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The Myth of New World Genocide

Jeff Fynn-Paul is a Lecturer in History at the University of Leiden. His research interests include the economic and social history of Europe and the Mediterranean from 1300 to the present, and urban institutions, state formation, public debt, class and slavery in relation to economic growth.

Hello and welcome everyone. In my talk today, I am going to first lay out why it is that the term genocide was not used by serious historians to describe European colonization in the New World until very recently. I will then discuss who it is that has hijacked the narrative until New World genocide seems self-evident to most people; Thirdly I will discuss two of the major props of the genocide story—exaggerated population figures and smallpox blankets, which are used to convince the public that a genocide occurred, and finally, we can talk a bit about cultural genocide. I will then conclude by talking about the political implications of the genocide narrative. I will argue that not only is the narrative bad for global security as a whole, but it actually disempowers, and disenfranchises Native youth – thus harming precisely the demographic that my left-leaning opponents claim to be supporting.

So to begin: why did historians avoid the genocide label until recently?

Until a few months ago, the google search “How many natives did the Spanish kill?” returned the answer “EIGHT MILION INDIGENOUS PEOPLE,” in all caps—in a special text box, no less. Though small print has recently been added to admit in an undertone that most of these eight million died of European diseases, the implication remains that Europeans are guilty for deaths over which they had no control.

Due to sloppy and—let’s face it—often intentionally misleading reportage of this sort, a large swathe of the global population now take it as axiomatic that Europeans committed “genocide” in the New World. Anyone who criticizes this idea on the basis of previously well-known facts now finds themselves open to hysterical charges of “holocaust denial,” as though what happened to Natives of the Americas hundreds of years ago is self-evidently on par with Nazi atrocities or the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It was not.

What most people don’t know is that, for many decades prior to the 2010s, professional historians deliberately avoided the term “genocide” in the context of New World colonialism. In the gold-standard Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas (published 1996-2000) the term “genocide” is indexed precisely twice in the entirety of the six-volume, 3,000+ page, multi-author work. In both instances the authors mention it only to argue that genocide is not an appropriate term to describe relations between whites and Natives.

There are several reasons why historians long avoided the term “genocide” in the New World context. Historians used to believe that the term should be reserved for deliberate attempts to exterminate an entire race or group of people—particularly when those attempts resulted in mass casualties. But as every specialist knows, elimination of native populations was seldom—if ever—the deliberate or sustained policy of European colonizers and their successor governments. The Spanish government, for example, went to great lengths to protect the Natives, even passing a 1542 Law for the Protection of the Indians, and setting up self-governing Republicas de Indios where Europeans were not allowed to own land. All of this was done with the purpose of increasing Indian population levels. Even when policies came closest to something we would recognize as “genocidal,” as during the American Trail of Tears debacle, context reveals a host of reasons why, even here, historians used to be reluctant to use this term. Modern genocide scholars intentionally downplay countervailing facts such as repeated US government offers of large farms and cash settlements, of the fact that Indian leadership was split on the US offers, on the fact that Indian leadership were often mixed race already by the 1830s and educated in American schools, that many Indian leaders had close ties with Washington, the fact that the American public was largely opposed to Indian removal, and the fact that the Supreme Court ruled it illegal. All of these basic facts are ignored in order to make the “genocide” case look stronger than it actually is.

Then there is the fact that that Native casualty rates across the New World were surprisingly small in comparison with the hype one finds online. These once well-known figures are now routinely, systematically ignored, suppressed, or exaggerated by so-called genocide scholars. According to Wikipedia, the number of Natives massacred by whites in the entire history of Canada amounts to a few dozen. Meanwhile, slightly more whites were killed by Natives. This is not a good look for those who want to accuse European-Canadians of genocide—which is probably why the Canadian Historical Association, in their infamous Canada Day Declaration of Genocide in 2021, fell back on the conveniently nebulous idea of “Cultural Genocide” instead. (Their title screamed “genocide” but their fine print admitted they meant –cultural genocide, something we will return to if we have time below.)

