Amériques, le génocide oublié

Par Mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2010

1492, la popu­la­tion native des Amériques était de 100 mil­lions. A la fin du 19ème siècle, la plu­part avaient été exter­mi­nés. De nom­breux décès étaient dus à des mala­dies, mais cette extinc­tion de masse a aussi été orga­ni­sée. La bou­che­rie a com­mencé avec Christophe Colomb. Il a mas­sa­cré la popu­la­tion autoch­tone d’Hispaniola (aujourd’hui Haïti et Dominique) avec une féro­cité inima­gi­nable. En 1535 la popu­la­tion native de 8 mil­lions de per­sonnes avait été réduite à zéro, en raison des mala­dies, des assas­si­nats, ou épui­sées par le tra­vail forcé et la famine.

Avatar, James Cameron’s block­bus­ting 3-D film, is both pro­foundly silly and pro­found. It’s pro­found because, like most films about aliens, it is a meta­phor for contact bet­ween dif­ferent human cultures. But in this case the meta­phor is conscious and pre­cise : this is the story of European enga­ge­ment with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s pro­foundly silly because engi­nee­ring a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and pre­dic­table that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in ano­ther new film, The Road, in which a rem­nant popu­la­tion flees in terror as it is hunted to extinc­tion.

But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the chal­lenge it pre­sents to the way we choose to see our­selves. Europe was mas­si­vely enri­ched by the geno­cides in the Americas ; the American nations were foun­ded on them. This is a his­tory we cannot accept.

In his book American Holocaust, the US scho­lar David Stannard docu­ments the grea­test acts of geno­cide the world has ever experienced(1). In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been exter­mi­na­ted. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinc­tion was also engi­nee­red.

When the Spanish arri­ved in the Americas, they des­cri­bed a world which could scar­cely have been more dif­ferent from their own. Europe was rava­ged by war, oppres­sion, sla­very, fana­ti­cism, disease and star­va­tion. The popu­la­tions they encoun­te­red were heal­thy, well-nou­ri­shed and mostly (with excep­tions like the Aztecs and Incas) pea­cable, demo­cra­tic and ega­li­ta­rian. Throughout the Americas the ear­liest explo­rers, inclu­ding Columbus, remar­ked on the natives’ extra­or­di­nary hos­pi­ta­lity. The conquis­ta­dores mar­vel­led at the ama­zing roads, canals, buil­dings and art they found, which in some cases outs­trip­ped any­thing they had seen at home. None of this stop­ped them from des­troying eve­ry­thing and eve­ryone they encoun­te­red.

The but­chery began with Columbus. He slaugh­te­red the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by uni­ma­gi­na­bly brutal means. His sol­diers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living chil­dren. On one occa­sion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 dis­ciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disem­bo­wel­led them and burnt them alive. Columbus orde­red all the native people to deli­ver a cer­tain amount of gold every three months ; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native popu­la­tion of Hispaniola had fallen from 8m to zero : partly as a result of disease, partly as a result of murder, over­work and star­va­tion.

The conquis­ta­dores spread this civi­li­sing mis­sion across cen­tral and south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythi­cal trea­sures were hidden, the indi­ge­nous people were flog­ged, hanged, drow­ned, dis­mem­be­red, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The sol­diers cut off women’s breasts, sent people back to their vil­lages with their seve­red hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted Indians with their dogs for sport. But most were killed by ensla­ve­ment and disease. The Spanish dis­co­ve­red that it was chea­per to work Indians to death and replace them than to keep them alive : the life expec­tancy in their mines and plan­ta­tions was three to four months. Within a cen­tury of their arri­val, around 95% of the popu­la­tion of South and Central America had been des­troyed.

In California during the 18th Century the Spanish sys­te­ma­ti­sed this exter­mi­na­tion. A Franciscan mis­sio­nary called Junipero Serra set up a series of “mis­sions” : in rea­lity concen­tra­tion camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calo­ries fed to African-American slaves in the 19th cen­tury. They died from over­work, star­va­tion and disease at asto­ni­shing rates, and were conti­nually repla­ced, wiping out the indi­ge­nous popu­la­tions. Junipero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was bea­ti­fied by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pro­noun­ced a saint(2).

While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the British who colo­ni­sed North America wanted land. In New England they sur­roun­ded the vil­lages of the native Americans and mur­de­red them as they slept. As geno­cide spread west­wards, it was endor­sed at the highest levels. George Washington orde­red the total des­truc­tion of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson decla­red that his nation’s wars with the Indians should be pur­sued until each tribe “is exter­mi­na­ted or is driven beyond the Mississippi”. During the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaugh­te­red unar­med people gathe­red under a flag of peace, killing chil­dren and babies, muti­la­ting all the corpses and kee­ping their vic­tims’ geni­tals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event “as right­ful and bene­fi­cial a deed as ever took place on the fron­tier.”

The but­chery hasn’t yet ended : last month the Guardian repor­ted that Brazilian ran­chers in the wes­tern Amazon, having slaugh­te­red all the rest, tried to kill the last sur­vi­ving member of a forest tribe(3). Yet the grea­test acts of geno­cide in his­tory scar­cely ruffle our col­lec­tive conscience. Perhaps this is what would have hap­pe­ned had the Nazis won the second world war : the Holocaust would have been denied, excu­sed or mini­mi­sed in the same way, even as it conti­nued. The people of the nations res­pon­sible – Spain, Britain, the US and others – will tole­rate no com­pa­ri­sons, but the final solu­tions pur­sued in the Americas were far more suc­cess­ful. Those who com­mis­sio­ned or endor­sed them remain natio­nal or reli­gious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memo­ries are igno­red or condem­ned.

This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz com­plains that the film resembles a “revi­sio­nist wes­tern” in which “the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys.”(4) He says it asks the audience “to root for the defeat of American sol­diers at the hands of an insur­gency.” Insurgency is an inter­es­ting word for an attempt to resist inva­sion : insurgent, like savage, is what you call someone who has some­thing you want. L’Osservatore Romano, the offi­cial news­pa­per of the Vatican, condem­ned the film as “just … an anti-impe­ria­lis­tic, anti-mili­ta­ris­tic parable”(5).

But at least the right knows what it is atta­cking. In the New York Times the libe­ral critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for cham­pio­ning the need to see clearly(6). It reveals, he says, “a well-known prin­ciple of tota­li­ta­ria­nism and geno­cide – that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see”. But in a mar­vel­lous uncons­cious irony, he bypasses the cra­shin­gly obvious meta­phor and talks ins­tead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atro­ci­ties. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.

I agree with its right­wing cri­tics that Avatar is crass, maw­kish and cli­ched. But it speaks of a truth more impor­tant – and more dan­ge­rous – than those contai­ned in a thou­sand arthouse movies.

References :

1. David E Stannard, 1992. American Holocaust. Oxford University Press. Unless stated other­wise, all the his­to­ri­cal events men­tio­ned in this column are sour­ced to the same book.

2. http://​www​.latimes​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​l​ocal/ la-me-miracle28-2009aug28,0,2804203.story

3. http://​www​.guar​dian​.co​.uk/​w​o​r​l​d​/​2​0​0​9​/​d​e​c/09/ amazon-man-in-hole-atta­cked

4. http://​www​.week​ly​stan​dard​.com/​C​o​ntent /Public/Articles/000/000/017/350fozta.asp

5. http://​www​.thesun​.co​.uk/​s​o​l​/​h​o​m​e​page/ news/2802155/Vatican-hits-out-at-3D-Avatar.html

6. http://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​1​2​/​2​6​/​o​p​i​n​i​o​n​/​2​6​s​a​t​4​.html

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