Many believe that there is a great difference between westerners’ and the native people of the lands they conquered. The truth is, that there is not great distinction, except in the minds of white men. Westerners’ such as the French, Spanish, English and Portuguese have always believed in their own superiority. This confidence gave them the strength to displace the natives and also the justification for doing so. The civilized world seemed to grow, and change with new directions being mastered all the time, the non civilized’ world seemed to stand still in a era recognized by Europeans as unprogressive and primitive.
The Europeans viewed the Native Americans with mixed opinion, in many ways they despised their ignorance, while at the same time being in awe of their innocence. Despite this, leading opinion was that the native people of the new world were inferior to the Europeans and would have to become domesticated if they were to survive in the new world. ‘ However was this triumph over the inhabitants of the land evidence of a superior civilisation? How does one define Civilisation’?
For if we are to discuss what is a superior and an inferior race then understanding of the term civilisation’ is critical. The term civilisation’ is used everyday and is understood by everyone, yet a proper definition is more difficult to pin down. The oxford university dictionary defines civilisation as: a developed or advanced sate of human society. ‘ This is helpful, yet the question of how developed or how advanced is still relevant. Others have said that a civilized society is different from an uncivilized society because of certain attributes such as writing, cities, building etc.
But agreement is difficult, it is much more safer not to rely on a single definition, instead look at examples of what everyone has agreed to call civilisations such as Greek or Rome . However, the term civilisation’ still seems to be from a western point of view, for natives are not seen as civilized because they do not fit into any definition mentioned above. The Native Americans were not advanced, they did not have buildings or cities and their lifestyle and customs had hardly resembled that of Greece or Rome.
Despite this the Native Americans did have a civilisation, they did have customs, families, moral standards and because they varied from that of typical western thought they were not deemed as a civilisation, this is frankly not so. By the end of the eighteenth century European nations had already laid claim to more than half of the world’s surface, and controlled more than a third of it. The European assault on the world’ as many historians dubbed it, had never been seen before, and furthermore this transformation was unquestionably a one way process. There were, of course mixed motives for this European expansion.
Firstly, with technology increasing, society was becoming restless, they wanted to see more of what man could produce and demanded the benefits of this growth quickly. Yet most of the material wanted by Europeans didn’t come from their own backyard but the East . Ship improvements made it easier to make contact and trade with the east, yet the truth was that Europeans had little to offer the far east concerning trade, so merchants and sovereignty had to look elsewhere for fortune. Secondly, the expansion was also believed to be for missionary enterprises.
Europeans believed natives to be heathen and hence sinful. Therefore their work for God, was to convert these non-believers to the Christian faith. Many conquers believe that their role was: “to serve God and his majesty, to give light to all those who sat in darkness and to grow rich, as men desire to do. ” It has been argued that wealth was the primary reason and religion was the justification, yet it possibly came down to the individual – some were in it’ for the wealth, while others generally believed they were doing Gods work and helping the natives convert for their own gain.
When the Europeans did make first contact with the Native Americans the greeting seemed friendly and peaceful . In a translation of Columbus’s lost text, Columbus describes the natives to be friendly, generous and handsome. He generally writes about them in affectionate terms and with respect. Yet later on in his memoirs he announces that their well built, healthy features and intelligence would make them good servants. Writings by explorer Amerigo Vespucci (of whom America is named after) does not describe the natives with such kindness.
He states that their manner of living is barbarous, for they eat on the ground and do not have fixed times for their meals. He describes the women as heartless and cruel’ because of their treatment of their children and the sacrifice of their daughters virginity to the explorers as a token of friendship . ( although this custom seemed immoral by the explorers, they still partook in this practice. ) Overall Vespucci saw the natives as merciless heathens, unfit for European civilisation unless to serve it.
The transcripts that survived this event of the early landings show that many explorers did have respect for the natives. An example of this is in 1492 Columbus, so fond of the natives wrote: “So tractable, so peaceable are those people, that I swear to your majesties there is no better nation on earth. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile, and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy. et the westerners still held great misunderstanding for their culture. Although Columbus and other explorers were impressed with the kindness of the natives it cannot be argued that the Europeans regarded the Native Americans as more like a well behaved, astute dog, than an exceptional culture on the same plain as Western Culture. This opinion, that Europe was superior to all other races and cultures was an asset that made them stand out from all other cultures.
Whether Europe was the greater civilisation or not was beside the point, the fact that they believed they were greater was enough to give them strength and the recklessness to defeat any culture they came across for the justifiable reasons of gold and God. This confidence was a physiological characteristic of the European people that can be traced throughout history. Also their growing confidence in technology and the power to change things gave them even more evidence they wanted to show that Europe was supposed to conquer the globe, for the goodness of all human kind.
When a culture is physically weaker than the other, something must give,’ and most of the giving’ is on part of the weaker culture. This is true unless the stronger culture believes the weak civilisation to be superior, thus in the case of the Romans with the defeat of Greece. However this is not so with the Westerners and the Native Americans. Although the natives did have things to offer the westerners, the main possessions that interested this stronger culture was land and gold. The natives had plenty of both and the westerners knew themselves strong enough to take it.
It is clear that the conquest of American lands was easy for the Spanish and other westerners compared with struggles to win other territories (such as North Africa from the Moors). Therefore confidence in the strength of the largest civilisation was not the only factor in fight over Native American soil. Ironically, it seems that a component in the natives destruction was also a reason as to why Columbus and other explorers had such warm feelings towards them. This being their ability to trust and their innocence towards war and hate.
Despite this, it must be understood that the American natives weren’t marched to the slaughter house’ as many historians would have us believe. There was indeed conflict between the westerners and the natives, that natives did fight for their land and rights, however on many occasions they were defeated by weapons, tactics and the biggest killer of all disease. Tests were carried out, and religious argument flared over the question of Indians being humans or animals. For as animals there is no moral problem of Indians being used for slavery, however as human beings their right to Gods soil and human freedoms becomes a little more complicated.
It was decided by a majority that the Native Americans were human beings, yet of a lower category of human being than that of the Europeans. Are the natives an inferior civilisation? The Europeans of the time simply answered Yes. And although this is not believed today did that answer mean that Europeans were a superior civilisation. Although their society did fit the definition of civilisation better than the Native American people, it does not mean that they are a higher civilisation. Many factors allowed the Europeans to defeat the Indians, yet this does not infer superiority – only in the Europeans minds.