In the United States, where the Native population might have approached 2,000,000 individuals prior to Columbus’ arrival, widely-accepted tallies show that the total number of natives massacred by whites prior to 1848 amounted to less than 8,000 individuals. (Once again, the number of whites massacred by Indians was slightly higher.) Since populations renew themselves every generation, the total number of Natives who were born, lived, and died in the territory of the United States between 1500 and 1900 was much more than 2,000,000, and likely over 10,000,000. No matter how you do the maths, the number of Natives who died by massacre was far less than 1% of the total population, and averages to less than 50 individuals per year. If this was a genocide, it was a singularly ineffectual one.

Even in Mexico, where Indian deaths in Cortes’ wars were some of the most significant and concentrated in the history of the New World, the death toll might have topped 100,000. But… one has to be very careful on whom one pins the blame here, because by most estimates Cortes and his men were outnumbered 20:1 or more by Indian allies, meaning that the great majority of those killed in these battles were killed by Indian auxiliaries rather than Spaniards: there is simply no way of knowing the proportion. If genocide occurred in this era, the Aztecs are far more likely candidates than the Spaniards. The Aztecs are documented as having committed real genocide against certain neighboring tribes, whom they sometimes deported en mass, or even exterminated completely. Not to mention, the Spanish conquest certainly saved 10s of thousands of sacrificial victims in the first year alone: the skull wall at Mexico City easily had more than 100,000 skulls in it, and these tended to disintegrate (and require replacement) after a few years.

Finally, there is the fact that the major pre-Columbian population nuclei remain overwhelmingly intact, and overwhelmingly Indigenous or mixed-race, to this day. This is a very important point because many genocide scholars invoke the idea of “settler colonialism” (on which more in the Q and A perhaps?) to suggest that Europeans, and the capitalist system they spawned, intentionally tried to destroy every native and replace them with Europeans (presumably because Europeans were seen to be better capitalist cogs). A briefest look at the long term trends of New World demography makes plain the fallacy of this argument.

In 1491, the New World held only about 10% as many people as the Old World. Central Mexico and environs held roughly 50% of the entire New World population, and greater Peru held another 25%. By contrast, most of the future United States and Canada were thinly populated indeed, and were home to only about 10% of the New World population. In all of the modern-day countries corresponding to pre-Columbia population nuclei—including Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.—the population today is more than 80% mixed-race or Indigenous, and less than 20% European. Only some 10% of 126,000,000 Mexicans identify as “predominantly European,” while more than twice as many identify as “predominantly Indigenous.” If, as it is fashionable to claim, Europeans set foot in the New World with the aim of replacing Indigenous people with European stock via the doctrine of “Settler Colonialism,” they appear to have failed rather miserably. Recent genetic studies have revealed Mexico to be one of the most genetically diverse countries in the world,—and the survival of over 60 Indigenous languages in Mexico also make it difficult to argue that Spanish attempts at Cultural Genocide were as devastating as many wish to believe.[1]

New World Genocide: Origins of a Myth

If serious academic historians long shied away from calling European colonization “genocidal,” where did this idea get its start?

Unsurprisingly, the pedigree can be traced back to the New Left of the 1970s. Howard Zinn certainly didn’t discourage a reading of New World colonialism as an unmitigated disaster for the Natives, though writers like Francis Jennings, who published Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest in 1975, helped to push an even more radical interpretation into view. The next big boost came in the wake of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage in 1992; amongst the many books published on the theme, Noam Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues attempted to draw parallels between early colonists and the supposed evils of modern day American adventurism in the New World. But probably the most pertinent book by a practising historian to come out around this time was American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, by David E. Stannard. In this book, Stannard argued that European adventurism had claimed over 100,000,000 lives in the New World. Long ignored by mainstream historians for its outrageous claims and dubious demography, Stannard’s book has risen to new heights of popularity during the 2010s. Stannard’s work was soon complimented by A Little Matter of Genocide (1997) by Ward Churchill. Apart from being known as the person who called 9/11 victims “Little Eichmanns,” for the sin of working in a “capitalist” building, Churchill posited that Europeans had killed upwards of 125,000,000 Natives in the New World. In his telling:

