As mentioned earlier in the week, I recently read Charles C. Mann’s 1493 (see also this interview at Razib’s place), which includes a long section about the colony at Jamestown. Like most such operations, the earliest colonists were almost comically incompetent, managing to nearly starve to death several times, despite being in an absurdly fertile region, and nearly running out of money on multiple occasions before they stumbled on the idea of tobacco as a cash crop (at which point they nearly starved again because all agricultural activity shifted to tobacco, and they needed to force people to grow food crops at gunpoint). This, while sitting on the fringes of a wealthy and powerful Indian kingdom. It’s really kind of amazing that they didn’t get wiped out completely.
That pattern recurs again and again in this book, and in 1491. The Europeans seem always to be at a huge disadvantage– including technologically, in the early days, because firearms of the 1500’s were no match for New World bows– and yet they end up running things. Disease had a lot to do with this, of course, but there’s also a fair bit of canny maneuvering. Most of the European colonies ended up taking over large swathes of land because they played one native group off against another effectively, and ended up in charge.
Reading this stuff always makes me wonder about the (in)evitability of history. That is, every story of European conquest seems to involve a large quantity of dumb luck, and yet, there’s a very clear pattern. even though it always seems like they just managed to scrape by, they always managed to just scrape by, and take the place over. Now, granted, this is partly because the many ventures that did fail have been largely forgotten, but that plays into the story a bit, too– even when they did fail, they always came back, and kept trying until sooner or later they ended up in charge.
Which makes me wonder: is there any reasonable path that could’ve led to things turning out substantially differently? That is, is there a set of actions that people in the New World could’ve taken that would’ve let them avoid eventually being subjugated by Europeans? They had lots of advantages early, but ended up losing almost every time. Is the disease effect just an unbeatable advantage for the Europeans, or could smarter leadership on the part of the Aztec or Inca have prevented the Spanish from completely taking over, leading to an alternate world where those cultures had more lasting influence. Or would a failure on the part of Cortez or Pizzaro just leave the door open for some later conqueror to bring all those areas under Spanish rule through a slightly different chain of events?
It’s hard to think of an example that turned out any differently. Even China, which Mann notes was in a very real way the greatest power of the fifteenth century, eventually got chopped up and dominated by Europeans. The only example that comes to mind of a country that managed to meet the Europeans on their own terms is Japan, which succeeded by closing the borders until they had developed the societal prerequisites to allow them to modernize very quickly– it’s fifty years from Commodore Perry and the Black Ships to Japan beating a European power straight up (admittedly, the second-rate European power that was late Tsarist Russia, but still). That probably happened in part because Japan is a smaller and less inviting target than China, though.
But I am, obviously, not a historian. People with actual knowledge of the subject (to the extent that such a thing is possible) are encouraged to leave comments and/or links to interesting scholarship on this sort of thing.