Sentimentalizing savagery

Christopher Columbus

On this site we’ve tended to focus on the perverse attraction of some people in Western democracies, either today or within the last century or so, to the tyrants and tyrannies of their own era. But the sentimentalization of brutality has taken a variety of forms. Not so many decades ago, the legacy of Christopher Columbus was celebrated throughout the United States. Yes, historians recognized that some of the Europeans who settled in the New World did bad things. But the natives were no saints either. American students at all levels of the educational system were presented with a more or less balanced picture of their country’s past.

Then came books like Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990), which presented a totally new – and totally black-and-white – account of the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans. This new version of history depicted the pre-Columbian Americas as a veritable Garden of Eden. To listen to Sale and his ilk, you’d think that the primitive tribes that inhabited the Western hemisphere, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, lived in perfect peace with nature and with one another, and that life within these tribes was marked by a degree of social harmony that has yet to be achieved in our own time.

All over the Western world, educators picked up this romantic lie and ran with it. The same professors and intellectuals who idealized the likes of Stalin and Mao as a way of expressing their contempt for the United States and its democratic allies proved more than eager to idealize, as well, the Navajos and Aztecs, the Mayas and Incas, whose purportedly peaceable societies had been crushed by the leviathan that came sailing along in 1492 and thereafter in the form of the white man.

In fact, anyone acquainted with the actual history of pre-Columbian America knows that, just as the countries of Europe were constantly making war on one another, so were the tribes of the New World. And that’s just the start of it. Many of the social practices that characterized these tribes were so monstrous as to be beyond our imagining. One of them is child sacrifice, carried out on a regular basis and on a mass scale by a great many tribes. Recently, it was reported that archeologists in Peru had discovered what is “likely the world’s largest child sacrifice site” – or, at least, the largest to be uncovered so far. It contains the remains of some 250 children who, at the time of their ritual murders, which took place sometime in between the 13th and 15th centuries, were “between the ages of 4 and 14.” The children were part of the Chimu culture, and, like their unfortunate counterparts in other tribes, were sacrificed to honor their culture’s gods.

Tenochtitlan, where the Aztecs sacrificed their own

This find is horrifying in its scale, but hardly big news. Just last year, the bones of more than 140 sacrificed children, which were carbon-dated to around A.D. 1450, were found at another site in Peru. Other such finds have been made at sites in a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere. Child sacrifice has been proven to be a major part of the culture of the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, and other tribes. Each had its own special twist on – and justification for – the atrocity. The Aztecs sacrificed their own in the belief that the gods would reward them with rain. (After the children were murdered, their parents ate their remains.) The Incas killed some children by means of strangulation and others by leaving them out in the freezing cold. The Mayans were especially fond of sacrificing infants. All this is fully established. Yet it hasn’t kept countless schoolteachers from depicting these pre-Columbian tribes as companies of saints.

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