During the four centuries spanning the time between 1492… and 1892… a hemispheric population estimated to have been as great as 125 million was reduced by something over 90 percent. The people had died in their millions of being hacked apart with axes and swords, burned alive and trampled under horses, hunted as game and fed to dogs, shot, beaten, stabbed, scalped for bounty, hanged on meathooks and thrown over the sides of ships at sea, worked to death as slave laborers, intentionally starved and frozen to death during a multitude of forced marches and internments, and, in an unknown number of instances, deliberately infected with epidemic diseases.

This rhetoric is constructed to convey the impression that “millions” were “hacked apart” or otherwise slaughtered, when as we have already seen, the number of Indians who met violent fates at the hands of Europeans was less than 1 percent of what Churchill here alleges.

Recent years have witnessed a spate of new “genocide studies” scholarship, in a cultural climate that lionizes historians who incorporate the word “genocide” in their academic titles, the way previous societies might honour returning war heroes. Benjamin Madley, for his part, has been almost single-handedly responsible for re-branding the conflicts previously known as the “California Indian Wars” as the California Genocide. It is worth remembering that these are conflicts that just over 20 years ago, the authors of the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas saw fit to detail without a single reference to the term “genocide.” Madley himself resorts to describing this as a genocide “hidden in plain sight”—i.e. a “genocide” that generations of historians before him had simply failed to notice. With a relentless focus on violent killing, and a reluctance to contextualize the big picture for the purpose of exaggerating an impression of unending massacre, Madley’s account has convinced many a reader that American officials in California were responsible for something in the neighbourhood of 150,000 violent deaths—a number which is likely 10x higher than the true death toll (including war casualties).

For example, Madley’s text prompted a professor at UC Hastings named John Briscoe to write an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle asserting that: “After 1834… when the native population plummeted from 150,000 to 18,000… Indian hunting was sport for the mostly white gold-seekers and settlers. Indian-hunting raids nearly annihilated the population.” In reality, Madley’s own figures show that “Indian-hunting raids” likely claimed something less than 5% of the 132,000 casualties that Hastings implies in his widely quoted op-ed. Many of the other “missing” Indians might never have existed (i.e. they might be the result of exaggerated population estimates, on which more below). In addition, large numbers will have emigrated to Mexico when the missions were disbanded or when the territory was handed over to the United States, and still others will have assimilated into the US population in various ways. One thing is certain: the nature of our sources requires a caution that the sensationalists singularly lack.

Two Fables: Exaggerated Death Tolls and Smallpox Blankets

As we can see, then, the spread of the New World Genocide myth has been the work of a handful of radical scholars. Their message happened to resonate with the spread of Critical Race Theory and the widespread public support for BLM in the 2010s, and like any good con man, these radicals have used the better angels of our nature against us: they play on the fact that no one wants to be seen as racist or a bad person, as a cover to hijack historical opinion towards a truly unscientific interpretation of the past. As we know, this technique has made them remarkably successful in a very short time.

We will now zoom in on, and look at in greater detail, two of the more persistent fables that prop up the myth of New World genocide: first, the exaggerated population figures that serve to make European atrocities seem far worse than they were, and secondly, the notion that Europeans deliberately spread disease or otherwise tried to eliminate Indian peoples by starvation and other scorched-earth policies.

The epicentre of the first fable—the fable of wildly exaggerated population figures that imply outrageous death tolls—is the island of Hispaniola, where Columbus first landed. The US-government funded website Native Voices asserts that as many as 7 million Taino Indians lived on Hispaniola in 1491. American Holocaust author David E. Stannard not only asserted that the island had something like 7 million inhabitants in 1491, but went on to claim that European settlement on the island caused casualties which were “the equivalent of fifty Hiroshimas.” Which would be terrible—if it was remotely true. As it turns out, Stannard’s “fifty Hiroshimas” was significantly less than the casualties of from a single Hiroshima bomb—meaning that his casualty figures are exaggerated by a factor of fifty or more.

