in another time became known as Lebensraum. And so, during the first century of successful British settlement in North America approximately twice as many English men and women moved to the New World as had relocated from Spain to New Spain during the previous hundred years. And unlike the vast majority of the Spanish, the British came with families, and they came to stay.120

To that flood of British colonists the Indians were, at best, a superfluous population—at least once they had taught the English how to survive. In Virginia, true plantation agriculture did not begin until after most of the Indians had been exterminated, whereupon African slaves were imported to carry out the heavy work, while in New England the colonists would do most of the agricultural tasks themselves, with the help of British indentured servants, but they required open land to settle and to cultivate. A simple comparison between the inducements that were given the early Spanish and the early British New World settlers reveals the fundamental difference between the two invasions: the Spanish, with the repartimiento, were awarded not land but large numbers of native people to enslave and do with what they wished; the English, with the “headright,” were provided not with native people but with fifty acres of land for themselves and fifty acres more for each additional settler whose transatlantic transportation costs they paid.

These differences in what material things they sought had deep effects as well on how the Spanish and the English would interpret their respective American environments and the native peoples they encountered there. Thus, however much they slaughtered the natives who fell within their orbit, the Spanish endlessly debated the ethical aspects of what it was that they were doing, forcing upon themselves elaborate, if often contorted and contradictory, rationalizations for the genocide they were committing. As we saw earlier, for example, Franciscans and Dominicans in Latin America argued strenuously over what God’s purpose was in sending plagues to kill the Indians, some of them contending that he was punishing the natives for their sins, while others claimed he was chastening the Spanish for their cruelties by depriving them of their slaves. Additionally, throughout the first century of conquest Spanish scholars were embroiled in seemingly endless debates over the ethical and legal propriety of seizing and appropriating Indian lands, disputes that continued to haunt independence struggles in Spanish America well into the nineteenth century.121 No such disputation took place among the Anglo-American colonists or ministers, however, because they had little doubt as to why God was killing off the Indians or to whom the land rightfully belonged. It is, in short, no accident that the British did not produce their own Las Casas.

As early as the first explorations at Roanoke, Thomas Hariot had observed that whenever the English visited an Indian village, “within a few days after our departure . . . the people began to die very fast, and many in a short space: in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score, which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers.” As usual, the British were unaffected by these mysterious plagues. In initial explanation, Hariot could only report that “some astrologers, knowing of the Eclipse of the Sun, which we saw the same year before on our voyage thitherward,” thought that might have some bearing on the matter. But such events as solar eclipses and comets (which Hariot also mentions as possibly having some relevance) were, like the epidemics themselves, the work of God. No other interpretation was possible. And that was why, before long, Hariot also was reporting that there seemed to be a divinely drawn pattern to the diseases: miraculously, he said, they affected only those Indian communities “where we had any subtle device practiced against us.”122 In other words, the Lord was selectively punishing only those Indians who plotted against the English.

Needless to say, the reverse of that logic was equally satisfying—that is, that only those Indians who went unpunished were not evil. And if virtually all were punished? The answer was obvious. As William Bradford was to conclude some years later when epidemics almost totally destroyed the Indian population of Plymouth Colony, without affecting the English: “It pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died, and many of them did rot above the ground for want of burial.” All followers of the Lord could only give thanks to “the marvelous goodness and providence of God,” Bradford concluded. It was a refrain that soon would be heard throughout the land. After all, prior to the Europeans’ arrival, the New World had been but “a hideous and desolate wilderness,” Bradford said elsewhere, a land “full of wild beasts and wild men.”123 In killing the Indians in massive numbers, then, the English were only doing their sacred duty, working hand in hand with the God who was protecting them.

For nothing else, only divine intervention, could account for the “prodigious Pestilence” that repeatedly swept the land of nineteen out of every twenty Indian inhabitants, wrote Cotton Mather, “so that the Woods were almost cleared of these pernicious Creatures, to make room for a better Growth.” Often this teamwork of God and man seemed to be perfection itself, as in King Philip’s War. Mather recalled that in one battle of that war the English attacked the native people with such ferocity that “their city was laid in ashes. Above twenty of their chief captains were killed; a proportionable desolation cut off the interior salvages; mortal sickness, and horrid famine pursu’d the remainders of ’em, so we can hardly tell where any of ’em are left alive upon the face of the earth.”124

Thus the militant agencies of God and his chosen people became as one. Mather believed, with many others, that at some time in the distant past the “miserable salvages” known as Indians had been “decoyed” by the Devil to live in isolation in America “in hopes that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.”125 But God had located the evil brutes and sent his holiest Christian warriors over from England where—with the help of some divinely sprinkled plagues—they joyously had “Irradiated an Indian wilderness.”126 It truly was, as another New England saint entitled his own history of the holy settlement, a “wonder-working providence.”


