Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In many ways, Columbus Day, which recently passed, has become emblematic not just of the accusation that Columbus was a racist who inaugurated a genocidal campaign against the natives, but a reminder that virtually all Europeans preceding the great era of woke were horrible people.
This conflation was especially on display during the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd, when not just Columbus’s statues but the statues of many traditional heroes of Western and American civilization were attacked on the accusation that the men they represent were all racists and somehow involved in or approved of the slave trade of Africans.
The problem with this otherwise entrenched view is that it completely ignores one simple fact: if Europeans were aggressive or exploitative of nonwhites, that is not because they were intrinsically violent (a racist point, incidentally) but simply because they were able to. And that’s the virtual bottom line of all history: capability.
Europeans did not defeat and uproot American Indians, enslave Africans, and colonize the rest because they lived according to some sort of unprecedented bellicose creed specific to whites and alien to nonwhites. Quite the contrary: they did so because they—as opposed to natives, blacks, etc.—were able to do so. That is the fundamental difference.
Consider: Had pre-Colombian American Indians developed galleys for transoceanic travel, or advanced fire arms, or compasses, or organized military structures and stratagems; and had they arrived on the shores of, say, “Dark Age” Europe—what would they have done? Would they have conquered and subjugated, or would they have looked at the inferior pale savages and “respected” them in the name of “diversity,” leaving them wholly unmolested?
What if sub-Saharan blacks were technologically or militarily more advanced than their northern neighbors in Europe during the premodern era, and therefore could easily have subjugated and enslaved them? Would they have done so, or would they have left them in peace in the name of “multiculturalism”?
These are the hypotheticals that no one seems interested in asking, since the answer to these “what ifs” is as clear as day.
After all, one cannot argue that nonwhites did not reach such a militarily or technologically advanced state because they were a peaceful and unambitious people. In their own limited way—ways that were limited to bows, arrows, and spears—both natives and blacks constantly warred on, killed, raped, plundered, and sold their fellow natives and blacks into slavery. As Michael Graham writes,
When thinking of pre-Columbian America, forget what you’ve seen in the Disney movies [meaning the 1995 animation, Pocahontas]. Think “slavery, cannibalism and mass human sacrifice.” From the Aztecs to the Iroquois, that was life among the indigenous peoples before Columbus arrived. For all the talk from the angry and indigenous about European slavery, it turns out that pre-Columbian America was virtually one huge slave camp.
Similarly, according to Tony Seybert, author of “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865”: “Enslaved [American Indian] warriors sometimes endured mutilation or torture that could end in death as part of a grief ritual for relatives slain in battle. Some Indians cut off one foot of their captives to keep them from running away.”
If this is how they treated—and all throughout the so-called Third World, especially sub-Saharan Africa, still treat—their own kin, what would they have done to the “other,” such as the white man, were they able to reach him before he reached them?
None of this, of course, is meant to exonerate all premodern European actions but rather to place them in much-needed context, a context that makes perfectly clear that, historically, all people—white, black, yellow, red, whatever—were the same; they warred, and, when capable —keyword—went on the offensive in search of conquest and hegemony. Depending on their capabilities—bows and arrows or guns and cannons—their efforts often resulted in tribal or international hegemony.
To say otherwise—to say only one group of people, whites, behaved this way—is to be racist. (Not, of course, that the woke crowd care about this bit of inconsistency.)
Perhaps even more overlooked or ignored is the role of religion: whereas all people when left to their primordial self are predisposed to war and predations on the other, religion tends either to exacerbate or mollify these tendencies.
Consider Islam: anytime Muslims could, they most certainly would attack, plunder, conquer, and enslave the other (with a special “appetite” for whites)—not least because their religion commands them to do so. If the Americas were conquered by Europeans, virtually the entire “Muslim world” was conquered by Muslims; the heart of it—the Middle East, all of North Africa, and Turkey—was conquered from Christians. Muslims, moreover, enslaved many millions of Europeans in the centuries before and after they discovered the New World.
On the other hand, the historic religion of Europe, Christianity, is precisely what prompted its Western adherents throughout the world to abolish slavery (which a resistant Muslim world was eventually forced to accept). Put differently, whereas Muslim and other nonwhite conquests often culminated in slavery, depopulation, and devastation, European conquerors at least went on to abolish slavery and introduce their Muslim and other nonwhite subjects to the boons of modernity, including scientific and medicinal advances.
Today America continues to offer all sorts of benefits and advantages to nonwhites—natives and blacks chief among them—whereas nonwhites continue killing each other, including with spears, bows and arrows.
In short, the many people in the West, above and beyond the woke crowd, who subscribe to any version of history that juxtaposes evil, oppressive, conquering whites, with noble, peaceful, and egalitarian nonwhites, are woefully ignorant of the fundamentals of reality, including the premiere role of capability in world history.