We will be staying with the Indians here, as Zinn had a soft spot in his heart for Native Americans, who, in his view, could do no wrong. We’ve already looked at the “Columbian exchange,” but Zinn doesn’t stop there. When the English arrived at Jamestown, then Plymouth, Zinn renews his war on whites.
Before he can get there, though, Zinn has to explain away the brutality of the Aztecs. You remember them? They sacrificed people alive, cutting out the hearts of live victims on an altar and kicking the bodies into Lake Texcoco. In one ceremony alone in 1547, they sacrificed 80,000 prisoners at a rate of 14 a minute, which Victor Davis Hanson called a rate that “far exceeded the daily murder record of either Auschwitz or Dachau.” It is a myth that the Aztecs thought Cortez and his men were gods, as they already had killed many; and while they may not have seen horses in their lifetimes, there were cave paintings indicating that they knew about the massive wild herds that had since been exterminated in Central America. Nor did disease lead to the conquest of the Aztecs: smallpox was an equal opportunity killer. For every Aztec it killed, it killed a Spaniard—the relative superiority of the Aztecs never changed.
No one is sure why the conflict erupted between the Spaniards and the Aztecs. Apparently the Spaniards were invited (or lured) into the center of Tenochtitlan. Zinn makes it appear that Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, suddenly had doubts about Cortez’s divinity (untrue) and urge him to “go back” before Cortez started a “march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec . . . .” Well, no. Cortez actually allied with other Indians who hated the Aztecs (gee, I wonder why?). In particular, the Tlaxcalans saw their wives and children slaughtered by the Aztecs, and many other tribes gravitated toward them to resist the evil Aztecs. Nowhere does Zinn explain that the Spaniards were outnumbered 100 to one, and that even with Indian allies, they were likely outnumbered at least four to one; or that the Spaniards arrived with a vastly superior fighting style, not to mention better weapons. The Aztecs did not eve have the wheel in the early 1500s, while the wheel had been available in Europe and Asia for centuries. Yep, they were “advanced.” Their architecture was impressive, but like that of the Egyptians was mainly constructed to celebrate death, not to improve the lives of the living.
Clueless Zinn then brushes past Juan Pizarro and the Incas, where again Spaniards numbering perhaps 80 subdued an indigenous populate many times their number. Why? Is Zinn not at all interested in how so few were able to so easily subjugate so many? Especially when the many were supposedly of such intelligence and virtue that they should have easily resisted.
In fact, as Victor Davis Hanson shows in his landmark Carnage and Culture, the Spaniards were representative of all Europeans in their ability to fight based on a “western way of war.” This involved staying in rank rather than running off into melee combat; a free society that either elected its officers or could typically confer with them in counsels of war; an economy driven by openness and reason; and above all, an army of mostly free soldiers who were fighting for individual reasons, not because they were slaves of a king. These traits, Hanson shows, allowed 1,000 Spaniards, in the heart of Tenochtitlan, to outfight 100,000 Aztecs and get back to their base at Vera Cruz. While the Aztecs had “water boats,” when the Spaniards returned the had carried over land “brigantines”—a single cannon, 18-foot-long European style boat that was superior to anything the Aztecs had.
In short, by glossing over the evil nature of Aztec society, and by ignoring the backwardness of all the New World Indians, Zinn attempts to create a pastoral fantasy of people living in peace. It was exactly the opposite. The Aztecs and Incas both ruled with terror over a slave population.
When we get to Jamestown, Zinn presents a conflict that occurred with chief Powhatan, who refused to turn over some runaways in 1610. Recalling that Zinn doesn’t “do” footnotes or endnotes, he refers to an anonymous “English account” and quotes a speech from Powhaten that even Zinn admits “may be in doubt.” But, hey, trust old Howie: even if he didn’t know the “rough letter” of the speech, he claimed to capture its “exact spirit.” In other words, Zinn has no idea what happened. At any rate, the colonists killed about 20 Indians, then 12 years later the Indians retaliated killing 347 English. Zinn sees this as fair play. When the English counterattacked and burned Indian villages, Zinn described this as “terror.”
