A brief look at the treatment of genocide
in the American history of the
Spanish conquest of California.
“History is the propaganda of the victorious”
“And even I can remember
A day when the historians left blanks in their writings,
I mean for things they didn’t know.”
A few people, perhaps, remember the Tasmanians. A few more may remember that there are no native Tasmanians alive today (by all accounts the last Tasmanian died around 1879). Maybe that’s why they’re memorable at all. I wonder if the Tasmanians would have made much of the fact that they are conspicuous only in their absence.
There have been so many incidents of genocide in the past few centuries what’s one more, give or take? Just in this century alone we have had the following large-scale racial atrocities: the Armenian massacres from 1915-1923, the Algerian and then the Ethiopian struggles in North Africa in the 30’s, the Japanese mass murders of the Chinese in the same decade, that nadir of recent exterminatory horror the Holocaust (the attempted genocide of the Jews by Hitler during World War II), the recent Khmer Rouge extirpations in Cambodia, and the current onslaught against the Paraguayan and Brazilian Indians in South America. One feels as though, like Stephen in Ulysses by James Joyce, history is some nightmare we must wake up from.
But the average person knows little of genocide beyond the word itself and, perhaps, some vague connotation of what Joseph Conrad descried as “The horror, . . .” (Heart of Darkness). What then is genocide? How is it defined and what are some of its characteristics? What is the role of history and of the historian in the chronicling of such monstrous acts? Let us attempt to see.
The Genocide Convention of 1948 at Nuremburg defines genocide in Article II of its Declaration as: “. . . any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (Encyclopedia Social Sciences 518).
Even though genocide is a concept that has been codified only in the 20th Century, it can easily be seen that numerous instances have occurred throughout history, (the Trojans in the Iliad and the Tasmanians previously referred to for example). Jean-Paul Sartre writes: “The word ‘genocide’ is relatively new. It was coined by the jurist Raphael Lemkin between the two world wars. But the fact of genocide is as old as humanity. To this day there has been no society protected by its structure from committing that crime. Every case of genocide is a product of history and bears the stamp of the society which has given birth to it” (Sartre 57)
Why are average folk so ignorant of the incidence of these
inglorious acts? And why then is it so difficult to find any information on this most heinous of human crimes? If one searches in one’s local library it will be seen that the most infamous of these instances, the Holocaust, is quite well documented; but all other references to what amounts to the the majority of occurrences don’t add up to one tenth of those that document the perfidy of the Nazis. The blame for this dearth of diatribe should be placed squarely on the shoulders of that class of scriveners known as “Historians”.
It has been said that “History is too serious to be left to the historians.” (Macleod), and as regards these oversights in the written record that case can be well made. But on the other hand one is obliged to learn from history or one will be destined to repeat it.
Historians, thus, can be seen to have a manifold responsibility: that of the delineation of historicity, the tedious and painstaking task of the documentation and subsequent dissemination of data for educational purposes; and also the interpretation and ensuing distribution of this explication, hopefully in some fundamentally non-static and progressively more enlightened fashion, so that as the body of human knowledge and the collection of social contracts governing cultural interaction grow so also should the Historian’s lexicon of criteria grow to encompass the continually evolving state of human understanding.
It can be stated without equivocation or fear of refutation that genocide or attempted genocide is probably the most heinous, morally repugnant offense imaginable or possible in man’s experience and as such is deserving of special consideration in the annals of history and historians. Bearing this in mind, it is then possible for us to, in that light, judge the efficacy of any history or historian. It could even be shown that genocide is historiographically counterproductive in that it destroys ‘primary sources’ (eyewitnesses). Shouldn’t the exposition of such acts of inhumane contumely be of prime importance to the Historian in the guise of educator, and can we indite any particular historical account based upon the single standard of how, when germane, the subject of possible genocide is dealt with?
An illustration of this question and perhaps some answers to it can be found in a perusal of the ongoing controversy surrounding historical accounts of the Spanish (and subsequent Mexican and American) conquest of California and whether the subjugation of the California Indians by the Spanish between 1540 and 1820 was indeed genocide as defined. First, let’s see if any of the Spanish behavior can be construed as genocidal or exculpatory according to the historians and scholars most familiar with the issue.
Unfortunately for our purposes, most of the original accounts of the times were written by people whose objectivity has been called into question. In the book The Missions of California, A Legacy of Genocide, (whose very title suggests the editors view on the subject) the Introduction (page 1) states:
A myth has flourished in California for over a hundred years. It
asserts that the history of this state had its beginnings with
the Franciscan missions. The myth originated in the works of
scholarly propagandists of the Roman Catholic Church. . . .
They did not consider, nor would they believe, that the land
they had reached was already populated, civilized, subject to
authority and law, with a culture and religion of its own. . . .
The myth grew in form and lustre as the modern Catholic
historians continued to propagate it. . . . These clerical
historians were joined, with the American invasion and the
subsequent entry of the region as one of the United States, by
modern English-speaking and English-writing European
ideologist scholars of the state’s governing enclaves. . . .
Textbooks proclaimed that California history begins with the
missions. . . . [recently] American Indian historians . . . have
opened up the knowledge of their own history, and many of the
textbooks have [finally] given some attention to the original
owners and civilizers of this land. Brief paragraphs in some
cases, and short chapters in others have admitted, often
grudgingly, that the Native Indians were indeed the
trailblazers and settlers of this land we know as California.
It should come as no surprise also that up until recently no Indian narratives about the time were available in English, making it really appear as though “History gets thicker as it approaches recent times” (Taylor, bibl.).
Statistically speaking though, there have been many analyses which can be shown to support the notion that the Spanish were guilty of “Deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;” (Encyclopedia Social Sciences) as mentioned in the definition of genocide.
