American Holocaust

The conquest of the New World
Prologue (from the book)
Dr. David E. Stannard

In the darkness of an early July morning in 1945, on a desolate spot in the New Mexico desert
named after a John Donne sonnet celebrating the Holy Trinity, the first atomic bomb was
exploded. J. Robert Oppenheimer later remembered that the immense flash of light, followed by
the thunderous roar, caused a few observers to laugh and others to cry. But most, he said, were
silent. Oppenheimer himself recalled at that instant a line from the Bhagavad-Gita:

I am become death,
The shatterer of worlds.

There is no reason to think that anyone on board the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria, on an
equally dark early morning four and a half centuries earlier, thought of those ominous lines from
the ancient Sanskrit poem when the crews of the Spanish ships spied a flicker of light on the
windward side of the island they would name after the Holy Saviour. But the intuition, had it
occurred, would have been as appropriate then as it was when that first nuclear blast rocked the
New Mexico desert sands.

In both instances–at the Trinity test site in 1945 and at San Salvador in 1492–those moments of
achievement crowned years of intense personal struggle and adventure for their protagonists and
were culminating points of ingenious technological achievement for their countries. But both
instances also were prelude to orgies of human destructiveness that, each in its own way,
attained a scale of devastation not previously witnessed in the entire history of the world.
Just twenty-one days after the first atomic test in the desert, the Japanese industrial city of
Hiroshima was leveled by nuclear blast; never before had so many people–at least 130,000,
probably many more–died from a single explosion. Just twenty-one years after Columbus’s first
landing in the Caribbean, the vastly populous island that the explorer had re-named Hispaniola
was effectively desolate; nearly 8,000,000 people–those Columbus chose to call Indians–had
been killed by violence, disease, and despair. It took a little longer, about the span of a single
human generation, but what happened on Hispaniola was the equivalent of more than fifty
Hiroshimas. And Hispaniola was only the beginning.
Within no more than a handful of generations following their first encounters with Europeans, the
vast majority of the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples had been exterminated. The pace and
magnitude of their obliteration varied form place to place and from time to time, but for years
now historical demographers have been uncovering, in region upon region, post-Columbian
depopulation rates of between 90 and 98 percent with such regularity that an overall decline of
95 percent has become a working rule of thumb. What this means is that, on average, for every
twenty natives alive at the moment of European contact–when the lands of the Americas teemed
with numerous tens of millions of people–only one stood in their place when the bloodbath was
To put this in a contemporary context, the ratio of native survivorship in the Americas following
European contact was less than half of what the human survivorship ratio would be in the United
States toda;y if every single white person and every single black person died. The destruction of
the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of
the world. That is why, as one historian aptly has said, far from the heroic and romantic heraldry
that customarily is used to symbolize the European settlement of the Americas, the emblem most
congruent with reality would be a pyramid of skulls.
Scholarly estimates of the size of the post-Columbian holocaust have climbed sharply in recent
decades. Too often, however, academic discussions of this ghastly event have reduced the
devastated indigenous peoples and their cultures to statistical calculations in recondite
demographic analyses. It is easy for this to happen. From the very beginning, merely taking the
account of so mammoth a cataclysm seemed an impossible task. Wrote one Spanish
adventurer–who arrived in the New World only two decades after Columbus’s first landing, and
who himself openly reveled in the torrent of native blood–there was neither “paper nor time
enough to tell all that the (conquistadors) did to ruin the Indians and rob them and destroy the
land.” As a result, the very effort to describe the disaster’s overwhelming magnitude has tended
to obliterate both the writer’s and the reader’s sense of its truly horrific human element.
In an apparent effort to counteract this tendency, one writer, Tzvetan Todorov, begins his study
of the events of 1492 and immediately thereafter with an epigraph from Diego de Landa’s
Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan:

The captin Alonso Lopez de Avila, brother-in-law of the adelantado Montejo, captured, during
the war in Bacalan, a young Indian woman of lovely and gracious appearance. She had promised
her husband, fearful lest they should kill him in the war, not to have relations with any other man
but him, and so no persuasion was sufficient to prevent her from taking her own life to avoid
being defiled by another man; and because of this they had her thrown to the dogs.

Todorov then dedicates his book “to the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs.”
It is important to try to hold in mind and image of that woman, and her brothers and sisters and
the innumerable others who suffered similar fates, as one reads Todorov’s book, or his one, or
any other work on this subject-just as it is essential, as one reads about the Jewish Holocaust or
the horrors of the African slave trade, to keep in mind the treasure of a single life in order to
avoid becoming emotionally anesthetized by the sheer force of such overwhelming human evil
and destruction. There is, for example, the case of a small Indian boy whose name no one knows
today, and whose unmarked skeletal remains are hopelessly intermingled with those of hundreds
of anonymous others in a mass grave on the American plans, but a boy who once played on the
banks of a quiet creek in eastern Colorado-until the morning in 1864, when the American
soldiers came. Then, as one of the cavalrymen later told it, while his compatriots were
slaughtering and mutilating the bodies of all the women and all the children they could catch, he
spotted the boy trying to flee:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand.
The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow
was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of
about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire-he missed the child. Another man came
up and said, “Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.” He got down off his horse, kneeled
down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar
remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.

We must do what we can to recapture and to try to understand, in human terms, what it was that
was crushed, and it was that was butchered. It is not enough merely to acknowledge that much
was lost. So close to total was the human incineration and carnage in the post-Columbian
Americas, however, that of the tens of millions who were killed, few individual lives left sufficient
traces for subsequent biographical representation. The first two chapters to follow are thus
necessarily limited in their concerns to the social and cultural worlds that existed in North and
South America before Columbus’s fateful voyage in 1492. We shall have to rely on our
imaginations to fill in the faces and the lives.

The extraordinary outpouring of recent scholarships that has analyzed the deadly impact of the
Old World on the New has employed a novel array of research techniques to identify introduced
disease as the primary cause of the Indians’ great population decline. As one of the pioneers in
this research put it twenty years ago, the natives’ “most hideous” enemies were men brought in
their blood and breath.” It is true, in a plainly quantitative sense of body counting, that the
barrage of disease unleashed by the Europeans among the so-called “virgin soil” populations of
the Americas caused more deaths than any other single force of destruction. However, by
focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killings onto an army
of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the
eradications of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent-a sad, but both inevitable and
“unintended consequence” of human migration and progress. This is a modern version of what
Alexander Saxton recently has described as the “soft-side of anti-Indian racism” that emerged in
America in the nineteenth century and that incorporated “expressions of regret over the fate of
Indians into narratives that traced the inevitability of their extinction. Ideologically,” Saxton adds,
“the effect was to exonerate individuals, parties, nations, of any moral blame for what history had
decreed.” In fact, however, the near total destruction of the Western Hemisphere’s native people
was neither inadvertent nor inevitable.

From almost the instant of first human contact between Europe and the Americas firestorms of
microbial pestilence and purposeful genocide began laying waste the American natives. Although
at times operating independently, for most of the long centuries of devastation that followed
1492, disease and genocide were interdependent forces acting dynamically–whipsawing their
victims between plague and violence, each on feeding upon the other, and together driving
countless numbers of entire ancient societies to the brink–and often over the brink–of total
extermination. In the pages that lie ahead we will examine the causes and the consequences of
both these grisly phenomena. But since the genocidal component has so often been neglected in
recent scholarly analyses of the great American Indian holocaust, it is the central purpose of this
book to survey some of the more virulent examples of this deliberate racist purge, from fifteenth-
century California, and then to locate and examine the belief systems and the cultural attitudes
that underlay such monstrous behavior.
History for its own sake is not an idle task, but studies of this sort are conducted not only for the
maintenance of collective memory. In the Foreword to a book of oral history accounts depicting
life in Germany during the Jewish Holocaust, Elie Wiesel says something that befits the present
context as well: “The danger lies in forgetting. Forgetting, however, will not effect only the dead.
Should it triumph, the ashes of yesterday will cover our hopes for tomorrow.”
To begin, then, we must try to remember. For at a time when quincentennial festivities are in
full flower to honor the famed Admiral of the Ocean Sea–when hot disputes are raging, because
of the quest for tourist dollars, over whether he first actually landed at Grand Turk Island,
Samana Cay, or Watlings Island–the ashes of yesterday, and their implications for all the world’
s hopes for tomorrow, are too often ignored in the unseemly roar of self-congratulation.
Moreover, the important question for the future in this case is not “can it happen again?”
it is “can it be stopped?” For the genocide in the Americas, and in other places where the
world’s indigenous peoples survive, has never really ceased. As recently as 1986, the
Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States observed that 40,000
people had simply “disappeared” in Guatemala during the preceding fifteen years. Another
100,000 had been openly murdered. That is the equivalent, in the United States, of more than
4,000,000 people slaughtered or removed under official government decree–a figure that is
almost six times the number of American battle deaths in the Civil War, World War One, World
War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
Almost all those dead and disappeared were Indians, direct descendants–as was that woman
who was devoured by dogs–of the Mayas, creators of one of the most splendid civilizations that
this earth has ever seen. Today, as five centuries ago, these people are being tortured and
slaughtered, their homes and villages bombed and razed–while more than two-thirds of their rain
forest homelands have now been intentionally burned and scraped into ruin. The murder and
destruction continue, with the aid and assistance of the United States, even as these words are
being written and read. And many of the detailed accounts from contemporary observers read
much like those recorded by the conquistadors’ chroniclers nearly 500 years earlier.
“Children, two years, four years old, they just grabbed them and tore them in two,” reports one
witness to a military massacre of Indians in Guatemala in 1982. Recalls another victim of an
even more recent assault on an Indian encampment:

