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What is America?

2 September 2009

Having written a history of the country south of my own, I was more than curious to read Canadian Ronald Wright´s history of the United States, ¨What Is America?”

“America”, as anyone in the “other Americas” will be quick to tell you, is not only the United States.  Although Wright is talking about the big Kahuna of the hemisphere (and the world) he sees the history of the United States rooted in a much earlier, and more catastrophic meeting than that of Squanto and the Puritans in 1620:  the conquests of Mexico and Peru a hundred years earlier.

The Conquests may have been Spanish, but they created the modern European world — and almost as a by-product cleared the way for the English in North America  and the eventual dominance of the United States.

Karl Marx may not be America’s favorite philosopher… yet he reamains one of the best economic historians and analysts.  In 1847 he drew a driect link between the Industrial Revolution and Atrahuallpa’s gold: “An indispensable condition for the establishment of manufacturing industry,” Marx wrote, “was the accumulation of capital facilitated by the discovery of America and the importation of its precious metals.”

Although he ignores the important role piracy played in the process, much of that money ended up in British hands, giving the first ingredient needed for the creation of wealth.  The second, a surplus of labor, is also a result of the conquest.

The tomato, chile, beans… and above all, the potato and maize… revolutionized the world diet.  Although they may not nutritionally compete perfectly with the traditional European staples — wheat, rye, barley — potatoes and maize are not as labor intensive to raise.  Less people to grow crops, more to do other work (financed by the gold stolen from the Incas and Aztecs).

The European contribution was a negative one… disease, especially smallpox.  Although we recognize that European diseases played an important role in destroying the American people’s, we forget how devastating it was.  The Americas were full of people in 1520.  Mexico probably had as many as 20 million inhabitants at the time.  In 1620, it had about four million, including immigrants.   The devastation — and cultural dissolution — ranged throughout the Americas, which had trade routes running up and down the hemisphere.  That indigenous culture… let alone indigenous people … survived at all is something of a miracle, and a point I want to come back to in a minute.

Wright is extremely good on presenting the evidence of major North American civilizations, that would be wiped out except for remnants by the time the English, relative latecomers to the Americas, arrived.  While we think of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas as the only civilizations in the Americas, a good part of our thinking is based on the simple fact that those peoples had built in stone.  In North America, which was also thickly populated before the 1520s, building materials were wood and earth.  Their disappearance was less noted by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, perhaps, and has been ignored by most historians.

United States histories have usually presupposed the indigenous peoples were few or none.  Yet, when the Puritans landed in 1620, they moved into a ghost town… literally.  The images we have of colonists making their way through the woods, hacking out cabins and somehow holding on isn’t quite true.  The Plymouth Colonists moved into the plague-stricken community of Pauxet:

… with empty houses, worked field and cribs full of corn… “The good hand of God favoured our beginnings [by] sweeping away great multitudes of the natives,’ their leader wrote, “that he might make room for us.”

It is puritanism — and the belief in the elect — that Wright explores in his book.  He sees American (as in USAnian) imperialism as an outgrowth of the Puritan worldview coupled with the frontier mentality… and leading up to disasters like the recent Bush administration.  Less a what happened when history of the United States, it is more a who did what to whom, and what it says about the culture type of history.  The dispossession of the Cherokee and Iroquois nations, Mormonism, the transcontinental railroad, the annexation of Hawai’i and the mostly forgotten war against the Philippines in the early 20th century say more to Wright — and tell him more about the United States — than, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Kennedy Administration.

Wright is less a historian of the United States than a thinker on environmental history, living within the limits of the planet.  Having previously written books on the Mayans, and on the environment, he is well-qualified to develop his thesis, but one which seems to overlook a single, possibly salient point.

I accept that the English strain of Puritanism affected all those who came to the United States, much as the Iberian style of Roman Catholicism did in Latin America.  Puritanism, with its sense of moral superiority, and tendency to moralize all aspects of life affects more than those who grew up within the particular theological strictures of those sects.  Even Catholics in the United States will say “My country right or wrong,” and the idea of the United States as the “last, best hope of mankind, a shining beacon on the hill”.

But, I don’t think it was Puritanism alone that made the United States so destructive of native cultures.  Ronald Wright was born in England, and perhaps it’s difficult for him to see this, but anywhere the English have set up camp, racial segregation has been the rule, not the exception.  Canada, New Zealand, Australia — all non-puritan English-dominated nations — went out of their way to destroy indigenous culture, and are obsessed with “race.”

Look at the words used in English and Spanish to describe a person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry.  English uses “half-breed”, literally only half a person (or rather, half an animal) where Spanish sticks to mestizo, a mixed person, neither good nor bad.  In English, children of mixed races are the product of “miscegenation” … a mistake, a crime, a disease.  In Spanish, there is not comparable world.

Certainly, in Spanish America, different ethnic mixtures were given legal classifications in the 18th century, and there are still racial and ethnic prejudices that exist in the former Spanish colonial possessions, but the persons whose ancestry included various mixtures were never seen as particular odd, or an exception to a rule.  Nor was there ever a “one drop” (from the legal code of several U.S. states where if one ancestor was “Negro”, then all descendants were “Negroes”).  The same thing that can be said about Spanish America can be said about all Spanish colonies, as well as the Portuguese, and — for the most part — about the French.

Whether it’s the puritanism, the English-language itself, or some mestizo combination of the two, the imperialist ambitions of United States did not arise simply because the other English-language empire (Great Britain) went into eclipse.  Though both are much the same, they are different empires, with different goals, and presenting different challenges to the rest of the planet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 September 2009 6:34 pm

    These are the same conclusions I have been forced to accept (or enlightened) from living in Bolivia, and taking that country’s history seriously. Looks like a good book.

  2. 3 September 2009 8:50 pm

    Ironically, in Canada, we DO have a word for semi-indigenous people (of which we have a large number), but it’s French, and very similar to the Spanish word “mestizo”–we call them the Métis. It wasn’t only the French who intermarried with the indigenous, but the British too. Nevertheless, only the French had a neutral term for those people. By default, it’s become the word we use throughout English-speaking Canada now, because as you say, the English only had negative words for them.

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