How could Stannard and others get away with exaggerating the death toll on Hispaniola by a factor of fifty? This case highlights the pitfalls of doing historical demography in a pre-literate society. Since the natives of Hispaniola kept no records of their own, population figures must be constructed from a series of guesses made by archaeologists. This leaves much room for speculation: we know of the location of a few villages in this or that sector… What percent of the total might that be? We know that houses were about yay big… But how many people lived in a house? All of these factors must be guessed at. By multiplying guesses, politically-motivated demographers can easily conjure figures 10x or more the realistic rate. Thus the so-called “Berkeley maximalists” Cook and Borah came up with a figure of 8 million people on Hispaniola in 1491—a figure ultimately based on the report of the sixteenth-century Friar Las Casas, and more than doubled for good measure.

The major problem with the maximalists’ figures is that they ride roughshod over basic facts of topography and technology. Hispaniola has roughly 60% the area of England minus Scotland and Wales; and the English population in 1500 is thought to have been about 2.5 million. England in 1500 was home to one of the most efficient agricultural systems in the world outside of the rice farming areas of India and East Asia. The land had long since been cleared of forests, and English farmers made wide use of the heavy plough, tipped with an efficient iron ploughshare, pulled by powerful draught animals.

On Hispaniola, much of the land is mountainous. The people had no metal axes, meaning that they could not clear forests except by burning. As a result, most of the land remained forested; farming meanwhile was done without the use of draught animals or ploughs, so that people had to plant crops in mounds using a hoe. The relatively meagre diet of Island natives meant that the people habitually moved little in order to conserve energy. Early Spanish accounts imply that Spaniards ate several times more calories per day than the average Taino.

Those who assert a population of 7 million on Hispaniola therefore suggest that the island had a population density at least 6x that of contemporary England, despite heavy forestation, and a lack of metal tools and draught animals. Fortunately, many sober scholars, recognizing this for the absurdity that it is, have posited a much more realistic figure of 250,000 inhabitants on the island. Even Howard Zinn used this figure.

The maximalists received an even ruder shock in 2020, however, when one of the first large-scale genetic studies of the Caribbean Islanders showed that Hispaniola was most likely home to only “a few tens of thousands” of individuals in 1491.[2] And further, that modern islanders had a large proportion—upwards of 60%–of Taino Indian blood. This suggests widespread intermarriage, rather than extermination. What’s more, the study asserted that remaining Taino genes were not at all inbred, meaning that the number of Taino who survived and intermarried had been large.

All the evidence for a lowball initial population figure on Hispaniola—a small population which nonetheless survived in surprisingly large numbers—is therefore right there, including a genetic “smoking gun” which will be difficult to refute on the basis of archaeological reconstructions. Yet many pundits continue to assert an absurd population figure in the millions, because it serves their political purposes. Similar exaggerations are routinely made for the New World as a whole: while cautious demographers suggest the total population of the New World was somewhere south of 20 million (of which about 10 million were in greater central Mexico and 5 million in greater Peru), highball maximalist estimates of 50 or even 100 million (the latter figure being favoured by Stannard) are frequently bandied about for similarly unscrupulous ends.

Smallpox Blankets and other Bedtime Fables

Another fable asserted—or routinely tolerated—by some genocide scholars is that Europeans deliberately infected Indigenous Americans with smallpox and other imported diseases. Ward Churchill unabashedly makes this claim, and I know from experience that this belief is widely held amongst university students today.

