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Pushing and Shoving

RIVERS OF BLOOD, RIVERS OF GOLD, Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples By Mark Cocker; Grove Press: 432 pp., $30

August 27, 2000|ALFRED W. CROSBY

"Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold" is a heroic attempt at an appreciation (or, really, depreciation) of the European invasion of lands outside Eurasia and the subjugation of their peoples in the last 500 years. The subject is too vast for anything approaching full coverage, so Mark Cocker offers case studies instead: the Spaniards in central Mexico circa 1520, the British in Tasmania in the 19th century, the Americans in Apache territory (Arizona, New Mexico and adjacent Mexico) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Germans in Southwest Africa (Namibia) in the same decades. Usually fire-walled one from the other in national history books, all are examples of the same phenomenon, European imperialism. The book includes brief analyses of how the invaders as well as the politicians and intellectuals back home justified the invasions.

"Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold" is as angry as Emile Zola's account of the Dreyfus Affair, "J'Accuse"--angrier, in fact, because Cocker's subject is injustice committed against whole peoples, not just one man, and the crime includes slaughter, not just false accusation and incarceration. The invaders in these four cases resorted to as much murder as it took (and, often, a bit more than that) to break the resistance of the people fighting to maintain independence and control of their traditional lands. The invaders, to quote the Roman Tacitus on his government's policies, "made a wilderness and called it peace."

Can the dread word "genocide" be applied? There has been a great deal of debate over whether these imperialists were consciously practicing genocide or simply trying to protect themselves and to subdue indigenous populations and eliminate them as claimants for land. I take genocide to mean the attempt to eliminate a people. "Ethnic cleansing" (can that addition to our vocabulary be attributed to Serbia?) is the attempt to make people go away and disappear. There is a third category: the subjugation by whatever force necessary of a people in order to reduce them to slaves, either de jure or de facto. Genocide, if successful, means 100% mortality among the attacked. Ethnic cleansing, if successful, may leave survivors--somewhere. Subjugation is, by definition, intended to leave survivors and, if they proliferate in numbers while remaining obedient, that fits nicely into the subjugator's plans.

Alfred W. Crosby is the author of "Ecological Imperialism," "The Columbian Exchange," "America's Forgotten Pandemic" and "The Measure of Reality."

Did the European imperialists commit any and all of these? Oh, yes, indeed. Europeans and their overseas descendants were the worse things that ever happened to the native peoples of the lands Cocker discusses. That is nigh onto a simple fact, one that I recommend Euro-Americans like myself recognize so we can get on with dealing sensibly with the resulting problems. It happened before and is still happening. The Turks are the worst thing that ever happened to the Armenians; the Germans are the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews; the Hutu and Tutsi are at present the worst things that ever happened to each other. History is the story of pushing and shoving: repairing at least some of the damage begins only when the successful pushers and shovers acknowledge what they've done.

"Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold" is a good place for white folks to start. Cocker is more than a purveyor of horror stories running for political office or for the bestseller list. He condemns invaders but does not make angels of the invaded. They had been pushing and shoving one another before the Europeans arrived and could be very stupid in dealing with the white threat, joining up with the invaders for loot and to settle old feuds. However, their chief problem was not their own shortcomings but white aggression, vicious and sustained beyond any they had previously known. The invaders treated them all, Aztec urbanites and Tasmanian hunters and gatherers, with great consistency. The indigenes weren't Europeans and weren't enthusiastic about becoming like them. They did not practice monogamy, believe in one god or wear many clothes. They were not alphabetically literate or sufficiently obedient, and they often occupied valuable land and possessed things worth having. They were either in the way or were needed as converts and laborers but never as desirable neighbors.

Cocker's thesis is a simple one. Europeans and their overseas descendants must acknowledge that the white invasions amount "to one of the great acts of human destruction, comparable to the Nazi Holocaust, or the Stalinist purges of the Soviet Union, or the mass slaughters of communist China." Those who disagree with him insist that Hitler and Stalin murdered millions and European imperialists murdered only thousands, usually only hundreds. Their additional victims died of starvation, disease and anomie. So what? Cocker's statement is one with which the informed must agree.

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