Social Education 57(4), 1993
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Point 4 of the NCSS Quincentenary Statement
The March 1993 response to the NCSS Quincentenary Statement charges that the NCSS statement presents a mythical and romanticized picture of the global economy developing after 1492. "The NCSS statement provides a vignette of black, copper-colored, and white peoples...[coming together]...on a footing of equality." This is myth, the response explains, because in fact "European seafarers and merchants were the chief operators of the world market that exploded across the globe in the sixteenth century."
I do not think that the NCSS statement presents such a vignette, but if it does then it deserves the criticism it receives. I might point out, however, that if it is "mythicaquot; to depict Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans as always sharing equal power in the making of the post-Columbian global economy, it is equally mythical to portray Europeans as all-powerful and Africans and Native Americans as entirely powerless. This is what the response appears to do, especially in characterizing "the new era that Columbus inaugurated...[as] a vivid illustration of the maxim Thomas Jefferson formulated three centuries later: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Consider the distribution of power in two of the major markets emerging after 1492-the transatlantic slave market and the transatlantic fur market. Neither market would have come into being in the absence of the active collaboration of some Africans and some Native Americans with some Europeans. Nor was the operation of either market dominated by Europeans. In the case of the transatlantic slave market, most scholars appear to agree that Africans controlled the supply side of the trade; Herbert Klein (1990, 284) observes that "everywhere it was the Africans who controlled the volume of slaves and determined the types of slaves who would be offered. And it was they who determined prices."1
Those who held power were, of course, members of the African political and commercial elite, but African nonetheless. I note this not because I intend to shift blame for the slave trade from Europeans to Africans, but rather to point out that race, ethnicity, and region are not always the most useful of available constructs in either historical or moral analysis. Sometimes the concept of class provides more powerful intellectual tools.
A transatlantic fur market linked Native North American suppliers with European and Asian consumers for about three centuries. In this market, as James Axtell (1992, 131) and many other historians point out, Native Americans "controlled a resource that was in great demand in Europe." Contrary to popular myth, Indians did not exchange this resource for trinkets and other useless items. In the eyes of European traders, Indians soon earned a reputation for skillful and powerful bargaining. Their power, as Axtell notes (1992, 133-34), derived partially from the fact that "in the establishment of trade, Indians needed the European trader less than he needed them. The sharp competition between company traders, coureurs de bois, and government factors for most Indian customers,...only increased the Natives' leverage."
In the closing stages of the North American fur trade, terms of trade turned against Native Americans as a result of the exhaustion of game combined with growing Native dependence on European manufacturers and the declining military dependence of European states on Native American allies. It is important to keep in mind that, as Richard White observes (1991, 96), "this was the result of a long process; it simply was not a fact the moment the first hatchet gleamed in the North American sun."
Between the beginning and end of the fur trade, many "native hunters did quite well in the new European market." James Axtell (1992, 129) notes that
the per capita wealth of Indian America, though it cannot be measured in native currencies, increased dramatically from the earliest stages of contact because European traders who were willing and eager to pay top pound, franc, and florin for animal pelts and skins which the Indians were adept in curing and procuring.
I direct attention to the active and influential role Africans played in the slave trade and Native Americans played in the fur trade because these cases provide illustrations of the general point the NCSS statement attempted to make in its point 4. Eric Wolf (1982, x) hits the nail on the head when he argues that scholars and educators "must take account of the co-joint participation of Western and non-Western people" in the making of the modern world:
We can no longer be content with writing only the history of victorious elites, or with detailing the subjugation of dominated ethnic groups. Social historians and historical sociologists have shown that the common people were as much agents in the historical process as they were its victims and silent witnesses. We thus need to uncover the history of "the people without history"-the active histories of "primitives," peasantries, laborers, immigrants, and besieged minorities.
Thanks to the response, it is clear that NCSS failed to practice what it preached in this regard. Among the peoples whose active histories should have been explicitly recognized are those American peoples of color who for centuries have struggled against oppression and injustice. Also, the response correctly chastises us for a related omission: the failure to "identify opponents of racism and conquest who arose within the European tradition and within European society itself." The response singles out the Catholic priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas as an exemplar. The response is correct. Las Casas's unrelenting advocacy on behalf of the human rights of Native Americans suffering the brutality of Spanish invasion and colonization should be celebrated in commemorations of the Columbian Quincentenary, because Las Casas was, as the response notes, "a pioneer in the struggle against racism."