Again and again the explanatory circle closed upon itself. Although they carried with them the same thousand years and more of repressed, intolerant, and violent history that earlier had guided the conquistadors, in their explorations and settlements the English both left behind and confronted before them very different material worlds than had the Spanish. For those who were their victims it didn’t matter very much. In addition to being un-Christian, the Indians were uncivilized and perhaps not even fully human. The English had been told that by the Spanish, but there were many other proofs of it; one was the simple fact (untrue, but that was immaterial) that the natives “roamed” the woods like wild beasts, with no understanding of private property holdings or the need to make “improvements” on the land. In their generosity the Christian English would bring to these benighted creatures the word of Christ and guidance out of the dark forest of their barbarism. For these great gifts the English only demanded in return—it was, after all, their God-given right—whatever land they felt they needed, to bound and fence at will, and quick capitulation to their religious ways.

In fact, no serious effort ever was made by the British colonists or their ministers to convert the Indians to the Christian faith. Nor were the Indians especially receptive to the token gestures that were proffered: they were quite content with their peoples’ ancient ways.127 In addition, it was not long before the English had outworn their welcome with demands for more and more of the natives’ ancestral lands. Failure of the Indians to capitulate in either the sacred or the secular realms, however, was to the English all the evidence they needed—indeed, all that they were seeking—to prove that in their dangerous and possibly contaminating bestiality the natives were an incorrigible and inferior race. But God was making a place for his Christian children in this wilderness by slaying the Indians with plagues of such destructive power that only in the Bible could precedents for them be found. His divine message was too plain for misinterpretation. And the fact that it fit so closely with the settlers’ material desires only made it all the more compelling. There was little hope for these devil’s helpers of the forest. God’s desire, proved by his unleashing wave upon wave of horrendous pestilence—and pestilence that killed selectively only Indians—was a command to the saints to join his holy war.

Writing of New England’s Puritans (though the observation holds true as well for most other Anglo-American settlers), Sacvan Bercovitch makes clear an essential point:

The Puritans, despite their missionary pretenses, regarded the country as theirs and its natives as an obstacle to their destiny as Americans. They could remove that obstacle either by conversion (followed by “confinement”), or else by extermination; and since the former course proved insecure, they had recourse to the latter. The Spanish, for all their rhetoric of conquest, regarded the country as the Indians’ and native recruitment as essential to their design of colonization.128

Given that difference, Bercovitch continues, the Iberian “colonists saw themselves as Spaniards in an inferior culture. By that prerogative, they converted, coerced, educated, enslaved, reorganized communities, and established an intricate caste system, bound by a distinctly Spanish mixture of feudal and Renaissance customs.” The Anglo-American colonists, in contrast, simply obliterated the natives they encountered, for they considered themselves, almost from the start, as “new men,” in Crèvecoeur’s famous phrase, in a new land, and not as expatriates in a foreign place. Bercovitch illustrates what he calls the subsequent New World Spaniards’ “profound identity crisis” as Americanos by citing Simón Bolívar’s Jamaica Letter of 1815, following the outbreak of revolution against Spain: we were “not prepared to secede from the mother country,” Bolívar wrote, “we were left orphans . . . uncertain of our destiny. . . . [W]e scarcely retain a vestige of what once was; we are, moreover, neither Indian nor European, but an intermediate species between the legitimate owners of this country and the Spanish usurpers.”129

The point is further sharpened if we compare Bolívar’s lament—after more than three centuries of Spanish rule in Latin America—with the boastful and self-confident words of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, delivered more than a dozen years before Bolivar’s letter and less than two centuries since the founding of the first permanent English colonies:

A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of the mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.130

It was in pursuit of these and other grand visions that Jefferson later would write of the remaining Indians in America that the government was obliged “now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.” For the native peoples of Jefferson’s “rising nation,” of his “beloved country”—far from being Bolívar’s “legitimate owners”—were in truth, most Americans believed, little more than dangerous wolves. Andrew Jackson said this plainly in urging American troops to root out from their “dens” and kill Indian women and their “whelps,” adding in his second annual message to Congress that while some people tended to grow “melancholy” over the Indians’ being driven by white Americans to their “tomb,” an understanding of “true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.”131