The first problem with this fable is that it is almost entirely untrue. As it turns out, most Europeans faced with an outbreak of smallpox were happy to flee, rather than mix themselves up in some plot to spread this to the Natives. According to Paul Kelton and Philip Ranlet, the single unambiguously recorded instance of an attempt to spread smallpox to Native Americans via contaminated blankets or clothing occurred in the vicinity of Fort Pitt in 1763. Furthermore, the commanders in question Amherst and Bouquet, are on record as saying that this might not be the best idea, as it could result in the spreading of smallpox to their own troops. No one knows, in the end, whether blankets were actually delivered, let alone whether this succeeded in spreading smallpox.[3] So much for the myth of widespread biological warfare.

The second problem is the fact that rather than spreading smallpox on purpose, the United States, Spanish, and other New World governments spent the majority of the nineteenth century funding anti-smallpox vaccination programmes, which eventually reached hundreds of thousands of individuals, saving far more lives than Europeans are accused of taking during the same century. The programmes were inaugurated almost as soon as relevant medical advancements were made. Edward Jenner perfected a smallpox vaccine in 1796, thereby improving on an earlier technique known as variolation. Thomas Jefferson was not only an enthusiastic early adopter of Jenner’s vaccine, but arranged to have it sent west with Louis and Clark, with the hope that it could induce Indians to get themselves vaccinated in greater numbers in the future. Andrew Jackson, the same president who is accused of genocide for the Trail of Tears debacle, is also responsible for the Indian Vaccination Act of 1832, which began a Federal programme of vaccinations that would reach tens of thousands during the nineteenth century. (Somehow, Jackson’s role in inoculating tens of thousands of Indians against smallpox is not a fact widely circulated by the genocide crowd.) Not to be outdone, the Spanish government had already by 1806 sent one Dr. D. Francisco Xavier de Balmis to oversee the vaccination of the Native population of the Spanish New World. De Balmis reported in the Madrid Gazette that he had vaccinated some 50,000 Natives in Peru alone, and established vaccination programmes as far north as Sonora. These figures are not far-fetched, since the Spanish practised arm-to-arm vaccination, which could be performed on a large scale.

Exaggerated death tolls and smallpox blankets are only two of the myths that prop up the genocide story told by radical historians. Another persistent myth that we don’t have time for right now, but maybe in the Q&A, has to do with the idea that killing buffalo led to widespread starvation of Native Americans. Only a tiny minority of Indians in the 1870s actually subsisted on the Buffalo: the notion that “every buffalo killed is an Indian gone,” was a slogan popularized by “Buffalo Bill” Cody for the purpose of selling tickets to prospective (sometimes reluctant) big game hunters, rather than having much basis in geopolitical reality. Meanwhile the US Congress actually passed a law in 1874 prohibiting the culling of female buffalo on federal land, with the aim of protecting buffalo herds from extermination. This law was later vetoed by President Grant, but it shows that the US Congress was hardly hellbent on removing the buffalo for the purpose of starving the Natives. In fact, Kit Carson and other Indian agents of the US west spent a great deal of their time and resources providing food and other supplies to Indians who had been robbed or driven out of their own territories, often by their Indigenous neighbours. This was a standard part of US policy towards Native Americans for much of the nineteenth century. This is because government officials recognized that by providing food, they reduced theft and other instigations of violence.

Cultural Genocide

Much of the controversy in Canada today revolves around the notion of Cultural Genocide. Activists in Canada fall back on this rather nebulous notion because they know that Canadian authorities never aimed to exterminate Natives, nor did they, or any bands of Canadian settlers, commit many massacres worthy of the name in the entirety of Canadian history.

Recent claims of ‘’hundreds’’ of graves found at Indigenous schools in Canada—claims that were propagated by the board of the Canadian Historical Association no less—have proven to be almost entirely unfounded. This is not to say that Indigenous youth were not mistreated in Canadian Residential schools: they were treated just as badly as other youth of the time, and sometimes definitely worse. But the notion that these schools were set up for maleficent ends has been debunked roundly for anyone who cares to look into it.