Las Casas's life should also remind us of the difficulty of transporting intact contemporary moral judgments over vast distances in cultural time. According to Kenneth Maxwell (1993), although Las Casas vigorously worked on behalf of Native Americans, he also lobbied the Spanish crown to authorize the importation of African slaves into Spanish America.
I have three quarrels with the response's treatment of point 2. First, I am baffled by the logic leading the authors to conclude that the NCSS statement dismisses Native Americans north of the Rio Grande as "primitive peoples inhabiting a wilderness." I thought the argument was clear and straightforward, but apparently it is not, so permit me to restate it.
Many educators and scholars intellectually treat the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere before 1492 as two radically different and noncomparable worlds. The first-the world of Europe, Africa, and Asia-is seen as a place inhabited by peoples who made and lived history that scholars now investigate and students now study. In contrast, the second-the world of the Americas-is seen as a place inhabited by peoples existing in a state of amorphous and atemporal primitiveness who have no history in the sense in which the peoples of Afro-Eurasia have history.
Point 2 of the NCSS statement presents an alternative perspective on the histories of the Old and New Worlds. It argues that the two histories should be viewed as comparable because peoples in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres experienced many of the same kinds of historical phenomena. The NCSS statement provides an illustrative list of commonly shared historical phenomena. It cites "regional variations in levels of societal complexity" as one of these phenomena. Differences between Mesoamerica and North America provide a New World example of this phenomenon in the same way differences in the level of societal complexity between Mediterranean Europe and the rest of Europe at the time of the Roman Empire provides an Old World example.
Second, I am uncomfortable with the way the response characterizes the social structure of aboriginal North America. As just noted, it is true that North America as a whole was characterized by a lower level of societal complexity than Mesoamerica. But it seems to me that the response exaggerates the difference and thus stereotypes and depreciates the level of sociopolitical complexity extant in aboriginal North America. It characterizes the people north of the Rio Grande as simple "hunters, fishers, gatherers, and farmers" who "did not construct massive irrigation systems, live in densely populated centers, found complex civilizations, or organize large-scale empires."
One may not wish to call the irrigation systems developed in the Southwest "massive," but they were certainly impressive as the system the Hohokan built on the Salt and Gila Rivers attests. At least 579 kilometers of canals cut through the area where the city of Phoenix now stands (Cordell 1984, 207).
Population density in North America as a whole was lower than in Mesoamerica, but population north of the Rio Grande did number in the millions with at least one prominent scholar estimating the number at eighteen million. Two of the most conservative contemporary estimates are twelve and seven million. Moreover, the population was concentrated in one region comprised of the drainage system of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Cahokia, a city located where East Saint Louis now sits, circa a.d. 1200 covered almost six square miles-slightly more than its Mexican contemporary, Tula, capital of the Toltecs. Some scholars estimate its peak population to be about thirty-eight thousand, comparable to Tula and to the Mayan center at Tikal. It is useful to recall that in 1790 Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States, had a population of forty-two thousand. 2
True, as the response notes, North Americans organized no large-scale empires, but they did create large chiefdoms whose structural complexity and tribute-collecting capacity rivaled many of the polities scattered about the social landscape of feudal Europe. Moreover, empires are but one species of geographically large-scale social systems. Much of the contemporary historical scholarship the response cites in its concluding section is about another species of social system: world economies, geographically extensive areas in which a multiplicity of political systems and cultures are encompassed by a single network of economic relationships. Some scholars view the American Southwest during some of its history as a part of a world economy centered in Mesoamerica. 3Cahokia was the prime trading and commercial center of another exchange system whose geographical scope exceeded that of the Roman Empire (Weatherford 1991; Jennings 1992; Shaffer 1992).
Finally, I must point out a gross misreading of the NCSS statement. The statement does not claim that "North American multiculturalism begins with Columbus." To the contrary, it explicitly recognizes the multicultural character of pre-Columbian America. The NCSS statement does point out that 1492 marks the emergence of one particular and historically new type of multicultural society-namely, a universal or world nation, which the NCSS statement defines as a society whose "peoples are a microcosm of humanity with biological, cultural, and social ties to all other parts of the earth." Clearly, the kind of society that could be called a universal or world nation could come into being only after the permanent linking of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.