Before either Jefferson or Jackson, George Washington, the father of the country, had said much the same thing: the Indians were wolves and beasts who deserved nothing from the whites but “total ruin.”132 And Washington himself was only repeating what by then was a very traditional observation. Less than a decade after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, for example, it was made illegal to “shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except an Indian or a wolf.” As Barry Lopez has noted, this was far from a single-incident comparison. So alike did Indians and wolves appear to even the earliest land-hungry New England colonist that the colonist “fell to dealing with them in similar ways”:

He set out poisoned meat for the wolf and gave the Indian blankets infected with smallpox. He raided the wolf’s den to dig out and destroy the pups, and stole the Indian’s children. . . . When he was accused of butchery for killing wolves and Indians, he spun tales of Mohawk cruelty and of wolves who ate fawns while they were still alive. . . . Indians and wolves who later came into areas where there were no more of either were called renegades. Wolves that lay around among the buffalo herds were called loafer wolves and Indians that hung around the forts were called loafer Indians.133

As is so often the case, it was New England’s religious elite who made the point more graphically than anyone. Referring to some Indians who had given offense to the colonists, the Reverend Cotton Mather wrote: “Once you have but got the Track of those Ravenous howling Wolves, then pursue them vigourously; Turn not back till they are consumed. . . . Beat them small as the Dust before the Wind.” Lest this be regarded as mere rhetoric, empty of literal intent, consider that another of New England’s most esteemed religious leaders, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, as late as 1703 formally proposed to the Massachusetts Governor that the colonists be given the financial wherewithal to purchase and train large packs of dogs “to hunt Indians as they do bears.” There were relatively few Indians remaining alive in New England by this time, but those few were too many for the likes of Mather and Stoddard. “The dogs would be an extreme terror to the Indians,” Stoddard wrote, adding that such “dogs would do a great deal of execution upon the enemy and catch many an Indian that would be too light of foot for us.” Then, turning from his equating of native men and women and children with bears deserving to be hunted down and destroyed, Stoddard became more conventional in his imagery: “if the Indians were as other people,” he acknowledged, “. . . it might be looked upon as inhumane to pursue them in such a manner”; but, in fact, the Indians were wolves, he said, “and are to be dealt withal as wolves.”134 For two hundred years to come Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and other leaders, representing the wishes of virtually the entire white nation, followed these ministers’ genocidal instructions with great care. It was their Christian duty as well as their destiny.

. . .

In sum, when in 1492 the seal was broken on the membrane that for tens of thousands of years had kept the residents of North and South America isolated from the inhabitants of the earth’s other inhabited continents, the European adventurers and colonists who rushed through the breach were representatives of a religious culture that was as theologically arrogant and violence-justifying as any the world had ever seen. Nourished by a moral history that despised the self and that regarded the body and things sensual as evil, repulsive, and bestial, it was a culture whose holiest exemplars not only sought out pain and degradation as the foundation of their faith, but who simultaneously both feared and pursued what they regarded as the dark terrors of the wilderness—the wilderness in the world outside as well as the wilderness of the soul within. It was a faith that considered all humanity in its natural state to be “sick, suffering, and helpless” because its earliest mythical progenitors—who for a time had been the unclothed inhabitants of an innocent Earthly Paradise—had succumbed to a sensual temptation that was prohibited by a jealous and angry god, thereby committing an “original sin” that thenceforth polluted the very essence of every infant who had the poor luck to be born. Ghastly and disgusting as the things of this world—including their own persons—were to these people, they were certain of at least one thing: that their beliefs were absolute truth, and that those who persisted in believing otherwise could not be tolerated. For to tolerate evil was to encourage evil, and no sin was greater than that. Moreover, if the flame of intolerance that these Christian saints lit to purge humanity of those who persisted down a path of error became a sacred conflagration in the form of a crusade or holy war—that was only so much the better. Such holocausts themselves were part of God’s divine plan, after all, and perhaps even were harbingers of his Son’s imminent Second Coming.

It is impossible to know today how many of the very worldly men who first crossed the Atlantic divide were piously ardent advocates of this worldview, and how many merely unthinkingly accepted it as the religious frame within which they pursued their avaricious quests for land and wealth and power. Some were seeking souls. Most were craving treasure, or land on which to settle. But whatever their individual levels of theological consciousness, they encountered in this New World astonishing numbers of beings who at first seemed to be the guardians of a latter-day Eden, but who soon became for them the very picture of Satanic corruption.