More interesting to me is the notion “cultural genocide” itself. What precisely is meant by this? Just like any previously isolated people living in hunter-gatherer or primitive agricultural settings, Amerindian tribes who met the rest of the world in the form of Europeans were going to have a rude shock, as they were introduced to thousands of years of innovations by the great majority of mankind in the course of a few generations. What, precisely, did anyone expect to do about this? And what happens when, as is logical, Amerindians wished to adopt many aspects of this new lifestyle, including horses, guns, iron tools, and alcohol? Who would have been able to stop them? Would it have been moral to do so? On the other hand, many sober critics have argued that the establishment of reservation systems in the US, Canada and elsewhere not only arrested declining Indian populations, but helped to salvage what remained of Native culture, after the inevitable conversion from hunting to modern economic modes. The reality behind so called cultural genocide is, in fact, obvious to any lay person, any non historian, who takes a few minutes to puzzle it out. The result is that professional historians at the CHA look frankly like childish angsty extremists, rather than sober judges of historical evidence.

Conclusion

The myth of New World genocide is a radical take on European colonialism based on systematic abuse and suppression of the historical record for the purpose of scoring political points with modern social media audiences.

Genocide scholars imagine that they are helping modern-day victims of “systemic racism” in the United States. But it is arguable that—as many Native leaders have asserted throughout the decades—the genocide scholars’ tale of perpetual victimization does more harm than good to modern Native populations. Such tales encourage Native youth to drop out of mainstream society in despair, rather than participate in it with an aim to self-improvement. But as long as only one side is allowed to air their views of Native history, then the real, potentially lifesaving data about the true causes of modern Native social ills will be submerged—to the detriment of the very people that the Left claims to be defending.

At the global level, it is arguable that instead of helping the victims of past genocides, self-appointed genocide scholars are facilitating the real-world, real-time oppression of tens of millions of people. They do this in part by helping to convince autocratic leaders that the West’s moral posturing is nothing more than hypocrisy of the highest order—just as they always suspected. Autocrats, in turn, broadcast the hyperbole churned out by genocide scholars because its veneer of academic rigour lends it that much more credence as propaganda. According to a post called “The American Genocide of the Indians—Historical Facts and Real Evidence,” posted to the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China:

Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, proposed a war of extermination against Native Americans, triggering rising calls for the extermination of Indians in the state… From 1846 to 1873, the Indian population in California dropped to 30,000 from 150,000. Countless Indians died as a result of the atrocities.

One does not need to look too far to figure out where the Chinese authorities found this story.

For all of these reasons both local and global, it is a moral imperative that historians who specialize in the subfields of early Spanish Colonial history, nineteenth-century American and Canadian history, and other relevant fields robustly challenge writeups that claim “genocide” where no historian saw it before. Specialists must be allowed the freedom to challenge these new interpretations: they must be given this freedom—even actively encouraged—both by the historical establishment at large, and by university administrators.

[1] https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2014/06/vast-genetic-diversity-among-mexicans-found-in-large-scale-study.html

[2] Ancient DNA Is Changing How We Think About the Caribbean, New York Times, 23rd December 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/opinion/dna-caribbean-genocide.html

[3] This is nicely written up in https://www.history.com/news/colonists-native-americans-smallpox-blankets; Meanwhile, Ward Churchill’s fabrication of a nineteenth-century incident (thus indicating that he could find no factual incidents to document) is meticulously debunked in https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/plag/5240451.0001.009/–did-the-us-army-distribute-smallpox-blankets-to-indians?rgn=main;view=fulltext

 

About the author

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published widely on Iberian, Mediterranean, and Global History, is a founding editor of the Journal of Global Slavery, and a co-editor of the Studies in Global Slavery book series for Brill. Fynn-Paul won the European History Quarterly Prize in 2016. In 2020, his Spectator article “Myth of the Stolen Country” went viral, enraging large swathes of academic twitter. His book on the history of European-New World encounters will be published by Post Hill Press in 2022.