The response takes umbrage with the primacy the NCSS statement accords to the role of infectious diseases in the demographic catastrophe Native Americans suffered after 1492. The authors seem skeptical of the historical accuracy of the statement, and believe that its emphasis on disease is misplaced, detracting from the attention that should be paid to the role of war and genocide in the destruction of Native Americans.
Three related points need to be made in response. First, there is widespread consensus that after 1492 Native Americans experienced what many scholars call the "greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world" (Denevan 1992, 7). One can sense the enormity of the disaster by looking at some middle-range population estimates. The 1492 population of the Western Hemisphere is estimated by some to be around 54 million. Estimates put the indigenous populations in 1650 at 5.6 million-a drop of 90 percent in a little over one and one-half centuries. Or to put it another way, Native America suffered a population loss of about 48 million during this period. To find a loss of comparable magnitude one must look to World War II, in which 45 to 50 million people lost their lives (Denevan 1992, xxvii-xxix). Needless to say, population decline for the hemisphere on a whole continued after 1650.
Second, most scholars now see the primary agents of this holocaust to be the Old World pathogens inadvertently introduced by Europeans and Africans into epidemiologically virgin American populations. For example, James Axtell (1992, 262), chair of the American Historical Association's Columbus Quincentenary Committee, writes: "In North and South America, the vast majority of Indians succumbed, not to colonial oppression or conquistador cruelty-as real and pervasive as those were-but to new and lethal epidemic diseases imported inadvertently by the settlers."
Russell Thornton (1987, 44) declares that "without doubt, the single most important fact in American Indian population decline was the increased death rate due to diseases introduced from the Eastern Hemisphere." Diseases were "the most important single factor in the demographic catastrophe of native Americans," according to Ann Ramenofsky (1987, [p.]). Daniel Reff (1991, 276), concluding a study of Northwestern Mexico between 1518 and 1764, writes:
It is clear that the rapid and pronounced reductions in population that have been inferred for Central Mexico and Inca Peru were not unusual. In Northwestern Mexico, as in the two civilizations to the south, Old World diseases destroyed upwards of 90 percent of the aboriginal population. It is further apparent that the precipitous decline and the failure of native populations to rebound was due largely to acute and chronic infectious disease, rather than slavery, infanticide, or other evils coincident with Europe's invasion of the Americas.
A variety of evidence supports this general conclusion. One of the clear-cut clues pointing to infectious diseases as the chief villain in the mass killing of Native Americans is that massive depopulation occurred in some areas decades, and even centuries, prior to sustained Native American contact with Europeans and Africans. This seems clearly the case in Peru and in parts of Amazonia and interior North America (Denevan 1992). For example, Ann Ramenofsky (1987, 136) has found clear-cut archeological evidence in the lower Mississippi and middle Missouri regions "that depopulation preceded sustained European presence by more than a century." Reff (1991, 277) reached the same conclusion in his study of Northwestern Mexico, finding that "the majority of Native groups were affected by Old World diseases prior to sustained contact with Europeans."
Third, disease-induced demographic collapses did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, they profoundly affected every facet of Native American culture, social structure, and history. We must constantly keep these effects in mind when looking at relations between Native Americans and Europeans because these relations were profoundly conditioned by rapid and extensive population loss. Native American and European military relations is a case in point. Many people attribute the success of the European conquest of the Americas to Europe's superior military technology. The matter is more complex than this. Take the situation in colonial New England. Native Americans quickly learned to make effective use of guns they acquired in ample numbers from the English, French, and Dutch in the seventeenth century. In the first decades of this century, Native Americans clearly equaled the European soldiers they met on the battleground. The balance of military power, however, turned against them in the last few decades of the seventeenth century. Why? One of the foremost historians of modern Europe's military relations with the non-European world, Geoffrey Parker (1988, 119), writes:
In the end the "Red Indians" lost ground not so much through any technical inferiority as because their numbers dwindled throughout the seventeenth century (largely thanks to the inroads of European diseases), while those of the Westerners (largely thanks to immigration) relentlessly increased.
