‘We are grateful, O Mother Earth
For the mountains and streams
Where the deer, by command of your
Breathe of life, shall wander.
Wishing for you the
Fullness of life
We shall go forth prayerfully upon
The trails of our Earth Mother’
This Native American chant was a painful reminder of how the New World used to be – peaceful and full of life. Beneath its seeming beauty though were the dark, painful mysteries waiting to be unraveled. The place’s idyllic beauty offered no solace to the violent maltreatment the Natives suffered in the hands of their colonizers. There was a terrible secret could not be contained and masked by the beauty of nature. The price of colonization was not without costs to the Native Americans. Colonization demanded payment in its highest form – sacrifice of human lives in multitudes – such was the price Native Americans were willing to pay to be able to enjoy the greatest right of all, their freedom.
Christopher Columbus’ in his letter describing his first voyage to the New World, which had become a welcome addition to the European literary tradition, confirmed this vivid depiction by the Natives. Columbus write that the New World was a ”promised land” of idyllic beauty, opportunity, and great hope. He described the islands in New World as : “And the said Juana and the other islands there appear very fertile. This island was surrounded by many very safe and wide harbors, not excelled by any others that I have ever seen. Many great and salubrious rivers flow through it. There are also many very high mountains there. All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by various qualities;” (University of Maine)
Columbus believed that what made the New World ideal was the presence of tamed Native Americans. In his famous letters praised the Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak. He wrote with such amazement regarding the friendly innocence and beauty of these peace-loving Indians that he coined the enduring myth of the Noble Savage. “These people have no religious beliefs, nor are they idolaters. They are very gentle and do not know what evil is; nor do they kill others, nor steal; and they are without weapons.” But the seeming peace was short-lived. If Columbus saw the New World as ideal, others after him did not agree.
Ten thousand years after a relatively peaceful first human settlement of the Americas started, Europeans discovered and invaded the sacred spaces Native Americans enjoyed and claimed them as their own. Native Americans migrated by land from Asia. The Vatican Pontiff granted Spain and Portugal sovereignty on the lands they conquered.
Columbus’ wonderful accounts of the New World were in stark contrast to the accounts written by his successors. Pedro de Alvarado (in a letter to Cortes):
“…I knew them to have such a bad will towards service to His Majesty, and for the good and peace of this land, I burned them and ordered the city burned and leveled to the ground, because it is so dangerous and so strong that it seems more like a house of thieves than of people.” (Jacobs)
The discovery of the New World might be deemed positive but its negative consequences were not lost especially on its very people. Among those who suffered a terrible fate under the hands of the conquerors were the Native Americans. The plight of Native Americans under the hands of its ruthless colonizers did not go unnoticed. Bartolome de las Casas, a defender of Native rights and the first Bishop of Chiapas, penned the following history:
“They applied themselves forty years together wholly to the massacring the poor wretches that inhabited the islands; putting them to all kinds of unheard of torments and punishments…..insomuch that this island which before the arrival of the Europeans, contained about three million people, is now reduced to less than three hundred… They laid wagers with one another, who should cleave a man down with his sword most dexterously at one blow; or who should take his head from his shoulders most cleverly; or who should run a man through after the most artificial manner: they tore away Children out of their Mothers arms, and dashed out their brains against the rocks…”
The horrific torture the people of the New World suffered was noticeable right from the very start of the discovery of the New World. In the Caribbean Islands, considered the first areas discovered, Spanish conquerors meted out a horrifying total enslavement and destruction of the Native populations. Bartolome de las Casas wrote an account: “This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them, eating the food they provided with their sweat and toil” (39).
European exploitation on the conquered islands were apparent in the number of enslaved work force. The slave capturing expeditions occurred from South America to as far as the eastern seacoast of North America. The slavery trade had displaced a number of Natives. Added to the Natives’ woes and equally devastating to the communities were the European diseases transmitted to them. Garret Holm in Columbus: Symbol, Myth, Reality wrote of ” fifty different smallpox epidemics that broke out among the tribes between the years 1512 and 1838…”
The conquering Europeans committed horrible and despicable such as genocide, enslavement, exploitation, dislocation and marginalization of aboriginal populations and the conduct of invasion, military aggression, dispossession and territorial expansion in the Americas (Jacobs). They reasoned out that the use of force was necessary in subjugating the New World territories because of the natives practiced dehumanizing aboriginal cultures as savage, pagan, ignorant, unclothed, etc (Jacobs 1997). Mary Rowlandson, wrote a self-serving account on her supposedly “captivity” in the hands of the Natives. In her chronicles, she alternately referred to the Wampanoag tribesmen as “murderous wretches” (309), a “company of hell-hounds,” and “barbarous creatures” (311), among other degrading terms.
Rowlandson felt she was among barbarians. Yet the fact that her life was spared and she lived to tell her woven tales proved that the barbarians were less barbaric than the supposedly more cultured Europeans who subjected the Natives to barbaric tortures and slaughtered them. Rowlandson failed to grasp the motives behind her capture by the Natives. King Philip’s War happened not by the volition of the Natives but brought about by the execution meted out to three of Philip’s Wampanoag tribesmen in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Other factors also came to play. Added to the Wampanoag tribesmen’s burden was the fact that most of the Native Americans could not put food on the table because the lands were seized from them. The ignominies and torment they suffered in the hands of their captors forced them to seek desperate measures. Hence, it resulted in the kidnapping of Rowlandson. King Philip’s War consequently cost the lives of three thousand American Indians” (Bayam 308).
Within the fifty years that Spanish had explored and conquered, they were able to claim half the Americas. Consequently, European monarchies were able to lay claim to American lands as well as claims in political rule which resulted in conflicts with the Native populations. (Jacobs 1997). In order to do that they were willing to do the extreme sacrifice – the sacrifice of their lives – for the price of freedom.