A Great Cloud of Witlessness

American history, especially colonial history, has never been my bag, and I suppose  one reason is the absurd use to which our early history is frequently put. Here’s the opening of Michele Bachmann’s speech announcing the end of her Presidential campaign:
Entrusted to every American is the responsibility to watch over our republic. You can look back from the time of the Pilgrims, to the time of William Penn, to the time of our Founding Fathers. All we have to do is look around, because very clearly we are encompassed about with a great cloud of witnesses that bear witness to the sacrifices that were made to establish the United States and the precious principles of freedom that make it the greatest force for good that has ever been seen on the planet.

I’ll spare you the video–I can feel brain cells dying every time I hear Ms. Bachmann’s voice–and I’ll pass over her assertion, surprising for a Christian, that the U.S. has been a greater force for good than Jesus Christ.  But I do wonder what principles of freedom she imagines the Pilgrims to have made sacrifices for.  The freedom to dispossess or kill Indians whenever you want more of their land?  The freedom to practice your own brand of fanatical Protestantism and to hang or exile anyone who doesn’t?  Hmm, that one sounds like it might be what Michele has in mind.

Anyway, if Rep. Bachmann would like to learn a little bit about early American history, I can recommend Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, the first volume in a Penguin History of the United States.  Like any attempt at an honest account, it’s a bit depressing, but it has lots of stuff that I didn’t know, especially about environmental history and the experiences of the non-Brits who occupied this part of the world (Native Americans, French, Spanish, even Russian).

For example, the West Indies embodied a particularly brutal version of the slave economy, in which the slaves were worked to death in a few years, so that they were replaced, not by their children, but by fresh imports.  For example, after more than a century of the plantation system in Haiti, at the time of the 1791 slave revolt, more than half the inhabitants had been born in Africa.  I had a good account in Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World of this horrifying practice; it seems quite similar to the Buna camp at Auschwitz, where prisoners like Primo Levi were given sufficient extra rations to anable to Nazis to get more work out of them before they were murdered.

Anyway, what I didn’t know was that Carolina was founded by planters from Barbados and Jamaica who were looking for a bigger territory with greater opportunities to implement their special exploitation/extermination brand of the “principles of freedom.”  This was different from Virginia, where the slave economy and the racist ideology to support it grew gradually (there was a time when a free black man in Virginia could own land and even sue his white neighbors in court, and when the indentured white rent-a-slaves were treated almost as badly as Africans, but that didn’t last).

For the Carolina planters, the familiar fear and paranoia attendant on being vastly outnumbered by their slaves was compounded by the presence of many natives.  They addressed this problem cleverly, by paying one group of native s to kill or enslave another.  A captured or dead Native American was worth a gun and three blankets, so if you were an indigenous resident of the Carolinas, it was much more profitable to hunt your neighbors than deer.  The Brits would thus get tribe A to kill off and/or subjugate tribe B, and once tribe B was used up, they would get tribe C to exterminate tribe B.  And if B and C got wise and decided to band together, well, you could always find another tribe from futhernorth that had been displaced by white settlers and was desperate.  Plus, though the natives after a while had lots of guns, they never developed the ability to make their own ammunition, so the planters would win any war of attrition.

One of the by-products of this policy was that the Carolinians bought a lot of Indian slaves, but the last thing they wanted was for their African victims to get all chummy with their Indian victims, especially since the latter might still have friends on the outside.  So they had the brilliant idea of selling their Native slaves to the West Indies in return for African slaves (the exchange rate was 2 Native Americans for 1 African–I guess the Africans were considered more durable).

Here’s another tidbit: the planters often justified the enslavement of Africans and Native Americans because they were introducing them to Christianity and thus saving them from eternal damnation, but this argument, pathetic in any case, was utterly insincere: in most case no effort was made to convert the slaves.  The Spanish in New Mexico and California were at least sincere about evangelizing, however misguided their ideas and however brutal their methods.

Not all the settlers were as evil as the Carolina planters, and Taylor is careful to distinguish hypocritical, genocidal sadism from mere chauvinistic stupidity.  But the stories all tend to end up the same way for the natives, with plague, massacre, cultural destruction, and at best the survival of a few on a reservation.  Which made me wonder, over and over, what advice I would give the first band of Tainos or Pequots or Cherokees to encounter a boatload of initially outnumbered Europeans.  What could they have done to avoid or postpone the catastrophe, short of killing every one of the newcomers?

And, not to leave you on such a depressing note, did you know that the Spaniards conquered California not because they wanted anything there, but because they wanted to protect Mexico from Russian invasion?  Apparently they had heard about Russian fur traders (well, more like fur pirates, but whatevs) in Alaska, and were a little confused about distances.  Perhaps someone had told them Sarah Palin could see LA from her office window.

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2 Responses to A Great Cloud of Witlessness

  1. JaneRandolph says:

    Very interesting post – and I enjoyed the groovy D. Sayers-riffing title.

    • Roy says:

      Thanks! You know, I didn’t notice that Bachmann was mangling a Sayers title with her “great cloud of witnesses” thang, but now that you mention it…

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