Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ancient Hegemony

It's easy to depersonalize early American history, particularly the Colonial times, when you consider just how foul the invaders were towards the native Americans.

Sometimes deliberately, as our near-genocide of "Injuns" as we expanded westward would have to be classified. Sometimes, inocuously:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For most U.S. citizens the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America is a time to celebrate pioneers who crossed the ocean in sailing ships and braved hardships to forge a nation.

But for American Indians whose ancestors lived in America when the English adventurers slogged ashore on Jamestown Peninsula in what is now Virginia, it is at once a reminder of their long struggle to overcome persecution and prejudice and a chance to reintroduce themselves to the world.

"We're celebrating 400 years of survival in a fairly hostile environment," said Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock, one of several Powhatan tribes involved in the commemoration events this month that included a visit by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
You remember Jamestown, of course: Pocahontas, Powahatan, John Smith, all that lot? A chamring, Disneyesque tale of war averted by a child?

The war wasn't averted, however. It transmogrified to an economic war, and the white man still won, depsite thousands dying nearly endlessly, as wave after wave of ships brought new settlers, new crops and new pestilences to the New World.

National Geographic magazine this month has a stellar article on this aspect of the conquest of America:
It didn't take long for the settlers' early dreams to evaporate. One after another, business schemes failed, and those who had envisioned riches turned to praying for survival. Many colonists perished within months of stepping ashore. Three out of four who came to Jamestown between 1607 and 1624 died from disease, hunger, and conflict with the Indians.

Until recently, their tales were told only through written accounts of a literate few. Since 1994, Historic Jamestowne archaeologists led by William Kelso have dug up a fuller story: a million artifacts that reveal in minute detail the lives and deaths of settlers, both elite and ordinary, as they struggled to establish a colony that would become the first permanent English settlement in North America—and the birthplace of the United States.
For example, did you know that American earthworms were non-existent before Jamestown? That tobacco as we know it, that all-American crop that created the eventual economic boom that gave Europeans their foothold here (and ravaged Indian populations, as hunting forests were cleared wholesale for planting Sir Walter Raleigh's "discovery") was actually imported?

In a day and age when we are invading yet another country of "brownskinned people," the lessons of Jamestown ought not to be too far from our minds.

But sadly, they seem to be...