Monday, October 14, 2013

Ethnocentrism and Genocide

In honor of Columbus Day, here is another installment of my series of reprints of my coursework. This is from a history class I took last year, in which I spent the better part of a semester studying European Expansion. When we celebrate Columbus Day, this is mostly what we are honoring. While I am very much against blind Nationalism, I think the response should be informed rather than flippant. I suggest readers look into at least a few of the works cited, but I offer this as a summary.

European history is fraught with genocidal tragedies inextricably linked to imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. Since the 15th century, Europeans and their colonial descendants have perpetrated countless acts of slaughter in the name of their own betterment. This essay will review some of these links in various eras, from the expansionist period of early 16th century through the 19th century, with conclusions on what we might learn from this terrible history.

Genocidal Expansion

Genocide is not an occurrence unique to European societies. The history of conquest tells us that many expansionist cultures have slaughtered and enslaved conquered peoples. For European societies, this conquest commenced from a standpoint of moral and genetic superiority. 

From the very first encounters with indigenous people by Columbus, it was clear that Spain had no interest in honoring any human rights that stood in the way of their personal profit. Almost immediately the explorer began to disenfranchise the inhabitants of these new, coveted lands. This primarily happened through deception and exemplary displays of brutality. Though these initial exchanges were not nearly as violent as typical conquest, they would still exact a similarly high toll on the losing party. 

The next wave of Spanish ships sent to the Americas did not consist simply of merchants and explorers, but conquistadores sent to find new riches for the Spanish crown. This trend of assumed dominance, followed by trickery and violence, would continue for the remainder of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. As the Spanish encountered a new civilization, they would seek to decapitate it by killing or subjugating its leadership. Failure would result in a bloody battle for control, often using rival tribes and factions to augment Spanish manpower.

The conquest of the Mexica was not only among the largest of the conquistadores’ prizes, however it was probably the most brutal of their conquests. The devastation was immense, as many as 240,000 Mexica were slain in the capture of Tenochtitlan alone (Cocker 72). The Mexican capital was completely destroyed. Not long after, the new rulers would enslave much of the remaining population and put them to work mining valuable silver. The brutal labor and treatment would soon deplete the Mexican workforce to the breaking point, spurring the Spanish to switch their cheap slave labor to imported Africans.

The story of the Mexica was not unique, though. The Caribbean saw much the same treatment on a smaller scale. Indigenous peoples were conquered by decree and enslaved on plantations, later to be replaced by African slaves. The Incas were victims of a shock and awe campaign, giving the Spaniards an edge that allowed them to take control of the kingdom and strip it of gold. The indigenous population of the Americas was reduced by as much as 90% between 1492 and 1800 through conquests and imported disease (Kalivas).

Spain was not alone in its genocidal colonization. Portugal’s colonization of Brazil was less violent but no less costly due to imported disease, instigating the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Tignor 536-537). English colonies in North America began the push that would ultimately lead to the near extinction of natives in the area now known as the United States. In the century spanning 1775-1875 at least 56,750 Native North Americans were killed, though some estimate the toll to be much greater (Jaimes 35). England would later colonize Australia where the settlers would crowd out and battle with Aborigines until their population would dwindle from as high as 1,000,000 down to as low as 50,000 (Cocker 177-178). The toll on Tasmanian Aborigines due to English settlement was worse still, they were driven to the very brink of extinction. In Africa colonization and colonial war by the Belgian, British, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish would cost 330,000 African lives, further dwindling a population ravaged by the slave trade (Cocker 292).

Attitudes and Excuses

Christian Europeans faced a dilemma with their colonization and slavery. The brutal acts of violence and subhuman treatment of Native Americans, Africans and Aborigines were contrary to their religious beliefs and the professed moral stance of the day.  To make up for these discrepancies, Europeans developed a number of attitudes towards indigenous peoples and excuses for their actions.

