Danny: My Name's Danny Province from Central Michigan University and I'm speaking with Dr. John Faragher, director of Howard R. Lamar center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale University and writer of "The American West: A New Interpretive History," along with Robert Hine. Thank you for speaking with me today.
John: It's my pleasure.
Danny: So I'd like to start with the quote that is the center for the NASA debates that this interview is for. It's by Carl Sagan, and he said that if there's life on Mars, then Mars should be left to the Martians, that the existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure, and preservation of that life must supersede any other use of Mars. Was there a sentiment equivalent to that, that existed in the American Frontier experience?
John: No, quite the opposite. To my knowledge, no one proposed that encountering life, and I take it now to be human life, in the context of the expansion of Europe in the Western Hemisphere in the last half a millennium. The presence of Human Life was in fact an incentive, the presence of human beings was the motive that Europeans had to colonize, conquer, and possess the land of other people. So, no quite the contrary. If anything, Sagan's dictum was absurd in reverse, by expanding Europeans.
Danny: I've been reading your book a little, and there was one character that stuck out to me, Las Casas? Who argued for the humanity of the indigenous peoples in the Americas after the conquistadors arrived, is that correct?
John: Yes, Yes.
Danny: Did he win that debate?
John: He did, he won it on abstract grounds. The Spanish Crown directed that Indians were to be considered fully human with souls, and as a consequence and this was of course what Las Casas was interested in as well, ought to be treated as potential Christians and converted to the Catholic faith. Las Casas, by no means, was advocating withdrawal, so that native people could live their own existence. He objected to the way in which the Spanish proceeded in the new world. The conversion of native people, he said, ought not to proceed in a violent way but ought to proceed in a loving way. So even here, Las Casas, who I think is the best representative we can find, for a humanistic approach, a tolerant approach, to European expansion in the Americas, by no means was he interested in withdrawal. He was interested in changing the character of the encounter, not eliminating it entirely.
Danny: So would you call the idea of actual withdrawal a novel concept; like a novel ethical concept that we haven't really dealt with in the frontier experience?
John: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. You know, what Sagan had in mind, of course, was the example of the Americas. So here we have the western hemisphere, which had been isolated from the rest of the globe since the end of the glacial age. Of course, you know, our best scientific evidence says that, you know human beings moved out of Africa and populated the entire globe in the last 50,000 years or so, made their way to North America be either crossing over the exposed land bridge or by boat, in the years, you know, last 30,000 years perhaps, most dramatically in the last 15,000 years. And the the end of that glacial age rose, the sea levels rose, the land bridge was disconnected, emigration ceased, and all those humans who had (inaudible) which they completely populated both North and South America, were isolated from the mass of humanity in the Eurasian land mass. As a result; biological evolution, viral evolution, the rise of cities, great cities, in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the increase in the possibilities of major epidemic diseases, turned the old world into a boiling cauldron of potential disease. Europeans and Asians developed antibodies to protect them somewhat from those diseases, but the isolated environment of the Americas was completely vulnerable. So what Sagan had in mind was the fact that European Colonization of the Americas introduced biomes of viruses, of life forms that were unknown before and it had a calamitous effect on health, on the health and survivability of native populations. So, small pox for example spread like wildfire across both continents. Within several generations, populations of many native peoples had declined drastically, in some cases by as much as 90%. In other cases, disease combined with the violent assault on native homelands by colonizers eliminated peoples all together. The Arawakan people of hispañiola for example, where Columbus first landed, essentially were wiped out. It was a...(tragic), an extermination, now some of those genes got mixed with genes of settlers and the genes of African slaves and so they persist in you know an attenuated form. But as a people, the Arawaks were eliminated, so what Sagan had in mind was the disastrous consequences of the reintegration of what had become isolated biomes and the human destruction as a result of it, and not only human destruction but the destruction of all kinds of important organisms. H.G. Wells of course played on this in his War of the Worlds where the invaders themselves were destroyed by catching the diseases of the conquered. In that way, Wells was kind of prescient because historians had not yet understood the dramatic impact of disease on the conquest of the Americas. But those findings were more ~ broadcast more widely in the 1960's and 70's, and that really was what Sagan was referring to.
Danny: That raises another issue of the quote by Jefferson, that the western expansion was really understood when they gave away the land instead of selling it, that's another quote that's in your book. When he said that ~ that the western settlers would just ignore or flout the laws if they were required to, if the burden was too high to expand westwardly. Could you tell us more about why that's a good representation of the western expansion ideal?
