The Discovery of the New World: A Candid Appraisal, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 17, January 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112

 The Discovery of the New World: A Candid Appraisal
Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)

On Friday, the 12th October, 1492, Christopher Columbus had his first sight of the New World. Having underestimated the size of the Earth, he thought at the time he had reached the East Indies. Many since have thought he had discovered America. In fact, what he saw was probably Watling Island, one of the smaller Bahamas. Even so, that first sighting, nearly 500 years ago, was an event of incalculable importance.

For Europe, it was a great, if conditional blessing. From America came an immense gush of the precious metals. This allowed the Spanish and Portuguese governments to wreck their national economies and not suffer the worst effects for nearly a century. But it also contributed to the spread and success of the Reformation in northern Europe; and, by devaluing its hereditary revenues, helped destroy the independent power of the Crown in England. It was from America that tobacco came – the joy and solace of uncounted millions ever since. It was to America that Europeans went to settle; and the growth of their settlements was to hasten the triumph of our civilisation over all others. It may have been from America that syphilis came – and this was at first a more virulent and painful condition than it later became. But, considering the general balance of advantage, Europe gained considerably from the discovery of America.

My current subject, though, is not the effects on Europe of the discovery, but on the native Indians. For them, the effects were disastrous without precedent. Once recovered from their astonishment at the sight of Columbus and his officers, the Watling Islanders brought down gifts to the shore. Almost wherever else the Europeans touched for the first time in the New World, they received an equally generous welcome. Sometimes, they were even worshipped as gods come, according to an old promise, back down from Heaven. What they gave in return was death. It is an old but quite absurd claim that, before the white men came, the American Indians lived at harmony with nature and each other. Some of them were cannibals. The most civilised among them practised human sacrifice. The Inca ruling classes presided over a totalitarian slave empire. Yet, there can be no doubt that they lived better by the very worst of their own customs than under their first European rulers. For what the conquest brought them was not mere domination, but destruction.

The early Spanish authorities are all agreed that parts of South America were very densely populated. They tell of large towns with crowded markets, and of the perpetual traffic between them; of the elaborate and labour-intensive farming in the countryside; of the huge standing armies maintained by the Inca and Aztec em- pires. Until recently, these authorities were consistently disbelieved. Where they spoke of millions, the later historians, looking at the current state of those areas, would accept only tens of thousands. This has now changed. The total population of the Americas before 1492 has been estimated at about one hundred million, and of Mexico alone at about thirty million. It appears that, during the sixteenth century, there occurred the greatest demographic collapse of which we have record. By 1568, the Indian population of Mexico had fallen to three million, and, by 1620, still further to about 1.6 million. In similar proportion, the collapse was repeated elsewhere.[1]

This was mostly an effect of the unknowing introduction of European diseases. Isolated for thousands of years, the Indians had acquired no resistance either to smallpox and typhus or to what in the Old World had long since become fairly harmless childhood infections: they lay down and died in their millions where the Europeans only sickened.

There was also the introduction of European habits. As the docile property of their rulers, the Indians had been restrained from all but the ceremonial use of intoxicants. Drunkenness had sometimes been punishable by death. Coca leaves were reserved to the upper classes. The Spanish had no interest in keeping these restrictions. Instead, they set an example by their own frequent drinking of wine and spirits; and they made the sale of coca leaves into a very profitable business. As with the aborigines of Australia, alcoholism and other dependences may have depressed the birth rate.

But there was also deliberate cruelty. For all their apparent wealth and high civilisation, even the Aztecs and Incas were so far behind Europe in their weaponry that resistance was useless. As pagans, they could claim no mercy on the grounds of a common fellowship in Christ. If they converted, they were still seen as little more than “beasts who talked”. The only settled governments to which they could have appealed for justice were three thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and had less interest in their fate than in what could be plundered from them. They fell under the absolute sway of a class of adventurers restrained by considerations neither of religion nor of prudence.

