The settlement of North America by "outsiders" was inevitable.

In this thread, I would like to address the issue of Native American historical grievances and resentment about the settlement of the North American continent by “white outsiders.”

Disclaimer: I am not Native American. (For the matter, I’m not white, either.)
While I am sympathetic to the resentment felt by Native Americans over their repeated betrayal at the hands of white settlers and having their land taken away from them, I would like to argue that it was unrealistic to expect that the North American continent would always belong to the Native Americans and Native Americans only. The 1600s-1700s were a time of global travel and discovery and exploration. You could not expect that North America wouldn’t be “discovered” by Europeans or someone else at some point.

At some point - be it the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s or whenever - it was bound to happen. Big seafaring ships were being built, eventually airplanes as well. There was no way people weren’t going to end up migrating to North America. One way or another it was going to happen. And not just the eastern seaboard of America, but all of North America.
I would also like to argue the utilitarian side of things and state that even if the Native Americans had kept all of North America to themselves all along; it wouldn’t be a good thing. With the staggering rise in the world’s population, technology, etc., an immense space like North America was of value to many people. If North America had always remained only in Native American hands, I don’t think the continent would have achieved potential the way it has today.

Who expected this?

Technological advance meant that the “old world” and the “new world” would inevitably come in contact.

But, hey… Suppose that Genghis and Tamerlane had wiped out European civilization, and it was the descendants of the Aztecs and Incas who conquered the old world! Something like that could have happened.

Geography is destiny…but only to a limited degree.

Guns, Germs and Steel makes a pretty good argument why it couldn’t have happened the other way round and its an excellent read.

Contact may have been inevitable. Genocide, dispossession and subjugation were choices. Those could have been made otherwise.

Europeans could have chosen to coexist, inside of drive off the nations they found here. Or, they could have chosen to act honorably, in keeping with their professed religious dictates, and honour their words and treaties. These were all choices made by persons who saw the natives as ‘less than’, all while crafting a constitutional document that affirmed "ALL men are created equal, endowed with certain rights…’.

In which universe? Check out the list of wars from 1500-1799.

The christians regarded the ottomans as subhuman, the catholics were burning heretics all over europe. The holy roman empire was warring with everyone and the Ottomans were continuously trying to expand. Killing weaker peoples and taking their land was what everyone did, including the various tribal nations in the US and South America who were constantly warring before European arrival. It was a brutal bloody period of history, not sure its at all realistic to expect any other result.

Except looking at your list of wars, a variety of results are seen.

The British colonisation of India, for example, played out very differently from the colonisation of North America/expansion of the US. It didn’t involve mass dispossession, seizure of land, etc, etc, with the result that today we have an India with its own languages and its own culture - profoundly influenced by the encounter with Britain, of course, but not wholly displaced by it. Likewise the Ottoman empire receded, leaving the indigenous languages and cultures - both Arab and European - still in place.

So I don’t think it was inevitable that European expansion into North America would play out as it in fact did, or that it would play out with quite such disastrous consequences for the indigenous population, cultures, etc. It could have been otherwise, and we know this because in other places it was otherwise.

No. Unfortunately not in this case because the yawning gulf between Old World colonialism and New was the impact of epidemic disease. As far as we can tell the North American native populace overwhelmingly succumbed to disease, often well in advance of mass European colonization. In this context comparisons with places like India is less apples to oranges than kumquats to pine cones.

We’ve discussed this before, but the Americas’ relative isolation in world history was likely always going to make them uniquely vulnerable. Trying to come up with “what if’s” to eel around that vulnerability requires more twists than I think are plausible.

I can think of one plausible alternative history. If the Vikings had colonised “Vinland” in a minor way in 1075 or so and kept limited continuous contact with europe then the epidemics would have swept through North America 200-300 years before colombus arrived and 500 years before mass colonisation. The native populations would have had time to recover and would then have immunity to the european diseases. That would make for a very different history of North / South America.

