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American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World

Posted on July 10th, 2020 in Literature Reviews by José "Pepe" Llanuras

Episodios de la Conquista: La matanza de Cholula

Aptly titled American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, David Stannard does not shy from broadcasting his intentions and the nature of his work: an exploration of the colonization of the Americas as a holocaust of its inhabitants. Even before reaching the first pages of the book, Stannard confronts the reader with the vileness of the word "holocaust." Stannard articulates the state of Native American societies pre-invasion, describing the violent and disturbing actions of European colonists and their creation of structures to institutionalize the racist European worldview. The outcome of Stannard's analysis is a scathing polemic against American colonization with his background as a PhD in American Studies alongside his longstanding partnership with prominent historian and anti-imperialist, Haunani-Kay Trask. By the works closing, Stannard horrifyingly validates his choice of the word holocaust, not solely as a mechanism of prose but also of an egregious and undeniable fact; a holocaust was and is being perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of America.

The opening chapter of American Holocaust resembles a calm before the storm. Titled "Before Columbus," this chapter illustrates the splendor and breadth of Native American society and culture before its depredations at the hands of Columbus. Stannard details the marvels of American society in its architecture, societal structures, and technological advances, recounting the sprawling empires of the Aztecs and Incas from numerous primary sources. He plucks the awe from the Spaniards' mouths as they witness "the many streets and boulevards of the city [that] were so neat and well-swept, despite [the] multitudes of inhabitants" of the city of Tenochtitlán. From the Aztec capital, Stannard weaves a history of the indigenous peoples' origins as they journeyed "from Berengia to North and South America," while recounting the physical achievements of the First Peoples. Stanndard's multidisciplinary approach enables him to paint a detailed historical, sociological, and anthropological survey of Native American societies.

Rendering of Tenochtitlan in its prime.Rendering of Tenochtitlan in its prime.

Stannard slowly dissolves the myth of Native American societies being weak and feeble, which later 'succumbed' to a 'handful' of European men; Native American architecture proved otherwise. Stannard employs the words of the colonizer to portray the breadth of awe that Native American societies gave them; he did not need to drive his point home, letting the Spaniards make this case for him. Cortés wrote, "There are many sorts of spun cotton, in hanks of every color, and it seems like the silk market of Granada, except here there is much greater quantity." Native American society is shown by Stannard to be on par or having surpassed that of the Europeans. Besides their architectural achievements, the complexity of indigenous logistics confounded the Spanish. Employing another primary source in describing the massive network of roads that dotted the Andean Incan empire––this time in the guise of Cortés' equally murderous counterpart in Perú––Pizarro incredulously remarks that "such magnificent roads could be seen nowhere in country [as] rough as this" as he marveled at Incan mountain highways, which had no equivalent in Europe.

Even when shifting focus away from the imperial bodies of Native America, Stannard is thorough in his use of anthropological secondary sources to display the egalitarian and communal societies of Native Americans. Away from the political center of Native North America, there is apt description of Californian peoples "with their remarkably egalitarian and democratically ordered societies." The Arawaks were known to live according to need and were extremely attuned to natural balance in order to avoid overconsumption as "they sustained in perpetuity their long-term supply of such natural foodstuffs." This distancing and contrast that Stannard fleshes out provides context for the meat of the work, the arrival of the Spanish verdugos. The fall of such advanced and egalitarian societies could only come at the hands of a worldview standing in direct opposition to their ideals, a worldview centered upon domination and superiority.

Spanish atrocities during the conquest of Cuba.Spanish atrocities during the conquest of Cuba.