The results are described in the works of the Spanish friar Bartolome de Las Casas. Read aloud to the Court of Charles V, his Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies caused a sensation. It tells of women first gagged to muffle their screams, and then slowly roated to death in straw; of other women spreadeagled on beds of nails and raped in sight of their impaled husbands; of live burials, castrations, beatings, mass- enslavement. The illustrations added by Theodore De Bry to the Latin version were so shocking that one was omitted from an English translation published in 1898.

As a specific example of his style, take the following:

The Spaniards found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties, the more cruel the better, with which to spill human blood. They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [Indians] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles. When the Indians were still alive and hanging, the Spaniards tested their strength and their blades against them, ripping chests open with one blow and exposing entrails, and there were those who did worse. Then straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive…. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write, not believing them myself, afraid that perhaps I was dreaming. But truly, this sort of thing has happened all over the Indies, and more cruelly too sometimes, and I am quite sure that I have not forgotten.[1]

It was by continual publicity of this sort that the worst abuses were curbed. But, while the authorities were unsparing in what they said, the Indians were too valuable a commodity ever to be granted more than a fictitious legal equality. If their status was raised from that of objects to be destroyed at will, it was to that of serfs. Under the encomienda system, they provided tribute and labour to their masters, and in return were to be instructed in the Catholic religion. The forced labour system in the silver and mercury mines shocked civilised opinion with its cruelty. But, here, the government in Madrid fell silent: it was only American silver that kept the Spanish treasury solvent.

Now, it has not here been my intention to add to the flood of self-hatred and denigration that has poured from Western presses during this quincentennial year of Columbus’ voyage. When I contemplate his first landing and all that came from it, I feel not the smallest twinge of guilt. It is not my fault if the American Indians were badly treated by their European conquerors. Nor is it my fault if those that are left remain poor and oppressed. My food is not snatched from their mouths, nor my clothing from their backs. I feel sorry for their plight, but not in the least responsible for it.

Nor, to respond to a more abstract attack, do I feel there to be anything about Western civilisation that is uniquely horrible. Compared with most others, our civilisation is – and always has been – rather gentle, and even sentimental, in its treatment of outsiders. The concept of a single human race is, after all, Western – as are the developed concepts of justice, tolerance, and property. I might also mention that all those sciences worth knowing, together with the free market capitalism that has funded their progress, are wholly or largely Western in their origin. Without the civilisation which has been so variously bitterly and gleefully condemned this year, humanity would now comprise about a tenth of its actual numbers, and that tenth would still be grubbing in filth.

No, the real moral of my piece is that, even in the West, power in the first instance is everything. The Indians suffered purely because they were weak. They possessed what was wanted by an immensely more powerful group, and little point was seen at first in trading with them when it was only slightly harder to despoil them. There is no reason to believe that, had the relative positions of America and Europe in civilisation been reversed, much the same atrocities would not have been committed, but in another part of the world. From the earliest predatory raids of one tribe on another to the latest bullying in the school playground, there has been a natural tendency for the strong to tyrannise over the weak. What balance and moderation there is presently to be seen in human affairs comes not so much from a love of justice as from a balance of forces.

Therefore, all all feelings of pity for the them aside, our chief response to any account of how the American Indians suffered is to rejoice that we do not currently seem about to share their fate. This done, we should then reflect on the reasons for our immunity from conquest and despoliation, and on the perfectly evident means by which we may ensure that we never shall lose that immunity.

Certainly, this is at variance with the mood of political correctness in which the discovery has been commemorated this time round. But this says more about the natural ends of political correctness than about my own views on this or any other matter.


1. William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 189 et infra. See also Chapter 11 of J.H. Parry, The Spanish Seabourne Empire, Hutchinson, London, 1966.

2. Bartolomé de las CasasBartolomé de las Casas, History of the Indies, translated and edited by Andre Collard, Harper and Row, New York, 1971, p. 121 (Bk 2, c 17). 

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