Guns, Empires and Indians

Roundup
tags: guns, empire, Native Americans



David J Silverman is a professor of history at George Washington University, where he specializes in Native American, Colonial American, and American racial history. His latest book is Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (2016).

It has become commonplace to attribute the European conquest of the Americas to Jared Diamond’s triumvirate of guns, germs and steel. Germs refer to plague, measles, flu, whooping cough and, especially, the smallpox that whipsawed through indigenous populations, sometimes with a mortality rate of 90 per cent. The epidemics left survivors ill-equipped to fend off predatory encroachments, either from indigenous or from European peoples, who seized captives, land and plunder in the wake of these diseases.

Guns and steel, of course, represent Europeans’ technological prowess. Metal swords, pikes, armour and firearms, along with ships, livestock and even wheeled carts, gave European colonists significant military advantages over Native American people wielding bows and arrows, clubs, hatchets and spears. The attractiveness of such goods also meant that Indians desired trade with Europeans, despite the danger the newcomers represented. The lure of trade enabled Europeans to secure beachheads on the East Coast of North America, and make inroads to the interior of the continent. Intertribal competition for European trade also enabled colonists to employ ‘divide and conquer’ strategies against much larger indigenous populations.

Diamond’s explanation has grown immensely popular and influential. It appears to be a simple and sweeping teleology providing order and meaning to the complexity of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere. The guns, germs and steel perspective has helped further understanding of some of the major forces behind globalisation. But it also involves a level of abstraction that risks obscuring the history of individuals and groups whose experiences cannot be so aptly and neatly summarised.

Invoking guns, germs and steel, or Alfred Crosby’s older catchphrase ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics’ (1976), as a blanket explanation for colonial American history can fundamentally misrepresent the historical experience. It can both erase the experiences of some Native peoples that did not adhere to these schemas, and reduce the staggering violence that Euro-Americans inflicted on Native people to a kind of over-determined background noise.

At a time when people are debating the nature and origins of globalisation, and the making and meaning of modern American society, we need a careful and more sophisticated understanding of this crucial chapter in history. Similarly, thinking of Indians as pawns in a fixed game overlooks how many of them harnessed colonial forces to their own agendas, for greater or lesser periods of time. Many Native peoples carved out lives for themselves amid the destructiveness and degradation of Euro-American rule. ...




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