Following these accounts of harmonious Native American societies, the pages turn grim as monstrous acts bombard the reader with horrifying descriptions of the barbarity suffered by Native American peoples under European colonialism and imperialism. The pages unflinchingly recount the unquantifiable destruction wrought upon First Nations with harrowing and complete primary accounts of wanton dehumanizing violence perpetrated by the European colonial conquest. Stannard holds no reprieve as he paints the gruesome accounts of violence meted against Native Americans. The once stunning descriptions of Native societies gave way to "...the stench and repulsive appearance of the openly displayed dead, human and animal alike…"

Again, Stannard uses a plethora of primary sources to recount the violence perpetrated by the Spaniards in their own words. The people of Tenochtitlán were subjected to a horrendous siege that claimed the lives of almost all its inhabitants, with Spanish conquistadors recounting first-hand that they did "so much harm through all the streets in the city that we could reach, that the dead and the prisoners numbered more than eight hundred." Cortés himself would lay claim that:

"the people of the city had to walk upon their dead while others swam or drowned in the waters of the wide lake where they had their canoes; indeed, so great was their suffering that it was beyond our understanding how they could endure it."

The Last Days of Tenochtitlan—Conquest of MexicoThe Last Days of Tenochtitlan—Conquest of Mexico

This unceasing barrage of violence is peppered throughout the second chapter, revealing the true extent of the cruelty, destruction, and violence carried out by the Spanish conquistadors. Stannard uses these accounts to full effect as undeniable proof of the Native American Holocaust at the hands of the Spanish.

The systematic extermination of the First Peoples was only possible through their thorough dehumanization. In the European worldview, these natives were barbaric savages and almost animals, only fit to be treated like cattle. The repartimientos of Spanish America reflected this, forcing natives to work the mines, breathing in noxious gasses for more than 12 hours a time. English America was no better – sometimes acting more egregiously than Spain – as they would actively exterminate and drive out Native Americans from land they had stolen from them. In the words of John Smith, the English thought Native Americans were "all savage… their chiefe God they worship is the Divell (Devil)." It is this worldview festering within the minds of the European colonists, which led to the wholesale massacre of Native Americans after first contact diseases had already ravaged their populations.

Even after the immense bloodletting of the first conquistadors to reach the shores of the Americas, the holocaust of Native Americans continued en masse as the systematic dehumanization was etched into successor post-colonial states, becoming institutionalized racism. Unsurprisingly, the most visible perpetrator of this continual dehumanization is the United States. As Stannard remarks, the remarkable seepage of anti-Indian racism had roots as deep as the Founding Fathers. Washington was seared into Native American minds as the "Town Destroyer," Jefferson called for their "extirpation" and, as President, Andrew Jackson called them "savage dogs" enacted perhaps the most infamous atrocity against Native Americans, the Trail of Tears.

Mass grave for the dead at the Wounded Knee MassacreMass grave for the dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre

In closing the work, Stannard attempts to identify the root of such barbarity, hoping to understand how such cruelty and destruction might be combatted. The penultimate chapter analyzes the unhealthy material conditions that lead to the creation of the theological body of Christianity. Under the guise of proselytization, Stannard tries to pinpoint the process of dehumanization and institutional racism in the pews of the Church. The extreme strictness required by the Church of its devotees bred the idea that violence must be meted out to the non-believers, heathens and devil worshippers. Internecine Christian conflicts and Holy Wars against Muslims are used by Stannard to provide evidence beyond the travesties in the Americas, with somewhat faltering results. What Stannard manages to flesh out however, is that racial hatred is indeed embedded deeply within the institutions that propelled this violence in the Americas.

Ultimately, Stannard succeeds in his analysis of the Holocaust perpetrated in the Americas by European imperialism. This systemic violence hasn't ceased, but continues to grow in and beyond the continent. The work is a necessary polemic against racism and the institutions that defend and propagate it, no matter how impartial it may look to a reader. As Francis Jennings of UNC Chapel Hill puts it, the American American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World "makes an irrefutable and appalling case." Stannard's work is a must-read for the left, serving as a warning and reminder that although many centuries have passed, racism still weighs heavily on the societies and worldviews in modernity. 

Stannard's book is widely available online. If you're interested, you can purchase a used copy from Thriftbooks. The book can also be downloaded for free as a pdf here.