John: Well, I think what I'd say here is that, colonization takes different forms. Generally when we think of European colonization, at least I do, I tend to think first of the colonization of South Asia for example, the British in India, or the creation of colonies in the middle east or Africa, those are what we might call exploitative colonies. That is when powers move in and dominate an existing society, convert it to their own uses, oppress the ~ and exploit the members of that society. So the example in India, the vast majority 99% of the population under British Rule was Indian. In the Americas of course, the native population declined greatly so that the majority population was colonists so what we call settlers. And that's a separate kind of colonial system called settler colonialism. Under settler Colonialism, great populations move from the colonizing metropolis into the colony and displace the native people. They create a society of their own, the surviving native people are pushed aside; they are either pushed to the frontier, or perhaps they are removed and placed on reservations or perhaps they are eliminated completely through violent, warring campaigns. So ethnic cleansing or even genocide are the more likely result in the case of settler colonialism. What Jefferson is talking about, is that settlers tended to operate as an independent force, so that under settler colonialism, there's not only the metropolitan power, the colonial power, and the native people who are suffering invasion, but settlers constitute a third force: sometimes acting against the interest of the colonial power, always acting against the interest of the native people. What Jefferson is saying there is if we don't allow settlers to take the land for free, they'll simply squat on it and take it themselves. That is, he's understanding the conflict, the inherent conflict between settlers and the colonial power, but represented in this case by the Americans (inaudible) after the revolution, the federal state assumed the position that previously had been held by the British crown, as the metropolitan force, as the colonizing force, as the agent of colonialism. But the actual settling process was always in the hands of settlers themselves. What happened in the Americas and particularly in the United States and Canada, North America, was that form of Settler colonialism, which is intended to displace native people and plant new communities on the model of the old world.
Danny: You mentioned that they, that there was a, a problem where, if the state or the colonial power didn't allow the settlers to follow that incentive to settle, they would, I guess I'm not quite sure, would they resist the colonial power, or would they just flout the agreements or something?
John: Yeah well, just take the United States as an example of during the first several decades of the nation's existence after the revolution the ~ biggest threat to the nation was the challenge from native people. Native people in the trans-Appalachian west. The vast majority of the federal budget went to supply in the 1800s and 1790s went to outfit armies of conquest to put down the independent military action (inaudible) the way that the first, that the federal government had of trying to resolve that conflict was not only to fight Indians but to negotiate with them. And so what they did was they adopted the same position that the British had taken; that is that settlers or the settler governments of the various colonies or now states, were not allowed to reach agreements with native people. The ability to negotiate and arrive at treaties and arrangements with native societies was exclusively given to the federal government. So the United States acting as the ~ a colonial power negotiated treaties with Indian nations which preserved the right of Indian nations to their own territory. Now, settlers didn't necessarily honor those treaties. Settlers invaded Indian lands, settled on Indian lands, fought Indian nations, despite the treaties they had with the federal government. The federal government was always between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, trying to negotiate with Indian nations to achieve some kind of tentative peace, so they didn't have to spend the entire tax revenue on military forays against native people. On the other hand, the pressure from settlers to constantly move onto Indian land, to break new territory, to create new states, and that's really what Jefferson is addressing. Many, many times, American troops had to go into Indian land and remove settlers. But that was, as you might imagine, a very unpopular move in a settler society like the United States. Eventually the pressure resulted in the creation of a new approach by the federal government called Indian removal, which was enacted under the Jackson administration in 1830. The policy of the government became removing all the Indian people from the states of the United States and pushing them west into what was known as Indian Country. Of course there was finally an end to that, because westward expansion eventually took the entirety of the continent, and all of it became states. So, removal of Indians onto reserve territories or reservations became the device following the Indian removal act. But what we're talking about here are the complications that come as a result of settler colonialism. The outcome always was the worst for native people, eventually settlers were able to turn the federal government to their own devices.
Danny: I'm struck by how democratic that makes it sound, the process of the settlers pressuring the government and eroding the reservations back.
John: Right, well it was a white man's democracy. Of course, it was a democracy in which only men could participate as full citizens, and only white men. In most of the states, the states that were created, of course black people were either enslaved, or free black people had no rights, they did not generally have the right to testify in court against white people, these were people of color, Indians were also people of color, they were also not included as citizens, as they were subjects, not citizens. They did not have full rights, law. They could not sue in court, they could not enforce contracts, they could not complain against the mistreatment by white people, they were not allowed to testify in court, as white people, neither blacks nor Indians. So this was a... yeah, ~ for white people, it was increasingly a democratic society in which their wishes could be expressed, through democratic protocol, the extension of the vote. Eventually, including nearly all white people, property qualifications eliminated, but in the name of a settler society that removed Indians in order to bring in African slaves to the south. So its a peculiar kind of democracy.
Danny: I see. Well I wanted to thank you again for speaking with me today.
John: Okay, it was my pleasure. Good luck with your project Danny.
Danny: Thank you, I just wanted to give you an opportunity if you wanted to, to register an opinion on the actual topic of the debate about whether or not there should be legal protections for life on other planets.
Danny: If you have any opinion on that feel free to let us know.
Okay, thank you very much.
John: Thanks a lot for your phone call.
Danny: Have a good day.