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Forty-five years ago, my wife and I were driving through two tiny hill towns just north of Amherst, MA, where Charles Mann lives. She looked aghast at the trees meeting over the road and said she could not live there. It was the forest primeval. Not really, of course. It was civilization. Houses, roads, electricity, wells for water. Eventually even, a cemetery where we would buy plots.
Charles C. Mann’s 2005 book “1491” is about an America that seemed like the forest primeval, but wasn’t. You could read the preface, the first chapter, the last, and the coda. You would get the gist. Better. Read the book.
Mann begins with a mistake. Holmberg’s mistake. Allen Holmberg, a distinguished anthropologist, misread the indigenous Siriono people in Bolivia. He saw nomads who had lived in the land the way indigenous people must always have lived — impoverished personally and culturally, living in the never changing forest, living without history.
Mann explains the Siriono were not nomads. They were hiding from the Bolivian army which was imprisoning them for opposing cattle ranchers encroaching on their land. The Siriono were ineffectual in their opposition because influenza and smallpox had all but wiped out the tribe – to a low of 150 people from a high of 3,000 or more. They hadn’t been in Bolivia long. Their language was unusual for the area. This was not the forest primeval. A thousand years earlier, this part of the Amazon basin had been a sophisticated urban site with a million or more people. The Siriono and the area had a history.
Mann reports on a revised version of the history of the Americas that anthropologists have been developing during the last sixty or seventy years. They argue that white men of European origin have misunderstood what they saw — from the Caribbean to the Andes to Central America to Mexico, from the West Coast to Missouri to New England.
Smallpox changed America. Indians lacked immunity to the disease and were devastated. Brought by the earliest European visitors, small pox affected the people they met directly and spread beyond the Caribbean — from the Andes to Central America to Mexico; from the West Coast to Missouri to New England.
The Inca Empire in the Andes had expanded between 1438 and 1527 to include much of South America’s west coast. Mann reports: “an empire as populous, rich, and well organized as any in history. But no other fell before such a small force. Pizarro had only 168 men and 62 horses.”
How did that defeat happen? The usual answer has been horses, cannons, and steel swords terrifying the Incas for good reason, since the Incas relied on bronze age technology. Mann says the Incas’ technology was fine, though the horses were intimidating. Their centralized command was cumbersome, which was not fine. More important, 200,000 Incas, including the leadership’s families had recently died from smallpox. Within three years, even as fighting continued, half the Incas died from the disease creating further uncertainty about leadership and weakening their will.
Mann’s other beginning is about the seventeenth century Indian experience with the Pilgrims. We are familiar with Squanto and the Pilgrims from elementary school. Mann reminds us (using a more appropriate name than the one we learned in elementary school) of Squanto, an Indian captured by Europeans, Anglicized, evangelized by Friars, and returned to America. When he returned, he was shocked. The New England coast, which had been populated with villages throughout, had none. By the time he reached Massassoit, Sachem of the Wampoanog, he had learned that disease had wiped them out. Not smallpox. Possibly viral hepatitis. The Pilgrims saw and the Wampoanag saw, divine condemnation.
Massassoit, relying in part on Squanto as interpreter, with his Wampoanag tribe worse than decimated, made peace with the Pilgrims. Not for guns to oppose their enemies the Narragansetts, but for the strength of their allies. No alliance worked against disease. Smallpox came less than 20 years later and, says Mann, killed at least one third of the remaining New England Indians.
Great civilizations in Central America and in the Andes had waxed and waned. Mann argues the post-Columbian experience was different in kind. The defeat and destruction was by disease not steel swords.
Not that steel was unimportant. The soil in the Amazon is famously thin and inadequate for growing. The great civilizations found ways to strengthen the soil. Defeated and demoralized Indians, says Charles Mann, found another way. Well before the twentieth century, even without having to cope with white ranchers, tribes in the Amazon, buoyed by slash and burn agriculture, had retreated to hiding from enemies.