And through it all, as with their treatment of Europe’s Jews for the preceding half-millennium—and as with their response to wildness and wilderness since the earliest dawning of their faith—the Christian Europeans continued to display a seemingly antithetical set of tendencies: revulsion from the terror of pagan or heretical pollution and, simultaneously, eagerness to make all the world’s repulsive heretics and pagans into followers of Christ. In its most benign racial manifestation, this was the same inner prompting that drove missionaries to the ends of the earth to Christianize people of color, but to insist that their new converts worship in segregated churches. Beginning in the late eighteenth century in America, this conflict of racial abhorrence and mission—and along with it a redefined concept of holy war—became secularized in the form of an internally contradictory political ideology. In the same way that the Protestant Ethic was transformed into the Spirit of Capitalism, while the Christian right to private property became justifiable in wholly secular terms, America as Redeemer Nation became Imperial America, fulfilling its irresistible and manifest destiny.

During the country’s early national period this took the form of declarations that America should withdraw from world affairs into moral isolation (to preserve the chaste new nation from the depravities of the Old World and the miserable lands beyond) that was uttered in the same breath as the call to export the “Rising Glory of America,” to bring democracy and American-style civilization to less fortunate corners of the earth.135 Less than a century later, during the peak era of American imperialism, the same contradictory mission presented itself again: while those Americans who most opposed expansion into the Philippines shared the imperialists’ belief in the nation’s predestined right to rule the world, they resisted efforts to annex a nation of “inferior” dark-skinned people largely because of fears they had of racial contamination. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., said it most straightforwardly when he referred to America’s virulent treatment of the Indians as the lesson to recall in all such cases, because, harsh though he admitted such treatment was, it had “saved the Anglo-Saxon stock from being a nation of half-breeds.”136 In these few words were both a terrible echo of past warrants for genocidal race war and a chilling anticipation of eugenic justifications for genocide yet to come, for to this famous scion of America’s proudest family, the would-be extermination of an entire race of people was preferable to the “pollution” of racial intermixture.

It was long before this time, however, that the notion of the deserved and fated extermination of America’s native peoples had become a commonplace and secularized ideology. In 1784 a British visitor to America observed that “white Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”137 And this visitor was not speaking only of the opinion of those whites who lived on the frontier. Wrote the distinguished early nineteenth-century scientist, Samuel G. Morton: “The benevolent mind may regret the inaptitude of the Indian for civilization,” but the fact of the matter was that the “structure of [the Indian’s] mind appears to be different from that of the white man, nor can the two harmonize in the social relations except on the most limited scale.”138 “Thenceforth,” added Francis Parkman, the most honored American historian of his time, the natives—whom he described as “man, wolf, and devil all in one”—“were destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power, which now rolled westward unchecked and unopposed.” The Indian, he wrote, was in fact responsible for his own destruction, for he “will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and his forest must perish together.”139

But by this time it was not just the native peoples of America who were being identified as the inevitable and proper victims of genocidal providence and progress. In Australia, whose aboriginal population had been in steep decline (from mass murder and disease) ever since the arrival of the white man, it commonly was being said in scientific and scholarly publications, that

to the Aryan . . . apparently belong the destinies of the future. The races whose institutions and inventions are despotism, fetishism, and cannibalism—the races who rest content in . . . placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence with the noblest division of the human species. . . . The survival of the fittest means that might—wisely used—is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian.140

Meanwhile, by the 1860s, with only a remnant of America’s indigenous people still alive, in Hawai‘i the Reverend Rufus Anderson surveyed the carnage that by then had reduced those islands’ native population by 90 percent or more, and he declined to see it as a tragedy; the expected total die-off of the Hawaiian people was only natural, this missionary said, somewhat equivalent to “the amputation of diseased members of the body.”141 Two decades later, in New Zealand, whose native Maori people also had suffered a huge population collapse from introduced disease and warfare with invading British armies, one A.K. Newman spoke for many whites in that country when he observed that “taking all things into consideration, the disappearance of the race is scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.”142

Returning to America, the famed Harvard physician and social commentator Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in 1855 that Indians were nothing more than a “half-filled outline of humanity” whose “extermination” was the necessary “solution of the problem of his relation to the white race.” Describing native peoples as “a sketch in red crayons of a rudimental manhood,” he added that it was only natural for the white man to “hate” the Indian and to “hunt him down like the wild beasts of the forest, and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s own image.”143

