Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

History After the Apocalypse

The title of this post is the title of a book I really want to read, a book that so far as I can tell does not exist, and yet a book which I'm probably not competent to write.

The story of that stretches from 1492 to perhaps the late 1800s (when the last of the American Indian tribes in what had become the US were confined to clearly defined reservations) is a story of clashing civilizations -- clashes that were often at least partly military in nature. We know, to some extent, these stories ranging from the conquistadors' attack on Tenochtitlan to the Battle of Little Bighorn. But in the background of those explicit clashes between colonial and native powers was a medical, technological, and civilizational apocalypse that was going on in slow motion from 1492 on.

As Europeans and colonists interacted with the native cultures, they brought with them (often unknowingly, sometimes knowingly) a set of diseases which were common in Europe but unknown in the Americas: smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, plague. The whole range. They also brought animals and technologies (horses, guns, etc.) which had not previously been available. And between these diseases, these technologies, and the pressures of the interacting civilizations, the native civilizations which confronted Europeans and later Americans were not the same cultures that would have existed in their absense.

To pick one example: when we read about Squanto, the member of the Patuxet Tribe who interacted with the Puritan settlers near Plymouth in the 1620s, there's a whole background history which is not that of friendly tribesmen meeting Europeans for the first time. Squanto had actually been tricked into boarding an English vessel back in 1614 and taken to Spain. In Gibraltar ship captain Thomas Hunt tried to sell his Native American prisoners into slavery, but a group of friars freed them and instructed them in the Christian faith. Squanto later lived for some period of time in England, traveled with English sailors to Newfoundland, and then sailed down the coast, also with Europeans, from Newfoundland back to Plymouth. In the meantime, the Patuxet tribe had been decimated by diseases caught from Europeans, and they were under military pressure from tribes further inland who were trying to move into their territory. In this context, we see the Patuxet tribe offering hospitality to the Puritan settlers.

Or to move forward a couple hundred years in history, the Plains Indians with whom the US Cavalry famously clashed in the mid 1800s were a set of civilizations which had already been significantly changed by European contact. The horses that they rode were not a species native to the Americas, but were the result of the introduction of horses into the Americas by the Spanish. They had adopted metal edged weapons (technology which had not existed in the Americas before) and firearms. So, for instance, the Comanche were a fairly peripheral Native nation until they became the masters of horse-based hunting and warfare, with which they proceeded to dominate a large swathe of the southern plains.

To the other Indian nations which the Comanche sometimes terrorized, the sudden power of this particular tribe must have seemed like yet another aspect of a growing apocalypse of disease, technological change, military incursions, and new upstart powers.

Obviously, every part of the world has its currents of change. When Europeans first came in contact with the Americas, Spain and Portugal were two of the greatest powers, England was a comparative upstart, Russia was dominated by the Mongols, and the Ottoman Empire was a major threat to European kingdoms. A lot changed over the following four hundred years, and only some of that was directly related to happenings in the Americas. Similarly, there would doubtless have been lots of change in the Americas even without the arrival of Europeans.

But because of the direction of disease, technology, and population flow, to many native cultures it must have seemed particularly apocalyptic: pandemics with fatality rates that Europe hadn't seen since the Black Death or before, radical new technologies, and the pressure of a seemingly endless stream of new people looking for land to live on in their very different ways.

There's a lot of fiction which attempts to imagine apocalyptic events befalling our modern culture (and in 2020 that seems a bit on point) but to my knowledge there's not a book which focuses on the apocalypse which played out on the other side of the cultural barrier from us during the centuries of Euro-American expansion at the expense of native cultures, and I'd really like to read a history written from that point of view.


Thomas said...

Nicolas Black Elk; by Steltenkamp

Unknown said...

Larry McMurtry's Oh What a Massacre has a few pages at the end devoted to the big 19th century picture. To him, it's a tragedy: two groups in a huge territory unable to live peaceably together...with a note of inevitability on the demise of Plains Indian culture. I, too, would read this unwritten book.

Darwin said...

Thomas, Thanks, I'll have a look at that.

Unknown, That also sounds like an interesting book. So many books, so little time...

Banshee said...

Um... there's already an entire huge series called something like "History of the American Indian." Covers every tribe, down to about 1979, as well as a fair chunk of prehistory. Just sorta wander around the reference section of a big university library, and you'll see it.

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

Another disease we likely hit them with was leptospirosis, which would have been transmitted by ship's rats and caused liver failure (and thus, jaundice).