Note: Whites and Natives means the forefathers of White and Native people of the US, even though they rarely called themselves that back then.
In the 1500s Westerners viewed Natives as wild men, as savages. There were two opposing stereotypes:
- noble savages – kind, honest, innocent, backward but open to the Christian faith – and to trade. Fellow sons of Adam.
- brutal savages – violent, cruel, crafty, fearsome, without shame or morals, half-naked, dirty, given to cannibalism and strange customs. Half-men, probably in league with the Devil.
Those who wanted their land tended to see them as brutal savages. Others – like explorers, traders, philosophers, Christian missionaries (particularly Dominicans and Jesuits) – tended to see them as noble savages.
The First Savages: In the English-speaking world the first savages were not the natives of North America but of Ireland. By the late 1500s the English saw the “wild Irish”, whose land they were taking, as half-naked nomads who were not making proper use of the land, who lacked a sense of private property, who had no government, morals, shame or true religion (Protestantism). Thus dehumanized, killing them or taking their land did not seem immoral. If anything, it was God’s will.
In 1575, for example, Lord Essex killed 600 Irish on Rathlin Island and then said:
How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.
North America was Ireland writ large. In fact, many who took part in the creation of White America, people like Sir Walter Raleigh, John Cabot and Lord De La Warre, had interests in Ireland. Much of the self-serving ideology for dehumanizing Natives to take their land was already in place when Whites stepped onto the shores of North America.
By all accounts, Natives were at first noble, surprisingly so. But Whites, even by their own accounts, were brutal, shamelessly so.
In 1637, for example, John Mason killed 400 to 700 Natives at Mystic, men, women and children, and then said:
Thus the Lord was pleased to smite our enemies in the hinder parts and to give us their land for an inheritance.
- the land theft,
- the disproportionate violence and
- the rationalizations of religion rather than race.
All that goes back to Ireland.
Violence: Whites would egg Natives into violence or use Native violence against lawless Whites on the frontier as an excuse for overwhelming force to drive Natives off their land. Whites wiped out tribes, burned crops, sold Natives into slavery, raped and kidnapped.
God was on their side, Whites believed. It was God’s will that they take over North America. The smallpox epidemics, massacres and success in war proved it.
Whites made little attempt to create a multiracial society. Even Natives who became Christians were kept apart from Whites. By the 1670s they were seen as more Native than Christian – race was beginning to matter more than religion.
Into this world came Africans.
– Abagond, 2013.
Source: Mostly “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley.
- White American racism: the 1500s
- White American racism: the 1600s
- Native Americans
- Notes towards a Native American history of George Washington
- Ireland: a brief history
- The Tasmanian genocide – early 1800s
- How White America got rich