In Indians of California, The Changing Image, James Rawls states: “During the mission period the native population between San Francisco and San Diego fell from 72,000 to 18,000, a decline of over 75%” (18). It might be relevant to the issue of “intent” to add that many of these deaths were due to venereal disease forced upon the natives through the innumerable rapes of Indian woman by Spaniards, (Rawls 175).
Florence Shipek cites Sherburne Cook in his book The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization in saying:
“. . . Cook found that the overall average crude birth rate [in Southern California] dropped from fourty-five per thousand to thirty-five per thousand, while the decade average mission death rate was between seventy and eighty-five per thousand. No population can survive with an average death rate more than twice the average birth rate from 1769 through 1834” (qtd. in Costo and Costo 38). In other words, the overall data, directly from mission records, indicates a more than 50% decline in the Indian population during the mission years (qtd. in Costo and Costo 39).
In The Other Californians, Prejudice and Discrimination under Spain, Mexico, and the United States, (another telling title), we find the information that “The upshot of the Spanish mission system . . . was a heavy decrease in the numbers of California Indians from an original population of about 300,000 to about 100,000” (Heizer and Almquist 21). There is corroboration of these figures by other historians too numerous too mention here.
In the face of so many indications of a genocidal occurrence of monstrous proportions one searches, in vain, for some scholarly refutation or attempt to ameliorate the gist of this wealth of data. Other than some academic quibbling about the size of the original Indian population one can find no disputation of the facts as stated.
This makes it all the more strange that in the textbook California Civilization (required reading for History 105, a General Education requirement course at Ohlone College) Professor Howard A. Dewitt
nowhere addresses this important question of possible genocide. Certainly it should be within the ‘scope and purview’ of a book on California history, especially considering how many other historians have commented upon it. For some reason Professor Dewitt seems to skirt the issue completely by simply not documenting it. The only hint one gets that something horrible might have happened to the Native Californians is an off-handed remark, one sentence worth in a lecture, that by the turn of this century approximately 250,000 of the 300,000 Indians estimated by most scholars to have inhabited California before the invasion by the Spanish had died.
Only about four full pages of text, in a book of over 300, chronicles the thousands of years of inhabitation by the Native Indians of California. Moreover Professor Dewitt goes on to seemingly demonstrate classic Eurocentricity and cultural bias on page one of a companion text he edited, Readings in California Civilization, by stating that: “. . . the missions provided the key elements in civilizing California’s countryside.” As we have seen previously, some people (including ,I’m sure, the Indians) considered California quite civilized enough!
Even in the single supposed “con” article about the mission system Professor Dewitt has the grudging grace to include in Readings in California Civilization, is replete with what some call “benign bigotry” (Costo and Costo 184). The author of that essay, Jerry Stanley, a Professor of History at California State University at Bakersfield proclaims: “It is not inaccurate to say that before the Spanish arrived the California Indians mostly ate, slept, and made love” (Dewitt et. al. 20).
This appears to be an utterly amazing demonstration of insensitivity and, more to the point, historical bias by the sole author deliberately chosen to be an advocate for the Native Californian point of view in History 105! Why doesn’t Professor Dewitt at least refer his students to some of the tomes cited in this paper for a more balanced view of what, admittedly, is a subject in dispute? At the risk of seeming vituperative, one wonders whether vainglory could have played some part in such paucity of presentation.
Stanley goes on to say that: “The motives of the Franciscans were honorable: to make the Indians good Spaniards and Christians” (Dewitt et. al. 20). Can we ask what is at all honorable about attempting to wrench people piecemeal from their mores, folkways, religions and territories? Can we also ask what is meritorious about such an imposition of cultural chauvinism upon a sovereign, if somewhat less technologically advanced race?
Bearing these different treatments of history in mind we can wonder how well we are preparing for our possible evolution into an undoubtedly more diverse pan-Galactic culture and society. Given our track record (both as humans and as historians) and our propensity for prejudice what may happen if, in the future, we encounter an apparently “primitive” race of extra-terrestrials? Worse yet, what if the aliens consider us to be backward in similar fashion and decide to deal with us according to our own standards of consanguinity and cultural interaction?
Consequently it must, of necessity, be stated that morally ambivalent and vainglorious historians fail in their duty to society and as historians when they neglect to identify and publicize inhumane acts within the compass of their research and review. As a result acts of misanthropic malignancy continue or proliferate, and the prejudicial attitudes responsible for all manner of maliciousness are not dispelled through education and recourse to reason.
Cook, Sherburne. The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. Berkeley: U. of California P. 1976.
Costo, Rupert, and Jeanette Henry Costo, eds. The Missions of California, Legacy of Genocide, San Francisco: Indian P, 1987.
Dewitt, Howard A. California Civilization, An Interpretation. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt 1979.
Dewitt, Howard A. ed. Readings in California Civilization. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt 2cd. ed. 1989.
Heizer, Robert F. and Alan F. Almquist. The Other Californians. Berkeley: U. of California P. 1971.
Macleod, Iain. “Sayings of the Week.” The Observer 16 July 1961.
Pound, Ezra. “Canto XIII.” The cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions PC. 1970.
Rawls, James. Indians of California, The Changing Image. Norman: U. of Oklahoma P. 1984.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. On Genocide. Boston: Beacon P. 1968.
Shipek, Florence Connolly. “Saints or Oppressors: The Franciscan Missionaries of California.” The Missions of California. Costo and Costo 29-49.
Stanley, Jerry. “Junipero Serra v. the California Indians.” Readings in California Civilization. Dewitt 18-25.
Taylor, A. J. P. Bibliography. English History. Oxford UP. 1965.
“War Crimes.” The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968 ed.