Everywhere in the New World, the visible European and Euro-American military conquest was profoundly influenced by an invisible (and to the participants unknown) biological war in which Old World pathogens invaded and destroyed their New World hosts. Speaking like a war correspondent, Percy Ashburn (1947, 98) writes of this biological war:
Smallpox was the captain of the men of death in that war, typhus fever the first lieutenant, and measles the second lieutenant. More terrible than the conquistadors on horseback, more deadly than sword and gunpowder, they made the conquest by the whites a walkover as compared with what it would have been without their aid. They were the forerunners of civilization, the companions of Christianity, the friends of the invader.
At stake in that war was the future of two continents and their indigenous peoples. More than once the authors of the response correctly remind us that Europe's worldwide imperialism after 1492 united peoples of color in many commonly shared historical experiences. In commemorating 1492 five centuries later, however, we need also to take note of a major difference between the historical experience of Native Americans on the one hand and of Africans and Asians on the other. Asians and Africans were colonized but, unlike Native Americans, they also experienced decolonization. Ronald Wright (1992, 13) asks why:
Why was America so overwhelmed by Europe that, unlike Asia and Africa, it has never been decolonized? Why does...[no country] use an American language at the diplomatic level? Why isn't there a single president, prime minister, or monarch with an Amerindian name? Why was America different? The short answer is disease.
The response makes two valid arguments in its criticism of the NCSS statement's point 6. First, it is true that the "statement ignores the contributions of twentieth-century systems builders." No doubt this body of recent scholarship is highly relevant to history education in particular and to social studies in general. The NCSS statement should have explicitly acknowledged the potential educational relevance of recent world-system scholarship. But a good deal of hard intellectual work is needed before this potential can be realized.
For one thing, disagreements among world-system scholars abound. For example, the response declares that by the fourteenth century a world system that linked China to the Near East, North Africa, and Europe (and into which the Americas were integrated following Columbus's "discoveries") had come into being. Two of the most prominent world-system scholars named in the response would dissent from this view and then proceed to disagree with each other. Wallerstein (1974) argues that the contemporary world system came into being in the sixteenth century, not 150 years before Columbus, and this system did not include China until the nineteenth century. Abu-Lughod (1989) describes a world system linking many points of Eurasia between a.d. 1250 and 1350, but says that this thirteenth-century system had broken apart well before Columbus sailed into the Atlantic.
Another world-system scholar, Andre Gunder Frank (1990, 1991), would agree with the authors of the response that a world system existed in the fourteenth century. He would argue, however, that this system was more than three thousand years old by then and had linked China with the Near East, North Africa, and Europe since the start of the Christian or Common Era. I note these nuances in world-system scholarship not to discourage educators from turning to it for intellectual help, but rather to point out that carrying world-system thinking from university libraries into school and college classrooms is not a straightforward move of ideas from one address to another.
The response makes a second point which is well taken. A few years ago the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools (1987) made a similar point. Because there is but one history-the history of humanity-history in the Americas and history outside of the Americas are but two sides of the same coin. Thus, we must learn how to integrate closely the study of American history and the study of world history. On one hand, we must learn to make American history prior to 1492 an integral part of world history; on the other, we must learn how to make world history after 1492 an integral part of American history. If more people are stimulated to take up this challenge, this itself will have rendered the commemoration of the Columbian Quincentenary a valuable moment in the history of American education.
In conclusion, let me note two minor points. Early in the response, its authors refer to "Potosi gold." I assume they intended to say "Potosi silver"; it was Potosi's prodigious production of silver that made this city in the viceroyalty of Peru world famous in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The response associates the famous dictum that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" with Thomas Jefferson. The quotation is conventionally attributed to Lord Acton; a letter he wrote in 1887 is cited as its source in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
1See also, for example, John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Ivana Ilbl, "Cross Cultural Trade and Diplomacy: Portuguese Relations with West Africa, 1441-1521," Journal of World History 3, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 165-204; and Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).2Lynda W. Shaffer, Native Americans before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharp, 1992): 4, 51, 53; Stuart J. Fiedel, Prehistory of the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 210.3See, for example, Joseph W. Whitecotton and Richard A. Pailes, "New World PreColumbian World Systems," in Ripples in the Chichimec Sea: New Considerations of Southwestern-Mesoamerican Interactions, edited by Frances J. Mathien and Randall H. McGuire (Cardondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986): 183-204.References
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