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by Louis Proyect
25 February 2002 22:48 UTC
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(This is an excerpt from an extraordinary article titled "1491" by 
Charles C. Mann that appears in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly, 
which is unfortunately not online. For anybody who has even the 
slightest interest in the sort of questions that Jim Blaut raised in 
his books and that I have raised online should seek this article 

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of 
the world's largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan dazzled 
Hernan Cortes in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest 
metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, 
ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from 
hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with 
botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in 
Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that 
kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren't ankle-deep 
in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) 
Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of 
miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 
1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land 
was "so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited 
with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people ... [that] I would 
rather live here than any where."

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. 
But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European 
life. France-"by any standards a privileged country" according to its 
great historian, Fernand Braudel-experienced seven nationwide famines 
in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was 
hunger's constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were 
heaped onto carts "like common dung" (the simile is Daniel Defoe's) 
and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London 
orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. 
Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking 
up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, 
"merely a realistic detail."

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson's history of Indian America, puts 
the comparison bluntly: "the western hemisphere was larger, richer, 
and more populous than Europe." Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, 
accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, 
were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for 
human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North 
America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were 
absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams 
wrote, "they will not conclude of ought ... unto which the people are 

Pre-1492 America wasn't a disease-free paradise, Dobyns says, 
although in his "exuberance as a writer," he told me recently, he 
once made that claim. Indians had ailments of their own, notably 
parasites, tuberculosis, and anemia. The daily grind was wearing; 
life-spans in America were only as long as or a little longer than 
those in Europe, if the evidence of indigenous graveyards is to be 
believed. Nor was it a political Utopia-the Inca, for instance, 
invented refinements to totalitarian rule that would have intrigued 
Stalin. Inveterate practitioners of what the historian Francis 
Jennings described as "state terrorism practiced horrifically on a 
huge scale," the Inca ruled so cruelly that one can speculate that 
their surviving subjects might actually have been better off under 
Spanish rule.

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they 
would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 
1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging 
the past by the standards of today-a fallacy disparaged as 
"presentism" by social scientists. But every one chose to be an 
Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the 
leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live 
with the Indians. My ancestor shared dieir desire, which is what led 
to the trumped-up murder charges against him- or that's what my 
grandfather told me, anyway.

As for the Indians, evidence suggests that they often viewed 
Europeans with disdain. The Hurons, a chagrined missionary reported, 
thought the French possessed "little intelligence in comparison to 
themselves." Europeans, Indians said, were physically weak, sexually 
untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain dirty. (Spaniards, 
who seldom if ever bathed, were amazed by die Aztec desire for 
personal cleanliness.) A Jesuit reported that the "Savages" were 
disgusted by handkerchiefs: "They say, we place what is unclean in a 
fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as 
something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground." The 
Micmac scoffed at the notion of French superiority. If Christian 
civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants leaving?

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 02/25/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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