Two decades later, on the occasion of the nation’s 1876 centennial celebration, the country’s leading literary intellectual took time out in an essay expressing his “thrill of patriotic pride” flatly to advocate “the extermination of the red savages of the plains.” Wrote William Dean Howells to the influential readers of the Atlantic Monthly:

The red man, as he appears in effigy and in photograph in this collection [at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition], is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence. In blaming our Indian agents for malfeasance in office, perhaps we do not sufficiently account for the demoralizing influence of merely beholding those false and pitiless savage faces; moldy flour and corrupt beef must seem altogether too good for them.144

Not to be outdone by the most eminent historians, scientists, and cultural critics of the previous generation, several decades later still, America’s leading psychologist and educator, G. Stanley Hall, imperiously surveyed the human wreckage that Western exploration and colonization had created across the globe, and wrote:

Never, perhaps, were lower races being extirpated as weeds in the human garden, both by conscious and organic processes, so rapidly as to-day. In many minds this is inevitable and not without justification. Pity and sympathy, says Nietzsche, are now a disease, and we are summoned to rise above morals and clear the world’s stage for the survival of those who are fittest because strongest. . . . The world will soon be overcrowded, and we must begin to take selective agencies into our own hands. Primitive races are either hopelessly decadent and moribund, or at best have demonstrated their inability to domesticate or civilize themselves.145

And not to be outdone by the exalted likes of Morton, Parkman, Holmes, Howells, Adams, or Hall, the man who became America’s first truly twentieth century President, Theodore Roosevelt, added his opinion that the extermination of the American Indians and the expropriation of their lands “was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable. Such conquests,” he continued, “are sure to come when a masterful people, still in its raw barbarian prime, finds itself face to face with the weaker and wholly alien race which holds a coveted prize in its feeble grasp.” It is perhaps not surprising, then, that this beloved American hero and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (who once happily remarked that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth”) also believed that “degenerates” as well as “criminals . . . and feeble-minded persons [should] be forbidden to leave offspring behind them,” The better classes of white Americans were being overwhelmed, he feared, by “the unrestricted breeding” of inferior racial stocks, the “utterly shiftless,” and the “worthless.”146

These were sentiments, applied to others, that the world would hear much of during the 1930s and 1940s. (Indeed, one well-known scholar of the history of race and racism, Pierre L. van den Berghe, places Roosevelt within an unholy triumvirate of the modern world’s leading racist statesmen; the other two, according to van den Berghe, are Adolf Hitler and Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s original architect of apartheid.)147 For the “extirpation” of the “lower races” that Hall and Roosevelt were celebrating drew its justification from the same updated version of the Great Chain of Being that eventually inspired Nazi pseudoscience. Nothing could be more evident than the fundamental agreement of both these men (and countless others who preceded them) with the central moral principle underlying that pseudoscience, as expressed by the man who has been called Germany’s “major prophet of political biology,” Ernst Haeckel, when he wrote that the “lower races”—Sepúlveda’s “homunculi” with few “vestiges of humanity”; Mather’s “ravenous howling wolves”; Holmes’s “half-filled outline of humanity”; Howells’s “hideous demons”; Hall’s “weeds in the human garden”; Roosevelt’s “weaker and wholly alien races”—were so fundamentally different from the “civilized Europeans [that] we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives.”148 Nor could anything be clearer, as Robert Jay Lifton has pointed out in his exhaustive study of the psychology of genocide, than that such thinking was nothing less than the “harsh, apocalyptic, deadly rationality” that drove forward the perverse holy war of the Nazi extermination campaign.149

The first Europeans to visit the continents of North and South America and the islands of the Caribbean, like the Nazis in Europe after them, produced many volumes of grandiloquently racist apologia for the genocidal holocaust they carried out. Not only were the “lower races” they encountered in the New World dark and sinful, carnal and exotic, proud, inhuman, un-Christian inhabitants of the nether territories of humanity—contact with whom, by civilized people, threatened morally fatal contamination—but God, as always, was on the Christians’ side. And God’s desire, which became the Christians’ marching orders, was that such dangerous beasts and brutes must be annihilated.

Elie Wiesel is right: the road to Auschwitz was being paved in the earliest days of Christendom. But another conclusion now is equally evident: on the way to Auschwitz the road’s pathway led straight through the heart of the Indies and of North and South America.

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