The Turks forced Europe to "discover" America and much of the
world besides. After blocking ever more of the Near and Middle East
and North Africa, and strangling trade and communications with the
Far Orient, they crowned their conquests with the capture of
Constantinople in 1453. Hopeless with regard to the East,
Europeans turned to the West.
Not deliberately, of course - as by some summit conference of nations -
but fumbling and tumbling and muddling for outlets.
Inasmuch as the Americas and their many peoples had long existed, the
Europeans could hardly claim to have discovered them,
except from their admittedly limited perspective.
The usage is permanently fixed, barring world revolution
(comparable to using the abbreviations B.C.
and A.D., that may be pleasing to devout Christians,
but a nuisance to most others). It is perhaps best to introduce
novel words from time to time to engender other perspectives;
we could talk of rediscovery, penetrations, encounters, intrusions,
ventures, aggressions, incursions, arrivals, landings,
immigration, settlements, expropriations, and
invasions. Columbus' landings quickly changed from
reconnaissance and encounter into aggressive invasion.
Certain Spanish scholars, Vitoria most prominently,
within a political generation of the landing of Columbus,
were trying to set up the American Indian peoples
as equal players in the games of international law.
At the very same time, Machiavelli,
himself an honest, even noble, person,
was pointing out the inability, indeed the idiocy, of any
government behaving according to noble principles,
unless these happened to benefit the narrow good of the realm, and
unless the government was armed against internal and foreign enemies.
That Machiavellism won out in America,
as it almost always had in history,
added to the anguish of the Spanish theologians,
historians, and legists, who were publicizing the often
fiendish injustice dealt out to the Americans.
Like the "whistle-blowers" of this day,
they were contemned and castigated as disloyal informants.
Not that the Indians were angels. I doubt that it can be shown that
they were better or worse on the average than Europeans. Perhaps the
actual invaders, owing to their nature and conditions,
numbered a few who were more angelic,
and many who were more diabolic.
Europeans were often absolute in two and now recently
three demands that, unless fulfilled, would bring absolute
censure upon the Indians.
First, Indians should be Christians to be tolerable
(and often a certain kind of Protestant or Catholic Christian).
Second, they must not cannibalize,
an absolute requirement that pertained to a minority, but
unfortunately an important minority, of American cultures.
(The Catholics and Anglicans who ingested the body and blood of
Christ in Holy Communion were permissible exceptions to the rule.)
That any people practicing cannibalism had to be
destroyed or cured by conversion was affirmed
by men who were aghast at the large number of people
regularly killed and eaten by the civilized
Aztecs under governmental and priestly guidance.
The third "virtue" demanded by the Europeans was obedience
to the will of a remote sovereign ruler and state,
a mind-set that the Europeans themselves had acquired
only recently, and which many, the Italians and Germans,
for example, were reluctant to adopt for themselves.
But this virtue, too, had numerous contradictions,
inasmuch as many of the invaders turned against their own
sovereign when they felt that they could get away with it,
obeying the Pope instead of the King, for example, or
fleeing to the New World to practice a forbidden religion,
or ultimately rebelling against the ruler in order
to install a government of their own, as in the American Revolution
and all the subsequent ones of the West Indies and
South of the Rio Grande.
As for comparing one set of invaders with another,
we are hard pressed to distinguish the more from the less virtuous,
except in individual cases. But one must try.
A historian practically commits himself to do this
every time he fills out the answer to the question:
"Who is it that is doing what to whom with what effect?"
Historical objectivity rests in the depth of understanding of
the actors and the consequences of their actions,
not in the beating of drums for one's favorites.
Think here, too, of what was happening in Africa, Europe
and Asia. Africa South of the Sahara was a congeries of kingdoms,
prone to quarrels, the rulers of which were invariably ready
to sell enemies or dissidents to slave traders,
who would march them to coastal points occupied by Portuguese,
where, armed with exclusive commissions from the Spanish King,
Dutch captains would purchase and convey
their human cargoes to America.
Or, in conspiracy with Muslim raiders and vendors of North Africa or
the Near East, the same rulers would behave in the same way.
An estimated 4.4 million souls were forcibly removed
from their homelands and brought into Islamic countries as slaves
in the period 650 to 1900 A.D.
Up to sixteen (16) million persons were forcibly removed,
mostly from western Africa, and despatched to the Americas
an average of over 38,000 per year.
In the year 1787, over 100,000 slaves were
taken and transported, mostly in American, English, French, and
Portuguese boats, with Dutch and Danish ships carrying smallish
(In this same year, the Americans who were gathered to
amend one constitution, but proceeded to write a new Constitution,
inserted in the new document guarantees for property in slaves and a
clause to close down the U.S. slave trade
in twenty years.)
The sixteenth century in Europe witnessed many confused wars,
foreign and civil. In one happening, Rome was thoroughly looted
amidst wholesale murder and rape by a French army and its allies. On
August 24, 1572, the French Catholic governing party massacred
many thousands of Protestant Huguenots. In the first half of the next
century the continuing wars of religion, ethnicity and dynasty
would ruin much of central Europe;
Germany's varied peoples would be starving, along with others,
when they were not being slaughtered.
During the 16th century the Russian Empire expanded East,
conquering vast stretches of Central Asia and Siberia.
Between 1552 and 1556 Kazan and Astrakan were conquered,
giving the Russians control of the full Volga River basin,
opening routes to invasion of the East.
In 1581-83 Russian traders settled East of the Urals, and with
Cossack pioneers began the conquest of Siberia.
They reached the Pacific Ocean in 1637.
By the eighteenth century they had posted themselves
from Alaska down to San Francisco.
Treatment of the conquered peoples was everywhere abominable.
Meanwhile, in 1526, Babar, descendent of Genghis Khan and
Tamerlane, led his Mogul army into India,
sweeping through that profoundly civilized sub-continent
from Punjab to Bengal in a couple of years.
In the seventeenth century, after an earlier invasion of China,
Mongols invested Manchuria and, as the Manchus,
came down upon China to overthrow the venerable
One might conclude that much of the world was suffering
the fate of American Indians in these long periods.
It was in the early years of the European invasions
of the Americas that Machiavelli sat himself down
in a fury to write The Prince, which became the classic text
of modern political science, but was also a diatribe against
the foreign nations that periodically swept into Italy,
destroying, killing, and looting. His pleas for the small
Italian nations to unite might as well have been
directed to the Indian tribes of North America.