Counting a “Great Harm”

2010 October 13
by Leah Nahmias

In a completely unrelated search on Google Books this morning, I came across the 1900 children’s book America’s Story for America’s Children by Mara L. Pratt.  Since Columbus Day was Monday, I was curious about how Ms. Pratt framed the “discovery” of the Americas.  My worst suspicions were confirmed when I came across this passage:

…When Columbus began to talk about a round earth the people laughed at him…”The earth is flat, and we should sail off the edge!” the people would say. “Then, too, there are dragons and sea-serpents out in the strange seas. They would eat us alive.”

After a long time Columbus found a good old monk who listened to him. This monk was a wise man, and he believed what Columbus said. The monk went to Isabella, Queen of Spain, and said: “Here is a man who can bring great riches to Spain. Let me bring him to you, and let him tell his story.”

So Queen Isabella called Columbus to the palace, and he spread out his maps and told his story… The King and Queen…believed that Columbus was right, and they promised to give him ships.

“It can do no great harm,” they said, “even if he is mistaken.”

Mara L. Pratt, America's Story for America's Children, Volume 1: The Beginner's Book, (Boston, New York, and Chicago: D.C. Heath & Co., 1900).

Mara L. Pratt, America's Story for America's Children, Volume 1: The Beginner's Book, (Boston, New York, and Chicago: D.C. Heath & Co., 1900).

Have un-truer words every been spoken–in fiction or reality?  We now know that the arrival of Europeans wrought fantastic destruction upon the native people who lived in the Americas, first by disease, later by deliberate fighting. The scale of the destruction is difficult, and troubling, to wrap one’s mind around.  Even estimating the pre-Columbian population, and hence the total number of deaths that occurred in the wake of Columbus and other European explorers, has proven difficult–and politically charged.

As Charles C. Mann outlines in a 2002 Atlantic Monthly article “1491”, anthropologists and historical demographers long underestimated the pre-Columbian population.  In 1910, one scholar estimated the entire population of North America in 1491 to be only 1.15 million!  Using archaeological evidence, historical sources (including estimates by Spanish conquistadores in 1520s), and mathematical models based on the rate of death from epidemiological disease, that number has dramatically increased since the 1960s.  Most scholars have assumed a death rate of at least 95 percent.  Mid-range estimates of Mexico’s pre-Columbian population alone are now between 5–10 million, with some estimates higher than 25 million.  (For the whole of the Western Hemisphere, mid-range estimates are now about 40 million.)

The debate between “high-counters” and “low-counters,” Mann observes, became one more frontier of the culture wars; low counts of pre-Columbian population mean fewer deaths and (to some people’s mind) therefore a less grievous crime perpetrated against Native Americans. Further, it is convenient for the descendants of Europeans to assume that the continents were sparsely populated:

“Non-Indian ‘experts’ always want to minimize the size of aboriginal populations,” says Lenore Stiffarm, a Native American-education specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. The smaller the numbers of Indians, she believes, the easier it is to regard the continent as having been up for grabs. “It’s perfectly acceptable to move into unoccupied land,” Stiffarm says. “And land with only a few ‘savages’ is the next best thing.” (Mann, “1491,” Atlantic Monthly, March 2002)

I think most readers today would find Mara L. Pratt’s children’s books laughable and–given her later descriptions of the people Columbus encountered in the Caribbean–offensive, although I still wonder what young people today learn in story books and textbooks about the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans or about the diverse civilizations that existed before Europeans’ arrival.

I highly recommend reading Mann’s article and his book, also called 1491, which provides even more detail about how scholars today formulate estimates of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas.  But I also think it’s important to keep in mind this observation by an historian of smallpox, Elizabeth Fenn:

To Elizabeth Fenn…the squabble over numbers obscures a central fact. Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died, she believes, the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. The Spanish and the Portuguese lacked the germ theory of disease and could not explain what was happening (let alone stop it). Nor can we explain it; the ruin was too long ago and too all-encompassing. In the long run, Fenn says, the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived. The Americas were filled with a stunningly diverse assortment of peoples who had knocked about the continents for millennia. “You have to wonder,” Fenn says. “What were all those people up to in all that time?” (Mann, 2002)

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