Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The first thanksgiving


It's not the story you learned in school. This is an excellent piece of historiography by Charles C. Mann, much of which I am ashamed to say I did not know. But the main point that's most relevant to this blog is that the reason the Pilgrims were able to establish a settlement on the Massachusetts shore where no Europeans had done so before was that the area had been depopulated by a terrible plague. In fact it killed 90% of the Wampanoag who until then had a sophisticated, densely populated and prosperous kingdom. They knew from experience not to tolerate European settlers, but after the catastrophe their chief Massasoit was persuaded to form an alliance with the English at Patuxet (now Plymouth). Even more fascinating was the person who did the persuading, Tisquantum (who is usually today called Squanto). So read it.

The plague was apparently a viral hepatitis imported from England. (The depopulation of natives by smallpox came later.) As Mann concludes, referring to King Phillip's war, in which one of Massasoit's son's tried unsuccessfully to expel the invaders:

The Europeans won. Historians attribute part of the victory to Indian unwillingness to match the European tactic of massacring whole villages. Another reason was manpower—by then the colonists outnumbered the Natives. Groups like the Narragansett, which had been spared by the epidemic of 1616, had been crushed by a smallpox epidemic in 1633. A third to half of the remaining Indians in New England died of European diseases. The People of the First Light could avoid or adapt to European technology but not to European germs. Their societies were destroyed by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they possessed.
Can something like this happen again? Yes.

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