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The Fruitless Search for the Noble Savage
There is a fashion among historians and current social thinkers to regard the European conquest and colonization of the New World as uniformly exploitive, destructive, and essentially evil,
That it was all of those things I have no doubt. But the notion that these aggressive, exploitive strangers destroyed some idyllic native culture; or collection of cultures; which had somehow achieved a “natural” state of equilibrium with their environment is -- balderdash!
Native American society was in a continual state of flux, before the Europeans’ arrival. There is pretty good evidence that they hadn’t been here, themselves, in any numbers for more than 12 or 13 thousand years; that they rocked the hell out of the environment in the process of settling it; and that they weren’t in general any nicer to each other than the invading Europeans were to their own neighbors in the Old World, or ultimately to them.
Certainly there were tribes of “Indians” who seem to have had sophisticated and admirable - according to our definitions - social and political structures -- and who were decimated and essentially destroyed by European conquest and interference.
And there were others who were simply horrendous! It is a matter of record that the Aztecs fell to a few hundred dysentery-ridden Spaniards largely because they were so hated by their neighbors that the neighbors refused to help them and many even banded together to help the Spaniards.
The Azetca were so crashingly unpopular because of their own highhanded and exploitive traditions, complicated by a sadomasochistic blood cult that murdered thousands of people -- mostly captured from their hapless neighbors -- every year in elaborate religious rituals.
In more ways than one the Aztecs and the 15th-Century Spaniards (in the throes of the Inquisition at home in Iberia) were brethren under the skin and they probably deserved one another.
Most every modestly dispassionate student of Meso-American history knows this much and might even be prepared to admit that the conquest of Tenochtitlan -- while accompanied by unforgivable acts of artistic, economic and architectural vandalism - - was not entirely a Bad Thing for most of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico.
Not an objectively Good Thing, either, mind you; but not all bad. One can have grave doubts, even, about the ultimate benefits of the influence of the Catholic Church throughout the region and still feel that the average Mexican Indian is probably better off than she or he might have been if they were the products of the last 500 years of domination by the Aztecs; or whoever, in the “natural,” purely Western Hemispheric course of things, came after them.
Because the sad and unavoidable truth is that the Aztecs, with their bloodthirsty, paranoid religion and their autocratic, militaristic political structure, were only one of the many such societies in what is now Meso-America. They may, indeed, have been objectively the worst, but their elaborate rituals of blood sacrifice and traditions of making cruel, murderous war upon their neighbors were the rule, rather than the exception, in that corner of the Native American world.
It is only ironic that the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the products of many generations of desensitizing religious rituals, intercultural wars, and cultural practices (bullfighting and the Inquisition, for example) on the margins of the Roman Empire and at the frontier of Christendom should have been chosen by the vagaries of history to overrun these “original” American societies.
But, then, what society in Conquering Europe was much better? (It is dangerous to apply “modern” sensibilities to more “primitive” times and places.)
To return to my original premise; how much of what they destroyed was truly Eden?
Rather than try to ethically parse history, better to simply use it as an example; horrible or shining, as the case may be.