Colonial America without Indians-
Would it have been more ore less attractive?
There’s something seemingly unfair in critique on a historical thought experiment, perhaps even immoral. After all, there is a reason why it is a “virtual” scientific experiment rather than a real one, or plainly put, historians cannot easily find laboratory rats, and have to resort to the best they can. And that “best they can find” happened to be, at least for Axtell, A thought experiment. And the reason it is unfair, is that one cannot independently evaluate the outcomes of this experiment, particularly since this method has just claimed its inventor (Einstein) Time-Magazine’s Man-Of-The-Century award.
And yet, there are still two requirements that we can demand from a thought experiment, and they are consistency, and plausibility. Since it is not possible to obtain “real” experiment results this paper will attempt fighting fire with fire, and using another though experiment as a “control” so badly needed in scientific methodology.
And why is it that consistency with Axtell is lacking? Because he cannot decide whether an Indian-free America would draw less or more influx of European colonizers. In pages 984-986 Axtell establishes that the economic lure would be smaller had Indian wealth not been about for Spaniards to loot (gold, silver primarily), and for French and Englishmen to trade (mainly furs and agricultural goods). On this ground he goes to argue that as there is no economic motivation to colonize America, nobody will bother colonizing – Except the English. This is a very wobbly- asserting that for some reason French and Spaniards are not affected by the laws of supply and demand requires very strong backing. Axtell provides only one clue why the English are different- Because they had more pressure of population growth (P.986 5th row), and more investment capital to put into this venture. Being that the 17th century, this argument does not stand. The Industrial revolution, which brought those population pressures and excess capitals to England, was still more than a century away (And flocking to Bermuda for tax evasion was even further…). If at all, these problems faced the Dutch not the English until the 18th century.
But none other than Axtell best argues against this assertion himself. Going to argue that the American west would have been much more rapidly colonized have Indians not existed. Here too the logic is that had there been no limiting factor on one’s ability to claim land for himself, anyone unhappy with his east-coast fortunes will relocate to a pastoral log-cabin in a rocky-mountain retreat a-la Ted Turner. There is a problem with the logic of some arguments that stem from this basic assumption (e.g. that once good arable land is plentiful it has no economic value), but the argument itself stands- abundant, arable land rich in natural resources is a strong attraction for immigrants from the east. Good argument, except that it is diametrically opposed to the one before.
In fact what we have is a clear contradiction – either an empty America is an economic attraction that will cause men to colonize westward, or it is a wasteland that would have been left empty so one could not tell Wall St. from Central Park. It cannot be both. So going back to the open of this paper- Consistency has been found at fault, but the question remains – which view is correct? This brings us to the second part of the demands deemed reasonable to expect from a thought – experiment: plausibility. Which version of the nativeless America is correct?
To try and answer this question, it would be easiest to resort to blunt plagiarism, and use the very same method of thought experiment on “how this land’s history would alter without natives”. In those fields of science that allow for experiments, it is common practice to try and reproduce the results of an experiment, usually the researcher will do it himself using a control group. Applying this same logic to thought-experiment will give us some insights.
What are the objectives of this experiment- well, a good scientific experiment should attempt to hold all influencing factors fixed, and change only the one tested for.
Let’s imagine a country that has been discovered by Europeans about the time in which colonization of North America went underway, (which was nearly a century later than the colonization of Central America and South America), and was vast in geographical size. Further let us imagine that this land does not have a significant population, at least in the dimensions of constituting a trade-partner or a military adversary. And let’s imagine that this land is not in anyway en-rout to China or to any other destination of importance. Now, let’s compare such a country’s history to the History of colonial North America.
Oh, and to make it easier for the reader, lets give that imaginary country a name. Something that’s easy to remember, for example – “Australia”.
Just to clarify – Australia is indeed vast in geographical dimension spanning 7.6 million Sq. KM, compared with the U.S. 7.8 million sq. km of the continental United States. As for native population, the Australian indigenous population, the Aborigines, numbered according to estimates between 20-80 thousand people organized in rather small tribes of hunters-gatherers, compared with millions of Indians who were organized in large communities (though North American Indians did not have the type of powerful empires that reined more to the south such as the Aztecs, the Incas an the Mayas). The Australian Aborigines, further to being few in numbers, were also not significant militarily or economically. Militarily they were primitive peaceful people, with inferior weaponry from lumber (consisting primarily of clubs and boomerangs) and weak military leadership (compared with nearby New-Zealand’s Mauri population of man-eating vicious warriors), by sharp contrast to the Indians who mastered significant armies with much impressive wayfaring population and military technologies, both self developed and one bought and stolen from Europeans. Economically, the Aborigines were extremely poor communities that did not make good trading partners of value to the Europeans.
And the comparison? Well, while Australia has been discovered by the Dutch as far back as 1642, it has only been colonized by the British starting at 1740. No other European power has made an effort to grab a foothold in Australia. So Axtell was right here- having found no immediate incentive to colonize, no European country bothered to colonize the Australian continent except the English. On the other hand, we have seen that the absence of impedance in the form of hostile native population did not cause the rapid spread of population anticipated by Axtell for the American Midwest. In fact, to this very day, the territory of Western-Australia, which is thrice as large as France, harbors a population of only 300,000 outside its capital, Perth.
We therefore see how Axtell was contradicting himself by conceiving the hypothetical absence of Native-Americans to be both an incentive and impedance on the colonization of the land at the same time. To determine which theory is better, we ended up doing what Axtell should have scientifically done in the first place – try to reconfirm his “experiment’s” results with a “control-group”. Having done so would have told him that while a nativeless America might have not seen the French colonizing Quebec and Louisiana, or the Dutch settling in New-Amsterdam and Albany, or the Italians setting a city in Toronto- That unpopulated America would not have seen its western territories settled faster than they have.