Upon Columbus’s initial voyage his goal was for profit and to increase the power of the Spanish kingdom (Kalivas). He achieved this goal in a very different way than he planned, but it never ceased to be his goal. Thus, when he landed at San Salvador on October 12, 1492 his intent was to establish new trade, not to discover new land. The discovery became an opportunity for profits and the expansion of the reach of both the Spanish and Christian empires.

The expansion of the Christian empire was perhaps more important. The idea of spreading Christianity not only gave Europeans a perceived moral authority, but a divine mandate. With this mandate in hand, any newfound land could be claimed in the name of Spain or Portugal upon its discovery. In 1512 the Laws of Burgos were put in place, stating that colonists must convert Caribbean people to Christianity. The following year the Requerimiento was added to these laws, allowing conquistadores to decree the land in the name of its new masters (Cocker, 15).

Another religious aspect of the European views on indigenous people is the un-Christian culture of their societies. One of the first differences noticed in the Caribbean and South Pacific was that many societies went without clothing. The people of these lands held differing views on agriculture, especially in island societies with smaller populations where large farming operations were unheard of. Europeans saw this as uncivilized and un-Christian, and sought to instill a more traditional – in their view – work ethic. 

The work ethic and farming practices of indigenous peoples would serve another purpose to justify European land seizure. These different practices were seen as neglectful of the land, and thus forfeit any ownership claims that may otherwise be afforded. European ideas of ownership hinged on work put into that land. When work was not evident, the Europeans conveniently interpreted the land as free to claim.

The most disturbing attitude taken against indigenous people by Europeans is the belief that they were not people at all, or were at least less evolved than white Europeans. Several early conquistadores took this view before the Pope declared Indians to be “true men” in 1537 (Cocker 13). However this fallacy continued to be applied throughout the world, especially towards black people. The Germans would employ the same attitude in Africa (Cocker 348). The British too would take this stance when dealing with Aborigines. The United States also clung to various interpretations of this concept until after the Civil War.

It is to be expected that with this belief of genetic superiority came inhumane treatment. In virtually every case of colonization some form of slavery was enacted to provide cheap labor for the betterment of colonists or their mother countries. In cases such as Tasmania the non-human status would lead to incidents where Aborigines were hunted like animals.

Even as some of these attitudes and theories lost favor they were replaced by other, similarly repugnant ideas. The most notorious of these ideas is a theory known as “Social Darwinism.” Social Darwinism is a sociological theory that implements natural selection at a societal level. The adherents to this theory believed that the European societies were predestined to dominance because their conceptualization of society was superior.


At the dawn of the 16th century European societies began an expansionist colonization period that lasted for centuries. This colonization ravaged nations, robbing them of wealth and disempowering or slaughtering indigenous people. European expansion began for reasons of commerce and religious expansion, but soon turned into brutal imperialism. Europeans developed ways to excuse their imperialism in every instance. This was necessary for Europe to continue to enjoy the benefits of colonization while ignoring the cultural inconsistencies of colonial effects.

The outcome of this colonization could have been better. In most cases the Europeans were greeted peacefully and natives welcomed the initial contact. There is no justifiable reason for the genocide that followed such a reception. The collective conscience of European societies knew these acts were wrong. Instead of correcting their actions, they developed a line of excuses to justify them. Such excuses should be recognized and openly rejected, lest we repeat the results.

Works Cited

Cocker, Mark. Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Print.

Jaimes, M. A. The state of native america, genocide, colonization, and resistance. South End Pr, 1992. 35.

Kalivas, David. "Discovery and Expansion." World Civilization II. University of Massachusetts Lowell. 6 Feb 2012. Lecture.

Kalivas, David. "The World and Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade." World Civilization II. University of Massachusetts Lowell. 3 March 2012. Lecture.

Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. WORLDS TOGETHER, WORLDS APART: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BEGINNINGS OF HUMA. 2nd. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008. Print

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