The why of history is always more speculative than the what. Yet, to write about only the what, is to do only half of the job, if that. The what is largely interchangeable: the names of kings and generals, the dates and locals of battles and treaties. It’s the why that adds interest, and provides whatever lessons one can take forward. With this as background, I’d like to speculate on the cause of: the destruction of the American Indian, and the end of the golden age of Spain. For both and some others, I suggest an unusual villain, peace: too much peace. It’s a speculative why, but bear with me.
Lets start with the American Indian. In the mid 1700s, Indians controlled the majority of the continent. They had an advanced society of six main nations, held together by mutual treaty. The Indians had few guns, but were not less intelligent than the Japanese or Chinese, suggesting that they could have learned to make them if they desired (or realized they needed to desire). The Japanese did so in short order. Indians addressed the Continental assemblies, and though they were not integrated, quite, they were not segregated either. But this first period of co-existence ended, as best i can tell, in the years of and following the French and Indian war. In the war, some Indians supported the French and some the British, and each side looked after their Indians. After peace was established, however, English leaders like Lord Jeffery Amherst set up to wipe out the Indians of both sides, “this execrable race,” with blankets infected with smallpox, and good old-fashioned cruelty. His activities are memorialized, on the cafeteria china used at Amherst Colleges till the 1960s.
My thought of why he did it, and why he succeeded, is that the Indians had outlived their usefulness. The ones on the French side had been enemies, and might be again. The ones on his, English side were annoying and might turn in the next conflict. Besides, Lord Jeffery and his ilk had idle military power. Removing the Indians was something they could do. The army at peace could otherwise get destructive, or turn on him (I’m speculating here on motives).
This pattern appeared again in the Revolutionary war and in the War of 1812. During each war, Indians were befriended by both sides, and recruited. Indians fought important battles in each war, now mostly forgotten; the defense of Canada was largely by Indians. After each war, these Indians were largely betrayed. In the War of 1812, the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Creek mostly sided with the British, led by the fierce Shawnee general, Tecumseh. The Muscogee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, mostly sided with the US. Iroquois fought on both sides. In the years following the wars, these and these were sent west of the Mississippi. Those who had been allies with the US were paid for their land, those that sided with the British were not. A good price, but it was a forced sale none-the-less. I will speculate that they were exiled because they retained a government structure independent of the US, making them a threat. Also (I speculate) the military, Generals Harrison, Jackson, etc., had nothing better to do with an army that might have mutinied otherwise. By 1846, there was no serious future for the American Indian east of the Mississippi, and besides, there was an external enemy to fight — The Mexicans. My speculation: the Indians were destroyed by “the era of good feelings” that follows war.
In the case of Spain, I note that the Inquisition and Jewish expulsion followed suddenly after 300 years of science, art, literature, and coöperation. I also note that the Alhambra decrees (March 1492) followed almost immediately after the defeat the last major Moslem-held citadel, Granada in December, 1491, and the peace treaty of Granada (January 2, 1492). The Alhambra decrees of March 31, 1492 mandated that all Jews must convert or leave Spain, and gave free-reign to the Inquisition to punish heresy. At the time, the financier of the Spanish crown was a Jew, Don Isaac Abarbanel. And some years earlier another Jew, Shmuel HaNagged hand been vizier (2nd) to the king. My theory of the cause for the sudden switch is that it was not a sudden surge in religion, as some have suggested, but rather that the king and queen no longer needed an army or Jewish or Moslem allies, but they still had an army that might turn against them if not otherwise occupied.
I’m reminded that peace is the background to intrigue in at least six of Shakespeare’s historical plays: Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Lear, Julius Caesar, and Othello. Richard III explains his behavior as follows (Act I, Scene 1): “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time, unless to spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.”
A few other examples: After WWI, most of Europe removed their bearded aristocracy, and Stalin used the peacetime to remove much of the communist leadership including many of his generals and former friends – this was especially so after signing a peace treaty with Germany. And, in the US after WWII, we entered a period of communist witch hunts — a mini Inquisition directed at the writers and artists who provided Allied propaganda during the war. Even a general good, like peace can leave casualties.
Robert Buxbaum, July 7, 2017. I like to speculate on the why of history, and like to imagine my speculations are partially true, at least.