Avatar Half-Tells a Story We Would All Prefer to Forget
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Avatar, James Cameron's blockbusting 3-D film, is both profoundly silly and profound. It's profound because, like most films about aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures. But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It's profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.
But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.
In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced. In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinction was also engineered.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peacable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives' extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them from destroying everything and everyone they encountered.
The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native population of Hispaniola had fallen from 8m to zero: partly as a result of disease, partly as a result of murder, overwork and starvation.
The conquistadores spread this civilising mission across central and south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythical treasures were hidden, the indigenous people were flogged, hanged, drowned, dismembered, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The soldiers cut off women's breasts, sent people back to their villages with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted Indians with their dogs for sport. But most were killed by enslavement and disease. The Spanish discovered that it was cheaper to work Indians to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy in their mines and plantations was three to four months. Within a century of their arrival, around 95% of the population of South and Central America had been destroyed.
In California during the 18th Century the Spanish systematised this extermination. A Franciscan missionary called Junipero Serra set up a series of "missions": in reality concentration camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to African-American slaves in the 19th century. They died from overwork, starvation and disease at astonishing rates, and were continually replaced, wiping out the indigenous populations. Junipero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint.