The political world map of 1492, and myths

This post is an exerpt from ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p5,11-13.

If there were such a thing as a political globe for the year 1492 much of the world would have appeared as a pointilist canvas of tribal territories, often without fixed boundaries or with interpenetrating rights to the same stretches of land. There were small city-states and nations, deriving from tribal groups who had become sedentary. There were two great empires, dominating large slabs of territories, those of Ming China, and the Incas of Peru.

Two callow would-be empire-builders, seemingly far apart, would meet within a generation: the Castilians of Spain and the Aztecs of Mexico. Both were expanding states with tribal origins; both had quickly gained control over other peoples but had not absorbed them effectively. Of the two, Mexico was by far the larger. The Aztec capital – today’s Mexico City – held a quarter of a million people, and the total population under its control was some 20 million.

The British Isles had only 5 million people, Spain about eight. European political boundaries were essentially those which had resulted from barbarian migrations after the fall of Rome; the Franks had settled in France, the Germani in Germany, the Angles and Saxons in England, the Vandals and Visigoths in Spain. The last proper roads had been built by the Romans more than a thousand years before. The rapidly growing cities were unplanned, ramshackle, and seething with disease. If famine struck a region, the state was quite unable to provide relief. Life expectancy oscillated between the high teens and low thirties, lower than in the most deprived nations of today. The achievements of Europe were technological, not social. It had the best ships, the best steel, the best guns; it also had conditions desperate enough to make its people want to leave and use these things to plunder others. Spain, in particular, was scarcely touched by the Renaissance; 700 years of war against the Moors had produced a warrior culture filled with loathing and contempt for other ways of life, not a new spirit of inquiry. The reconquista of Iberia, which ended in 1492, would be the model for the conquista of America.

Why was America so overwhelmed by Europe that, unlike Asia and Africa, it has never been decolonized? Why are the modern countries of America not really American at all, but immitation Europes built on American soil? Why was America different? The short answer is disease. The Old World plagues killed at least half the populations of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations shortly before their overthrow. The great death raged for more than a century, and by 1600, less than a tenth of the original population remained. It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though God really was on the white man’s side.

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I was told by Dehatkadons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Iroquois, “You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’ England.” That such an obvious point has eluded European consciousness for five centuries reveals that the history we have been taught is really myth.

Most history, when it has been digested by a people, becomes myth. Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns which resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so axiomatic, that they go unchallenged. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time. Those vanquished by our civilization see that its myth of discovery has transformed historical crimes into glittering icons. Yet from the West’s vantage point, the discovery myth is true.

The history of the other side is also mythic. But while the Western myths are triumphalist, those of the “losers” have to explain and overcome catastrophe. If the vanquished culture is to survive at all, its myths must provide it with a rugged terrain in which to resist the invader and do battle with his myths.