Charles C. Mann's new book, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus," builds a critique of conventional stereotypes of the "new
world": he shows that the indigenous population was significantly greater
and indigenous societies significantly more complex than the stereotypical
views present. Part two of this interview with Mann focuses on the impact
disease had in the European colonization of the Americas.
Indian Country Today: One area of research you discuss is disease-related
population loss. The author, Harold Napoleon, writing about Alaska Native
villages, in "Yuuyaraq: the Way of the Human Being," wrote that people were
so shocked by the "trauma of disease and the collapse of their world" that
they succumbed to colonial aggression. Can you explain how epidemics and
colonial aggression were interrelated factors in the subjugation of
Charles Mann: Without epidemic diseases, Europeans would have had a much
harder time taking over the hemisphere. In fact, most of the time that
Europeans tried to colonize the Americas in the absence of epidemic disease
their efforts failed, usually because local people got tired of them and
threw them out. (I'm hedging here by saying "most of the time"; offhand, I
can't think of a contrary example, but I am sure there is one.)
The famous Pilgrims are an example. Between about 1480, when European ships
first appeared off the Northeastern coast and 1620, when the Pilgrims
arrived, Europeans made numerous attempts to establish permanent bases on
the coast. Many were scared off by the presence of large, populous Native
settlements. As for those that tried -- well, Indians repelled most of them
and confined the others to small trading outposts. In about 1617 an
epidemic -- perhaps of viral hepatitis and certainly of European origin --
swept the coast of New England, killing off the great majority of its
inhabitants. Greatly weakened, the local Wampanoag reversed their previous
stance and allowed the Pilgrims to move in.
Disease probably played its greatest role in the destruction of the Triple
Alliance (aka the "Aztec Empire") in central Mexico. Using a technique the
Spaniards had discovered in the Caribbean, Hernan Cortes seized
Motecuhzoma, the leader of the Mexica (the most important of the three
groups in the alliance). This shocked the Mexica pretty much the way that
Cromwell's seizure of the English King Charles did a century later in
Britain. It took them a few months to get over it, but when the Mexica did
they killed two-thirds of the Spaniards and most of their horses and threw
them out of the city. The Mexica kicked Cortes' ass, to be blunt about it.
Wounded, almost each and every one, the Europeans were on the point of
utter destruction when by a stroke of fortune smallpox came in with some
Spanish ships that ended up providing reinforcements to Cortes ... Whatever
the exact mechanism of transmission, the disease tore through the
Seeing that Cortes and his men were immune (they had been exposed during
childhood), the Tlaxcalans -- the people of a large state that had been
fighting off the Triple Alliance for decades -- made common cause with
Cortes. When he returned to the attack, it was at the head of an army tens
of thousands strong, and he was attacking an enemy whose military and
political leadership had been killed off, almost to a man, by the disease.
Fighting courageously, the enemies of the Triple Alliance won this second
encounter, but the only reason it occurred at all was smallpox.
Now multiply these two stories by a hundred or a thousand and you get some
idea of the enormous consequences wreaked by European diseases when they
came to the Americas. Smallpox alone seems to kill about 40 percent of
If 4 out of every 10 Americans died today, the society would shatter. You
simply couldn't keep things going -- too many people would have died, and
with them their accumulated knowledge. The unimaginable loss would provoke
a huge spiritual crisis. All of this happened to Native societies, and it
left them terribly vulnerable.
ICT: Your book is notable for the fact that it is not a polemic; you
present scientific consensus on an issue, and acknowledge areas of
controversy. How would you characterize the overall situation: are we at a
paradigm shift in the scientific approach to history?
Mann: I would put it this way. The evidence has built up so much that it is
no longer possible to ignore, even if one wanted to. Little of it is
definitive, but all the arrows seem to be pointing in the same direction,
at least to me. And for whatever reason, non-Indians seem disposed to hear
it. Many of them, anyway.
ICT: Your book is also not "romantic"; the Indians are not always "right."
For example, you present evidence of indigenous ecological sustainability
on a grand scale, but point out that there were also ecological disasters.
Do you think it is important to know that the indigenous peoples were not
flawless, but were humans who could make mistakes?
Mann: Yes. Indians are human beings. Put baldly like that, it seems like a
really stupid, obvious thing to say. And I bet your readership has never
had any doubt on this score! But too much of the history I've read has
failed to take this to heart. Indians seem constantly to be presented as
plaster saints or plaster sinners. One is a nicer stereotype than the
other, but both deny that Native peoples participate in the full range of
human behavior, good and bad.
A subtler version of this is what I (rather unfairly) call in the book
"Holmberg's Mistake," after an anthropologist who described one group of
very poor, hunting-and-gathering South American Indians as a timeless
remnant of the Stone Age when they were in fact a persecuted people who had
been driven into the forest by brutal ranchers.
Indians are constantly presented as timeless essences, people who have
never changed in thousands of years. But that is to say that they have no
history -- the only people on Earth who don't change their surroundings or
interact with others. And they only enter history when Europeans come into
the picture. In social-science jargon, Indians are depicted as lacking
agency. Agency includes both doing the right thing and going off in a
direction you later wish you hadn't. You could sum up my approach as trying
to write a history in which I made sure the Indians had agency.
ICT: How have your lecture and book tour audiences been responding to your
work: receptiveness to changed thinking or resistance to accepting the new
Mann: People have been incredibly kind to me -- I feel very lucky. The
great majority has been very open to these ideas. Certainly a few academics
have harrumphed and taken some potshots, but I figure that goes with the
territory. On a personal level, I've been most gratified by the large
number of high school teachers who have told me they want to include the
material in my book in what they present to students. And a fair number of
Native people have buttonholed me and said nice things, which of course has
tickled me no end.
ICT: Thank you, and best wishes.
Peter d'Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and worked with
Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe (DNA), the Navajo Nation legal services
program. He has been involved as an attorney and teacher with indigenous
legal issues. He is a professor emeritus of legal studies at the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst.