Reviewed by Guido G.B. Deimel
Who was Christopher Columbus? Every schoolboy knows, he discovered America. But in reality America had been discovered by Native Americans thousands of years before. What would Spaniards of the sixteenth century have said, had Native Americans landed at Spain's shores and proclaimed to have discovered Europe?
Who knows that Columbus, prior to his career as a sailor, had been a slave trader by profession who would become a holy crusader and personally responsible for the killing of about half a million Natives and that it was already Columbus who introduced those measures generally attributed to later conquistadors, such as enslaving Indians and hunting them down with dogs?
In "American Holocaust. Columbus and the Conquest of the New World" (Oxford University Press 1992), David E. Stannard not only dispels common myths, he tells the reader what was lost: the incredible variety of cultures and the impressive achievements Native Americans had developed throughout the millennia. How well known is the fact that most Native Americans were living in towns and villages as farmers, long before Columbus and that the majority of Native societies in Northern America was organized democratically, including women's right to vote, long before such an idea was conceivable to Europeans? How well known is it that - unlike European cities of the time - the magnificent capital of the Aztec society took its "drinking water ... from springs ... piped into the city by a huge aquaeduct system" that amazed the Spaniards (p. 5), just as they were amazed at the city's cleanliness and order: "at least 1000 public workers were employed to maintain the city's streets and keep them clean" (p. 5).
When Columbus and a handful of Spanish sailors landed in the Caribbean, this was the beginning of "far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world" (p. x) and cost more than a hundred million lives in five centuries: "To put this in a contemporary context, the ratio of native survivorship in the Americas following European contact was less than half of what the human survivorship would be in the United States today if every single white person and every single black person died" (p. x).
How well known is it that in the Spanish missions in California the Natives were forced to do slave labor and died in thousands and that the missions were "furnaces of death that sustained their Indian population levels for as long as they did only by driving more and more natives into their confines" (p. 137) ?
Stannard's main goal, however, is to find an answer to the question of which European cultural and religious traditions and precepts lead to this carnage and why these proved so lethal to the Native American cultures. His finds of theological predecessors of racist ideas - such as the Spaniard Sepulveda's discussion about whether the Natives were humans at all, or the widespread idea that the New World had been given to the Christians just as Canaan had been given to the Jews - are very thought provoking and insightful and to some readers certainly provocative.
Reading about hideous and appalling atrocities committed against Native Americans sometimes made me feel angry, sometimes very sad, yet Stannard writes always in a fair and calm manner, and - unlike many scholarly works - his book kept me fascinated from the first page to the last.