With tourniquets they killed the children, of two years, of nine months,
Of six months. They killed and burned them all….What they did (to my
Father) was put a machete in here (pointing to his chest) and they cut open his heart, and they
left him all burned up. This is the pain we shall never forget…Better to die here with a bullet and
not die in that way, like my father did.

Adds still another report, from a list of examples seemingly without end:

At about 1:00pm., the soldiers began to fire at the women inside the small church. The majority
did not die there, but were separated from their children, taken to their homes in groups, and
killed, the majority apparently with machetes….Then they returned to kill the children, whom
they had left crying and screaming to themselves, without their mothers. Our informants, who
were locked up in the courthouse, could see this through a hole in the window and through the
doors carelessly left open by a guard. The soldiers cut up the children’s stomachs with knives or
they grabbed the children’s little legs and smashed their heads with heavy sticks….Then they
continued with the men. They took them out , tied their hands, threw them on the ground, and
shot them. The authorities of the area were killed inside the courthouse….It was then that the
survivors were able to escape , protected by the smoke of the fire which had been set to the
building. Seven men , three of whom survived , managed to escape. It was 5:30p.m.

In all , 352 Indians were killed in this massacre , at a time when 440 towns were being entirely
destroyed by government troops, when almost 10,000 unarmed people were being killed or
made to “ disappear” annually, and when more then 1,000,000 of Guatemala’s approximately
4,000,000 natives were being displaced by the deliberate burning and wasting of their ancestral
lands. During such episodes of mass butchery , some children escape; only their parents and
grandparents are killed. That is why it was reported in Guatemala in 1985 that “116,000
orphans had been tabulated by the judicial branch census throughout the country, the vast
majority of them in the Indian townships of the western and central highlands,”
Reminders are all around us, if we care to look, that the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
extermination of the indigenous people of Hispaniola, brought on by European military assault
and the importation of exotic diseases, was in part only an enormous prelude to human
catastrophes that followed on other killing grounds, and continue to occur today–from the
forests of Brazil and Paraguay and elsewhere in South and Central America, where direct
government violence still slaughters thousands of Indian people year in and year out, to the
reservations and urban slums of North America, where more sophisticated indirect government
violence has precisely the same effect–all the while that Westerners engage in exultation over the
500th anniversary of the European discovery of America, the time and the place where all the
killing began.
Other reminders surround us, as well, however, that there continues among indigenous peoples
today the echo of their fifteenth- and sixteenth-century opposition to annihilation, when, despite
the wanton killing by the European invaders and the carnage that followed the introduction of
explosive disease epidemics, the natives resisted with an intensity the conquistadors found
difficult to believe. “I do not know how to describe it,” wrote Bernal Diaz del Castillo of the
defiance the Spanish encountered in torture and disease, “for neither cannon nor muskets nor
crossbows availed, nor hand-to hand fighting, nor killing thirty or forty of them every time we
charged, for they still fought on in as close ranks and with more energy than in the beginning.”
Five centuries later that resistance remains, in various forms, throughout North and South and
Central America, as it does among indigenous peoples in other lands that have suffered from the
Westerners’ furious wrath. Compared with what they once were, the native peoples in most of
these places are only remnants now. But also in each of those places, and in many more, the
struggle for physical and cultural survival, and for recovery of a deserved pride and autonomy,
continues unabated.
All the ongoing violence against the world’s indigenous peoples, in whatever form–as well as the
native peoples’ various forms of resistance to that violence–will persist beyond our full
understanding, however, and beyond our ability to engage and humanely come to grips with it,
until we are able to comprehend the magnitude and the causes of the human destruction that
virtually consumed the people of the Americas and other people in other subsequently colonized
parts of the globe, beginning with Columbus’s early morning sighting of landfall on October
12,1492, That was the start of it all. This book is offered as one contribution to our necessary

He’eia, O’ahu Dr. David E. Stannard
January 1992

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