A COMPULSION to annihilate Native nations runs through the colonial history of the Americas like a unifying theme. Soldiers Linder the Spanish plunderer Francisco Pizarro massacred up to 10,000 Inca people in 90 minutes, and the U.S. 'army once prodded the entire Cherokee nation westward on a trek that killed one quarter of the Cherokee people.
Conventional histories further diminish the nations conquered, says Ronald Wright, because the conquerors themselves do the writing. For five centuries, school books have been celebrating "the discovery of America" by Europeans, while dismissing indigenous civilizations as curiosities on the margin of world events.
Such accounts are no longer excusable, Wright argues. A remarkable body of work by contemporaries of the invaders has come to light in recent years. Aztec versions of the conquest of Mexico are now available, as are Inca records of the trashing of Peru. More than ever before, scholars have access to Native testimony of the past, while Native people continue to speak up for themselves. "It is time to hear the other side of the story that began in 1492 and continues to this day," Wright says.
The purpose of Stolen Continents, timed to tie in with the quincentenary of Columbus's landfall, is to add Native views to what is generally known about the New World conquest. To Wright, the subject is long familiar. His previous books include a phrase book of Quechua (the indigenous language of the Andes) and two travel books: Time Among the Maya and Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in Peru. In Stolen Continents, Wright examines the experience of five cultures coping with 500 years of trauma. He writes of the Aztecs of Mexico, the Maya of Guatemala and Yucatan, the Incas of Peru, the Cherokees of the southern United States, and the Iroquois Confederacy of the Great Lakes. 'All met the first Europeans to invade their lands; all left accounts of that conflict; all are still here," he says.
At the outset, the reader learns how relatively insignificant Europe was in 1492. The great empires at the time were those of the Ming Chinese and the Incas. The Aztec capital, now Mexico City, held a quartet of a million people - four times more than Tudor London - and controlled a total of some 20 million subjects. Altogether, an estimated 100 million people occupied North and South America, about a fifth of the human race.
A century later barely one tenth that number remained, and to read the full story of the devastation takes a strong stomach. Victims of the conquest suffered almost every imaginable horror, and died almost every conceivable death. Wright examines this closely, refusing to take European accounts at face value. "Who killed Moctezuma?" he asks rhetorically. Spanish accounts generally concur with the testimony of Bernal Diaz, who says the Aztec ruler was fatally hit by a stone tossed at him as he addressed a crowd. But Aztec sources give a different version, Wright found. The historian Chimalpahin says the conquistadors killed Moctezuma "by throttling him," and his fellow historian Ixtlilxochitl says Spaniards killed the ruler by "stabbing him in the anus with a sword."
In a sense, the most hard-hitting sections of the book are those dealing with recent events. Standard overviews of colonial history invariably end with "hope for the future." Mammoth injustices are somehow confined to the past, while contemporary society is portrayed as somehow better informed, more enlightened, more humane. But Wright bravely departs from this script. Canada, he says, has conducted a hidden war against the Iroquois Confederacy for more than a hundred years. Successive governments have reduced reserve lands, deposed indigenous governments, ended matrilineal traditions, and called in the Mounties whenever Iroquois people have resisted.
The Mohawks get special mention. Wright tells of the devastation wrought by the St. Lawrence Seaway at Akwasasne and Kahnawake - the loss of land, the new power stations and polluting industries, the end to fishing and farming. And he tells of the recent attempt to appropriate a Mohawk grave site as a golf course at Oka.
In 1990, when the Mohawk people tried to assert their land rights, more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers moved in to crush the resistance - a less drastic response than Pizarro's mass murder, but one that still far exceeds the limits of enlightened behaviour.