Undoubtedly that’s a factor. And I’m not suggesting that the cases of India and North America were on all fours; even leaving the impact of disease aside, they were quite different, and no doubt some of those differences are relevant to understanding the different experiences of colonization that they had.

Still, indigenous Americans were exposed to European diseases from the late fifteenth century onwards. But it’s not until the nineteenth century that the bulk of what is now the US is annexed and settled, and the indigenous people comprehensively displaced. I think there’s more going on here that just the legacy of centuries-past plagues.

Relative technology levels and difference / similarity in climate.

Britain / India were not that far apart in tech when Britain colonised India. India had massive cities, huge stone forts and formidable armies, Britain had to do deals and play off one ruler against another. Also because of the climate there was never a mass rush of British citizens to move to India permanently.

Britain / North American Colonies, you had a more similar climate and and much bigger gap in technology, semi agricultural nomads vs settlers with muskets. Much more people from europe wanted to move to the more temperate north america than to hot sticky India, so they eventually outnumbered the native population.

Eventually, yes, but not for some centuries. And I take your point about the technology gap. But that just makes it possible for the incomers to dispossess the indigenes; it doesn’t make it inevitable that they will do so. And it is strikingly ironic that they mostly do so while simultaneously espousing enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and the dignity and autonomy of the individual. Is it absolutely impossible to imagine that, if they had taken those ideals slightly more seriously, history might have unfolded in such a way that the indigenous Americans didn’t get quite such a raw deal?

We can find other examples of significant population movements where the incomers intermarried with the locals - indeed, this happened much more in South America than it did in North America. And of course there are also examples that played out quite like North America in terms of disposession and social/cultural destruction - Australia is the obvious one. (I don’t want to espouse a variety of American exceptionalism which says that the American colonial experience was uniquely awful.)

My point, really, is that, yes, contact between Europe and America was inevitable. The advance of technology made it so. But the particular way in which European settlement unfolded in America - a way which was so unhappy for the indigenous people - was not inevitable. There were a variety of colonising/settlement models avaiable and observed at the time, and it’s not a priori impossible that the American story might have unfolded in a way that was a little bit more like some of those other stories.

I’m 95% done writing a book about it. My title is Firearms, Microbes, and Carbon-Iron Alloys. I’ve already bought a boat with the advance! In bookstores next July!

I think there are holes in his argument, but overall he makes a compelling case and it’s certainly better than any explanation racial superiority has been able to cough up.

The history of Humanity is the history of movement of peoples, even to this day. The settlement of the Americas was little different than previous migrations of entire peoples across continents, battling, slaughtering and often absorbing weaker peoples as they moved.

Something about that sounds vaguely familiar. :dubious:

You’re thinking of “Muskets, Mumps and Metals”.


The OP begins by saying “While I am sympathetic to the resentment felt by Native Americans over their repeated betrayal at the hands of white settlers and having their land taken away from them …” and then mutates the argument into something about “inevitability” which is a word that is totally out of place here, in the category of “not even wrong”.

A person with no empathy and no moral compass might use a word like “necessary” to describe the treatment of North American indigenous populations, which would be reprehensible but at least describe a comprehensible motivation.

“Inevitable” is neither a meaningful concept nor, above all, a moral justification for the choices people make and doesn’t transform a moral wrong into a moral right. One may as well argue that any genocide or persecution was “inevitable”. One may as well argue that the Holocaust was “inevitable” given the rise of circumstances that eventually prevailed at the time. What does that really tell us? What does it justify or excuse?

There was no planned genocide- at least not on any large level. Yes, the accidental introduction of diseases was, in effect, a “genocide”, but that not what the word means.

Neither of us was referring to the introduction of disease. The main issue was more like that expressed via dark humor in Davy Barry’s Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States, where he talks about (paraphrasing from memory) “hardy settlers venturing forth and discovering pristine new lands, lands which were not occupied by anybody, unless you counted the Native Americans already living there, which these hardy settlers did not.”