Moving to the Massachusetts colonies, Zinn ignores the fact that the Pilgrims landed on uninhabited land because plague had driven out the local Patuxet village and possibly wiped them all out. Squanto (“Tisquantum”) was one of the Patuxet’s who had been captured by Englishman Thomas Hunt (interestingly, on an expedition led by the same John Smith from the Jamestown colony, who disagreed with Hunt’s decision to capture Indians) and sold in Spain. Squanto escaped, somehow got to England, and came into the care of monks who educated him and taught him English. While in England, he lived with a merchant and shipbuilder, and eventually was on an expedition to Newfoundland He managed to return to America in 1619 to find his village gone. When the Pilgrims arrived just six months later, Squanto brokered a peace between them and another local tribe, the Pokanokets, whereupon he lived with the Pilgrims for 20 months, according to Wikipedia, “as a translator, guide, and advisor.” He assisted the Pilgrims in planting and using native fertilizers, because many of the seeds they had brought from England failed. But the colonists still needed more food, and Squanto led a trading expedition throughout the region. On this trek, he fell ill, and William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, stayed with him for several days, before Squanto died. Bradford referred to Squanto as a “special instrument sent of God.”
Yeah, those evil Pilgrims.
What Zinn never even attempts to grapple with is that Europeans had a fundamentally different understanding of private property rights than did the Indians, namely they had “private property with written titles and deeds.” Without a written language—hence contracts—it was impossible to arrive at, or enforce, peaceful agreements. Almost immediately differences of who said what, or where lines were, came into play. But more important, the European notion of privatizing property was simply unheard of in many Indian tribes. While they might have private weapons or, further west, horses, they did not conceive that it was possible to “own” land, let alone develop it over a long period of time. It is this primary difference between not just Indians and British or Indians and Spanish, but Europeans and almost all other indigenous cultures in Africa, Latin America, and North America that constituted the void over which the two sides could never cross. It was a fundamental different in reality, as different as Christianity is from reincarnation or worship of rocks and trees.
Equally important, Zinn fails to understand that all of the Indians in the region viewed the new visitors as potential allies, or, at the very least, buffers to other tribes, some of whom were enemies. For example, the Wampanoag Indians were to the Plymouth colony’s north; the Pkanoket to the north, east, and south, and the Narragansett in Rhode Island. Chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoags, according to Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War) convened a council of shamans, but Massasoit also listened to Squanto’s advice. Squanto told the cheif of what he had seen in England and suggested that an alliance with the English would cause every other tribe to “bowe to him.”
What happened next was most un-Zinn-like and totally amazing. Led by Edward Winslow, the colonists had sent an expedition to meet with Massasoit, with Squanto shuttling back and forth as the interpreter. Miles Standish led Massasoit to a house where Governor Carver and Winslow greeted him with “Drumme and Trumpet” and a feast. Pillows had been spread about as Indians and whites sat to negotiate a treaty. The governor kissed Massasoit’s hand, and vice versa; then they agreed not to attack or “injure” each other’s people; to return offenders of the peace to the other side for punishment; to return any captives taken; and most important to mutual defense if either was attacked. This was remarkable for the English had committed themselves to the defense of Native Americans. They also agreed that visitors from one group to the other would leave their weapons outside the camps.
But the most amazing thing is yet to come: In 1623, word came to the Pilgrims that Massassoit was quite ill. Winslow, John Hamden, and a new interpreter, Hobbomock (Squanto died in 1622) made the trek to visit Massasoit and to bring medicinal herbs. Masssasoit recovered so fast that Winslow said “We with admiration blessed God for giving his blessing to such raw and ignorant means, making no doubt of his recovery. Massasoit said “Now I see that the English are my friends and love me, and whilst I live, I will never forget this kindness they showed me.” You won’t find that in People’s History.
One last footnote to the Indian-White relations. After a long peace between the Wampanoags and Pilgrims, when Massasoit died, his son Metacom became chief ot the Pokanoket Wampanoag tribe and allowed the alliance to collapse. The governor of Plymouth at the time was Edward Winslow’s son, Josiah. He helped initiate a war with Metacom by arresting Wamsutta, who had sold a parcel of land in defiance of a Plymouth law that prohibited commerce with the Indians. The purpose of the law was to ensure that whites did not take advantage of Indian concepts of property and cheat them. It didn’t help that Wamsutta was Metacom’s older brother. This would touch off what is called “King Philip’s War.” The colonists called Metacom by his English name, Philip, and at one point Metacom said since he was a king, he would only negotiate with the English king, hence the appellation “King” Philip. It wasn’t a compliment!
Isn’t it interesting therefore that the sons of Winslow and Massasoit, who had brokered a peace that lasted nearly 50 years, ended that peace by obstinance and pettiness?