With steel axes obtained from the Europeans, they were able to clear trees and burn them. Sadly, slash and burn agriculture was a barely adequate way to strengthen the soil. Anthropologists mistook it for an eternal practice. Far from eternal, slash and burn was only possible by using steel axes. Pre-Columbian stone axes were too inefficient to chop down trees easily or quickly.
Disease and destruction had a wide effect in North America as well. Sir Francis Drake found the West Coast overrun with wildlife in the sixteenth century. A century earlier, he would have found a land of villages. Early in the sixteenth century, Hernando De Soto traveling through North America’s southeast, found just that — a land populated by farmers and villagers. Rene-Robert La Salle explored the Midwest in the late seventeenth century. Canoeing down the Mississippi, he found a land empty of people, the plains overrun with great herds of bison. The enormous herds of bison were an aberration, says Mann, a product of Indians no longer dominating the land and managing the environment.
Mann’s description of the pre-disease wilderness is astonishing. “The great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first white settlers in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks – they could drive carriages through the trees. ……Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest ‘could be penetrated by a large army.’ “
Eastern Indians controlled forest growth by burning the underbrush. This world of controlled forest growth seems inconceivable. After Indian society was destroyed by disease and war, forest growth was uncontrollable. Until it was cleared for farming by white settlers. The memory of the controlled forest was lost, says, Mann. Anthropologists and others mistakenly saw the new uncontrolled forest as eternal – a forest primeval.
I could stop here, but Mann does not. He continues, commenting about ecology and history.
Discussing Indian management of the environment, he says solutions are not simply resistance to change and protection of ancient lands, protection of the forest primeval. The forest we see is not unchanging. He would have live productively on the land while also protecting it.
Mann is convinced the Indians affected modern history. He asks:
- Were there diseases that traveled a reverse route from small pox?
- Mann suggests syphilis.
- What about the impact of American food?
- The tomato.
- Maize, which was America’s staple; the rice of America.
- These are now foods of the world.
As Europeans were unintentionally destroying the civilizations of the Americas through disease, did America and Americans shape the Europeans? Mann explores one regular thought. He notes the suggestion that the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) confederacy of Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, and other Indian tribes was a conceptual basis for the American Confederacy, if not the Constitution. He decides — maybe. He’s probably right.
A different thought. Mann argues that European North Americans and the Native American Haudenosaunee learned from each other. They lived cheek by jowl and absorbed each others’ values. At least the Europeans absorbed new values from the Indians.
- Mann comments that people came to the colonies to escape oppressive rules but found colonial societies that were coercive and class-ridden.
- Not the Indians, though. They lived a life of personal autonomy.
- Mann cites one writer about the Indians: Every man is free [in the Indian villages]. [No person] has any right to deprive [anyone] of freedom.
- Mann cites a French explorer: The savage does not know what it is to obey.
Americans, says Mann, were becoming a people who valued freedom and rejected obedience. He reminds us that European Americans began their rebellion dressed up like Indians to dump tea in Boston Harbor.
These are political Notes. Mann’s conclusion illuminates President Donald Trump, even though it was written well before Trump’s presidency. Donald Trump and his attraction to his supporters are one version of the values Mann describes Americans having learned from the Indians. Trump’s rebels against being told what to do, against obedience to laws designed to limit impulse. Trump sees the law a tool to be used or an obstacle to be overcome.
Trump in power imposes obedience, punishes those who do not obey. He punishes those who were once in authority and those who have been recipients of support from the authorities. The law becomes a tool for achieving that imposition. This is authoritarianism, contempt for the rule of law, and the creation of a punitive state. He destroys the America we value.
Choose your candidate for 2020 and support him or her. Think about how your candidate can defeat Trump. After the Democrats nominate a candidate (your candidate or someone else), support him or her with enthusiasm and a level of resources never before committed to a presidential campaign. That enthusiasm and that support will defeat Trump.